Strolling mort

Strolling mort

In Brief

Imagining the cant of gypsies in Proteus, Stephen mulls some language he has encountered in Richard Head's The Canting Academy (London, 1673), a work which sought to document and translate the "thieves' cant" or "rogues' cant" of the 17th century English criminal underclass. All of the unfamiliar language in the paragraph beginning with the "red Egyptians," as well as the quatrain that follows, comes from a song that Head reproduced in his book, "The Rogue's Delight in Praise of his Strolling Mort." Part of the sexy quatrain returns to accost Cissy Caffrey in Circe.

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A "strolling mort" is a travelling woman, i.e. a grown female gypsy. Head describes the type thus: "Strowling-Morts are such as pretend to be Widdows, travelling about from County to County, making laces upon [st]aves, as Beggars tape, or the like; they are subtil Queans, hard-hearted, light-fingered, hypocritical and dissembling, and very dangerous to meet, if any Ruffler or Rogue be in their company" (86).

The phrase "bing awast to Romeville" means "Go away to London." The word Rome (or rum, which Stephen uses later in calling the rogues' cant "rum lingo") means good, excellent, top-notch. Any evocation of the city of Rome appears to be coincidental, though felicitous in this novel which associates the Roman and the British empires.

To "wap" is to make love, to fuck, and a "dimber wapping dell" is a pretty girl who is fond of that activity. ("Buss" is not cant at all, but a good archaic English word for "kiss" used occasionally by Spenser and Shakespeare.)

Here is the text of the complete poem. Stephen recalls the entire second stanza, and parts of the final one.

The Rogue's Delight in Praise of his Strolling Mort

Doxy oh! Thy Glaziers shine
As Glymmar by the Salomon,
No Gentry Mort hath prats like thine
No Cove e're wap'd with such a one.

White thy fambles, red thy gan,
And thy quarrons dainty is,
Couch a hogshead with me than,
In the Darkmans clip and kiss.

What though I no Togeman wear,
Nor Commission, Mish, or slate,
Store of strummel wee'l have here.
And i'th' Skipper lib in state.

Wapping thou I know dost love,
Else the Ruffin cly thee Mort,
From thy stampers then remove
Thy Drawers and let's prig in sport.

When the Lightmans up do's call
Margery Prater from her nest,
And her Cackling cheats with all
In a Boozing-Ken wee'l feast.

There if Lour we want I'l mill
A Gage or nip for thee a bung,
Rum booz thou shalt booz thy fill
And crash a Grunting cheat that's young.

Bing awast to Rome-vile then
O my dimber wapping Dell,
Wee'l heave a booth and dock agen
Then trining scape and all is well.

Wench oh! Thy eyes shine
As fire by the Mass
No gentlewoman has thighs like thine
No fellow ever made love with such a one.

White thy hands, red thy mouth,
And thy body dainty is,
Lie down with me then,
In the night embrace and kiss.

What though I no cloak wear,
Nor shirt, chemise, or sheet,
Plenty of straw we'll have here.
And in the barn sleep in state.

Copulating thou I know dost love,
Else the Devil seize thee, wench,
From thy feet then remove
Thy stockings and let's ride in sport.

When the Sun rises and does call
The hen from her nest,
And her chickens withal
In a tippling-house we'll feast.

There if money we want I'll steal
A pot or nab for thee a purse,
Excellent liquor thou shalt drink thy fill
And crunch a pig that's young.

Go away to London then
O my pretty loving wench,
We'll rob a house and fuck again
Then hanging escape and all is well.

§ Richard Head was an Irish native who came to England as a boy, attended Oxford for a time (until poverty forced him to leave), and lived much of his adult life in London. His novel The English Rogue, a picaresque adventure inspired by Spanish models, sold brilliantly in five editions in the 1660s, and someone (perhaps the author, perhaps not) added three more volumes of adventures in the 1670s. The book probably influenced Defoe's Moll Flanders.

JH 2015
Portrait of Richard Head on the frontispiece of his novel, The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon, 2nd ed. (London: Francis Kirkman, 1666). Source: Wikimedia Commons.