Academic journal article Nebula

Troping Prostitution: Jonson and "The Court Pucell"

Academic journal article Nebula

Troping Prostitution: Jonson and "The Court Pucell"

Article excerpt

Sometime in 1609, Ben Jonson penned "An Epigram on the Court Pucell," a satirical poem in which he rails against Cecilia Bulstrode (c.1584-1609), Gentlewoman of the Queen's Bedchamber and kinswoman and friend of Lucy Harington Russell, the Countess of Bedford. Apparently responding to some critique of his person ("Do's the Court-Pucell then so censure me" [1]), Jonson proceeds to label Bulstrode a "Pucell." (1) Not surprisingly, many critics have interpreted the poem as a denunciation of Cecilia as a whore, the word 'pucell' constituting an early modern term for a prostitute. Indeed, A. C. Swinburne in 1889 commented upon the "virulent ferocity" of what he identified as the epigram's "personal attack on a woman." (2) He went on to assert: "no man has said coarser (I had well-nigh written, viler) things against the sex to which these exceptionally honoured patronesses belonged." (3)

This interpretation of Jonson's epigram as a slur on Cecilia Bulstrode's sexual morality seems to have held sway for more than half a century, with C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, the Oxford editors of Jonson, echoing the sentiments given voice to by Swinburne: "Certainly few men in his day, or in any day, have assailed a woman with the foul-mouthed ferocity of his lines to 'The Court Purcell' ... Jonson impatiently flings aside the dignity of just rebuke ... in order to outdo her in ribald abuse." (4) In an essay which considered the place of "Epigram on the Court Pucell" among the other poems contained in Jonson's The Underwood (a collection of his verse published posthumously in 1640), Jongsook Lee in 1989 interrogated the "personal" nature of the poet's attack on Bulstrode as identified by the Oxford editors and Swinburne before them. Lee concluded that: "The charges levelled against Cecilia Bulstrode are too stylized to be taken as personal. In this epigram, she becomes a generic court pucelle, and by that means, an image of the false world." (5) Though, she does go on to concede that Bulstrode nevertheless functions in Jonson's epigram as an "exemplary picture of vice." (6)

Most recently, Robert W. Halli, Jr has decried how "certain incorrect or incomplete readings of Jonson's 'Epigram on the Court Pucell' seem to have become [Bulstrode's] 'dram of evil,' and to have created the appearance of a poisoned character." (7) Rather than establishing her sexual immorality, Halli believes that the poem suggests Bulstrode's "reputation is better than that of the court." (8)

What appears to have characterised commentators' analyses of "Epigram on the Court Pucell" to date, then, is an effort to either prove or disprove the existence of a seventeenth-century cultural belief in Bulstrode's sexual promiscuity. Yet, far from serving as an indicator as to Jonson's understanding of Cecilia Bulstrode's un/chastity, the epigram signals in fact the poet's frustration with the male dependence upon a female courtier that his success at court is in large measure determined by. The poem registers, in other words, Jonson's unease with a patronage-client system that accommodates an apparent inversion of traditional gender codes.

Whilst the aforementioned critics are at pains either to enchain Bulstrode within or to free her from a construction of whore, I am more concerned here to explore the trope of prostitution that can undoubtedly be seen to pervade "Epigram on the Court Pucell" and to establish its cultural function. For, the poem arguably conveys the sense of Bulstrode as a figurative courtesan as a result of the appropriation by Jonson of a cultural vocabulary that is often applied to the commercial prostitute. To this end, Halli is right to argue in his discussion of the epigram that Jonson is not declaring Cecilia to be a literal whore. But nor is the poet praising her. Rather, he is figuratively projecting whoredom onto the person of Bulstrode through engagement with a trope of prostitution. Significantly, this trope is frequently employed by men of the period in order to reassert their male positions of privilege in moments when they perceive a threatening female independence--a female independence that Jonson clearly believes to be exhibited by the women who perform an influential role in the patronage system of the Jacobean court. …

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