Benjamin Franklin once said that there were only two inevitable things in life: death and taxes. He got it half right. They did, in fact, die with pretty regular certainty. However, what was inevitable was sex. Without it, there wouldn't be any new people to die and poor Ben Franklin would have been completely wrong. The only hindrance to this certainty was (and remains) virgins. The realm of the chaste has been explored in poetry throughout time, but never was the subject as thoroughly probed as in the 17th and 18th century. To judge by the poets of the time, one would conclude that--next to dying--the citizens of this era spent most of their time either praising the virtuous, trying to change the state of said virgins, or making fun of them.
Ironically, the first and smallest of the categories of poetry was that of praising sexual virtue. In fact, entire poems written solely to extol the virtues of virtue were few and far between. While one might be surprised by this fact, considering the somewhat puritanical mind set of the time, one must keep in mind that most poets in this day were men. Most poems, like Ben Johnson's "Queen and Huntress" (1413) simply allude to the glory of chaste women. In fact, other than the use of the phrase "chaste and fair" in the first line, the reference is mostly contextual. The poem is taken from the play Cynthia's Revels(1614). Cynthia is the goddess of chastity or the moon, so in fact, this poem is more in praise of a woman that happens to be a virgin, than of the state itself.
We find another poem casting virginity in a positive light in Robert Herrick's "His Farewell to Sack"(1646). This is another roundabout reference, as Herri...
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In four lines, Prior gives the reader a glimpse into the reality of the age and dispels the notion that women of the era were as virtuous as they would have you believe. The poem lends a sense of modernity and humanity to a period now thought of as pristine and sexually pure.
Throughout time, the chastity of women has been a subject of great interest to all. Daphne became a tree to preserve it, Mary got pregnant in spite of it, Chloris just wanted to get rid of it and Sandra Dee was lousy with it. However, in an era when virtue was still publicly honored, poets were on the cusp of making writing about discarding it acceptable. In the proud tradition of art constantly pushing the envelope, they did just that--a lot.
Abrams, M.H., et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
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