Skip to content

From “The Phoenix And The Turtle”

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.

From Romeo and Juliet Act I Scene V

Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this.
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: The move not while my prayers effect I take.

–WIlliam Shakespeare, 1595

COMMENTARY: Romeo and Juliet rhymes more than any other Shakespearian tragedy. From the sonnet prologue (“two households, both alike in dignity”) to the opening lines (“upon my word, we’ll not carry coals” / “nay for then we’d be colliers” / “An be in choler, then we’ll draw”) the language of the play, against the darkness of the story, shimmers with playfulness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “kissing scene” at the end of the first act. At the level of words, there is the lyrical punning of palmers (pilgrims who returned from the holy land with a frond) and palm of the hand–a pun that lies flush in the finger-clasped line of “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” At the level of structure is the way Shakespeare embeds a Petrarchan sonnet in the dialogue, dividing the 14 lines and six rhymes evenly between the two lovers.

From The Wasteland

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

–T.S. Eliot, 1922

COMMENTARY: Alienation, boredom, infertility, and myth are more or less the four themes of The Wasteland and combine here in the “seduction” scene–a brief anecdote in the third section which explores, in various forms, unsatisfying love. Related by Tiresias, who, in Greek myth, was a seer who had lived as both a man and a woman, the seduction scene illustrates Elliot’s method of mixing the high style with the low subject. The deliberately elevated language (“violet hour,” “throbbing, waiting,” etc.) along with the traditional rhyme scheme contrast with the sordid, tedious, and (April-ish-ly) cruel encounter between the lovers. As such, the scene offers a pessimistic foil to the stereotype of romance associated with traditional love poetry.

The Knocker

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me
yes—yes
no—no

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem
yes—yes
no—no

Zbigniew Herbert 1963, Tr Peter Dale Scott

COMMENTARY: Living half of his life in a Polish state that was first destroyed by Nazi Germany and then subjugated by the Soviet Union, Zbigniew Herbert’s conceptions of art were, of necessity, confronted by the brutal reality of politics. Politics, at that time and place, meant morality that, whether fascist or communist, knocked a heavy handed “yes-yes” or “no-no.” The thumping of a moralist dogma, rigid black-&-white polarity, is the opposite of the dreamy romance of “those who grow gardens in their head.” Interestingly Herbert does not count himself as a writer of the easy (facile?) poems of the freewheeling “schools of images.” Though the poem sparkles with vividness (the green bell of a tree/ the blue bell of water), Herbert claims that he is writing the dry poem of the moralist. Such a contradiction is both Herbert’s way of creating thematic tension (by having the poem perform the very thing it denies) and, relatedly, making the poem say yes-no–in ambiguity that belies moralism.

From “Schooner in Flight”

Christ have mercy on all sleeping things!
From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road
to when I was a dog on these streets;
if loving these islands must be my load,
out of corruption my soul takes wings.
But they had started to poison my soul
with their big house, big car, big-time bohbohl,
coolie, nigger, Syrian, and French Creole,
so I leave it for them and their carnival—
I taking a sea bath, I gone down the road.
I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,
a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes
that they nickname Shabine, the patois for
any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw
when these slums of empire was paradise.
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

Derek Walcott, 1986

COMMENTARY

Derek Walcott, the most famous poet of my ancestral homeland, Trinidad, passed away this week. Though I’ve found his poems difficult to swallow whole (so many colliding elements), I like him in spare lines, and find him to be, on an image by image, sound by sound, basis, a powerful master. In this excerpt from the long poem “Schooner in Flight” he builds out of oblique, grubby details the portrait of “Shabine”–half Caribean island Everyman and half Walcott himself. The themes that absorbed Walcott throughout his career–the sea, racial marginalization, the sea, colonialism, the sea–are arrayed in a brisk, marching rodomontade, building up to an epitaph which beautifully merges the trifling and the transcendent.

A Match With The Moon

Weary already, weary miles to-night
I walked for bed: and so, to get some ease,
I dogged the flying moon with similes.
And like a wisp she doubled on my sight
In ponds; and caught in tree-tops like a kite;
And in a globe of film all liquorish
Swam full-faced like a silly silver fish;—
Last like a bubble shot the welkin’s height
Where my road turned, and got behind me, and sent
My wizened shadow craning round at me,
And jeered, ‘So, step the measure,—one two three!’—
And if I faced on her, looked innocent.
But just at parting, halfway down a dell,
She kissed me for good-night. So you’ll not tell.

–Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1860

COMMENTARY: The moon is full tonight (or almost)–you can see both rabbit ears clearly–so I thought I’d post this playful Rossetti sonnet in which the moon is “dogged” with six successive similes (wisp, kite, liquorish globe, fish, and bubble). Making a simile is a kind of kissing and telling–kissing, in the sense of deriving contact and pleasure; telling, in the sense of speaking and discerning. But why not tell? You won’t know what I’m talking about? You want understand the nature of this fanciful, imaginative frolic? I’m not sure.

There is also a playful pun in “match”–both the the doubling of the moon in similes and also (implicitly) the woman that the speaker is thinking about and ogling the moon to “get some ease” from.

From “Ash Wednesday”

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

***
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper.

–T.S. Eliot 1927

COMMENTARY: Today is Ash Wednesday and so here is a poem to smear somewhere on the forehead. I like these lines for the way the surprising and vibrant image of the leopards segues into the bleaker, darker imagery of the desert. The sense of the arid and ash-like comes not only from the corpse-imagery (liver, heart, bones, wind, etc) but from the syntactical elongation, the way the lines stretch longer than they need to. For example, instead of simply saying “brain” in the third line, Eliot says “that which had been contained/ In the hollow round of my skull.” The rhythm of the sentences stretches and gapes, thereby conveying the sense of a passive suffering unnecessarily prolonged, a hurt expectancy that simply refused to die.