Philobiblon: Female sexual desire? Of course

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Female sexual desire? Of course

Since I first posted on the subject, I've been slowly working my way through a book of early modern bawdy verse; there's only so much innuendo and slapstick I can take in one sitting.

What has struck me is how many poems are entirely accepting in their accounts of female desire, be the characters sexually experienced women or "maids" (at least theoretically virgins). This is seen as an entirely natural, normal, expected aspect of life.

Two examples:

A Lady's Complaint
When I was young, unapt for use of man,
I wedded was unto a champion,
Youthful and full of vigour as of blood,
Who unto Hymen's rites full stiffly stood.
But see the luck: this gallant youngster dies,
And in his place an aged father lies,
Weak, pithless, dry, who suffers me all night
To lie untouched, now full of years and might,
Whereas my former man, God rest his sprite,
Girl as I was, tired me with sweet delight.
For when he would, then was I coy and sold,
Yet what I then refused, now fain I would
But cannot have. O Hymen, if you can,
Give me those years again, or such a man!

This seems to be by that prolific character Anon. Was it a female anon, one has to wonder?

I'd never come across the heavenly Hymen before, but yep, there is one such, of entirely respectable Greek ancestry, offspring of Aphrodite and Dionysus - of course - but curiously enough a male god, that of marriage. Priapus, his sibling, is god of lust. I should, however, have known because Hymen does appear in As You Like It.)

As I walked in the woods
As I walked in the woods one evening of late
A lass was deploring her hapless estate.
In a languishing posture, poor maid, she appears,
All swelled with her signed and blubbed with her tears.
She sighed and she sobbed and I found it was all
For a little of that which Harry gave Doll.

At last she broke out, 'Wretched!' she said,
'Will no youth come succour a languishing maid
With what he with ease and with pleasure may give?
Without which, alas! poor I cannot live.
Shall I never leave sighing and crying and all
For a little of that which Harry gave Doll?

At first when I saw a young man in the place
My colour would fade and then flush in my face.
My breath would grow short, and I shivered all o'er.
My breasts never popped up and down so before.
I scarce knew for what, but now find it was all
For a little of that which Harry gave Doll.

Thomas Shadwell, in Westminster Drollery, 1672
Another version appears in his play The Miser, of the same year, which is adapted from Moliere's L'Avare.

Poems pages 47-48 and 77, Lovers, Rakes and Rogues: A New Garner of Love-songs and Merry Verses, 1580-1830, John Wardroper, Shelfmark, 1995.


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