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What’s with Shakespeare’s ‘Poet’ in Julius Caesar?

 

Because I was having trouble focusing on my own poetry, I flipped open my complete Norton Shakespeare, to a page at random, and started reading. I had stumbled into Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 2 — the argument between Brutus and Cassius — one of my favorite dramatic scenes. The swift give and take between the two characters is beautifully imagined (naturally enough, this is Shakespeare). At the very end of their argument, do you remember this part?

Cassius Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter  to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
[They embrace]
Cassius: O Brutus!
Brutus: What’s the matter?
Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
[Enter Lucillius]
Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight.  etc.

Some readers might have a vague memory of this. Others, much more familiar with the play, may notice something or someone missing — the Poet. The Poet is a character who only appears once in the entire play, without any warning, without any preamble, and only between the lines shakespeareabove (which I removed).

Now, if you’re anything like me, the first thought that occurs to you is: Huh? Where did this utterly superfluous and arbitrary character come from? And why? What purpose does he serve? And where did he go? The scene works just fine without him. So I got to thinking about it and came up with an almost completely baseless theory proceeding from the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. But hear me out. The first thing to notice is that I could excise the passage without messing up the lines (meter). This may be complete coincidence, but it may also hint that the passage is an interpolation added later.

However, knowing that Shakespeare based Julius Ceasar on Plutarch,  I first wanted to see if “the Poet ” is in Plutarch. In fact, he is… sort of.  Here’s the relevant passage from here:

Brutus now summoned Cassius to Sardis, and as he drew near, went to meet him with his friends; and the whole army, in full array, saluted them both as Imperators. 2 But, as is wont to be the case in great undertakings where there are many friends and commanders, mutual charges and accusations had passed between them, and therefore, immediately after their march and before they did anything else, they met in a room by themselves. The doors were locked, and, with no one by, they indulged in fault-finding first, then in rebukes and denunciations. 3 After this, they were swept along into passionate speeches and tears, and their friends, amazed at the harshness and intensity of their anger, feared so untoward a result; they were, however, forbidden to approach. 4 But Marcus Favonius, who had become a devotee of Cato, and was more impetuous and frenzied than reasonable in his pursuit of philosophy, tried to go in to them, and was prevented by their servants. 5 It was no easy matter, however, to stop Favonius when he sprang to do anything, for he was always vehement and rash. The fact that he was a Roman senator was of no importance in his eyes, and by the “cynical” boldness of his speech he often took away its offensiveness, and therefore men put up with his impertinence as a joke. 6 And so at this time he forced his way through the bystanders and entered the room, reciting in an affected voice the verses wherein Homer represents Nestor as saying:—

“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am,”

and so forth. 7 At this Cassius burst out laughing; but Brutus drove Favonius out of the room, calling him a mere dog, and a counterfeit Cynic. However, at the time, this incident put an end to their quarrel, and they separated at once. 8 Furthermore, Cassius gave a supper, to which Brutus invited his friends. And as the guests were already taking their places at the feast, Favonius came, fresh from his bath. Brutus protested that he had come without an invitation, and ordered the servants to conduct him to the uppermost couch; but Favonius forced his way past them and reclined upon the central one.b And over the wine mirth and jest abounded, seasoned with wit and philosophy.

So, a mystery is afoot. If Shakespeare was solely being faithful to Plutarch, why introduce Favonius as a “Poet”? And if faithfulness was at issue, why exclude Favonius from Brutus and Cassius’ drinking bout? And if faithfulness was not at issue, why introduce Favonius at all? How does he advance the play? In Plutarch’s original, it was Favonius’ interruption (and Brutus and Cassius’ mutual contempt for him) that united them and ended their quarrel. In Shakespeare’s version of events, Brutus and Cassius had already embraced prior to the “Poet’s” appearance, so there’s no reason for Favonius, or the Poet, to enter the scene (let alone the play). None.

So, what’s going on? Well. I have a theory.

