"A Scarce Seen Thing She Glides":Blackness and Miscegenation in Eldred Revett's Poems
Given increased English participation in both colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, mid-seventeenth century writers renegotiated ideologies of race and color, giving rise to a poetic genre thematizing miscegenous desire. In this paper, I read "One Enamour'd on a Black-Moor," "The Fair Nymph Scorning a Black Boy Courting Her," and "The Inversion" from Eldred Revett's Poems, which oscillate between naturalizing and rejecting interracial sex. I thus demonstrate Revett's ambivalent intervention into generic and cultural discourses about the significations of blackness, fairness, and miscegenation. Revett's poetry, while seen as conventional and minor, is thus not only tropologically and generically, but also culturally and politically, significant, demonstrating tensions among mid-seventeenth century (proto)racial ideologies.
To adapt a Foucauldian phrase, race is for early modernists a thoroughly confused category.1 A discussion of race in the English Renaissance requires that we navigate the Scylla of anachronism and the Charybdis of continuism, recognizing not only the important differences between early modern and modern concepts of race, but also the ways in which early modern developments resemble and contribute to modern racial ideologies, all without positing modern racialism as either inevitable or static. Part of this difficulty is terminological, as the term race itself does not come into the English language until the early sixteenth century, and even then, it rarely refers to what we would today call racial groups.2 Instead, race more commonly denotes lineage, religion, or class. While there is an obvious, if not necessarily biological, hereditary quality to these categories, they are not indexed primarily by color. This is not to say that skin color is entirely irrelevant in these conceptualizations—people of lower socioeconomic status and Jews, for example, are both frequently depicted as dark or even black.3 This blackness too has a difficult signification for modern critics to parse; its meanings range from dark-haired and dark-eyed, to suntanned, to spiritually corrupt. Perhaps the most common valence of the color in the period, though, is religious. English early moderns were heirs to a long Christian tradition that used the terminology of blackness to signify various forms of impurity. According to Winthrop P. Jordan, "Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion."4 There was (and remains) a further "traditional association of blackness in conventional Christian symbolism with death and mourning, sin and evil."5 These critical understandings of blackness in the domain of religion carry over into aesthetics, where whiteness is frequently posited as the ideal and blackness its antithesis, or, at best, its foil. Blackness is often negatively compared to fairness in early modern discourses of beauty; the emphatically fair complexions of most Petrarchan-style mistresses have been often noticed (see T, 9).6 Kim F. Hall suggests that the negative qualities associated with blackness in both Christian [End Page 55] and aesthetic contexts metonymically migrate to English perceptions of African people once they are described as black-skinned:
The culture recognized the possibilities of this language [of blackness] for the representation and categorization of perceived physical differences. Thus traditional terms of aesthetic discrimination and Christian dogma become infused with ideas of Africa and African servitude, making it impossible to separate "racial" signifiers of blackness from traditional iconography.(T, 4)
Hall's influential account self-consciously conflates negritude, sin, and ugliness in the early modern period, suggesting that there was an easy assimilation of the earlier negative associations of darkness to African people in the Renaissance imaginary. Blackness was, Hall suggests, an already overdetermined signifier even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
However, while it is certainly true that there were a number of negative stereotypes associated with Africans in the period, derived from these preexisting discourses as well as from the burgeoning marketplace of colonial and proto-colonial travel literature, this hegemonic account is somewhat reductive. This is not to dismiss Hall's valuable, indeed seminal, work on early modern race, nor to suggest that color prejudice did not exist or have any effect on the lives of people of color. Instead, it is to complicate the idea that blackness had an invariably negative valence in early modern England. Mary Floyd-Wilson's discussion of English geohumoralism, for example, demonstrates the ways in which Africans could be associated not with bestial lusts, intemperance, and violence, but rather with wisdom and physical weakness.7 Early modern geohumoralism, or the idea that one's humoral and thus temperamental and physical complexion was inextricably related to the temperature and humidity of one's physical environment, was primarily derived from Greek and Roman sources. The authors of these classical texts "had viewed Ethiopians as wise and extremely pious … and this perspective had lingered on in the abiding cultural belief that the African climate had given rise to their favored status."8 While blackness did indeed signify sin and evil for many Christians, Floyd-Wilson's account makes it clear that this did not inevitably carry over to a negative valuation of their skin color. The overabundance of black bile believed to characterize dark skin was said to engender a melancholic disposition, and thus Africans' "favored status." Rather than forming a coherent racial ideology, these [End Page 56] discourses, with their radically different understandings of blackness, coexisted uncomfortably.
Nor was it the case that blackness was always seen as aesthetically inferior to fairness; one demonstration of this can be found in a small, short-lived subgenre of lyric that celebrated black beauty and miscegenous desire. Poets working in the genre (including Eldred Revett, John Collop, John Cleveland, Henry King, Henry Rainolds, Walton Poole, Abraham Wright, and George and Edward Herbert) take cues from the Song of Songs, that ur-text of black beauty, and praise black women in order to demonstrate the aesthetic superiority of blackness to fairness, and/or to express miscegenous desire. Dating from the mid-seventeenth century, these poems often employ generic conventions of English Petrarchism that were by that point exhausted clichés, such as the pain of unrequited love, burning and freezing, emphasis on color, and extended blazon. These poems depart from Petrarchism, however, in meaningful ways. Lyrics celebrating black beauty, and many of the poems more explicitly expressing miscegenous desire, enact a transvaluation of darkness and fairness; against convention, the beloved is dark, rather than fair, and this darkness is a significant part of her allure. While some of the poems that more overtly thematize miscegenation are less appreciative of blackness as an idealized aesthetic construct, they are not wholly satirical, straddling the line between epideixis and mock encomium in innovative ways. Indeed, the satire in this poetry often redounds upon the figure rejecting miscegenation, inadvertently showing the speciousness of their argumentation. Furthermore, these miscegenous poems, while heterosexual in their pairings, are indiscriminate in the color and gender of the lover and the beloved; that is, black boys court white nymphs and white nymphs black boys; black maids court white youths and white youths black maids. These poems revise the fundamental situation of Petrarchism—unrequited love—so as to represent miscegenous desire. However, as I shall show, while the poems' speakers often seem to endorse miscegenation whole-heartedly, the poetry's unstable imagery demonstrates profound ambivalence toward interracial desire; the incoherencies in these poems, then, reflect the incoherencies of racial discourse in the period more generally.
The black-white miscegenation we see in these poems (as well as in more familiar texts such as Othello  and Titus Andronicus ) was not entirely fictional; there was a significant, if small, black population in England, which Imtiaz Habib estimates at roughly .12% of the total population by 1600.9 Because of the black presence in London, [End Page 57] shown by the 448 official English records he examines referring to black people between 1500 and 1677, Habib contends that "[black people] cannot be anything less than a regular presence in the material landscape and cultural consciousness of the period."10 Furthermore, Habib locates at least five references to interracial marriages in church documents in last quarter of the sixteenth century, between both black men and white women, and white men and black women.11 Even as the official documents he cites can lend us little direct insight into how such marriages were perceived, I would suggest that the lack of further references to these unions in surviving official or unofficial documents suggests that miscegenation, at least in these instances, was not broadly seen as challenging the dominant social structure or even worth significant comment.
The consolidation of the Atlantic slave trade, however, engenders a sea change in early moderns' understandings of race and miscegenation around the end of the sixteenth century. With the rise of English involvement in chattel slavery and colonialism, it becomes necessary to physically and discursively create boundaries between black and white.12 As Ania Loomba points out, "as English contact with sub-Saharan Africa increased and the slave trade proliferated, the associations of blackness and depravity became more widespread and intense."13 Emily Weissbourd notes that Queen Elizabeth I's famed Edicts of Expulsion (dated between 1596 and 1601) already "represent blacks as a uniquely commodifiable subset of the population."14 Miscegenation too becomes a hot-button issue; as Hall demonstrates, there is an uptick in literary representations of intermarriage toward the end of the sixteenth century that coincides with "growing concerns over English national identity and culture as England develops political and economic ties with foreign (and 'racially different') nations."15 By 1645, the newsbook The Moderate Intelligencer contains op-eds expressing discomfort at miscegenation, and particularly at black men who "make sport with our English women and maids."16 Given these changing sociopolitical and economic circumstances, public perception of interracial desire becomes fraught with anxiety. The gradual shift from a more fluid understanding of racial difference, where racial designations were often relative and situational, to the (relatively) more rigid racialist classifications of the modern period, however, did not happen at once. Rather, the incoherencies and inconsistencies among competing discourses of race persisted for nearly the entire seventeenth century.17 Borrowing the language of Raymond Williams, Sujata Iyengar argues that "We can by all means point out the existence [End Page 58] of, and the preconditions for, racialism and color prejudice, but we should also acknowledge the competing structures of feeling that battle it, reinforce it, and (in the Renaissance) are ultimately quashed by it."18 Early modern structures of racial feeling, then, are mutable, diverse, and often mutually contradictory, uncomfortably coexisting as the perceived need for a coherent racial ideology that positions Europeans as the superior group becomes increasingly pressing in the mid-seventeenth century and beyond.
This tension between competing discourses is enacted beautifully in the lyrics of black beauty mentioned above, which represent a "site for crucial negotiations of sexual politics and cultural and racial difference," but despite these lyrics' fascinating implications for discussions of skin color as well as interracial relationships in early modern England, they have received almost no critical attention (T, 116). When they are discussed, they are typically ancillary to a study of a more canonical text, such as Shakespeare's Sonnets (as in the work of Marvin Hunt and Iyengar) or the Song of Songs (again Iyengar as well as Hall).19 Somewhat unusually, Heather Dubrow examines Collop's "yellow" beauty poems at length and mentions various black beauty poems in passing; even as she is justified in situating these works in the context of the ugly beauty tradition, however, her interest lies not in the racial implications of the lyrics, but in their participation in this larger counter-Petrarchan trend.20 While these poems of blackness are certainly relevant to such critical projects, then, they have received little attention for their own sake.
It thus seems to me that we are long overdue for a critical study of these curious poems, operating as they do at the juncture of multiple social and poetic discourses, including emergent concerns about skin color; anxieties about miscegenation; and exploration of epideictic and Petrarchan poetry and their satirical cousins, the mock encomium and anti-Petrarchan verse. In this article, I will be unable to do justice to the richness and diversity of this nexus of overlapping generic and social concerns, but hope to gesture toward the importance of these poems that have historically been dismissed as conventional works by minor poets, thus meriting little serious scholarly attention. In this paper, I will examine at length three poems from Revett's 1657 volume Poems. Very little is known about Revett's life, social circle, or political inclinations, and his poetry has been largely forgotten—in the acknowledgements to his edition, Donald Friedman characterizes his research on Revett as "long and relatively fruitless," and little more has come to light in the seventy-five years since the book's publication.21 [End Page 59] Friedman himself had a less-than-charitable view of both Revett and his poetry: according to Friedman, "No claim can be made for the distinction of Revett's poetry, with the possible exception of a few odd lines and some interestingly turned conceits; but … his work offers some insight into the ways in which the creations of greater artists were understood and admired."22 Friedman inadvertently adumbrates the ways in which poems of blackness are generally viewed not as poetic works in their own right, but as offering "insight" into the work of "greater artists." Even as he admits that Revett's poetry of blackness "suggests imaginative possibilities," Friedman is adamant that "[t]his is not to say that Revett's poem ["One Enamour'd on a Black-Moor"] displays any … philosophic or literary sophistication."23 Revett's poems are indeed in many ways conventional—in fact, one of the lyrics I discuss below, though printed in Revett's volume, is a variant of a Cleveland poem, although questions of poetic originality and influence are more complicated in the Renaissance than today. Despite their conventionality, however, I argue that in these skillful lyrics, Revett engages questions of the materiality of blackness, the instability of skin color as a signifier, and the anxieties produced by miscegenation.24 This poetry vacillates between figuring blackness as a deeply material and an utterly ephemeral phenomenon; between perceiving skin color as a fixed indicator of one's inner condition and as a mask for that condition; and between understanding interracial relationships as an acceptable, even joyous erotic mode and as threatening to the fabric of society. This instability could certainly be seen as evidence that Revett and poets engaged in questions of miscegenation were merely indulging in a form of imaginative exercise, a literary toy, and perhaps it is so. Regardless of these poets' unrecoverable intentions, their texts not only are fascinating in their generic ambivalence, but also significantly participate in the ongoing negotiation of the changing valences of blackness and skin color in the early modern period.
In her brief discussion of these poems, Hall suggests that most rely on a closed circuit of tropes that "give a certain concreteness to blackness" (T, 119), although others "revel in the mystery of blackness" (T, 120). However, Hall's schematic formulation does not account for the complex, ambiguous oscillation between understandings of blackness as material and blackness as intangible that Revett's poems enact. This ambivalence is best demonstrated in his most imagistically original [End Page 60] poem of blackness, "One Enamour'd on a Black-Moor." Through its complex imagery and flirtation with English Petrarchism, "Black-Moor" demonstrates nicely the tension between physicality and immateriality characteristic of these poems. At the beginning of the poem, the black woman with whom the (ostensibly) fair speaker is enamored is represented as a barely perceptible "dark shade."25 We might see in this a barefaced demonstration of the ways in which the poetic mistress is dependent upon the poet, or, rather, the poem, to achieve the appearance of corporeality, revealing the machinery upon which much erotic poetry lies—before she is written into being, the mistress is nothing more than a hazy outline. The poem's engagement with Petrarchism is also clear from the opening lines, when the speaker complains of his suffering in love: "What a strange love doth me invade, / Whose fires must cool in that dark shade!" ("B," 1–2). These lines are characterized by the familiar image of a martial love that "invade[s]" the heart of the speaker, causing him to burn with desire. Unlike the conventional speaker of a sonnet sequence, however, who, "wishing to bask in the light of his beloved, writes poetic favor as exposure to the sun/mistress" (T, 102), Revett's speaker faces a different dilemma: his beloved is a "dark shade." The lady's umbra offers him a chance to "cool" the fires of love, but, as a coolant, this darkness has the potential to quell their flames altogether. This witty opening exposes the paradox of desire: to attain desire is to extinguish it. While the typical sonnet mistress often remains an imaginary presence whose absence is enabling to the poet-speaker's generation of verse, the dangers of proximity for the lover are in Revett's poem less obliquely articulated. As we continue in these opening lines, however, it becomes clear that, even as she is present, the mistress is barely tangible; while "shade" has the meaning of darkness, it also suggests an unsubstantial or unreal body, difficult if not impossible to see and touch. The speaker articulates the challenges of perceiving the black woman when he first asks, "How did my passion find her out, / That is with Curtains drawn about?" ("B," 7–8). While the difficulty of seeing the woman is acknowledged, the lover's penetrating gaze is nevertheless able to overcome and pierce through the "Curtain" of her darkness. The speaker's ocular powers are reconfirmed when he adds, "A scarce seen thing she glides, were gon / If touch'd, an Apparition" ("B," 13–14). The lady may be a "scarce seen thing" that dissipates upon contact, but despite this ephemeral quality, the poet-speaker has the power to fix her within his (male, European) gaze. [End Page 61]
Even given these intimations of his visual potency, in the early stages of the poem the speaker repeatedly owns to the difficulties of accurately describing the beloved in her intangibility. He particularly points to the limitations of contemporary poetic language:
No feature here we can defineBy this, or that illustrious line,Such curiosity is notFound in an un-distinguisht blot.This beauty puts us from the partWe have all tamely got by hart,Of Roses here there Lilies grow,Of Saphire, Corall, Hills of snow:These Rivulets are all ingrostAnd all in on Black Ocean lost.("B," 17–26)
The speaker claims he cannot "define" any of her features by an "illustrious line," which suggests both the difficulty of fitting her beauty into a regular pattern or established poetic unit and her lack of brightness—she is not "illustrious," that is, she possesses no luster. The lady's beauty disrupts what were by Revett's time well-worn clichés of roses and lilies in the face, sapphire eyes, coral lips, and snowy breasts. These tropological features are all lost in the "Black Ocean" of the lady, whose beauty is so remarkable and difficult to describe that, unlike the majority of poets writing erotic verse in either a Petrarchan or an anti-Petrarchan vein, Revett does not at this point enumerate her features but simply leaves her a single, awesome, black mass. In these initial lines, then, the beloved is immaterial, nearly intangible, fluid, and all but impossible to put into words.
Perhaps predictably, however, this posture of poetic impotence does not last long and the speaker soon asserts his discursive control over the black beloved's body by explicitly sexualizing it, saying:
The treasures lock't up we would getWithin the Ebon Cabinet,And he that Ravishes must pickOpen the quaint Italian Trick.("B," 27–30)26
The figuration of the woman's genitals as "the Ebon Cabinet" seems to me consonant with the architectural tropes often used to describe sonnet mistresses—Stella's porch cheeks and door mouth come to mind. Unlike those of the Petrarchan lady, however, this woman's "treasures" [End Page 62] are primarily internal, rather than located on her face. This tendency to obscenity aligns the poem with anti- or counter-Petrarchan poetry; given the earlier, more straightforwardly Petrarchan mode of the piece, however, I would underscore the difficulty and perhaps undesirability of attempting to establish a definitive genre for this tricky poem—to do so would almost certainly be to simplify the poem's innovative features. Continuing for the moment in this anti-Petrarchan vein, the speaker must "pick" the lock of the beloved's "quaint," lock-picking a common figuration for sexual encounters and rape in the period; the erotic overtones are highlighted by the more straightforwardly sexual term "Ravishes" as well.27 This evocation of "quaint" retroactively problematizes the seemingly nonphysical quality of the "scarce seen thing" in line 13, lending the "thing" a potentially obscene cast. This sexualized language helps to emphasize the image's colonialist overtones; the speaker's plunder and ravishment of the woman's interior in order to access the "treasures lock't up" refigure the conquest of the Americas in erotic terms (a nearly ubiquitous formulation in the period) and prefigure later European incursions into the interior of the African continent (see T, 79).28 This eroticism thus becomes characterized by violence, inequality, and force, even as it maintains a superficially light tone.
