December 16, 2011

16th Century erotic poem found hidden in Chaucer book


The love poem written by Lady Elizabeth Dacre, shown in the edition of Chaucer she hid it in

As Owen Jarus details in a report for MSNBC’s LiveScience, the poem was discovered in the West Virginia University library by visiting professor Elaine Treharne of Florida State University. Translating it from the Latin, she discovered it was written by Lady Elizabeth Dacre, a Catholic, to Sir Anthony Cooke, a Protestant who was a tutor to King Edward VI (the son of Henry VIII, he died at age 15). The writing, estimated to have taken sometime in the 1560s, occurred at a time, as Jarus observes, “when England was tearing itself apart over religion.

History reveals their years-long affair to have been doomed from the start, and perhaps never consummated. They were decades apart in age. Lady Elizabeth was married with children, Cooke was married, too. He fell out of favor with the crown, and at one point, was committed to the Tower of London, then exiled to the Continent for years.

But whatever happened between them, it resulted in at least one moving poem by Lady Elizabeth. Professor Treharne plans to publish her anaylsis of the poem in an academic journal, but she did release part of her translation — such as this passage, written apparently when Cooke was sentenced to the Tower:

“The goodbye I tried to speak but could not utter with my tongue
by my eyes I delivered back to yours.
That sad love that haunts the countenance in parting
contained the voice that I concealed from display,
just as Penelope, when her husband Ulysses was present,
was speechless – the reason is that sweet love of a gaze …”

And if you’re wonering, what constitutes eroticism in the 16th century? Here’s the poem’s close:

“Long enough am I now; but if your shape should swell under its grateful burden, then shall I become to you a narrow girdle.

“It’s a very beautiful piece,” says Treharne, “and I think for her it was quite a prized possession, because it’s been so very carefully copied out and looked after.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.