Yesterday evening I was giving an M.A. class on Shakespeare’s so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets. Instead of doing some solid class preparation, I’d spent a deal of Thursday afternoon frantically interrogating EEBO with keyword searches, ‘Mistress NEAR black’, ‘black NEAR beauty’, etc, as ever in the hope that something might emerge that had been missed by those diligent Victorian gentlemen who actually read the books themselves (well, what can I say? I have a busy life).
So I have looked at lots of commentaries on the Song of Songs, and being ‘black, but comely’, but on this last day of term I don’t have the energy to sum up early modern opinions about that smokingly hot Bible text. Instead, I dwindle down to one of the poets I turned up, John Collop.
Collop’s vauntingly titled Poesis rediviva, or, Poesie reviv'd (1656) was not up to the aim projected in its title. Perhaps part of his notion of ‘reviving’ poetry involved echoing earlier writers rather closely:
‘Prophanum vulgus. The People.’
“Th'rabble's an echo made 'twixt Knave and Fool,
To work his ends, the politician’s tool:
While he the Devil’s quilted Anvil is,
On which he frames all that we find amiss…”
That’s a direct crib from Webster’s Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi:
but with Collop rather witlessly losing the point of the silent fashioning of sins on that ‘quilted anvil’. In the book as a whole, after our poetaster has aired his opinions about various preachers, sects, doctors and treatments, he gets onto the subject of women. Not having anything much to say, he falls back on praising yellow skin, ‘Ethiopian Beauty’, the larger lady (in ‘To Dionysia the plump Lady, S D.’), etc. - anything on which he can jangle out a few conceits and paradoxes.
One poem did strike me:
‘On Pentepicta: A Lady with enamell'd Teeth, black, white and yellow. F.W.’
The wiseman teeth call'd flocks of sheep;
Sure Jacob’s speckled flocks here keep.
Where teeth are checker'd black and white,
Nay gilt too to enrich delight:
Her mouth ope, you at Chess may play,
With teeth resembling night and day.
Each fondling reach will praise what's white;
Is there in Chalk such strange delight?
Give me the mouth like th'Temple floor,
With speckled Marble paved o're,
Or - oh more rich! - in gold thus set,
A row of pearl, then one of jet.
I think that this is just a burlesque (any foolish poet can attain the praise of white teeth, he says) but it does seem that you could get your stained teeth enameled. In the poem by Royall Tyler (there’s a name for you!) below, jeering at the cosmetic construct that is ‘Flirtilla’, one 18th century practitioner of this particular aid to beauty is actually named. White enamel is obvious, gold quite conceivable, but having your teeth enameled black seems altogether implausible. Another stray reference in a play of 1655 by William Rider turns up a character writing a burlesque poem to a ‘loathly lady’, whose teeth are enameled with blue, black and yellow (i.e., simply discoloured: but the reference does suggest that white enameling existed as a practice).