Not content with imagining access to the pleasures and treasures of the "Ebon Cabinet," the speaker fantasizes about the potential fruit of the miscegenous union, albeit in ambivalent terms. The lover desires to "get" the "treasures lock't up" in the lines cited above; while "get" seems most clearly here to signify "obtain," the word contains an echo of begetting as well. Both positive (the potential child is figured as "treasures") and negative (this entire stanza describes a violent and appropriative form of eroticism), the begotten treasure is a peculiarly ambiguous image. This interest in procreation is rendered more explicitly in later lines:
Ixion's sometime armfull mightSwell with, perhaps, a fleece more bright,But she as soft might be allow'd,The goddesse's deputed cloud,Though sure from our distinct embrace,Centaurs had been a dapple Race.("B," 39–44)
The speaker here retells the tale of Ixion, a guest of Zeus who violates the terms of hospitality by falling in love with Hera. In retaliation for [End Page 63] this transgression, Zeus creates a shade bearing Hera's appearance, called Nephele. Ixion and Nephele have sex, producing the deformed Centauros, who then goes to earth and mates with a mare, creating the first centaurs.29 In this metaphor, the speaker is Ixion—hardly a flattering self-designation, and one that emphasizes the potential inappropriateness of the love object—and the beloved Nephele the shade. Not only does this suggest the love object's created status (here by Zeus, a male deity), but it also returns the beloved briefly to the state of incorporeality that characterized her in the earlier parts of the poem. However, she remains physicalized to the extent that the speaker here imagines the children their union would produce, the language of "swell[ing]" reminding us of the external physical manifestations of pregnancy. Rather than creating Centauros, however, the speaker elides a generation in the myth, suggesting that they engender centaurs themselves. Centaurs are hybrid creatures, made of an uncomfortable conjunction of two species, the metaphor thus adumbrating later racialist claims of species difference between Europeans and Africans. At some level, then, the children of this union are conceived of as monsters, aberrations of nature. The speaker attempts to downplay the interspecial connotations of the metaphor, suggesting that the centaurs' most remarkable feature is that they will be a "dapple Race." That is, his emphasis is on the phenotypical variation of dappling, rather than the intermixture of horse and human brought on by a sexual transgression. This attempt to shift attention away from the monstrous implications of the union, however, while perhaps commendable, serves to emphasize another form of incompatibility. As dappled, or spotted creatures, not only are the centaurs unresolvable conjunctions of horse and human, but their coats too are spotted, rather than blended, their patchy bodies reinforcing their discordant speciation. The awkwardness of this metaphor ultimately problematizes Hunt's claim that "interracial eroticism is unabashedly celebrated" in this poem.30 If such eroticism is celebrated, this metaphor registers a note of unease.
Perhaps because this potential monstrosity is so unsettling, the speaker backs off from the fantasy and settles into a more comfortable one that places him briefly into the role of the artistic master, in control of his creation:
Thou pretious Night-piece that art made,More valuable in thy shade.From which when the weak tribe depart,The skillful Master hugs his art.Thou dost not to our dear surprise [End Page 64] Thine own white marble statue rise;And yet no more a price dost lack,Clean built up of the polish't black.Thou like no Pelops hast supplyOf an one joint by Ivory.But art miraculously set,Together totally with Jet.("B," 45–56)
A commodified "Night-piece that art made," the beloved is explicitly rendered as an objet d'art. Rather than the unsettling Ixion, the poet here attempts to represent himself as the "skillful Master" who "hugs his art"—a Pygmalion figure, in love with the singular statue that was "miraculously" made; the poet's beautification of her unsightly color emphasizes his skill.31 There is however a suggestive ambiguity in the word "art"; in two of the three uses of the word, lines 45 and 55, "art" can function as either a verb or a noun. If a helping verb, the speaker and artist remains in control of his creation (and his poem); the beloved is cast into a passive position—"[t]hou … art made [by me]." Conversely, if "art" is read as a noun, the creative agency is taken out of the hands of the speaker, as if to say: art made thee. Even as the beloved remains passive in this reading, the second possibility problematizes potential claims of the speaker's power such as has often been made for lovers in erotic verse generally.32 Art, not the poet, retains creative control.
While the earlier sections of the poem tend to equivocate between the material and the immaterial, the later sections attempt to consolidate the beloved's status as a sexualized, commodified art object, thereby emphasizing the poem's latent colonial overtones. In the lines cited above, the beloved is valued not for her beauty, but for her costliness, picking up on the image of "treasures" in line 27 as well as the colonialist language and impulses subtending the lyric more generally; the woman is an expensive prize the speaker wishes to control. She is "valuable" ("B," 46) and of a "price" ("B," 51) no less than the white statue, which implicitly commodifies all women while simultaneously establishing a color difference among them. Despite the increasing physicality of the metaphors, the speaker finds it difficult to fully dispense with her immateriality until the close of the poem. In these lines we have again this curious mixture of material and immaterial; the beloved is a very solid statue of jet and yet is "valuable in [her] shade," that is, for her color and her insubstantiality. However, the speaker then shifts into an obscene blazon, making a final attempt to fix [End Page 65] the woman's material form in ways suggestive of colonial domination. The woman's breasts are first associated with the "rich countries of the East" ("B," 68). Unlike the breasts of white women, whose veins show through as "Raw streaks of blew" ("B," 70), color untethered from any material reference, this woman's darker breasts display "very Violets of Veins" ("B," 72), the alliteration drawing attention to the materiality of the words themselves—characterizing her veins as "more-lived stains" ("B," 71), the speaker connects the black woman's blood to "Violets," a fixed material referent. Their purple hue is suggestive of riches, royalty, and exoticism, but these are not for her use; the "rich countries of the East" await the speaker's plunder. Picking up on the potential obscenity of "rich countries" to describe the woman's breasts, the speaker's attention then travels to her genitals, or, in his words, "that spicy Nest, / That the last Phoenix scorch'd, and blest" ("B," 75–76). Spices and the phoenix associate this image again with a particularly commodified version of the "rich countries of the East," as spices held great value as trading goods. While the beloved is connected to the mythical phoenix, this too has an ambivalent signification; it "scorch'd" her genitals, perhaps an allusion to the heliotropic theory of blackness (even as it had been largely discredited by the writing of this poem), or the positioning of blackness as an anterior, cosmetic alteration to originary whiteness, another contemporary theory of color.33 Blackness is here artificial, "scorch'd" by the phoenix, this language of burning suggesting violence to the body.
The lady's ultimate conversion into artpiece is solidified in these final lines:
What fall's from her is rather madeHer own (just) picture, than her shade:And where she walks the Sun doth holdHer pourtrai'd in a frame of gold.("B," 77–80)
The speaker suggests that her shadow itself is art, calling it "her own (just) picture." The beloved, however, is not the artist, and the creation seems largely accidental, as it is simply what "fall's" off her body, which is by now resolutely material—not only is she not a shade, but her very shadow is given a physicalized form. Even as she continues to move, she is constrained by the sun, which frames her in gold as she walks, an image of stasis in motion that converts her into a permanent, material object of the gaze. Once again, however, I would not wish to insist on the poet's power without qualification; while the beloved [End Page 66] is contained and converted into an art object, the speaker has little to do with this conversion—the power lies with the sun and her own movement, not his skill, just as the potential agency of "art" in lines 45 and 55 call into question the poet's artistic potency. Even as this poem moves from representing the beloved as unstable and immaterial to fixing her as an art object, then, the closing lines are unable to place her fully under the power of the poet's pen.
"Black-Moor" is Revett's most original poem of black beauty, at least as it pertains to his use of imagery; the three nymph poems in his volume ("The Fair Nymph Scorning a Black Boy Courting Her," "The Inversion," and "A Black Nymph Scorning a Fair Boy Courting Her") are more tropologically and imagistically conventional. This conventionality is highlighted by the further problematic of authorship that arises in these texts: "The Fair Nymph" appears to be an (unattributed) reprint of Cleveland's poem of the same name, which was published in 1647; Revett's other two nymph poems are clearly responses to this text.34 Revett makes some minor changes to Cleveland's text; most significantly, lines 13–18 and 19–24 are transposed. Given the complex natures of influence and originality in early modern lyric poetry, Revett's clear and extended engagement with both the thematic content and poetics of miscegenation far beyond any of his contemporaries, and his inclusion of this text in his volume, I will in this article advisedly treat it as a Revett poem. Even if this ascription is not granted, however, the presence of the text in the volume necessarily causes it to interact with and modulate our understanding of Revett's other pieces, and bears consideration as a significant part of the matrix out of which his poetry emerges.35 What becomes clear from this authorship entanglement is the popularity and even conventional nature of this topos, despite its relative lack of scholarly attention. Hall notes the ways in which this series of later poems of black beauty are surfeited with generic representations of blackness: "The general ethos [of later poems of blackness] seems to be not to find the words to explain or convey darkness but to play out (and exhaust) the traditional language of blackness. Every traditional association with darkness appears in these poems, often in the same poem" (T, 119).36 Hall's observation that many poems of blackness represent darkness in a series of rapidly shifting yet conventional metaphors applies to these nymph poems, which continually reiterate the blackness of either the nymph (in "The [End Page 67] Inversion" and "A Black Nymph") or the boy (in "The Fair Nymph") in metaphorical terms, employing images of smoke, night, and ink ad nauseam. Even as Revett's poems make use of these standard tropes, however, I would suggest that the representations of blackness and the concomitant miscegenation implied by poetry of interracial seduction are more complicated than this conventionality might signify. Even more than in "Black-Moor," the materiality and significances of both black skin and interracial sex in the nymph poems are polyvalent and complex in their rapid shifts in signification and valuation, unable to be reduced to a simple thesis about the ways in which these poems represent color.
The simplest and shortest of these nymph poems, "A Black Nymph," has a figural consistency unusual for Revett's poems of blackness; however, against Hall's suggestion that this tropological concatenation has the effect of "giv[ing] a certain concreteness to blackness" (T, 119), the conventional language here of "shadow," "shade," "cloud," and "smoke" suggests immateriality, not physicality.37 Indeed, unlike the "Black-Moor" with whom the speaker of the poem discussed earlier is "Enamour'd," the black nymph in this poem is characterized by ephemerality throughout the entire lyric, finally dissolving into a puff of smoke: "See! From thy slight embraces broke / Secure I vanish in my smoke."38 In this poem, whose images are much more consistent than the others I consider here, the black nymph is never materialized, finally dissolving into smoke in such a way that solves the problem of the consequences of a miscegenous relationship by obviation. The nymph's utter insubstantiality and ultimate disappearance insulates the speaker against the potentially problematic material outcome of their conjunction.
The other two nymph poems, however, complicate this relatively straightforward solution. In "The Fair Nymph," the black boy is almost immediately compared to smoke, the imperious nymph ordering: "Stand off, and let me take the Aire, / Why should the smoke pursue the faire."39 As in "Black-Moor," the black figure is initially associated with the immateriality of smoke, which perhaps carries along with it the implication of dirtiness and contamination. The boy, while accepting his smokiness, shifts the metaphor into one familiar from Petrarchan love poetry: "My face is smoke, thence may be guest / What flames within have scorch'd my breast" ("F," 3–4). In the spelling of "guest" for "guessed," we might see a bid for hospitality; the boy asks to "be guest" to the nymph. More to my point, however, the boy's black face is taken as an external symbol of his lovesickness. Like the "Indians, [End Page 68] scorched with the sunne" of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus or Astrophil's "sun-burnt brain," the boy's charred state is reflective of both the travails of love and his devotion to the fair nymph.40 Interestingly, this question of reading the boy's complexion plays into debates surrounding the valuation of blackness in the period; a common concern about black skin was that it did not show blushing.41 If one cannot blush, one might be able to dissemble innocence, creating a gap between external appearance and internal state. At the same time, there was a strident anti-cosmetic discourse that implicitly or explicitly praised blackness because of a distrust of female beautifying practices that could falsify external, and, thus internal, whiteness.42 If whiteness cannot be trusted to be real, perhaps it is blackness that has the capacity to most accurately externalize a subject's interiority. Obliquely intervening in these debates, the black boy here argues that his dark skin reflects the truth of his internal state, even as this claim is repeatedly undercut by the poem's conclusion.
