Her courts

In Brief

Stephen's allusive associations of the inflowing waters with women—Mary Ann's urination, the pregnancy suggested by the words of Paul and Ambrose, the gazes of "lascivious men" scorned by Kevin Egan—conclude with a final brief allusion that is itself allusive. The image of "a naked woman shining in her courts" appears to echo a passage about prostitutes in John Dryden's Mac Flecknoe (1682), which parodies a couplet by Abraham Cowley.

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Gifford notes the original fancy of the sea as a place of female "courts" in Cowley's biblical epic Davideis (1656): "Where their vast Courts the Mother-Waters keep, / And undisturb'd by Moon in Silence sleep." In the mock-heroic spirit for which he is known, Dryden transposed the image from the solemn splendor of the vast ocean to the countless brothels in London's Barbican district: "Scenes of lewd loves, and of polluted joys / Where their vast courts the mother-strumpets keep, / And, undisturbed by watch, in silence sleep" (71-73) Mac Flecknoe crowns its anti-hero Shadwell the king of dullness in the Barbican area, which serves as a kind of microcosm for the dirt and decadence of the English capital. The "watch" which does not disturb the strumpets' sleep is probably the constabulary.

Stephen's image of "courts" contains none of the Barbican's seediness, but the fact that he places a "naked woman" in them—and the fact that she is "shining"— suggest that he has been reading Dryden rather than Cowley. His thoughts about naked women here, far from indulging the Catholic hatred of sexuality that he expresses elsewhere, incline toward sympathy.

JH 2016
The third painting of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1733), held in Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Source: www.soane.org.
Indencency, a cartoon print by Isaac Cruikshank (1799). Source: Wikimedia Commons.