Friday, December 15, 2017

gold wires

Illustration by Frank Cheyne Papé (1910)

[Image source:]

This post begins in a witch's hovel. Florimell, as you can see, seeks refuge there. The witch's son obsesses about their new visitor. Florimell starts to get a creepy feeling about the place, and clears off in the night without saying goodbye. The "accursed Hag" sends a monster in pursuit of her, and the monster returns with a bloodied girdle. The witch thinks her demented son will be consoled by this indication of Florimell's demise, but instead he loses it completely and now threatens to slay his mother. So she decides to knock up a fake Florimell for his use.

The substance, whereof she the bodie made,
  Was purest snow in massie mould congeald,
  Which she had gathered in a shadie glade
  Of the Riphoean hils, to her reueald
  By errant Sprights, but from all men conceald:
  The same she tempred with fine Mercury,
  And virgin wex, that neuer yet was seald,
  And mingled them with perfect vermily,
That like a liuely sanguine it seem'd to the eye.

In stead of eyes two burning lampes she set
  In siluer sockets, shyning like the skyes,
  And a quicke mouing Spirit did arret
  To stirre and roll them, like a womans eyes;
  In stead of yellow lockes she did deuise,
  With golden wyre to weaue her curled head;
  Yet golden wyre was not so yellow thrise
  As Florimells faire haire: and in the stead
Of life, she put a Spright to rule the carkasse dead.

(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Bk III Canto 8, Stanzas 6-7)

The witch's son is delighted with this apparent return of a newly compliant Florimell, but is far too clownish to be able to hang on to her once a gentlemanly swaggerer happens along. In fact the False Florimell proves to be the source of much contention among the testosterone-fuelled knights of fairyland.

The False Florimell seems not to be able to fasten the girdle of chastity
[Image source: Illustration by Walter Crane, from the Chiswick Press edition of 1894-1896.]

Spenser's story casts a critical glance at the Petrarchan convention (a blazon) of celebrating a woman's external attributes by reifying them (as snow, roses, jewels, etc). A couple of years after this was published, Shakespeare came at the same topic from a different angle.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare. (Sonnet 130)

The wire to which both Spenser and Shakespeare allude was produced by the medieval technique of wire-drawing. In those days wire was made of precious metals and its use was ornamental, as a component in jewellery and rich costumes.

Twisted gold wire in Elizabethan necklace

[Image source:]

"Grape" pendant of amethyst and gold wire

[Image source:]

Both of the above, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, came from the Cheapside Hoard, an extraordinary collection of jewellery discovered by builders in 1912. It was probably the stock of a Jacobean goldsmith.

Wires were gold-coloured, of course. Shakespeare's point about "black wires", in the fourth line of his poem, is that there's no such thing. His mistress, in all her stark, unapologetic reality, makes a bonfire of all these stale conceits. Though as it transpires, Shakespeare himself found her a good deal too hot to handle.

 [Image source:]


Nobody knows who this mistress of Shakespeare's was, supposing his poem was modelled on a real mistress, but various names have been thrown around and one of the most interesting is Emilia Lanier (aka Æmilia Lanyer, Æmilia Bassano), who published her own book of poetry Salve Deum Rex Judaeorum in 1611, a couple of years after Shakespeare finally published his sonnets.

In the dedication of her work to Margaret, the dowager countess of Cumberland, Lanier too reflects on the reification of beauty.

Thou faire example, live without compare,
With Honours triumphs seated in thy breast;
Pale Envy never can thy name empaire,
When in thy heart thou harbour'st such a guest:
Malice must live for ever in dispaire;
There's no revenge where Virtue still doth rest:
All hearts must needs do homage unto thee,
In whom all eies such rare perfection see.

That outward Beautie which the world commends,
Is not the subject I will write upon,
Whose date expir'd, that tyrant Time soone ends,
Those gawdie colours soone are spent and gone:
But those faire Virtues which on thee attends
Are alwaies fresh, they never are but one:
They make thy Beautie fairer to behold,
Than was that Queenes for whom prowd Troy was sold.

As for those matchlesse colours Red and White,
Or perfit features in a fading face,
Or due proportion pleasing to the sight;
All these doe draw but dangers and disgrace:
A mind enrich'd with Virtue, shines more bright,
Addes everlasting Beauty, gives true grace,
Frames an immortall Goddesse on the earth,
Who though she dies, yet Fame gives her new berth.

That pride of Nature which adornes the faire,
Like blasing Comets to allure all eies,
Is but the thred, that weaves their web of Care,
Who glories most, where most their danger lies;
For greatest perills do attend the faire
When men do seeke, attempt, plot and devise,
How they may overthrow the chastest Dame,
Whose Beautie is the White whereat they aime.

[The full text is available here:]

Emilia Lanier, portrait by Nicholas Hilliard

[Image source: ]

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger