Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lady Anne Southwell: "All maried men desire to have good wifes"

Creation of Eve
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday after I had been thoroughly thrashed among the Miltonists for my "blatant misogyny," another Milton scholar posted a wonderful poem by Lady Anne Southwell celebrating Eve, "All maried men desire to have good wifes": good wifes:
but.few.give good thir lives
They are owr head they wodd have us thir heles.
this makes the good wife kick the good man reles.
When god brought Eve to Adam for a bride
the text sayes she was taene from out mans side
A.simbole of that side, whose sacred bloud.
flowed for his spowse, the Churches savinge good.
This is a.misterie, perhaps too deepe.
for blockish Adam that was falen a sleepe
I have this from the Milton scholar's post but also from page 62 of Early Modern Women's Manuscript Poetry (Manchester University Press, 2005), edited by Jill Seal Millman and Gillian Wright, which remarks on the odd punctuation but doesn't explain it, and I can't either. But I can, perhaps, modernize the poem for most people's comprehension:
All married men desire to have good wives,
but few give good example by their lives.
They are our head; they would have us their heels.
This makes the good wife kick, the good man reels.
When God brought Eve to Adam for a bride,
the text says she was taken from out man's side,
a symbol of that side, whose sacred blood
flowed for his spouse, the church's saving good.
This is a mystery, perhaps too deep,
for blockish Adam that was fallen asleep.
I encountered a bit of difficulty with the word "reles," which had me stuck between "releases" and "reels," but I found the answer on page 120 of Erica Longfellow's Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), which also quotes the entire poem (so I suppose that I also have the poem from that book).

The poem is a very clever use of scriptural passages, reminding men who would employ St. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:3, "the head of every woman [is] the man," that Paul also says, in Ephesians 5:25, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it," thereby suggesting, by means of Southwell's implicit Pauline prooftexting, that being the head entails sacrificial responsibilities, which Southwell complexly alludes to in her symbolic cross-references to Genesis 2:21-24 ("taene from out mans side") and John 19:34 ("that side, whose sacred blood flowed"), showing that the husband is not to dominate the wife by treating her as his heel but is to love her even unto death, for if he is her Christ, she is Christ's blood.

And if the husband doesn't understand this, Southwell implies, then he's not the head but a mere blockhead.

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At 3:10 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, I'm certain I would have spent an hour or more trying to decipher this poem. Your explanation makes perfect sense to me.

At 6:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for bringing me to a re-reading of this poem.

Jeffery Hodges

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