Tuesday, February 23, 2016

On Simpering



Nothing lasts. Even gestures of endearment have their season: they come and go. There is no always, nothing semper.

Consider, for example, an elegant mirror case intricately carved from elephant ivory. The little, palm-sized casket is decorated with deeply incised, almost three-dimensional images of a hustle-bustle of knights storming a castle. The castle is reduced to a synecdoche – a tower in which women in tall wimples overlook the besieging army. On the left side of the tower, a knight teetering atop a ladder has reached the parapet of the fortification. One of the women bends forward to tap him under the chin. On the opposite parapet, a knight in full armor, his face hidden in sheath of steel, also has climbed to the top of a ladder. He reaches out with his gauntlet to lightly touch the woman facing him under her chin. The mirror case was made in the second half of the 14th century and represents an allegorical figure – the storming of the castle of love, that is, the conceit in courtly romance that wooing a woman was akin to an army besieging a heavily fortified castle. This object may be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In the Metropolitan Museum in New York, you can see a gothic casket also carved from ivory in France in the middle of the 14th century. The casket shows a man on horseback riding next to a woman also mounted. The man reaches out to the woman to tap her under chin. In fact, this gesture, the so-called "chin chuck," is ubiquitous in medieval art – you can see this curious caress in medieval breviaries and illustrations to romances. Sometimes, the Christ child reaches up to touch his mother’s chin. In Book III of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cryseda, Pandarus observes the lovers petting by chin-chucking. (A reference to "chucking" in Chaucer’s Nun-Priest’s Tale is a misdirection – "chuck" is also the onomatopoeic sound that chickens make.) Shakespeare’s Macbeth indirectly refers to this gesture of endearment when he calls Lady Macbeth his "dearest chuck." As late as the early 19th century, people understood the gesture: Washington Irving describes someone "chucking a barmaid under her chin."

From these references, and many others that could be adduced, we understand that people showed affection from around 1300 (and probably much earlier) until the 1850's by tapping one another under the chin. Sometimes, the man originates the gesture; sometimes, it is the woman who performs the endearment. Children chuck their mother’s chins; mothers chuck their children’s chins. The verb "chuck," derived from old French "chocer" – "shock" or "impact" – had an erotic meaning. Today, however, I don’t think any chins get chucked except for furry ones – people often "chuck" the chins of their dogs and cats. As an erotic gesture, or, even, a form of endearment, however, the chin-chuck has become extinct.

A poem by an unknown contemporary of Robert Herrick raises a similar question about the verb "simper." Here is the complete poem:

Sweet she was, as kind a love

As ever fetter’d swain;

Never such a dainty one

Shall man enjoy again;

Set a thousand on a row

I forbid that any show

Ever the like of her,

Hey nonny nonny noe.

Face she had of filbert hue,

And bosom’d like a swan;

Back had of bended yew,

And waisted by a span.

Hair she as black as crow

From the head unto the toe,

Down, down, all over her,

Hey nonny nonny noe.

She smiled like a holy-day

And simper’d like the spring;

She prank’d it like a popinjay

And like a swallow sing;

She trip’d it like a barren doe,

She strutted like a gor-crow,

Which made the men so fond of her,

Hey nonny nonny noe.

My initial interest in this 17th century poem is the meaning of the line: "(she) simper’d like the spring." What does this mean? Ordinarily, the word "simpering" carries a negative meaning. To "simper" is to engage in a kind of hypocritical dissembling of emotion; we think of "simpering" as meretriciously feigning humility. But are there other meanings of the verb that are (or once were) positive – after all, the heroine of this verse is said to "simper" like the Spring? In northern European poetry, the season of Spring has an overwhelmingly positive denotation – so is "simper" a word that has migrated in its meaning from something praiseworthy and positive to the dark side of the lexicon?

This inquiry is essentially philological. Therefore, analysis first requires that we locate and interpret the word as used by other writers.

Shakespeare’s King Lear provides the canonical application of "simper." (In Shakespeare’s case, it is often uncertain whether he uses the word according to then-existing meaning or whether his usage of the word thereafter defines it.) At Act 4, scene 6, the mad Lear condemns sexual hypocrisy in excoriating terms:

Behold yond simpering dame

Whose face between her forks presages snow

That minces virtue and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name;

The fitchew, not the soiled horse goes to ‘t

With a more riotous appetite.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs

Though women all above.

