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“Our ancestors seem to have been wonderfully delighted with these transformations of sex.”

October 3, 2009

Charles Lamb

“The character of Bellario [in John Fletcher’s Philaster] must have been extremely popular in its day. For many years after the date of Philaster’s first exhibition on the stage, scarce a play can be found without one of these women-pages in it, following in the train of some pre-engaged lover, calling on the gods to bless her happy rival (his mistress), whom no doubt she secretly curses in her heart, giving rise to many pretty équivoques by the way on the confusion of sex, and either made happy at last by some surprising turn of fate, or dismissed with the joint pity of the lovers and the audience. Our ancestors seem to have been wonderfully delighted with these transformations of sex. Women’s parts were then acted by young men. What an odd double confusion it must have made, to see [in Philaster] a boy play a woman playing a man! One cannot disentangle the perplexity without some violence to the imagination. Donne has a copy of verses to his mistress, dissuading her from a resolution, which she seems to have taken up from some of these scenical representations, of following him abroad as a page. It is so earnest, so weighty, so rich in poetry, in sense, in wit, and pathos, that it deserves to be read as a solemn close in future to all such sickly fancies as he there deprecates. The story of his romantic and unfortunate marriage with the daughter of Sir George Moore, the lady here supposed to be addressed, may be read in Walton’s Lives.”

Charles Lamb, in a note to a scene in Beaumont and Fletcher‘s play Philaster, from his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets

N.B.: In the scene Lamb has in view, Bellario, who had been masquerading as a boy page, is discovered to be a woman, and confesses the motive for her disguise to have been love for Prince Philaster. In the first comment below, you will find both the poem by John Donne here referred to, and the passage from Walton’s Lives.

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  1. October 3, 2009 1:10 AM

    ELEGY XVII. ELEGY ON HIS MISTRESS.
    by John Donne

    By our first strange and fatal interview,
    By all desires which thereof did ensue,
    By our long starving hopes, by that remorse
    Which my words masculine persuasive force
    Begot in thee, and by the memory
    Of hurts, which spies and rivals threaten’d me,
    I calmly beg. But by thy father’s wrath,
    By all pains, which want and divorcement hath,
    I conjure thee, and all the oaths which I
    And thou have sworn to seal joint constancy,
    Here I unswear, and overswear them thus ;
    Thou shalt not love by ways so dangerous.
    Temper, O fair love, love’s impetuous rage ;
    Be my true mistress still, not my feign’d page.
    I’ll go, and, by thy kind leave, leave behind
    Thee, only worthy to nurse in my mind
    Thirst to come back ; O ! if thou die before,
    My soul from other lands to thee shall soar.
    Thy else almighty beauty cannot move
    Rage from the seas, nor thy love teach them love,
    Nor tame wild Boreas’ harshness ; thou hast read
    How roughly he in pieces shivered
    Fair Orithea, whom he swore he loved.
    Fall ill or good, ’tis madness to have proved
    Dangers unurged ; feed on this flattery,
    That absent lovers one in th’ other be.
    Dissemble nothing, not a boy, nor change
    Thy body’s habit, nor mind ; be not strange
    To thyself only. All will spy in thy face
    A blushing womanly discovering grace.
    Richly clothed apes are call’d apes, and as soon
    Eclipsed as bright, we call the moon the moon.
    Men of France, changeable chameleons,
    Spitals of diseases, shops of fashions,
    Love’s fuellers, and the rightest company
    Of players, which upon the world’s stage be,
    Will quickly know thee, and no less, alas !
    Th’ indifferent Italian, as we pass
    His warm land, well content to think thee page,
    Will hunt thee with such lust, and hideous rage,
    As Lot’s fair guests were vex’d. But none of these
    Nor spongy hydroptic Dutch shall thee displease,
    If thou stay here. O stay here, for for thee
    England is only a worthy gallery,
    To walk in expectation, till from thence
    Our greatest king call thee to his presence.
    When I am gone, dream me some happiness ;
    Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess ;
    Nor praise, nor dispraise me, nor bless nor curse
    Openly love’s force, nor in bed fright thy nurse
    With midnight’s startings, crying out, O! O!
    Nurse, O! my love is slain ; I saw him go
    O’er the white Alps alone ; I saw him, I,
    Assail’d, fight, taken, stabb’d, bleed, fall, and die.
    Augur me better chance, except dread Jove
    Think it enough for me to have had thy love.

