A Feelthy Penguin

Bawdy Verse: A Pleasant Collection

edited by E.J. Burford
Penguin, 308 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Everything has been done to make this little anthology of off-color verse as repellent as possible. It is subtitled “A Pleasant Collection,” for coyness. On the title page there is a jocular penguin reading a book equipped with a flagrant pair of fake boobs, for vulgarity. Finally there is the editor’s introduction, for embarrassment. Ephraim John Burford, “born and educated in the City of London,” is “currently preparing a book on the rise of organized bawdry in London.” On top of this, he “has also lectured on London and particularly old London Bridge for the City of London Society.” At least one resident of London has never bumped into Mr. Burford, but no doubt he is indoors a great deal, preparing his books and lectures.

To aid him in this activity he has a killing prose style with several main attributes. There is his alliterativeness, by which we hear of “bawdy ballads, lubricious lyrics and salacious songs”; there is his wordplay, by which such vocables as “lions” and “loins” become hilariously interchanged. (“We can be sure that Blondel sang bawdy songs to his lecherous master, Richard the Lionheart, extolling the theme of his loins rather than the lions.”) And there is his flair for innuendo, evoking for us “the ostensibly mysterious female pubic triangle.”

The book itself, however, does not quite live down to expectations. Comprising versified filth by variously competent authors from the fourteenth century through to the late eighteenth, it is indeed disgusting—even more disgusting than Mr. Burford’s introductory remarks might lead you to imagine. But by the end of it I had to admit that Mr. Burford, though I liked him no better, had done a useful job, and probably out of a sort of innocence. If the catchment area had been extended to the nineteenth century, things would probably have become much nastier, because of Victorian hypocrisy. But as it is, what we are given is honest even when frightful. Mr. Burford is right to be fascinated. There is truth to life in what he studies, and it has probably done good to his soul, if not to his prose.

Dating from the middle of the fifteenth century, “A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husbands’ Ware” ringingly sets one of the themes which are fated to recur throughout the next several hundred years.

The fourth wyffe of the flocke
Seyd ‘owre syre’s fidecocke
Ffayne wolde I skyfte.

Mr. Burford gets in at the bottom of the page to explain that this last line means “My husband’s penis I’d like to change” but the meaning would have emerged from its context, as the second half of the stanza reveals.

He is longe and he is smalle
And yett he hath the fydefalle;
God gyve hym sorry thryfte!

Once again Mr. Burford is there (somebody like him was probably there at the time) to explain that if the wyffe’s hosbonde hath the fydefalle it means “he can’t get it …

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