Lear asserts that women "simper" – that is, dissemble with coy smiles – and suggests disapproval of sexual activity. (Shakespeare’s simpering dame is a monster: her face shows between her "forks", that is the twin peaks of her wimpled headdress – but, clearly, "forks" also means legs: accordingly, the "dame" has her head somehow thrust between her thighs, at her crotch or the "fork" of her body. Her simpering smile "presages snow" – that is, frigidity and sexual abstinence both in her face and between her thighs. But this prudish appearance is deceitful – in fact, the woman is truly monstrous, a "centaur" below the waist.)

Shakespeare application of the word is consistent with Philip Sidney’s usage, a few years earlier: a woman is said to appear "with a made countenance about her mouth, between simpering and smiling." In this context, we find simpering and smiling in close proximity just as we find the words adjacent in the poem cited above: "She smiled like a Holy-Day/And simpered like the Spring." "Smiling" in this setting seems sincere, while the "simper" is the contrived caricature of the smile.

Alexander Pope uses "simper" in a manner similar to the examples above: he cites "the conscious simper and the jealous leer" – again emphasizing the deceitfulness of the simper: it is "consciously" made. The word is invested with the same meaning to the present day. In Slate 2013, the singer Raffi is said to be "notable for his softly simpering style." Other examples from works as disparate as the Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee) and The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan) use the word to mean falsely coquettish or coy affectation. Although the exact origin of "simper" is unknown, etymologists suggest that the word migrated to England from the Dutch. The Dutch use the word "zimpferlik" to mean "affected" or "ostentatious." In turn, "zimpferlik" seems to derive from the German word "zimpfer", an adjective with a related, less negative meaning – in 16th century German, the word simply means "elegant" or "delicate."

(George Herbert, as in many other respects, is an outlier. Herbert died in 1633 and, therefore, lived between the generations of Shakespeare and Milton. He was a cleric who did not publish his intensely personal and idiosyncratic poetry in his lifetime. Herbert in the poem "The Search’ describes the poet’s despair at God’s seeming remoteness – he searches for signs of God’s presence everywhere and reports that looking skyward:

Yet can I mark how

Stars above

Simper and shine.
Here, most commentators would define "simper" in terms of an obsolete sense meaning "so sparkle" or "scintillate." However, I’m not convinced. Herbert’s speaker is appalled by God’s apparent absence from the world – thus, the sparkling of the stars seems to him to be false and meretricious. In fact, my guess is that Herbert also meant that "simper" suggest a coy or coquettish suggestion of something that is withdrawn and kept apart from speaker. The "simpering" stars are hypocritical in that they suggest God’s grandeur when, in fact, He is hidden. I like the notion that the sparkling of stars is a form of "simpering". Thus:

Simper, Simper little star

How I wonder what you are...
Or the Marine Corps motto: Simper Fi – that is, "simpering in a faithful manner.")

This philological excursion is directed toward discovering whether there is an alternative meaning to "simper" without the negative connotations of that word. No evidence demonstrates that "simper" means anything but to smile in a dissembling, coy, and affected manner. And, of course, this meaning is warranted on closer reading. Influenced by the powerfully evocative line "she smiled like a Holy Day" – the line used by Auden as the title to the poem in his famous 1938 anthology, The Oxford Book of Light Verse – I have misread the poem. (Auden seems to have lifted the line from the verse to name the poem – he also alters the orthography slightly in the title: "She smiled like a holiday" – not "Holy Day" as appears in the text. It is interesting that this title influenced me to misunderstand the whole poem – we should not underestimate the effect that a title has on our perception of a text.)

Inspected more carefully, this anonymous poem does not seem to praise the lady described. To the contrary, the terms of approbation used are ironic. Irony is famously difficult to ascertain, although, perhaps, not in this context. What does the poem really say about the lady that is its subject?