    From “The Lives of Dr. Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr. Richard Hooker, Mr. George Herbert and Dr. Robert Sanderson,” by Izaak Walton:

    [Donne] continued that employment [for Lord Elsemore, Keeper of the Great Seal] for the space of five years, being daily useful, and not mercenary to his friends. During which time he (I dare not say unhappily) fell into such a liking, as, with her approbation, increased into a love with a young gentlewoman that lived in that family, who was niece to the Lady Elsemore, and daughter to Sir George More, then Chancellor of the Garter and Lieutenant of the Tower. Sir George had some intimation of it, and knowing prevention to be a great part of wisdom, did therefore remove her with much haste from that to his own house at Lothesley, in the county of Surrey; but too late, by reason of some faithful promises which were so interchangeably passed as never to be violated by either party. These promises were only known to themselves and the friends of both parties used much diligence, and many arguments, to kill or cool their affections to each other: but in vain; for love is a flattering mischief, that hath denied aged and wise men a foresight of those evils that too often prove to be the children of that blind father; a passion, that carries us to commit errors with as much ease as whirlwinds remove feathers, and begets in us an unwearied industry to the attainment of what we desire. And such an industry did, notwithstanding much watchfulness against it, bring them secretly together, (I forbear to tell the manner how,) and at last to a marriage too, without the allowance of those friends, whose approbation always was, and ever will be, necessary, to make even a virtuous love become lawful. And that the knowledge of their marriage might not fall, like an unexpected tempest, on those that were unwilling to have it so, and that pre-apprehensions might make it the less enormous when it was known, it was purposely whispered into the ears of many that it was so, yet by none that could affirm it. But, to put a period to the jealousies of Sir George, (doubt often begetting more restless thoughts than the certain knowledge of what we fear,) the news was, in favour to Mr. Donne, and with his allowance, made known to Sir George, by his honourable friend and neighbour, Henry, Earl of Northumberland: but it was to Sir George so immeasurably unwelcome, and so transported him, that, as though his passion of anger and inconsideration might exceed theirs of love and error, he presently engaged his sister, the Lady Elsemore, to join with him to procure her Lord to discharge Mr. Donne of the place he held under his Lordship. This request was followed with violence: and though Sir George were remembered that errors might be over-punished, and desired therefore to forbear till second considerations might clear some scruples; yet he became restless until his suit was granted, and the punishment executed. And though the Lord Chancellor did not, at Mr. Donne’s dismission, give him such a commendation as the great Emperor Charles the Fifth did of his secretary Eraso, when he presented him to his son and successor, Philip the Second, saying, “That in his Eraso he gave to him a greater gift than all his estate, and all the kingdoms which he then resigned to him”; yet the Lord Chancellor said, “He parted with a friend, and such a secretary as was fitter to serve a king than a subject.” Immediately after his dismission from his service he sent a sad letter to his wife, to acquaint her with it; and after the subscription of his name, writ,

    “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done”

    And God knows it proved too true: for this bitter physic of Mr. Donne’s dismission was not strong enough to purge out all Sir George’s choler; for he was not satisfied till Mr. Donne and his sometime compupil in Cambridge, that married him, namely, Samuel Brook (who was after Doctor in Divinity and [Master in Trinity College) and his brother Mr. Christopher Brook, sometime Mr. Donne’s chamber-fellow in Lincoln’s Inn, who gave Mr. Donne his wife, and witnessed the marriage, were all committed to three several prisons.

  2. October 5, 2009 9:46 AM

    Re. the disguised-girl-following-her-lover Philaster plot Lamb might have mentioned that it’s fairly closely anticipated in Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona of the early 1590s, a play which seems to have introduced several romance topoi to the English theatre.

    • October 5, 2009 9:48 AM

      Indeed he might have, Dave. And thanks for reminding me.

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