While the nymph scorns his plea, her rejection of the black boy here is somewhat ambivalent: "The flames of love I cannot view, / For the dark Lanthorn of thy hew" ("F," 5–6). "Lanthorn," a variant of lantern, suggests the boy's capacity for illumination. This would seem to imply that, although the boy is dark, there must be a way for light to escape; even as the nymph attempts to reject the boy as being wholly different, then, her language suggests the potential usefulness of the conjunction of dark and light. The boy, however, does not pick up on this possibility and instead shifts the metaphor, saying "Whatever mid-night hath been here / The Moon-shine of your light can clear" ("F," 9–10). Rather than a lantern, which should allow the emission of light, the boy now accepts his total darkness insofar as it allows him to make the argument that the nymph's "Moon-shine" can brighten him. It is possible that he does so in an attempt to retain gender normativity; had he continued in the metaphor and claimed that the nymph's candle could brighten his lanthorn, he would be suggesting that the nymph penetrate and emit her substance inside of him. If we further read this (admittedly hypothetical) image as a figure for heterosexual intercourse, this would represent a rather nonnormative gender configuration—one seemingly more threatening than miscegenation. This metaphoric shift, however, proves ineffective, as the nymph takes the new argument and transforms it into a discussion of the danger of miscegenation: "My moon of an Eclipse is 'frayde, / If you should interpose your shade" ("F," 11–12). Again, though, the intended meaning of the language, that their union would have a negative outcome, is undercut by its [End Page 69] metaphoric figuration. While eclipses have often been read as bad omens, they are the natural consequence of the particular orbits of the sun and moon. That is, the language the nymph uses to reject the union simultaneously estranges and naturalizes it.
The nymph's strategy in this poem is to continually shift metaphors, whether to build her case or to prevent the boy from rejecting the faulty logic her images employ. Deemphasizing the perceived ontological dangers of the union, the nymph next suggests that the relationship would become an indecent spectacle:
Thy ink, my paper make me guess,Our Nuptial bed would make a press;And in our sports if any came,They'd read a wanton Epigram.("F," 15–18)
This complex image works on several levels. First, as Wendy Wall demonstrates, to "be pressed" was a slang term for the woman's role in heterosexual vaginal intercourse that had important implications for print: "the page is encoded as feminine while the machinery of the press, the writer, and the ink are depicted as masculine" as they "press" the page.43 Revett (and Cleveland) here reinforces a normative gender dynamic through the language of print, perhaps reassuring in a poem whose imagery is so unstable. More interesting to me at present, however, is the assumption that this sexual act is a titillating public spectacle open for viewing, one that will result in a "wanton Epigram." This is, I suggest, not only a reference to the poem's appearance in print, but also an anticipation of the possible end result of the union, a child. Literary works were not infrequently described as the faulty, blemished children of their authors. It thus seems reasonable to reverse the terms, so this "wanton Epigram" will be lasting proof of this act of miscegenation, a shameful black and white ("dapple") receipt of a lustful encounter.44
After this firm rejection, it is unsurprising that the boy again changes his tack, but his imagistic shift destabilizes the signification of blackness that he has attempted to establish throughout the piece: "Yet one thing sweet-heart let me aske, / Buy me for a new-false-mask" ("F," 19–20). While he had earlier claimed that his appearance reflected his lovelorn state—that is, his exterior was an accurate reflection of his interior—the boy now offers himself as a "new-false-mask," suggestive of both deceit and concealment. The boy's skin, once paradoxically transparent in its reflection of interiority, is now opaque and dissembling. Thus, [End Page 70] even as the nymph recalls the proverbial unchanging Ethiopian when she says "Tears can no more affection win / Than wash thy Aethipoian skin," the meaning of the boy's blackness is, unlike the Ethiop's color in the biblical account, radically unstable throughout the poem ("F," 29–30). Rather than take advantage of the nymph's faulty logic, the boy destabilizes the import of his own blackness, and, disturbingly, commodifies himself with his request that the nymph "[b]uy" him. In doing so, the poem reflects both the changing significations of black skin in the mid-seventeenth century and an ultimate discomfort with a clear endorsement of miscegenation.
The poem's companion piece, "The Inversion," further develops this instability of blackness. Here, a black nymph scorns a white boy, but despite the color inversion of the poem's characters, the signification of skin color remains largely unstable. Whereas in "The Fair Nymph," the boy's dark skin is initially viewed as a reflection of his interiority, the fair boy here claims the same for his light skin: "My face is light, thence may be guest / The truth of my transparent breast."45 The nymph attempts to deny this by claiming inability to visually comprehend whiteness: "The truth of Love I cannot view / For the full lustre of thy hew," conversely suggesting that the suitor's brightness occludes his interiority ("I," 5–6). The nymph here claims that whiteness is to her unreadable, perhaps emphasizing her perception of the insurmountable distance between her blackness and the boy's whiteness.
The boy, however, gets the last word on the topic of lucence, although his argument seems to accidentally reinforce the nymph's suggestion of incompatibility:
The lustre's sooner pervious madeThen your impenitrable shade;What-ever Noon, my day doth trim,Your thick how-ever Mist may dim.("I," 7–10)
Here, blackness is "impenitrable" (perhaps foreshadowing the boy's lack of seductive success) and lightness permeable, even as the meanings of "shade" as apparition or shadow trouble an easy distinction between the material and the immaterial, the permeable and the impenetrable. The fair boy's "pervious" and transparent "Noon" here is linked to the fair nymph's moonlight in the companion poem—the images have changed, but the implications have not. There is a suggestion that the "impenitrable shade" of blackness could eventually be "pervious made," but with rather more difficulty than penetrating the "lustre." Moreover, [End Page 71] there is a hint of danger in this characterization: the nymph's "thick how-ever Mist may dim" the boy's light, suggesting the threatening power of blackness and the inadvisability of their relationship.
