Monday, 21 November 2016

The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare.

1878 edition.
1601 saw the publication of Robert Chester's Love's Martyr, or, to give it its full title:

Lᴏᴠᴇ's Mᴀʀᴛʏʀ: 
ᴏʀ Rᴏꜱᴀʟɪɴs Cᴏᴍᴘʟᴀɪɴᴛ. 

Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue, 
in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle. 
A Poeme enterlaced with much varietie and raritie; 
now first translated out of the venerable Italian Torquato 
Caeliano, by Robert Chester. 
With the true legend of famous King Arthur the last of the nine 
Worthies, being the first Essay of a new Brytish Poet: collected 
out of diuerse Authenticall Records. 
To these are added some new compositions of seuerall moderne Writers 
whose names are subscribed to their seuerall workes, vpon the 
first subiect viz. the Phoenix 
and Turtle.

Following Chester's poem are "Poetical Essays on the Former Subject viz. The Turtle and the Phoenix", including poems by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, John Marston, and William Shakespeare, most notably his The Phoenix and the Turtle.

Chester writes of the significance of the Phoenix and the Turtle (turtle in this context meaning a turtledove):
Phoenix of beautie, beauteous, Bird of any
To thee I do entitle all my labour,
More precious in mine eye by far then many
That feedst all earthly sences with thy savour:
Accept my home-writ praises of thy love,
And kind acceptance of thy Turtle-dove...
He writes, as the title suggests, on an ideal love exemplified by these two birds. When we get to Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Turtle we reach the end of love: the two birds have died. Here's the poem in full:
Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.  
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.  
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king;
Keep the obsequy so strict.  
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.  
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.  
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.  
So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.  
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
'Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.  
So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix' sight:
Either was the other's mine.  
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.  
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;  
That it cried, "How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain."  
Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:  
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd, in cinders lie.  
Death is now the Phoenix' nest,
And the Turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,  
Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.  
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.  
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
Detail of 'The Phoenix Portrait'
of Elizabeth I, thought to be painted
by Nicholas Hilliard. 
This is a strange poem indeed; it reminded a little of William Blake, and Geoffrey Chaucer too - particularly Chaucer's Parlement of Foules (1382) in which the birds discuss love, companionship, and fulfilment. Associating birds with love is also seen in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600): on finding the lovers in the woods, Theseus remarks, "Saint Valentine is past, / Begin these wood birds but to couple now?".

It's thought that the eagle in Chaucer's poem represented Anne of Bohemia, and the eagle's three suitors represented King Richard II, Friedrich of Meissen, and Dauphin and future King Charles VI of France. In Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle some believe the birds were inspired by John and Ursula Salisbury (Love's Martyr is dedicated to John Salisbury); others believe the Phoenix of the title represented Queen Elizabeth I (the phoenix being a royal emblem, seen on the left) who Shakespeare referred to in Henry VIII (1613) as the 'maiden phoenix':
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself...
Whoever inspired the poem, it is a very beautiful and moving one on love, dedication, perfection, and loyalty. It's notoriously one of Shakespeare's most difficult works, but very short and very much worth reading.

The poem in the 1878 edition of Love's Martyr.

That was my 47th Deal Me In title. Next week - Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf.

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