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Comic valentine by A. Park, London

Leading Apes in Hell

  •   Comic valentine by A. Park, London
  •   127 x 209mm (5 x 8¼in), circa 1850s
The verse on this heartless and cruel valentine admonishes:
  • You would like to wear them dearly,
  • And in faith, you mean to try,
  • But, old girl, I'll tell you truly,
  • Your attempt is ALL MY EYE.
  • It will not fit, my downy one,
  • So fairly I would tell,
  • You had best but take the duty,
  • Of leading APES IN HELL.

Q What are we meant to understand by the phrase
“Leading apes in hell” ?


A Very few people seem to know that “lead” in Tudor English means to have sexual intercourse. The proverb means that women who take no part in the sexual activity of society for whatever reason will be punished by being served by apes in hell. This is not a punishment for chastity (a faithful spouse is chaste) but for failing to spread joy in the world by healthy activity.

When Shakespeare mentions “leading apes into hell”, he is being allusive, as he so often is when the real matter is coarse. His audience would have recognised the allusion immediately. There is also a madrigal verse about Messalina, going up and down the house very upset because her monkey lies a-dying. “O Death thou art too cruel to take her only jewel”, and “If her monkey die, she shall sit and cry“ Fie, fie, fie fie!”.

The Elizabethan audience would immediately have understood going “up and down”, the loss of her only jewel, and the orgasmic cries of “fie” as being a classic tudor dirty joke. Her pet ape is dying because she has deprived him of the opportunity of serving her in hell by the time-honoured method.

Benjamin Britten failed to realise this when he set this verse very piously in Our Hunting Fathers. The words for this cycle were chosen by WH Auden, who could certainly recognise a sexual allusion when he saw it. James Bowman tells me that he thinks that Auden did tell Britten, but that Britten simply thought he was being disgusting and ignored the advice.
Not the first time that a dirty joke has got past in a more innocent age.

Hugh Hetherington, Salisbury, England



This regular feature invites answers by email to members’ questions on an item of ephemera.