"Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime....."
So begins "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, written at some point in the middle of the Seventeenth Century. It famously features an amorous suitor attempting to convince his reluctant partner to surrender her virginity. If I had the time, he says, I would spend centuries adoring every part of your body... but....
"But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace."
In other words, give it up now love, before it's too late.
It's a fantastic poem, and I was reminded of it this afternoon, when Aravis tweeted how she'd been studying it in class and had been somewhat taken aback by some of her classmates' reactions to it:
"Asked if To His Coy Mistress was meant as existential angst or seduction, my classmates' consensus was: neither. He's just some gross creepy guy trying to get into her pants."
Hmm. That's arguable, I suppose, but they went further, with one student saying:
"...it communicates a man who would like to use a woman for his own pleasure to gratify his ego."
The same student then goes on to call him violent.
When I studied this poem, some twenty years ago, we talked at length about the poet's intentions here, and how, as a religious man, he might actually be mocking some of the "carpe diem" attitudes of his contemporaries. For myself, I like to think that the narrator of the poem is being slightly comical in his argument, as though when your dad refuses to lend you a fiver, you ask him to lend you a £100 instead. What we didn't discuss in any detail was how "gross" or otherwise the poet might be. It's always a dangerous game to view a 350 year old poem through the lens of today's morality. They didn't have flushing toilets, power showers or cable tv back then either, and I'm sure that's a pretty grotesque thought for lots of people too. Things become even more dangerous when you start to factor in your religious beliefs.
Apparently lots of Aravis' class are quite religious - Catholics - and although I don't know them, it's tempting to think that their views on a poem like this have been shaped by their conservative, religious viewpoints.
For some reason, I'm reminded of the recent new reports about the top ten books that people tried to get the American Library Association to ban. Surprise, surprise.... many of them feature themes that the conservative religious right finds offensive: "And Tango Makes Three", the story of two gay penguins in Central Park Zoo; the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, where God is senile and decrepit; "Uncle Bobby's Wedding", featuring some gay guinea pigs. This follows earlier stories about how Sarah Palin tried in the late 1990s as then mayor of Wasilla in Alaska to have "Daddy's Roommate", a tale about a gay father, removed from the town library. Just the other day, Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for George Bush, alleged in his new memoir of life in the White House that Bush had refused to grant JK Rowling the Presidential Medal of Freedom because her writing "encouraged witchcraft".... .and don't even mention Charles Darwin: a recent film on the naturalist's life has failed to find a US distributor because of its controversial themes. i.e. it talks about Evolution.
I'm sure we all agree that censorship is bad... but all you have to do is to take a closer look at the one book these people will never ban, and you will see quite how ridiculous these people really are.
Let's start with Genesis. We'll pass over a drunken Noah sleeping with his daughters, and we'll stop at Genesis chapter 19, verses 4-8, where two angels come to visit Lot to warn him of the impending disaster about to strike Sodom. He invites them in as his guests:
"But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter. And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them. And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, and said, I pray you brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye unto them as is good unto your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they unto the shadow of my roof."
In other words, gang rape my virgin daughters, but leave my guests alone. Nice.
Or, how about Judges chapter 19, verses 22-25, where a Levite and his concubine come to visit Gibeah and stay with an old man who lives there:
"Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into the house, that we may know him. And the man, the master of the house, said unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into my house, do not this folly. Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you; but unto this man do not so vile a thing. But the men would not hearken to him: so the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her, and abused her, all the night until morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go."
Nice, eh? She dies, incidentally, as a result of her terrible night, and her master cuts her body up and sends the parts to different parts of the coast. Much righteous slaughter ensues, in God's name, of course.*
The Old Testament is riddled with this kind of stuff, and -- if read through the lens of today's morality -- isn't it just the most awful, misogynist rubbish you've ever heard? But they'll never ban that, of course, it's The Bible, isn't it? It's only the word of God, innit? I'm sure you'll agree that Harry Potter is far more of a perfidious influence on our youth than stories of maidens offered up for gang rape by their fathers, or come to that, a seventeenth century charmer trying to woo his coy mistress.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that I'm not as up on the Old Testament as I might be --- I'm still reading "The God Delusion", and Dawkins mentions both these passages in chapter 7 to illustrate how people pick and choose which bits of the Bible are to be taken literally and which bits should be read allegorically. Obviously the Bible isn't suggesting we should offer up our daughters for rape, but clearly that bit about a man lying with another man is to be taken literally and homosexuality is thus a grievous sin.... Out of interest, I checked a book of children's bible stories that I was given at my christening before writing this, and although the story of the angels visiting Lot is told, funnily enough, it skips Lot's offering of his virgin daughters to the mob. Strange that. It's still full of the blood and thunder of the Old Testament God, but it chooses to skip that bit....
Whilst we're on the subject of the ignorance of crowds... lest we liberals get too excited by our recent triumphs in the battles against Carter-Ruck over Trafigura and over Jan Moir's stunningly insensitive article about Stephen Gately, let's remember two things:
1) We're not the only people who can organise campaigns like this: ask Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand about how easily roused the good people of middle England can be, and get ready for a campaign from the BNP over this week's Question Time appearance.
2) We might be a more tolerant and inclusive pitchfork wielding mob, but we're still a pitchfork wielding mob.
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