William Dunbar’s “My ladye with the mekle lippis,” is a parodic insult poem, possibly directed at Elen More or the other Black woman at the Scottish Royal court, one of whom might have been offered, in the first decade of the sixteenth century, as the prize of a royal tournament (on doubts about that, MacDonald, 2-3). As I say to my students, the poem is not just racist; it’s precociously racist: Scottish wealth from the enslavement of Africans and their descendants would arrive, eventually, and with it the cultural imperative to justify slavery by creating the two interlocked, hierarchical categories of white people and Black people, but this would become central to European and colonial cultures only some 150 to 200 years after Dunbar’s poem. His poem therefore offers a picture (im)perfect example of misogynoir, but one that’s seemingly anachronistic.
The poem’s outrageousness blocks easy recognition of its formal qualities; it’s just a hard poem to look at for long. For that reason, though I’ve taught it a couple times, this time is the first I noticed anything about how Dunbar puts the poem together. A student prompted that observation when she asked us about the logic of the second stanza. Here are the poem’s first two stanzas, from John Conlee’s edition for TEAMS. His notes, not incidentally, badly need rewriting:
Lang heff I maed of ladyes quhytt,
Nou of an blak I will indytt
That landet furth of the last schippis.
Quhou fain wald I descryve perfytt
My ladye with the mekle lippis.
Quhou schou is tute mowitt lyk an aep,
And lyk a gangarall onto graep,
And quhou hir schort catt nois up skippis,
And quhou schou schynes lyk ony saep,
My ladye with the mekle lippis.
[I have written poetry for a long time about white ladies; now I will write about a black one, who landed from the recent ships, whom I wish to describe perfectly: my lady with the big lips. She is large-mouthed like an ape, and like a toad to grab onto. And how her short cat nose sticks up, and how she shines like soap: my lady with the big lips]
The student asked: how does that second stanza work? And she was right to ask. It’s highly unusual. The stanza describes the lady’s mouth, then something about lifting or holding her, and then her nose, and then her skin, and then her lips. Dunbar neither describes her in any particular order, nor does the description entirely make sense: how does “And lyk a gangarall onto graep” fit into this stanza?
Medieval written portraits tended to follow a rhetorical convention. These portraits — called descriptio and later blazon — generally started at the top of the head, and moved down from there. Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova offers a classic example, in his example of describing “a woman’s beauty.” Like Dunbar, it starts with her head. But then it systematically moves down, considering her hair, her eyebrows (“resembl[ing] in dark beauty the blackberry”), her nose, her eyes, her mouth, her lips, her teeth, her chin, her neck, her shoulders, her arms, her fingers, and then back up to her breasts, and so on. Even when Geoffrey varies the order later in the work, he still moves in a coherent direction (“snowy teeth, flaming lips, honied taste, rosy countenance, milky brow, golden hair”, 41-42).
Chrétien de Troyes’s portrait of the Ugly Maiden from his Perceval also lays out a coherent line, from eyes, to nose, to lips, to teeth, to chin:
Her eyes were like tiny holes’; those eyes
were small as any rat’s in size.
Cat-like or ape-like was her nose,
whereas her lips were more like those
of ox or ass, and when she spoke,
the maiden’s teeth looked like egg yolk,
they were so deep a yellow shade,
and like a billy-goat, the maid was bearded etc
To be sure, not all portraits of women necessarily moved in the same order. They often did, but Chaucer — no random example, as Dunbar certainly knew his work — played with the conventions in, among other places, his portrait of Alison of The Miller’s Tale, which lasciviously begins with her weasel-thin body and then looks at her belt, describes the rest of her body, and then returns, at the end of her portrait, to have yet another look at her middle, typically the element of a woman’s body that rhetoricians make a show of refusing to talk about. The Reeve’s Tale — surely one of Chaucer’s most unpleasant — offers this portrait of Malyne, the daughter who mixes characteristics of the upper classes (her mother is the offspring of a priest) and the lower (her father is the tale’s brawling, dishonest Miller):
This wenche thikke and wel ygrowen was,
With kamus nose and eyen greye as glas,
With buttokes brode and brestes rounde and hye.
