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From “The Phoenix And The Turtle”

April 24, 2017

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.”

–William Shakespeare, 1601

COMMENTARY: Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, so I thought I’d post a second consecutive poem of his. One of a handful of relatively “long” poems by Shakespeare, the Phoenix and the Turtle was commissioned as part of an anthology of sorts, centered around a long poem by Robert Chester, which addressed the theme of devoted love using the metaphor the (female) phoenix and the (male) turtledove. Published under the title Love’s Martyr, the anthology also includes poems by Ben Johnson and John Marston.

The section of the poem excerpted here is a eulogy for the lovers who, having burned in the phoenix’s fire, are now fully intermingled in death. The fire, of course, is partly figurative–the desire that feeds on its own fuel, and unites the partners so that “love in twain/ has the essence but in one/ two distincts, division none.”

The poem is remarkable for the muscularity of the music, the way the syntax fits so snugly into the narrow-shouldered rhymes. I also like the way Shakespeare plays with the idea of unity in partition, of numbers confounded. It’s like a sort of amorous dividing of the loaves and the fishes and then putting them together. Happy 453rd Shakespeare.


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