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“Groin, come of age, his ‘state sold out of hand for his whore: Groin doth still occupy his land.”

November 3, 2009
Benjamin_Jonson_by_Abraham_van_Blyenberch

Ben Jonson (portrait by Abraham van Blyenerch)

In 1616, Ben Jonson published a book of epigrams. Among my favorites, for whatever reason, has always been the one reprinted below, which takes the form of a single couplet: “On Groin.” It so happens that the Wikipedia entry on Jonson offers an accurate and succinct account of the genre, which was based on classical models (the Latin poet Martial, e.g.; for an interesting essay on whom, incidentally, click here):

Epigrams (published in the 1616 folio) is an entry in a genre that was popular among late-Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, although Jonson was perhaps the only poet of his time to work in its full classical range. The epigrams explore various attitudes, most but not all of them from the satiric stock of the day: complaints against women, courtiers, and spies abound. The condemnatory poems are short and anonymous; Jonson’s epigrams of praise, including a famous poem to Camden and lines to Lucy Harington, are somewhat longer and mostly addressed to specific individuals.”

The epigram quoted below takes, in Jonsonian fashion, a physical attribute (the groin) and personifies it (a practice familiar to any reader of his plays). For reasons obvious enough, in the early 17th century the “groin” was regarded, as the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, as “the seat of lust.” In support of this sense, the dictionary quotes none other than Jonson himself (from his play Staple of News III. ii): “Who can endure to see / The fury of men’s gullets, and their groines?”—where the reference is to the mortal & furious sins of gluttony and lust. In any case, here is the text in question (where ‘state is an elided form of “estate”):

Epigram CXVII: On Groin

Groin, come of age, his ‘state sold out of hand
For his whore: Groin doth still occupy his land.

The epigram takes the form of a paradox: How can a man both sell and still “occupy” his land?—the answer to which is of course provided by the O.E.D. In the 16th and 17th centuries, “occupy” could mean (though it wasn’t always used in this sense): “To have sexual intercourse or relations with” (a sense the O.E.D. regards as obsolete, the last recorded instance of it dating from 1811): “1598 J. FLORIO Worlde of Wordes, Trentuno: a punishment inflicted by ruffianly fellowes uppon raskalie whores in Italy, who cause them to be occupide one and thirtie times by one and thirtie seuerall base raskalie companions. 1648 H. HEXHAM Groot Woorden-boeck, Genooten, to Lie with, or to Occupie a woman. 1683 Last Will & Testament Charter of London 2 To Enjoy & Occupy all from the Bawd to the Whore downward. 1719 in T. D’Urfey Wit & Mirth V. 139 For she will be occupied when others they lay still. 1811 Lexicon Balatronicum, Occupy, to occupy a woman, to have carnal knowledge of her.”

In Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare has Doll Tearsheet make sport of what she considers an abuse of the word “captain” by likening it to the abuses done to the word “occupy” (of course, she is herself a prostitute). Here she is, rebuking Hostess Quickly, owner of the bawdy house & tavern in which so many of the comic scenes in that play are set:

Falstaff. No more, Pistol; I would not have you go off here. Discharge yourself of our company, Pistol.

Hostess Quickly. No, good Captain Pistol; not here, sweet captain.

Doll Tearsheet. Captain! Thou abominable damn’d cheater, art thou to be called captain? An captains were of my mind, they would truncheon you out, for taking their names upon you before you have earn’d them. You a captain! you slave, for what? For a poor whore’s ruff in a bawdy-house? He a captain! hang him, rogue! He lives upon mouldy stew’d prunes and dried cakes. A captain! God’s light, these villains will make the word as the word ‘occupy’; which was an excellent good word before ’twas ill sorted.

But there is more to be said about Jonson’s couplet. The wit turns not simply upon the paradox just described, and upon the meaning of the word “occupy,” but also upon another idea: instead of “husbanding” his estate, as any good landholder should, Groin is simply “screwing” it, so to speak. And the satire then extends beyond any one man—Groin is obviously representative of a type—to the whole of the landed aristocracy, or at least to that part of it which Jonson held in contempt. (For a poem on that part of the landed aristocracy he didn’t hold in contempt, see his widely anthologized “country house” poem “To Penhurst.”)

Another, albeit less certain possibility, is that Jonson has in mind what good “husbandry” of an estate involves: making its lands fertile, productive. Quite possibly available to him would have been the lewd sense of the word “plow” now commonly in use (to have sex with a woman), which dates, according to the O.E.D., at least as early as the mid 16th century: “1664 T. KILLIGREW Parsons Wedding II. vii. 107 Is’t not a sad sight to see a rich young Beauty subject to some rough rude Fellow, that ploughs her, and esteems and uses her as a chattel?” In short, instead of husbanding and plowing his lands, as he ought to do, Groin chooses to sell them off and, well, plow them—in the person of “his whore.”

I would add, finally, that the association of plowing with sex is an ancient one. Here is Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex: “[Man] wishes to conquer, to take, to possess; to have a woman is to conquer her; he penetrates into her as the plowshare into the furrow.” And she cites certain ancient images engraved by the Kassites, a people who dwelt in Babylon in the 10th century B.C., in which the plow is likened to the phallus. Hence (among other things) the dual agricultural and sexual senses felt, even today, in the English words “husband” and “husbandry.” But that takes us rather far afield, and I can say with no certainty that these further ranges were somehow in Jonson’s mind when he penned Epigram CVII: On Groin.

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