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 up.” Nor was getting it up the supreme challenge. Yet more important was keeping it up. Even at this early stage in the written history of modern Britain, the measure of manhood seems to have been the ability to satisfy the woman’s burning desire. Feminists might object that there were few songs written about unwilling women, but even the most rabid among them could hardly claim, on this evidence, that men have always thought only of their own fell needs.
Then off he came and blusht for shame
So soone that he had end it;
Yett still she lies and to him cryies,
‘Once More, and None can mend it!’
So goes the song “Walkinge in a Meadow Greene,” written before 1600. Recently there was an idea vaguely in circulation that the female orgasm had been first discovered in the Sixties and that in premodern times a man took his satisfaction with no thought for the woman’s. Here is an indication, if such were needed, that this notion is baseless. More interesting, however, is the further indication that men not only set out to secure the woman’s pleasure, they drew the essence of their own pleasure from doing so. Even the most subtle feminist finds it hard to believe that for a man who loves women, lovemaking is not a refined version of rape but its absolute opposite. Yet the truth of the matter is older than the hills, and omnipresent even in Burford’s mainly awful collection, of which Nashe’s “The Merrie Ballad of Nashe His Dildo” is merely a more adroit example than usual.
‘By Holy Dame’ (quoth she) ‘and Will’t not stand?
Now let me roll and rub it in my Hand!
Perhaps the silly Worm hath laboured sore
And worked so that it can do no more:
Which, if it be, as I do greatly dread,
I wish ten thousand times that I were dead.
What ere it be, no means shall lack in me
That may avail for his recovery!’
No means lacking, she effects the recovery in the following few stanzas, which we will omit here only for reasons of space. More interesting, from the viewpoint of the mature student, is the reciprocity of the subsequent rapture.
On her his Eyes continually were fixed
With his eye-brows her melting Eyes were mixed,
Which like the Sun, betwixt two Glasses plays
From the one to the other casting rebounding Rays.
There is a proto-Metaphysical stamp to this which harks forward to the knottier conceits of Donne, although a close reading shows the lady to be in serious ophthalmic trouble. Getting so much hair in her lachrymal ducts could easily lead to galloping conjunctivitis on top of the strabismus which she apparently has naturally, unless Nashe means that the rebounding rays are going from both her eyes to his, and not from one of her eyes to the other. This is to quibble, however: Nashe raised the standard of what Mr. Burford would call “ribald rhymes,” just as Rochester was later to raise it again, and Walpole later still. Raising was something it would always need. Except in times of censorship, the major writers got the scabrous element into their writings along with all the other elements. That left the minor writers to plug away at their one topic, not always with an abundance of invention.
Faine would I go both up and downe,
up and downe, up and downe
No child is fonder of the gig
Than I to dance a merry Jig
Faine woulde I try how I could frig
Up and downe, up and downe, up and downe,
Faine would I try how I could caper.
This probably sounded better sung than it reads now, and even if it didn’t, to echo such sentiments in what Mr. Burford would call “convivial company” must have been at least as enjoyable as watching an old Matt Helm movie alone in your hotel room after midnight. Or try “The Sea Crabb,” conceived circa 1620.
The good man went home and ere he wist
Put the crabb in the Chamberpot where his wife pisst.
With a ging, Boys, ging, ging,
Tarradiddle, farradiddle, ging,
As any nightclub comedian knows, once the atmosphere of salacity is charged up high enough any word will acquire a double meaning, even if the word makes no sense at all. The song “A Maid and a Younge Man” capitalizes on this fact.
A Man and a younge Mayd that loved a long time
Were taken in a frenzy in the Mid- summer prime;
The Maid she lay drooping, Hye;
The Man he lay whopping, Hey; the Man he lay whopping Ho!