My theory, which I’ve already alluded to, is that the Poet’s appearance wasn’t in the original play, but was an interpolation added by Shakespeare (most likely) at some point after the play was originally written. Why? I think the clue is that Favonius was changed to a poet. ben-jonsonRight about this time, the famous (or infamous) “Poet’s War” was getting started (Ben Jonson being in the middle of it). I think the “Poet” was Shakespeare’s jab at Jonson. There’s reason to think that Shakespeare made other jabs at Jonson, and Jonson appears to have lampooned Shakespeare in his plays (setting aside his satirical characterizations of Webster and Dekker). The Poet’s War was no secret and the Elizabethan audience was in on it. They were well aware of who was being satirized and lampooned — and they loved it.

But, you may object, the character of Favonius was never referred to as “a poet”. How would the audience have been in on the joke? My answer? Probably because he was dressed like a poet, or dramatist, and possibly was even made to look like Ben Jonson. And furthermore, going completely out on a limb, my bet is that Shakespeare (to really capitalize on the joke) played the part of the Poet. But before we go any further, let’s take a step back. Would Shakespeare really “mar” one of his masterpieces for the sake of a joke?

We know that Shakespeare was involved in the poet’s war because of a reference to Shakespeare and Jonson made by an anonymous author at St. John’s College in 1601-2, in his A Return from Parnassus. My source for this (and all that follows) is Shakespeare & The Poet’s War by James P. Bednarz. Bednarz writes:

 …the anonymous author has the students impersonating Richard Burbage and William Kemp not only reveal that Shakespeare participated in the struggle but also affirm that by the strength of his wit he managed to overcome all other combatants in the process. “Kemp” especially exults in Shakespeare’s victory over Jonson:

Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, ay and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow. He brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit. [p. 21]

The rest of Berdnarz’s book is dedicated to teasing out exactly what this “purge” might have been. All critics agree on the “pill” — Jonson’s denunciation of Marston and Dekker in Act 5, Scene 3 of Poetaster, but there’s no real agreement on the “purge”. First to the pill. Jonson was in a snit. Marston had gotten things going by, among other things, stating that Jonson was little more than a translator who stole the works of others. Jonson’s riposte was to satirize Marston’s turgid style and mannered vocabulary in the character of Crispinus. The specific passage is about half way down, but I’ve copied this much because it begins with the “pill”. As Bednarz points out, “Crisponus disgorges fourteen words and phrases that can still be located in Marston’s prior work: ‘barmy froth,’ ‘chilblained,’ ‘clumsy,’ ‘clutched,’ [etc…]” p. 215]

