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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Goodbye to Grey
Niger: [The daughters of Niger] were the first form'd dames of earth,
And in whose sparkling and refulgent eyes,
The glorious sun did still delight to rise ;
Though he, the best judge, and most formal cause
Of all dames beauties, in their firm hues, draws
Signs of his fervent'st love ; and thereby shows
That in their black, the perfect'st beauty grows ;
Since the fixt color of their curled hair,
Which is the highest grace of dames most fair,
No cares, no age can change ; or there display
The fearful tincture of abhorred gray...

So wrote Ben Jonson in The Masque of Blackness (1605). That last line has always bugged me, though. Did Jonson really believe that black women never went grey? If so, where did he get that idea? If not, why did he have Niger say it?

Pliny the Elder would normally be suspect number one for the first question, but it's hard to believe that Pliny, living in such a multi-ethnic society as first-century Rome, would be unaware that African women do indeed turn grey. The same would surely be true for most ancient writers of the kind that a Renaissance autodidact might believe in preference to his own eyes.

What had those eyes actually seen? Jacobean London wasn't exactly devoid of black people - though I wonder whether many of them were women of middle-age and older. The fashion for black pages would tend to skew the population towards youth; while foreign merchants would be overwhelmingly male. Maybe Jonson had never seen a black woman over thirty-five? Or maybe hair-dye or head coverings were in common use, which would have hidden the evidence? Either way, I've never come across anyone else stating the same belief, either before or since.

I am sure that hair coverings - especially head-tires - were in universal use by mature women of the time. Unless Jonson was particularly intimate with a black woman, he may never have seen one bare-headed.

That still doesn't quite explain why he'd think they never went grey, though; you'd think he would just assume it was the same for them. Fascinating.

There are apparently racial variations, though - Asian people go grey a little later than Caucasians, and Africans later still. Maybe that misled him.

Is that so? Yes, that might have caused some confusion, certainly.

I was going to suggest this too. It varies both by race and from individual to individual. My maternal grandfather (Lancashire born and bred) still had naturally black hair in his 80s. My grandmother at the same age had completely white hair. If Jonson only had a small sample of black people to observe, then comparing two 60-year-olds, the white woman would most likely be more or less entirely grey while the black woman would still have black hair.

Here-- late to the party as usual, Ben Jonson can write!! (Apparently in between being drunk, and getting in fights, and going to prison, he wrote like an angel!

He could lay a mean brick, too! Not that being drunk and writing were opposed activities in his mind:

Let pour in lavish cups and thriftie bits of meate.
For Bacchus fruit is friend to Phoebus wise ;
And when with Wine the brain begins to sweate.
The numbers flow as fast as spring doth rise.

Another on the list of badass poet boys! Later writers (Hemingway, springs to mind,) could only be a faint shadow of these guys. Funny how they all came from humble-ish starts. Marlowe and Shakespeare (who knew a hawk from a handsaw, after all,) and even Kyd. (I guess Kyd's scrivening dad was sort of white collar,) but Kyd never went to University...

Jonson is a little younger. But he worked with Nashe, so same group? And Topcliffe worked him over, as he did with poor Kyd. Topcliffe must have been old by then.

Ben Jonson's poem about his little boy is heartbreaking. And I like his face. He had a broken nose at some point there I think.

In short he could lay my bricks any day!

Ummm--- sorry. Slinks away.

I had to give up teaching his poem about his son, because I couldn't get through it without crying. "Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry" - waaah!!!

I believe he was branded, too - on his thumb, was it? I can't remember whether that was for killing a man or for poking fun at the Scots in The Isle of Dogs. A full life, anyway!

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Thanks for the details! Of course, T for Tyburn: for some reason I had it in my head as F for Felon.

There's an alphabet book in there somewhere...

William Prynne had S and L on his cheeks for "Seditious Libel." I think you're onto something here.

I seem to remember he had his ears clipped not once but twice - but which time it must have been hard to find much left to clip!


Makes me wonder what it would have been like if Kyd and Marlowe had lived to old age. They could have gone out drinking and fighting with Ben Jonson!

The way they looked at the body back then was so different, wasn't it? The idea that you could be judicially mutilated just blows me away.

Nashe and Greene were another quarrelsome pair, and Peele was a lively one too - the first person I ever heard of shaving off half his beard for a bet, amongst other things. I don't think any of the university wits made old bones. Our Ben at least got to his sixties.

I just wish little Willy Shakespeare had stayed away from those rough boys...

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Well, true. I had not thought of that. Not different at all.

...this is totally the Renaissance equivalent of "black don't crack." I'd forgotten about that (it's been ages since I have had much reason to look at Jonson's masques).

That's a new expression to me!

It's ironic that the masque ends with the daughters of Niger deciding to go for a skin bleaching regime that would have put Michael Jackson to shame, but good to see some black-positive poetry from this date.

Oh, I do remember that part, yeah -- it's hard to forget. :\ It's sort of akin to Shakespeare putting some quite powerful black-positive rhetoric into the mouth of Aaron the Moor, isn't it? There is actually a 15th-c lyric that begins "Sum men sayen that I am blac" that uses some of the same tropes as Aaron's speech, but I think it's probably more likely that the speaker is meant to refer to a white person with darker hair/complexion than is fashionable (akin to Shakespeare's "dark lady," although some people argue that she is also meant to be black).

Thank you!

Like Elizabeth calling Walsingham 'the moor'?

Or Black Will in Arden of Faversham.

So enjoying this.