Despite this initial claim of transparence, once again this ascription of lucidity to whiteness is problematized later in the poem by the boy's parallel request to become the nymph's "new-false mirror" ("I," 20).46 Reflective rather than transparent, the fair boy's surface moves from the clear and lucid to the explicitly deceptive and opaque. The fair boy is further associated with what had been established as the markers of dark skin in "Fair Nymph" at the end of the poem when the black nymph says, "Teares can no more affection win / Then over-cast thy Angell skin," lines similar to those describing the black boy in the companion piece ("I," 29–30). It is true that this might be read as a comforting English fantasy about the undiluted and undilutable quality of whiteness, and indeed, the parallel association with angels rather than Ethiopians lends some credence to this interpretation. Furthermore, tears cannot "over-cast" the fair boy's skin—they cannot darken it; conversely, they cannot "wash" the black boy's skin—they cannot cleanse it. These different valuations are important, as they suggest a desire for both a fixity and a hierarchy of skin color. However, the degree of parallel between the two descriptions, as well as the continued destabilization of the signification of both black and white skin throughout the poems, makes such a straightforward reading difficult to convincingly sustain.
Just as it participates in "The Fair Nymph"'s project of the vexing of stable categories of color difference, "The Inversion" too re-envisions the results of the miscegenous union, although here, they are cataclysmic rather than merely "wanton"; the dark nymph says
Thy light my darkness make me fearOur bed a Chaos would appearAnd in our sports did any pass,They'd see the indigested Mass.("I," 15–18)
This union could bring about a monstrous child—the "indigested Mass"—which is concerning enough, but rather more strikingly, it could also create a "Chaos." This chaos appears to be contained, confined within their bed, thus leaving the again-imagined voyeurs who "pass" unthreatened. Despite these qualifiers, however, the evocation of chaos suggests, among other things, the literal unmaking of the world. While it is unclear within the poem why this union is perceived as [End Page 72] peculiarly unsettling—far more than the "wanton Epigram" of "The Fair Nymph"—it is interesting that both poems in which the female presence is darker have more negative views of interracial children. Just as the union of black woman and fair man in "Black-Moor" creates monsters, the imagined union of black nymph and fair boy in "The Inversion" is deeply unsettling. By figuring the end result of the miscegenation of a black woman and a fair man in terms that attempt to deny its materiality—chaos is threatening but not necessarily a physical object—while pointing to its incipient peril, the poem registers an anxiety about miscegenation that is not easily diffused.47
I would not wish, however, to insist too firmly on these poems' adherence to any particular understanding of race, miscegenation, or skin color; as I hope to have shown, they are far too shifting in their symbolic significances to be aligned with a single ideology. And indeed, I have no desire to overburden these poems by taxing them with representation of the entire matrix of often incoherent and fungible significations of color in the mid-seventeenth century, a time when these significances were rapidly shifting as a result of increased English participation in a racialized slave trade. However, perhaps this instability is telling in its own right. By continually vacillating among several different understandings and valuations of skin color, intentionally or not Revett's Poems stages the difficult and contradictory quality of proto-racial and racial discourses in miniature. These and other poems of blackness deserve our attention not only for their literary and generic interest—although they do indeed, being simultaneously deeply conventional and highly innovative—but also for their discursive and imagistic ambivalences and incoherencies surrounding color. Given the recent reintegration of overt white supremacy, white nationalism, and "race realism" into mainstream political discourse, understanding the conflicting and contradictory early modern roots of modern racialism becomes a project of urgent critical importance.
1. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Harley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 101. Foucault uses the phrase to describe sodomy. While I am not suggesting an equation between race and sexuality, the phrase itself seems an apt descriptor of both early moderns' and early modernists' (and indeed, moderns') understanding of race.
2. See Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), 22.
3. See Loomba, 57, 80. See also Loomba and Jonathan Burton, "Introduction," in Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion, ed. Loomba and Burton (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 12–17; and M. Lindsay Kaplan, "The Jewish Body in Black and White in Medieval and Early Modern England," Philological Quarterly 92.1 (2013): 41–65.
4. Winthrop P. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Kingsport: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1968), 7.
5. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995), 4. Hereafter abbreviated T and cited parenthetically by page number.
6. See also Jordan, 7–9.
7. See Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), 1–47.
8. Floyd-Wilson, 6.
9. See Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500–1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008), 262.
10. Habib, 262. Habib discusses his methodology and its implications for these statistics on 13–17. See also Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (London: Oneworld Publications, 2017) for discussion of the presence of black people in London in the sixteenth century.
11. Habib, 94–96. It is likely that this is a conservative estimate, given that sixteenth-and seventeenth-century church documents were not primarily concerned with race.
12. See Floyd-Wilson, 6, 11. It is true that both the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism are relatively young enterprises in mid-seventeenth century England: British imperialism is as yet still largely confined to the Americas, its high point still well over a century away, and the English slave trade, while active since the 1560s, would not be chartered as the Royal African Company until 1672. They remain, however, important contexts as, even at this early date, both enterprises brought about reassuring claims of proto-racial, inherent distinctions between Europeans and ethnic others. George Best's 1578 A True Discourse exemplifies this in its famous claim that blackness is a "natural infection" (quoted in Floyd-Wilson, 8), the text thereby not only asserting blackness as an inherent defect, but also "contributing to a genre of promotional tracts aimed at persuading the English that they would not be ineluctably altered by moving to and residing in a foreign climate" (Floyd-Wilson, 8). See also S, 6, for a discussion of colonialism and race in the late sixteenth century.