Hor. Please it, great Caesar, I have pills about me,
Mixt with the whitest kind of hellebore,
Would give him a light vomit, that should purge
His brain and stomach of those tumorous heats:
Might I have leave to minister unto him.
Caes.
O, be his AEsculapius, gentle Horace!
You shall have leave, and he shall be your patient. Virgil,
Use your authority, command him forth.
Virg.
Caesar is careful of your health, Crispinus;
And hath himself chose a physician
To minister unto you: take his pills.
Hor.
They are somewhat bitter, sir, but very wholesome.
Take yet another; so: stand by, they’ll work anon.
Tib. Romans, return to your several seats: lictors, bring forward
the urn; and set the accused to the bar.
Tuc. Quickly, you whoreson egregious varlets; come forward. What!
shall we sit all day upon you? You make no more haste now, than a
beggar upon pattens; or a physician to a patient that has no money,
you pilchers.
Tib. Rufus Laberius Crispinus, and Demetrius Fannius, hold up your
hands. You have, according to the Roman custom, put yourselves upon
trial to the urn, for divers and sundry calumnies, whereof you
have, before this time, been indicted, and are now presently
arraigned: prepare yourselves to hearken to the verdict of your
tryers. Caius Cilnius Mecaenas pronounceth you, by this
hand-writing, guilty. Cornelius Gallus, guilty. Pantilius Tucca–
Tuc. Parcel-guilty, I.
Dem.
He means himself; for it was he indeed
Suborn’d us to the calumny.
Tuc. I, you whoreson cantharides! was it I?
Dem. I appeal to your conscience, captain.
Tib. Then you confess it now?
Dem. I do, and crave the mercy of the court.
Tib. What saith Crispinus?
Cris. O, the captain, the captain—
Bor. My physic begins to work with my patient, I see.
Virg. Captain, stand forth and answer.
Tuc. Hold thy peace, poet praetor: I appeal from thee to Caesar, I.
Do me right, royal Caesar.
Caes.
Marry, and I will, sir.—Lictors, gag him; do.
And put a case of vizards o’er his head,
That he may look bifronted, as he speaks.
Tuc. Gods and fiends! Caesar! thou wilt not, Caesar, wilt thou?
Away, you whoreson vultures; away. You think I am a dead corps now,
because Caesar is disposed to jest with a man of mark, or so. Hold
your hook’d talons out of my flesh, you inhuman harpies. Go to,
do’t. What! will the royal Augustus cast away a gentleman of
worship, a captain and a commander, for a couple of condemn’d
caitiff calumnious cargos?
Caes. Dispatch, lictors.
Tuc. Caesar!                   [The vizards are put upon him.
Caes. Forward, Tibullus.
Virg. Demand what cause they had to malign Horace.
Dem. In troth, no great cause, not I, I must confess; but that he
kept better company, for the most part, than I; and that better men
loved him than loved me; and that his writings thrived better than
mine, and were better liked and graced: nothing else.
Virg.
Thus envious souls repine at others’ good.
Hor.
If this be all, faith, I forgive thee freely.
Envy me still, so long as Virgil loves me,
Gallus, Tibullus, and the best-best Caesar,
My dear Mecaenas; while these, with many more,
Whose names I wisely slip, shall think me worthy
Their honour’d and adored society,
And read and love, prove and applaud my poems;
I would not wish but such as you should spite them.
Cris. O–!
Tib. How now, Crispinus?
Cris. O, I am sick–!
Hor. A bason, a bason, quickly; our physic works. Faint not, man.
Cris. O——retrograde——reciprocal——incubus.
Caes. What’s that, Horace?
Hor. Retrograde, reciprocal, and incubus, are come up.
Gal. Thanks be to Jupiter!
Cris. O——glibbery——lubrical——defunct——O——!
Hor. Well said; here’s some store.
Virg. What are they?
Hor. Glibbery, lubrical, and defunct.
Gal. O, they came up easy.
Cris. O——O——!
Tib. What’s that?
Hor. Nothing yet.
Cris. Magnificate——
Mec. Magnificate!  That came up somewhat hard.
Hor. Ay. What cheer, Crispinus?
Cris. O! I shall cast up my——spurious——snotteries——
Hor. Good. Again.
Oris. Chilblain’d——O——O——clumsie——
Hor. That clumsie stuck terribly.
Mec. What’s all that, Horace?
Hor. Spurious, snotteries, chilblain’d, clumsie.
Tib. O Jupiter!
Gal. Who would have thought there should have been such a deal of
filth in a poet?
Cris. O——balmy froth——
Caes. What’s that?
Cris.——Puffie——inflate——turgidious——-ventosity.
Hor. Balmy, froth, puffie, inflate, turgidous, and ventosity are
come up.
Tib. O terrible windy words.
Gal. A sign of a windy brain.
Cris. O——oblatrant——furibund——fatuate——strenuous—
Hor. Here’s a deal; oblatrant, furibund, fatuate, strenuous.
Caes. Now all’s come up, I trow. What a tumult he had in his belly?
Hor. No, there’s the often conscious damp behind still.
Cris. O——conscious——damp.
Hor. It is come up, thanks to Apollo and AEsculapius: another; you
were best take a pill more.
Cris. O, no; O——O——O——O——O!
Hor. Force yourself then a little with your finger.
Cris. O——O——prorumped.
Tib. Prorumped I What a noise it made! as if his spirit would have
prorumpt with it.
Cris. O——O——O!
Virg. Help him, it sticks strangely, whatever it is.
Cris. O——clutcht
Hor. Now it is come; clutcht.
Caes. Clutcht!  it is well that’s come up; it had but a narrow
passage.
Cris. O——!
Virg. Again! hold him, hold his head there.
Cris. Snarling gusts——quaking custard.
Hor. How now, Crispinus?
Cris. O——obstupefact.
Tib. Nay, that are all we, I assure you.
Hor. How do you feel yourself?
Cris. Pretty and well, I thank you.
Virg.
These pills can but restore him for a time,
Not cure him quite of such a malady,
Caught by so many surfeits, which have fill’d
His blood and brain thus full of crudities:
‘Tis necessary therefore he observe
A strict and wholesome diet. Look you take
Each morning of old Cato’s principles
A good draught next your heart; that walk upon,
Till it be well digested: then come home,
And taste a piece of Terence, suck his phrase
Instead of liquorice; and, at any hand,
Shun Plautus and old Ennius: they are meats
Too harsh for a weak stomach.
Use to read (But not without a tutor) the best Greeks,
As Orpheus, Musaeus, Pindarus,
Hesiod, Callimachus, and Theocrite,
High Homer; but beware of Lycophron,
He is too dark and dangerous a dish.
You must not hunt for wild outlandish terms,
To stuff out a peculiar dialect;
But let your matter run before your words.
And if at any time you chance to meet
Some Gallo-Belgic phrase; you shall not straight.
Rack your poor verse to give it entertainment,
But let it pass; and do not think yourself
Much damnified, if you do leave it out,
When nor your understanding, nor the sense
Could well receive it. This fair abstinence,
In time, will render you more sound and clear:
And this have I prescribed to you, in place
Of a strict sentence; which till he perform,
Attire him in that robe. And henceforth learn
To bear yourself more humbly; not to swell,
Or breathe your insolent and idle spite
On him whose laughter can your worst affright.
Tib. Take him away.