Swains, it seems, are enamored with the girl – therefore, her appeal is rural, or "country" as Shakespeare might say with the accent on the first syllable of that word. Indeed, it appears that the lass is available to be "enjoyed". The poem tells us that she is one of "pretty maids" all in a row – an allusion to the nursery rhyme "Mary, Mary, quite contrary" – that allusion suggests that we should consider this country girl’s merits, perhaps "contrariwise"; in other words, what seems to be praise might, instead, be sarcasm.

The inventory of the girl’s charms supports this "contrariwise" reading of the poem. The lady’s skin is "filbert hue" – in other words, she is a "nut-brown girl. This complexion signifies that her skin is tanned – contrary to received fashion and canons of beauty in the 17th century. (Pale was good; sun-tanned skin suggested vulgarity, the complexion of a milk-maid.) Her back is like a "bended yew". This simile is puzzling – yew trees produced flexible wood much-prized for use in making bows. A back like a "bended yew" suggests sexual flexibility – I presume that the meaning is similar to the line in the blues tune: "Rock me baby, rock me good and long / Rock me like my back ain’t got no bone." The young woman’s waist is grotesquely small – a "span" or the distance between thumb and the tip of the little finger, in most people about nine inches. She is hairy – the poem quibbles on the meaning of "down," here both a direction and soft brown fur.

The only image conventionally denoting beauty is the likeness of the girl’s breast to a swan – that is, soft and white. However, the animal similes with which the poem concludes undercut any notion that the woman is conventionally beautiful. She "pranks" –that is, dresses ostentatiously – like "a popinjay." A "popinjay" is a vain and conceited person. She "trips" it (prances) like a "a barren doe." (The phrase means exactly what it says – a female deer that is sterile and has no fawns; this is not the forum to enter the longstanding debate among outdoorsmen and hunters as to whether there is such a thing as a "barren doe." Generally, hunters who saw a doe without fawns assumed the female deer was "barren" – that is, sterile; this assumption arises from the idea that does were always expected to be seen in the company of their fawns. In fact, without careful anatomical analysis, it can not be reliably determined whether a doe is sterile or not.) Finally, the woman is likened to a "gorcrow." A "gorcrow" is a "gore-crow," that is a "carrion" crow – probably not something to which a young woman would wish to be compared. Complicating the picture, however, is the reference to her voice like a swallow singing. A swallow’s song is not unpleasant and, in fact, would be found melodious by most people – it is certainly not the harsh and abrasive cry of the crow. Accordingly, the verse mixes imagery that is adverse to the lady with praise – the white bosom of the swan, the tiny waist (perhaps?), and the swallow’s song all seem calculated as praise.

This curious mixture of praise undercut by ironic metaphors is exemplified in the central lines in the poem – the girl "smiles" like a Holy Day, and "simpers" like the Spring. The smile of the Holy Day seems unambiguously praiseworthy and positive. But it is equally clear that the "simper" of Spring is invested with negative qualities – Spring pretends to kindly warmth and fruitfulness, but this smile can be deceitful: a cold night might bring frost and ice and violent storms may imperil the growing crops.

The contrast between the authentic smile and meretricious simpering characterizes the poet’s ambivalence about the lady described. The little lyric exemplifies the vehement paradoxes of romantic love – the object of desire is, at once, adored and reviled. Shakespeare’s sonnets supply, perhaps, the best example of this effect. In Sonnet 130, the dark lady is described as having "black wires" for hair; her breath is not "perfume’d" but said to "reek" and her breasts are not alabaster but rather "dun." Nonetheless, the poet persists in his devotion, although his mistress is not a goddess treading upon this earth:

And, yet, by heaven, I think my love rare

As any she belied by false compare.

As always, Shakespeare’s succinct brilliance renders the other, later poem superfluous. There is nothing in the verse Auden called "She smiled like a holiday" that is not more forcefully and effectively expressed in Sonnet 130. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s sonnet suggests an application to the verse Auden anthologizes in his 1938 volume. Ultimately, what is it that "simpers"? – the lady, of course, but, also, the metaphors of conventional love poetry that the verse subverts. Shakespeare unmasks an element of "simpering" insincerity in conventional love poetry. As Sonnet 130 reminds us, "false compare" is the literary equivalent of "simpering." An inauthentic metaphor, particularly, in a love poem is one way that language "simpers."

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