[this young girl was thick and well grown, with a snub nose and eyes gray as glass, with broad buttocks, and round and high breasts]
Chaucer here mingles the conventions of aristocratic beauty and peasant ugliness: her snub nose and wide buttocks are lower class, her gray eyes and high, round breasts, aristocratic. But he starts with the size of her body, then her nose, then her eyes, then her buttocks, then her breasts: as with Dunbar, Chaucer offers no particular order.
Dunbar compounds his chaos, however, with his “And lyk a gangarall onto graep”: what is being held onto? Her mouth? I don’t know enough to say what I’m about to say with confidence, but: in class, I first told students about the rhetorical genre of description, and its rules, as I’ve spelled them out here, and then observed that Dunbar’s rhetorical nerve seems to have failed him the closer his observation approached its object. Despite his intention to “descryve perfytt,” it’s as his description turned on Dunbar himself, rendering him incapable of coherent speech.
What was he describing? An actual person, one that he had, presumably seen. That, in itself, distinguishes Dunbar from the typical moves of rhetoricians, who usually devote themselves to literary examples or far-off historical ones, like Helen of Troy. Here is a woman, an actual woman, an actual woman whom Dunbar choses to see as only a Black woman, brought before him only to be mocked. Mocking description is a form of description that’s mercilessly attentive but also only partially so, a deliberate refusal to see more than what’s needed. Because who’s being described here, in her characteristics, could very easily be taken as beautiful: drop Dunbar’s animal insults, and, in a way, there she is. But when Dunbar moves his way through her, point by point, seeing so narrowly, his rhetorical skills fail him. Nothing goes quite in the right order, and one line, at least, refers to nothing except, perhaps, a simultaneous desire to touch her and the delight in feeling disgusted by that desire. This dynamic of course is a central feature of misogynoir.
I’m going to need to follow this out, some day, by looking at other several more examples of the rhetoric of ugliness and vituperation, and by digging far more deeply into scholarship around race, racialization, and misogynoir. I also want to look at the Dunbar in its early modern manuscripts (locations), at least one of which is digitized and public, but without an easy list of its contents; here is an edition from another manuscript. I want to know what the poem’s actually called, and when.
Further work from me on this poem:
A conference paper on teaching the poem, with a substantial bibliography. Key bit from it, repeated here:
Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Routledge, 2017); Bernadette Andrea, “The ‘Presences of Women’ from the Islamic World in Sixteenth- to Early Seventeenth-Century British Literature and Culture,” in Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces in the Early Modern World ed. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (Routledge, 2016), 296-7 [and also in her book The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture). Though these two books have little to say about Dunbar, they are, of course, important: Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995); Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge UP, 2018); and now, Cord Whitaker, Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking (U Penn, 2019).
Also, I’m now told there’s a short historical romance by Alyssa Cole based on one of the Black woman at the court, which includes a (less racist) Dunbar: Alyssa Cole, Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight. Thanks Elizabeth Elliott for the tip. And thanks Stewart J. Brookes for helping me wrestle with the Scots, and, behind the scenes for the same, the great Ruth Evans.
I’m thinking that further work on this poem from me will need to understand better where Dunbar’s getting his material: from the Portuguese? Simon Park at Oxford has been recommended to me for this. I’m also wondering if something like Abdulhamit Arvas, “Early Modern Eunuchs and the Transing of Gender and Race” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 19.4 (2019): 116-136 can help guide me in understanding the racist dynamics of Dunbar’s poem in a larger Euro/Mediterranean context, although Arvas’s archive may be too early modern for my purposes.
I perhaps need to wrestle with the poem via the model offered by Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts.” Can I read the poem from the perspective of its target? Is that just or fair?