Reading Update: ‘Nothing Like the Sun’, 157?-1587: Chapter VIII

WS’s Goddess is met, yet still unattained: as mystery still to be revealed. (To be sure, however, she is a classic “temptress” archetype…)

After a mere 54 pages, WS meets his dark Goddess: a Bristol prostitute.

Teaching the Quedgeley boys is a hopeless task. They are too much the rambunctious adolescents, goofing around, mocking the divine material (here, Ovid and the Latin language in general) and otherwise condescending to their instructor. WS threatens beating but the boys only laugh at his mentioning of smacking bare buttocks with a stick (55).

Nevertheless, Mr. Quedgeley — “no longer the jolly unbuttoned fellow that had cidered it to insensibility in Ettington but a grave man, much the magistrate, in black” (54) — wants his boys to see a Plautus play enacted, but first to “English” the various parts themselves to become better acquainted with the source material. And so he sets WS off to Bristol with money for copies of the play for teacher and pupils.

After purchasing the books from a speech-impedimented bookseller named Cunliffe, WS hears, from “the back streets that were like serpents or twisted veins” (57), a voice calling, “What cheer, bully! Dost thou seek a bert?” WS’s heart “near faint[s],” for the voice belongs to a woman, whom the narration thus describes:

If Englishman were white…then she must be called black; but black she could not in truth be called, rather gold, but then not gold, nor royal purple neither, for when we say colours we see a flatness, as of cloth, but here was flesh that moved and swam on the light’s tide, ever changing in hue but always of a richness that could only be termed royal; her colour was royalty. For her hair, it coiled in true blackness; her lips were thick; her nose was not tightened against the cold air, like an English nose, an Anne nose, nor pinched at the meagreness of the sun, but flat and wide; her brow was wide too, though shallow. And so she stood, smiling at him and beckoning with her long golden finger. (57-58)

[Such divine language! Worthy of Joyce, if not of WS himself. And note the affinities between the description above and Sonnet 130.]

But alas! WS has only enough money for a meager dinner at a hole-in-the-wall ordinary, and she — his Goddess, to the last (cf. the description above with his earlier erotic vision on p.9) — is a prostitute, however exotic she may otherwise be. He halfheartedly expresses his penury by showing an opened palm, which the Goddess-prostitute clearly misunderstands, for she leads him into a whorehouse, past other practitioners d’amour and their clients and into a room of their own. WS momentarily feels guilt for the prospects of the affair, but then drops the Plautus books he just bought and

“embraced her golden body trembling. She said naught, he kissed what words she would utter fiercely back into her mouth and, in that soft strange contact, felt as if he were starting some strange [voyage] to lands of men with dog-heads or plate-feet, carbuncles and diamonds to be raked from under the golden-egg palms. Rocks, the oven-sun, fish that talked, the toothed waves. Then she drew herself away brusquely and held out her hand for money. (59)

Breathlessly exotic — his dreams almost realized — and then a stark “Payment up front, please.”

WS, having no payment to give up front, finally makes his penury clear, after which the Goddess ceases to be exotic and becomes all too Anne: she beats him for leading her on so, and in fact the Madam of the house — just as “black,” or Indian, as the Goddess — joins in on the beating.

WS leaves with his face in-tact, but alas! as he looks back at Bristol en route to the Quedgeleys’, he sees not only shame and humiliation, but also the Plautus books that he’d dropped in an amorous stupor on the whorehouse floor.

So close to happiness and dream-realization, and then rejection and disappointment. As WS himself says, “till action, lust is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.”Methinks, however, that his encounters with the Goddess are not completed. This is only up to p.60 after all.


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