But even in Arcadia there was no whopping without a price. The usual price was the pox. If human tenderness is shown to have been always possible, divine retribution is shown to have been always present, and just as ready to strike the innocent as the guilty. Not that the guilty cringed. As “The Westminster Whore” loudly pronounces, it goes hard with the professional when there are so many eager amateurs.
‘Now, the Curse of a Cunt without Hair
And ten thousand Poxes upon her:
We pore Whores may go hang in
Wee’re undone by the Maydes of Honour.’
So went a harlot’s song in 1610. Blake later said that the harlot’s song from street to street would weave old England’s winding sheet, but perhaps the main reason he cast his warning as a prophecy was that the song was very old and had not yet done so. From the accession of the Stuarts to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the commerce between the court and the stews was a constant theme, only enriched during the Civil War and the Commonwealth, when each side accused the other of buggery, it seems with some cause. Certainly Rochester, the great syncretic spirit of Restoration rakery—it will be seen that Mr. Burford’s style is getting into mine—included sodomy among his repertoire of talents. But Rochester most clearly adumbrated our own time by making stars out of whores, as in “An Account of Cuffley.” In 1670 Molière wrote Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Racine wrote Bérénice, Dryden wrote The Conquest of Granada, and Rochester wrote this:
Then the next morning we all hunt
To find whose fingers smell of Cunt.
With the advent of Rochester you really feel that it might start raining brimstone at any moment. Here is a first-rate talent whose chief concern is to grab the back of the reader’s neck and shove his face right in it. Three stanzas of “A Ramble in St James’s Park” should be enough for one gulp.
Did ever I refuse to bear
The meanest part your lust could spare!
When your lewd Cunt came spew- ing home
Drenched with the seed of half the Town.
My dram of sperm, was supped up after
For the digestive surfeit water.
Full gorged at another time
With a vast meal of nasty slime
Which your devouring Cunt had drawn
From Porters’ backs and Foot- mens’ brawn,
I was content to serve you up
My Ballock-full for your grace cup.
This is jealousy talking the way it usually only thinks. Two hundred years before the French poets, Rochester made the descent into hell on behalf of English literature, and did it without posturing. What is inspiring about him—along with his energy, imagination, and driving rhythm—is that he found humanity down there. Later in the same poem, jealousy gives way again to the adoration that fired it.
When, leaning on your faithless breast
Wrapped in security and rest,
Soft kindness all my powres did move,
And Reason lay dissolved in Love!
But Rochester’s poem, for all his seeming determination to seek out the worst diseases and make sure he catches them, is poetry, not bawdry. A more typical creation of his time is the anonymous “Last Night’s Ramble.” The scene is Lady Jane Southcott’s upmarket cat-house. The matron speaks:
‘The Lady within’s tis, whose hus- band’s old.
She comes to swive for Pleasure not for Gold:
While quondam Judge is taking fees at home,
She, for that same, sometimes abroad does roam.
‘Such a Belle tall, such a Bon Mein and Air
So witty, so well-shap’d and such a Hair!
A snowy skin, such sparkling eyes and then
Rough as you’d wish, strait as a girl of ten!’
The lady of quality who wanted to play the hooker might not have been entirely a dream, inasmuch as there has no doubt always been some young woman ready to cast herself as Belle de Jour. Yet clearly she was a dream to whoever bought the broadside. Lewdness gives way to pornography when instead of being an inducement or accompaniment to lubricious conduct it becomes a substitute. But probably it would be a mistake to suppose that there was ever a sexual version of Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility. A more likely assumption is that there were always men who sat around loudly singing rude songs while their more astute fellows were off somewhere quietly getting lucky. Imagine the sheer noise level that must have gone into the collective composing of that dependable show-stopper, “The Brown Cunts of Old England.”
When mighty brown cunts were the Englishman’s taste,
With strong curled hair that could tie round the waist.
Our offspring were stout and our wives were all chaste
Oh! the brown cunts of old England
And Oh! the old English brown cunt.