Note the monologue at the end, where Ben Jonson, in the guise of Virgil, gets to pompously lecture Marston and Dekker. My point in copying it here is, first, because it’s actually hilarious if you can imagine it onstage and, two, to show how Jonson, Dekker, Marston, and eventually Poets' WarShakespeare, after his own fashion, were playing out their argument before all of London. Not only were they making their case before the Elizabethan public, but it’s also liekly that their on-stage dispute was raking in the money; and they weren’t fools (Marston, Dekker, and Jonson would all happily work together again.) It’s not unreasonable to suspect that they kissed and made up well before they ended the feud. But getting back to Shakespeare, what was his fashion? Berdnarz argues that Shakespeare satirized Jonson in the character of Ajax from his play Troilus and Cressida:.

“As Elton observes, the language of A Return from Parnassus is more prcise in its connotations than readers had heretofore recognized. Kemp’s line, “our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit,” uses the word “beray” as a synonym in Elizabethan parlance for “befoul” or “beshit.” Elron concludes that Shakespeare ‘purged’ Jonson by satirizing him as a witless braggart soldier compounded of humours, and berayed his credit — befouled his reputation — by naming him Ajax, signifying a privy’ Shakespeare needed Ajaz for the depiction of Trojan history, but he built into the role a reference to Jonson in order to expose him by proxy to his own comic plotting. Ever since John Harington in The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) encouraged his readers to pronounce the hero’s name with a stress on the second syllable (“a jakes”), it had had a latent comic association. Harington incited a reply from an anonymous rival who took him to task in Ulysses Upon Ajax, or in other words, “Ulyssess on the privy.” [p. 32-33]

Shakespeare’s satire of Jonson is gist for the entire book, but this at least gives an introduction. What did Jonson say that irked Shakespeare? As it turns out, one of Jonson’s surviving criticisms of Shakespeare pertains to his play Julius Caesar:

“Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, “Caesar, thou dost me wrong,” he replied “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”

Now, strangely enough, this line can’t be found in the play as it as come down to us. Instead, we find the following:

“Know Caesar doth no wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.”

