Poem of the Fortnight: Blackness and Beauty

Posted by Rebekah King on Tuesday, January 05, 2016 with No comments

Poem of the Fortnight: Blackness and Beauty

In consequence of a prolonged bout of flu that lifted only to make way for a severe attack of Christmas fever, I haven’t been able to publish a poem for over a month. With my apologies, here is a ditty from the DMI on the perfect theme to get the New Year off to a decent start...racism:

Bess black as Charcoal,
Was found in a dark-hole,
With Kit at the Cat and the Fiddle;
But what they did there,
None safely can swear,
Yet Gentleman, Riddle my Riddle.
Troth I would be loath,
Were I put to my Oath,
To swear Kit with Bess did ingender;
Yet it would tempt a man,
Bridle all that he can,
His present well wishes to tender.
But ‘twas found at last,
E’re a twelve month was past,
That Christopher Bess had o’re master’d
For her belly betray’d her,
And so she down laid her,
And brought him a jolly brown Bastard.

As far as style is concerned, ‘Bess black as Charcoal’ is a simple aabccb meter, common in ballad and song but, admittedly, more unusual among the printed miscellanies of this period. There is some procrustean clipping and stretching of words throughout, characteristic of a competent but mediocre poet: Kit’s adoption of the formal ‘Christopher’ in the final mention of his name is not strictly necessary, except to fill the trisyllabic meter of the line. Nevertheless, the poem gets away with its small liberties, which is just as well; there’s nothing worse than racism that doesn’t scan.

Many a scholarly work has examined the issue of race in early modern England and to describe the many nuances of what ‘blackness’ meant in the seventeenth century would be to distend this blog to gross proportions. In brief we might ask, more simply, is the poem cruel? Is Bess’ blackness painted in chiaroscuro with the beauty and the virtue of the White? Not exactly.

But without explicitly flinging insults such as those that Shakespeare’s other moor, Aaron of Titus Andronicus, remembered as he cradled his own mixed-race child, the poem does evoke them. Just as Aaron gloated that “Coal-black is better than another hue in that it scorns to bear another hue”, this “jolly brown bastard” gives away its parents’ misdemeanours and its darkness comes, in turn, to symbolise them. Like Milton’s Sin and Death—the mate and child of Satan—Bess and her baby rise from blackness, taking its shape, embodying the filth and squalor wherein the grotesque is engendered. With a cheerful meter and a shallow joke, the poem makes the serious and terrible connection between darker skin and dark morality. Like all the worst discriminations, unthinking nastiness is hidden in good-humour.

What the DMI tells us so far:
·      The poem only appears in one miscellany, ‘The New Academy of Complements’, published in 1681.
·      ‘The New Academy’ is a miscellany in parts which gives this no other title but ‘Song 28’.
·      It is accordingly given the genre-label ‘Song’ as well as ‘Joke/jest’ and ‘Lampoon’.
·      Its themes are listed as ‘Beauty’, with the note ‘Light and dark’, ‘Darkness’ (with the note ‘Race’) and the ever-popular category ‘Sex and bawdy humour’.
·      ‘The New Academy’ is not a collection which specialises in poems on race, indeed, this is one of the only examples I have found in it so far. Its eclectic mix of poems implies that it is sampling its ‘songs’ from elsewhere, but whatever the original source, the DMI at present remains silent about any but this publication.

Poem ID: 43838

For a more in-depth explanation of how the DMI works, see the FAQ page: http://digitalmiscellaniesindex.org/faqs/