13. Loomba, 36.
14. Emily Weissbourd, "'Those in Their Possession': Race, Slavery, and Queen Elizabeth I's 'Edicts of Expulsion,'" Huntington Library Quarterly 78.1 (2015): 18.
15. Hall, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?: Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice," Renaissance Drama 23 (1992): 88.
16. Quoted in Habib, 162.
17. I do not mean to suggest that modern racism is a fixed, inflexible construct; rather, it demonstrates a remarkable propensity to change to adapt to and survive under new circumstances. Lara Bovilsky reminds us that "modern racist ideology … is hardly 'scientific'" and lacks "the rigor and systematicity with which it is persistently associated" (Barbarous Play: Race on the Renaissance Stage [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008], 27).
18. Sujata Iyengar, Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 15.
19. See Marvin Hunt, "Be Dark but Not Too Dark: Shakespeare's Dark Lady as a Sign of Color," in Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays, ed. James Schiffer (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 369–90, esp. 379–80; and Iyengar, 74–77.
20. Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995), 178, 182; see also 174–90.
21. Eldred Revett comes from an East-Anglian family and was admitted as a pensioner to Clare College, Cambridge in 1650. He left Cambridge without a degree, as was common with gentlemen at the time, and finished his education at the Middle Temple, although he was never called to the bar. There are no surviving records of his birth, his death, or a marriage or children, and few copies of his Poems survive. Revett's religious poems are relatively orthodox, and his several poems commemorating the poet Richard Lovelace suggest at least an acquaintance with the royalist writer. Revett's poetry, however, betrays no obvious partisan slant—somewhat unusually for his time, he does not seem to write occasional political poems—although his versification suggests a familiarity with royalist and Cavalier writers such as Edmund Waller, Robert Herrick, and Abraham Cowley. See Donald Friedman, "Introduction," in Selected Poems: Humane and Divine, ed. Friedman (Liverpool Univ. Press, 1966), ix-xvii.
22. Friedman, ix.
23. Friedman, xx.
24. While it falls outside the scope of this paper's concerns with lyrics of miscegenation, it is worth noting that Revett also writes a poem in the related black baptismal genre, "The Aethiopian Baptized." Baptismal poems often function as an implicit answer to the famous question in Jeremiah 13:23, "Can an Ethiopian change his skin?" (NIV), by suggesting that the phenotypically dark Ethiopian figure can be made spiritually white through the saving grace of Christianity. Revett, for example, suggests "What's of Night's about his skin, / Skreens, like that too, Day within," contrasting external blackness with internal whiteness ("The Aethiopian Baptized," in Selected Poems: Humane and Divine, 50, lines 11–12). See Richard Crashaw's "On the baptized Ethiopian" (1646) for a more familiar example of this topos.
25. Revett, "One Enamour'd on a Black-Moor," in Selected Poems: Humane and Divine, 36–39, line 2. Hereafter abbreviated "B" and cited parenthetically by line number.
26. While it is interesting to consider the racialized implications of the "quaint Italian Trick" in the context of a poem about a "Black-Moor," such considerations fall outside the scope of this paper. For discussions of early modern English understandings of Italians and race, see Bovilsky, 103–33.
27. On lock-picking and sex, see Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993), 172.
28. For European sexualization of the Americas, see also Malgorzata Grzegorzewska, "God's Part, the Woman's Part: John Donne's Maps," Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 51.3 (2003): 272–86; and Felicity Nussbaum, "The Other Woman: Polygamy, Pamela, and the Prerogative of Empire," in Women, "Race," and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (New York: Routledge, 1994), 138–59.
29. Revett is interested in the story of Ixion and the centaurs in several of his other poems as well. See, for example, "The Centaure" and "To a Lady with Black Hair"; this latter poem is part of another strain of the black beauty tradition, one in which the beloved's hair and eyes, but not skin, are black.
30. Hunt, 380.
31. For a discussion of the gendered dynamics of the poet's prerogative to rhetorically beautify his subject, see Frances Dolan, "Taking the Pencil out of God's Hand: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England," PMLA 108.2 (1993): 224–39. For poets' discursive lightening of their love object to reconfirm their status as white, aristocratic males, see T, 62–122.
32. For an influential if now largely problematized articulation of this argument, see Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, "The Politics of Astrophil and Stella," Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 24 (1984): 53–68.
33. See Floyd-Wilson for more on early modern theories of color, 1–87.
34. Response-to-Cleveland seems to have been a veritable subgenre in and of itself, given that both Henry King and Henry Rainolds pen answers to Cleveland's nymph poem that take a similar format to Revett's.
35. On the concept of originality as it relates to early modern lyric poetry, see Arthur F. Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).
36. Hall does not, however, observe the complicated interrelationship between the different poets working in the genre.
37. Revett, "A Black Nymph Scorning a Fair Boy Courting Her," in Selected Poems: Humane and Divine, 39, lines 2, 4, 10, 20, 13, 24.
38. Revett, "Black Nymph," 23–24.
39. Revett, "A Fair Nymph Scorning a Black Boy Courting Her," in Selected Poems: Humane and Divine, 21–23, lines 1–2. Hereafter abbreviated "F" and cited parenthetically by line number.
40. Mary Wroth, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, in The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, ed. Josephine A. Roberts (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1983), 99, line 1; Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, in Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 153, line 9.
41. See Iyengar, 107.
42. See Loomba, 61.
43. Wall, 219.
44. For a discussion of monstrosity and miscegenation, see Loomba, 51–52.
45. Revett, "The Inversion," in Selected Poems: Humane and Divine, 23–25, lines 3–4. Hereafter abbreviated "I" and cited parenthetically by line number.
46. Tellingly, the fair boy asks that the nymph "have" him as a mirror, rather than "[b]uy" him as the black boy requests (20).
47. Lynda Boose suggests that, in leaving a phenotypical mark on the children of white men, black women in miscegenous relationships had a particularly subversive potential: by undermining claims of male completeness and power in having children who were often darker than the father, they posed an uncomfortable reminder of female power over generation. See "'The Getting of a Lawful Race': Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman," in Women, "Race," and Writing, 35–54; see esp. 46.