Somebody changed the line. Not only that, when but when they changed it they left a half-line, as if, in Berdnarz’s words, they indicated a revision. What this tells us is that the play was altered subsequent to Jonson’s barb; and this is important because it adds just a little plausibility to my own contention that the “Poet” was also, possibly, a subsequent revision. In other words, Shakespeare may have corrected the much maligned line, but also added a little barb in the guise of the “poet”.

But before I copy out the lines with Shakespeare’s “Poet” included, a couple more observations. There was another criticism that Jonson made of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, and that was lambasting Shakespeare for ignoring the classical unities. Jonson especially singled out the Shakespeare’s Henry V, contemptuous of the play’s personified “Prologue” who wafted the audience hither and anon in complete disregard of the “classical unities“. In the 1616 Folio Edition of Jonson’s plays, the following prologue appeared in Every Man In His Humour.

SCENE,—LONDON
PROLOGUE.

Though need make many poets, and some such
As art and nature have not better’d much;
Yet ours for want hath not so loved the stage,
As he dare serve the ill customs of the age,
Or purchase your delight at such a rate,
As, for it, he himself must justly hate:
To make a child now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster’s king jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.
He rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;
But deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would shew an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.
Except we make them such, by loving still
Our popular errors, when we know they’re ill.
I mean such errors as you’ll all confess,
By laughing at them, they deserve no less:
Which when you heartily do, there’s hope left then,
You, that have so grac’d monsters, may like men.

The whole of it is a scathing criticism from beginning to end. From what I can gather, the assumption seems to be that because the prologue first appeared in print in the 1616 Folio Edition, it must have been written then. I don’t see a compelling reason to make that assumption. Why would Jonson write such a scathing prologue almost 20 years after Henry V’s first appearance (1599)? My own supposition, and based on Shakespeare’s “Poet”, is that it appeared much earlier, and was probably appended to the play during the Poetomachia. Every Man In His Humour was first staged in 1598, before Henry V, but continued to be staged, and probably contemporaneously with Henry V. In fact, Jonson’s play was entered into the Register of the Stationers’ Company on 4 August 1600, along with Shakespeare’s  As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V. It’s much more likely, in my opinion, that the prologue, or an early form of it, appeared shortly after Henry V as the Poetomachia heated up. If I’m right, then Jonson only formally added it to the play, for the sake of the folio, in 1616.

And one last bit of information before we read the passage with the poet. Here’s a brief explanation of Jonson’s Humours from here:

As Jonson has been much misrepresented in this matter, let us quote his
own words as to “humour.” A humour, according to Jonson, was a bias of
disposition, a warp, so to speak, in character by which

“Some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way.”

But continuing, Jonson is careful to add:

“But that a rook by wearing a pied feather,
The cable hat-band, or the three-piled ruff,
A yard of shoe-tie, or the Switzers knot
On his French garters, should affect a humour!
O, it is more than most ridiculous.”

Jonson’s comedy of humours, in a word, conceived of stage personages
on the basis of a ruling trait or passion (a notable simplification
of actual life be it observed in passing); and, placing these typified
traits in juxtaposition in their conflict and contrast, struck the
spark of comedy.

Now, what would you do if you were Shakespeare? Not only does Jonson lay into your play Julius Caesar, shooting off his mouth about a phrase that he finds utterly nonsensical,

“I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. . .” ~ Ben Jonson

But he’s he added a rhyming Prologue to his play Every Man in his Humour, accusing you of provincial incompetence, of ignoring the classical unities (messing with the normal progress of time and place), and does it all while lording his own classical education over you. Why, if you were Shakespeare, you might go back and insert a few lines, changing Plutarch’s Favonius into a character who looked and acted suspiciously like Ben Jonson, and probably much to the uproarious delight of the playgoers.