There is ingenuity in this but a forlorn longing too. It is written to be sung by men without women, whereas the saving grace of earlier verse, however scurrilous, lay in the assumed complicity of the sexes, to the extent that it is now often hard to tell which sex wrote it. But the pills to purge melancholy went on being produced in the eighteenth century, and although many of the examples cited by Mr. Burford induce more melancholy than they purge, nevertheless the urge to be merry is still patent. Even in low forms, however, there is no substitute for talent. No appeal to tradition could mitigate the perfect tedium of “The Travelling Tinker, and the Country Ale-wife.”
A Comely Dame of Islington,
Had got a leaky Copper;
The Hole that let the Liquor run,
Was wanting of a Stopper:
A Jolly Tinker undertook,
And promised her most fairly;
With a thump thump thump, and knick knack knock,
To do her Business rarely.
Whether you call it ribaldry or protest, the rotten folk song is perennial. But some genuine enthusiasm went into “White Thighs” dating from about 1735.
Poets praise Chloe’s shape, her complexion, her air,
Coral lips, pearly teeth, and fine eyes;
A fig for them all, they can never compare
To my charmer’s elastic white thighs.
The eighteenth century’s representation suffers from the absence of Swift, but Horace Walpole’s “Little Peggy” proves that the politically leveling sexual impulse could still be felt as more of a blessing than a threat. The Earl of Lincoln fathered a daughter on his great love, a famous whore called Peggy Lee. Walpole, a full-blooded man himself, predicted great things for the child.
Arise, O Maid, to promised joys arise!
Lincoln’s sweet seed and daughter of the Skies!
See joyous Brothels shake their conscious Beds,
See glowing Pricks exalt their crim- son Heads!
See Sportive Buttocks wanton in the Air
And Bawds, cantharides and punch
The youths unbuttoned to thy arms advance
And feather-tickled Elders lead the Lech’rous Dance!
The best thing from later in the century is “The Bumper Toast,” in which once again the democracy of lust finds happy expression. It would be nice to think the desire was father to the ability. Alas, the evidence suggests that an exclusive concern with these matters almost guarantees a leaden muse. The anonymous author of the toast was one of those rare singers who through monomania attained the universal.
Fill a Bumper, my host, and I’ll give you a Toast
We all have conversed with and everyone knows;
Fill it up to the top and drink every drop
Here’s Cunt in a bumper wherever she goes.
Your high-sounding titles that Kings can create
Derive all their lustre and weight from the Donor;
But Cunt can deride all the mockery of State
For she’s, in herself, the true foun tain of honour.
Sincerity and generosity are here unmistakable. In the nineteenth century they were harder to find. The genteel arrived and locked pornography in the cellar, where it flourished until released to overwhelm us. Perhaps Mr. Burford was right to leave all that out. Some notable artists have written scurrilously in our time, but nearly always with a purpose. Auden’s “The Platonic Blow” would have fit into this anthology because of its lack of didacticism, its pure sense of enjoyment. It would also have fit because of its consuming—the word seems not inappropriate—dullness.
With the salient exceptions I have mentioned, Mr. Burford’s “pleasant collection” makes pretty unpleasant reading. Not even Rochester could make a symphony out of one note. But among the catchpenny titles with which Penguin nowadays tricks out its poetry list, this one has a more solid reason for being than its presentation might suggest. As I sit typing this article after midnight in the City of London, I see outside the window white concrete, plate glass, and a smooth asphalt street being cleaned by a machine. The whole neighborhood was destroyed by the fire raids of 1940. But once it was Moorfields, the bubbling stew from which many of the verses in this book emerged. Here was Grub Street, and before that there were Mother Cresswell’s brothels. Around here, people rotted from the pox or were maddened by its cure. And were maddened by its cure. When you imagine the suffering, it is a wonder that anyone ever felt pleasure at all, let alone sang for the joy of it. There is never any harm in being reminded that the way we live now is not normal.
October 13, 1983