Great Moments in Poetry #4: John Donne

“ rank itchy lust, desire and love, the nakedness and bareness to enjoy, of thy plump muddy whore or prostitute boy”.

In 16th century London sex outside marriage was widespread. Young men of well to do families were sent off to Italy to receive their “education” and bring back a variety of pornographic books. One of the most famous ones is one by the poet Aretino, who wrote a series of pornographic sonnets. To stimulate further the reader’s imagination, the book was illustrated showing various sexual positions. There were plenty of English books with advice on the subject, such as Turner’s Herbal, which contained many tips on the use of certain herbs for the purposes of evoking the lustful urges of man and woman. Talking of artichokes he says, “…this herb provoketh lust in women so it abateththe same in men”, while saffron boiled in wine , except for repelling moths “keeps a man from drunkenness, but also encourageth into procreation of life” and leeks and onions were also said to stimulate the sexual appetite.
Shakespeare’s plays are filled with cryptic references to sex. For example, in Henry V, while Katharine is doing her English lesson, she pronounces the word ‘neck’ as ‘nick’, which in those days held a very obscene meaning to it.

Prostitution of course was also very popular and as men have always been prepared to pay extra for having a virgin, the Elizabethans came up with a liquid, which once applied would draw the muscles / tissue very closely together and stiffen them up, thus giving the ‘client’ the impression of virginity. Henry VIII had closed all brothels in 1546 but his son Edward VI later had them re-opened. The South Bank was the most popular place for brothels, but they could also be found in poverty-stricken areas of Westminster and Shoreditch – even to this day parts of Shoreditch carry on this legacy.

Homosexuality however, was punished by death as it was thought to violate all natural laws. Those expected to be involved in this kind of activity were the Catholic priests,(take note remora!!) actors and performers of all kinds and of course the local Satanist, who would also profess to having achieved this act with a number of evil spirits…


by Arthur Furrowfield

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