Jack’s Naughty Bits: Thomas Carew, A Rapture

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Censorship works. Much as I like to point out the contrary voices that have peeped out of the history of repression, we still have a radically skewed idea of centuries past because so many of their great works are kept from our eyes. Until recently, few people would know, for example, the number of women who were writing in the Middle Ages and the massive contributions they made to the culture of the West — including such breakthroughs as the first autobiography written in English (by Margery Kempe), the first Christian plays (by Hrotsvita de Gandersheim), or the first biography (of Charles V, by Christine de Pisan). Nor, thanks to other censorship agendas, do most people realize that Elizabethan drama contains as much bisexuality as Greek and Roman literature or that Victorian England was a hotbed for pornography. We imagine times past as but stepping stones to the liberal triumph of today, but to think that ours is the most progressive period in history is to know little of the cultures that precede us. Time and again, by ignorance or purposeful exclusion, by selective canonization, bowdlerizing translations or exclusionary syllabus creation, the history of literature, like so many other so-called histories, is bound and recast in a conservative package that fails to represent the actuality of what was.


So, given the sterility of most literature textbooks, one would not expect to find, browsing through an anthology of seventeenth-century poetry, a consummate how-to guide to lovemaking. But Thomas Carew’s “A Rapture” is just that. His detailed account of undressing, stroking, muff-diving and out-and-out shtupping would rouge the cheeks of even the most licentious Cosmopolitan editor — and, truth be told, those of this editor too. “A Rapture” is not, I am warning you, a poem to read at your desk, unless you have a Flashdance-style cold shower chain you can pull. Score the point: poets one, censors zero.

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From “A Rapture” by Thomas Carew

Come, then, and mounted on the wings of Love

We’ll cut the flitting air, and soar above

The monster’s head, and in the noblest seats

Of those blest shades quench and renew our heats.

There shall the Queen of Love, and Innocence,

Beauty, and Nature, banish all offence

From our close ivy-twines; there I’ll behold

Thy baréd snow and thy unbraided gold;

There my enfranchised hand on every side

Shall o’er thy naked polished ivory slide.

No curtain there, though of transparent lawn,

Shall be before thy virgin-treasure drawn;

But the rich mine, to the inquiring eye

Exposed, shall ready still for mintage lie,

And we will coin young Cupids. There a bed

Of roses and fresh myrtles shall be spread

Under the cooler shade of cypress groves;

Our pillows, of the down of Venus’ doves,

Whereupon our panting limbs we’ll gently lay,

In the faint respites of our active play;

That so our slumbers may in dreams have leisure

To tell the nimble fancy our past pleasure,

And so our souls that cannot be embraced

Shall the embraces of our bodies taste.

Meanwhile the bubbling stream shall court the shore,

Th’ enamoured chirping wood-choir shall adore

In varied tunes the deity of love;

The gentle blasts of western winds shall move

The trembling leaves, and through their close boughs breathe

Still music, whilst we rest ourselves beneath

Their dancing shade; till a soft murmur, sent

From souls entranced in amorous languishment,

Rouse us, and shoot into our veins fresh fire,

Till we in their sweet ecstasy expire.

Then, as the empty bee, that lately bore

Into the common treasure all her store,

Flies ’bout the painted field with nimble wing,

Deflow’ring the fresh virgins of the spring,

So will I rifle all the sweets that dwell

In my delicious paradise, and swell

My bag with honey, drawn forth by the power

Of fervent kisses, from each spicy flower.

I’ll seize the rosebuds in their perfumed bed,

The violet knots, like curious mazes spread

O’er all the garden, taste the ripened cherry,

The warm, firm apple, tipped with coral berry;

Then will I visit with a wand’ring kiss

The vale of lilies and the bower of bliss;

And where the beauteous region doth divide

Into two milky ways, my lips shall slide

Down those smooth alleys, wearing as I go

A tract for lovers on the printed snow;

Thence climbing o’er the swelling Apennine,

Retire into thy grove of eglantine,

Where I will all those ravished sweets distill

Through love’s alembic, and with chemic skill

From the mixed mass one sovereign balm derive,

Then bring that great elixir to thy hive.

Now in more subtle wreaths I will entwine

My sinewy thighs, my legs and arms with thine;

Thou like a sea of milk shalt lie displayed,

Whilst I the smooth, calm ocean invade

With such a tempest, as when Jove of old

Fell down on Danaë in a storm of gold;

Yet my tall pine shall in the Cyprian strait

Ride safe at anchor, and unlade her freight;

My rudder, with thy bold hand, like a tried

And skillful pilot, thou shall steer, and guide

My bark into love’s channel, where it shall

Dance, as the bounding waves do rise or fall.

Then shall thy circling arms embrace and clip

My willing body, and thy balmy lip

Bathe me in juice of kisses, whose perfume

Like a religious incense shall consume,

And send up holy vapors to those powers

That bless our loves, and crown our sportful hours,

That with such halcyon calmness fix our souls

In steadfast pace, as no affright controls.

There no rude sounds shake us with sudden starts;

No jealous ears, when we unrip our hearts,

Suck our discourse in; no observing spies

This blush, that glance traduce; no envious eyes

Watch our close meetings; nor are we betrayed

To rivals by the bribéd chambermaid.

No wedlock bonds unwreathe our twisted loves;

We seek no midnight arbor, no dark groves

To hide our kisses: there the hated name

Of husband, wife, lust, modest, chaste, or shame,

Are vain and empty words, whose very sound

Was never heard in the Elysian ground.

All things are lawful there that may delight

Nature or unrestrainéd appetite;

Like and enjoy, to will and act is one:

We only sin when Love’s rites are not done . . .

Come then, my Celia, we’ll no more forbear

To taste our joys, struck with a panic fear,

But will dispose from his imperious sway

This proud usurper, and walk free as they,

With necks unyoked; nor is it just that he

Should fetter your soft sex with chastity,

Which Nature made unapt for abstinence;

When yet this false imposter can dispense

With human justice and with sacred right,

And, maugre both their laws, command me fight

With rivals, or with emulous loves, that dare

Equal with thine their mistress’ eyes or hair.

If thou complain of wrong, and call my sword

To carve out thy revenge, upon that word

He bids me fight and kill, or else he brands

With marks of infamy my coward hands,

And yet religion bids from bloodshed fly,

And damns me for that act. Then tell my why

This goblin Honor, which the word adores,

Should make men atheists, and not women whores.