Virginity in 17th and 18th Century Poetry
Holly A. Clay
Benjamin Franklin once said that there were only two inevitable things in life: death and taxes. He got it half right. They did, in fact, die with pretty regular certainty. However, what was inevitable was sex. Without it, there wouldn't be any new people to die and poor Ben Franklin would have been completely wrong. The only hindrance to this certainty was (and remains) virgins. The realm of the chaste has been explored in poetry throughout time, but never was the subject as thoroughly probed as in the 17th and 18th century. To judge by the poets of the time, one would conclude that--next to dying--the citizens of this era spent most of their time either praising the virtuous, trying to change the state of said virgins, or making fun of them.
Ironically, the first and smallest of the categories of poetry was that of praising sexual virtue. In fact, entire poems written solely to extol the virtues of virtue were few and far between. While one might be surprised by this fact, considering the somewhat puritanical mind set of the time, one must keep in mind that most poets in this day were men. Most poems, like Ben Johnson's "Queen and Huntress" (1413) simply allude to the glory of chaste women. In fact, other than the use of the phrase "chaste and fair" in the first line, the reference is mostly contextual. The poem is taken from the play Cynthia's Revels(1614). Cynthia is the goddess of chastity or the moon, so in fact, this poem is more in praise of a woman that happens to be a virgin, than of the state itself.
We find another poem casting virginity in a positive light in Robert Herrick's "His Farewell to Sack"(1646). This is another roundabout reference, as Herrick is actually bidding farewell to a particularly good sort of wine. Herrick compares the experience of drinking the wine to kissing a virgin, as well as the joy of a virgin bride. Again, the virtue itself is not exactly being praised so much as being alluded to as a component of something good.
The women also had their say. In Katherine Phillips's "A Married State"(1679), the many advantages of a life of chastity are listed. Phillips says "A virgin's state is crowned with much content; / It's always happy as it's innocent." In addition to innocence, Phillips points out that there are no grouchy husbands, no screaming children and nothing else to distract you from your service to God. In fact, wistful women wishing they'd kept their virginity and wedding vows to themselves wrote many poems in this era. It is a telling social commentary that so many married women would wish themselves back to live a life of chaste penitence than to enter into so-called "wedded bliss."
The most common theme in virginity poems is that of men trying to get women to change their minds and go to bed with them. Many poets tried to use persuasion on their objects of desire. In Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time," the well-known first line "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" appears. This poem is an appeal to virtuous women to use it while they've got it, per se. In the proud tradition of soldiers who will be sent off tomorrow who just know they aren't coming back and hedonists everywhere, Herrick emphasizes that time is short and virgins are wasting their youths when they could be doing better things, like sleeping with him. Herrick also appeals to the feminine sense of vanity by finding a very flowery way of saying, "You're not getting any younger, toots." The beauty of youth is fleeting and according to Herrick, it should be used.
John Donne takes a less urgent approach and uses sheer logical gymnastics in "The Flea"(1236). In this poem, Donne notices a flea sucking blood from his would-be lover that just sucked blood form him. Donne claims the mingling of their blood within the creature is an act of highest intimacy in and of itself. "We almost, nay more than married are," he says. If a flea can do something so intimate as suck her blood without even knowing her, he reasons, why should the man who has been wooing her be denied something so comparatively casual as sex? From the last stanza, one can infer the effectiveness of the argument. "Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?" The flea, like the suitor's hopes of getting somewhere, is triumphantly squashed by the maiden.
If neither of these noble efforts worked for our seventeenth century swain, he still had at least one more option left: beg. Andrew Marvell's famous poem "To His Coy Mistress" (1691), like "To the Virgins," makes use of the concept of time being short. However, instead of complaining of impending ugliness, Marvell touts impending death to his mistress. The poem comes off as intentionally desperate and assures the woman that, had they eternity, he would woo her to all effectiveness. "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near;" says Marvell. The request even descends to the graphic when he alludes to worms trying "that long-preserved virginity." One is given the impression that Marvell is finding a slightly more dramatic way of saying "If we don't, I'll just die."
Perhaps the most interesting and, truth be told, honest, poems form this era regarding virginity are those that make light of it. Humorous poems, like Thomas Campion's "I Care Not for These Ladies" (1196). While the humor is more subtle than overt, Campion's poem about the virtues of less than virtuous women does employ the use of puns and contradictions. While the subject, Amarylis, is said to cry "Forsooth, let go!" during courtship rituals and kisses, we are assured "when we come where comfort is, she never will say no."
Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment" (2167) takes its humor from allusions to other poems. The poem is intended as a response to John Wilmot's "The Imperfect Enjoyment" (2163), where a man bemoans his attempt to take a woman's virginity when it is thwarted by impotence. In "The Disappointment," a woman named Chloris (reminiscent of Rich Lovelace's "Love Made in the First Age. To Chloris") is confronted with a similar problem. This poem, however, focuses more on the woman's perspective. Much to the surprise of the modern reader, laden with stereotypes on the former age, she is quite disappointed. Behn hints that the inspiration for this poem came form her own experience in the lines "the nymph's resentments none but I can well imagine or condole." The poem effectively pokes fun at two men's poems as well as the theory that all women are prudish creatures that guard their virtue with their lives and see sex as a chore performed for their husbands.
Matthew Prior's "A True Maid," (2296) on the other hand, makes no attempt at subtlety. The four line poem quite directly states what one might expect to find on a Shakespearean restroom stall:
No, no; for my virginity,
When I lose that,' says Rose, 'I'll die.'
'Behind the elms, last night,' cried Dick,
'Rose, were you not extremely sick?'
In four lines, Prior gives the reader a glimpse into the reality of the age and dispels the notion that women of the era were as virtuous as they would have you believe. The poem lends a sense of modernity and humanity to a period now thought of as pristine and sexually pure.
Throughout time, the chastity of women has been a subject of great interest to all. Daphne became a tree to preserve it, Mary got pregnant in spite of it, Chloris just wanted to get rid of it and Sandra Dee was lousy with it. However, in an era when virtue was still publicly honored, poets were on the cusp of making writing about discarding it acceptable. In the proud tradition of art constantly pushing the envelope, they did just that--a lot.
Abrams, M.H., et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.