Cassius: Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter  to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
[They embrace]
Cassius: O Brutus!
Brutus:
What’s the matter?

Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
Enter [Lucillius and] a POET
POET: Let me go in to see the generals.
There is some grudge between ‘em; ’tis not meet
They be alone.
Lucillius: You shall not come to them.
POET: Nothing but death shall stay me.
Cassius: How now! What’s the matter?
POET: For shame, you generals, what do you mean?
Love and be friends, as two such men should be.
For I have seen more years, I’m sure, than ye.
Cassius: Ha, ha! How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!
Brutus [to the Poet] Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!
Cassius: Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.
Brutus: I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?
[To the Poet] Companion, hence!
Cassius: Away, away, be gone!
Exit POET
Brutus: Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight. etc.

That Poet, I propose, is Ben Jonson. He can’t keep from barging in and giving his pompous, bloated opinion in the midst of the play. I suspect the audience immediately recognized him. In he goes! Nothing but death shall stay him! (And that might be a barbed reference to Jonson’s boasting that he had taken Marston’s pistol from him. ) What does Jonson do? He claims legitimacy “for I have seen more years” in a way that echoes his claim to a superior knowledge of classical literature — (400px-Lucius_Junius_Brutus_MAN_Napoli_Inv6178the classical unities & dramaturgy). “How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!” cries Brutus. Favonius was a cynic, a “member of a philosophical school that refused to respect differences in social class.” [The Norton Shakespeare p. 1575] Jonson, among other jests, ceaselessly made fun of Shakespeare’s desire to be a gentleman and obtain a coat of arms. Consider this from Wikipedia:

Every Man Out of His Humour includes several references to Shakespeare and his contemporaneous works: a mention of Justice Silence from Henry IV, Part 2—”this is a kinsman to Justice Silence” (V,ii) and two allusions to Julius Casear, which help to date that play to 1599. “Et tu, Brute” occurs in V,iv of Every Man Out; in III,i appears “reason long since is fled to animals,” a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s line “O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts” in Julius Caesar, III,ii,104. Some critics have seen a dig at Shakespeare in the coat of arms that Jonson gives his character Sogliardo in III,1, whose crest features a ” boar without a head, rampant – A boar without a head, that’s very rare!” and the motto “Not without mustard.” The motto of Shakespeare’s family coat of arms granted three years earlier was Non Sans Droit, “not without right.”

Shakespeare’s humorous jab is both true to Plutarch (Favonius was a cynic) and also true of Jonson (who disrespects Shakespeare’s social climbing). The “rhyme”, in my opinion, refers to the rhyming of the prologue to Every Man In His Humour. Shakespeare, in the character of Brutus, then brusquely dismisses Jonson:  “Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!”

Cassius, perhaps representing the common opinion on Jonson, says: “Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.”

This is the praise that damns. Jonson’s posturing is merely fashion, rather than anything principled. And then Brutus executes the coup de grâce:

I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?

In my view, Shakespeare all but spells it out. “I’ll know his humour” — a sly reference to Jonson’s plays Every Man In and Every Man Out of His Humour, if not his philosophical dramaturgy in generalwhen he knows his time.” I suspect time is a coy jab at Jonson’s harping on the classical unities. In other words, Shakespeare will give a damn what Jonson thinks when Jonson knows his time — that he’s a playwright in Elizabethan England and not ancient Rome. Basta. And then he adds (with possibly a reference to Henry V) — “What should the wars (Henry V) do with these jigging (rhyming) fools (Ben Jonson).”

“Away, away, be gone!” says Cassius, as though speaking the general censure.

All the while, Brutus and Cassius are laughing; and this too is true to Plutarch, who wrote that Favonius’s foolery disarmed both Brutus’s and Cassius’s anger. Shakespeare substitutes the so-called “Poet”, Ben Jonson, for the fool, Favonius; and probably to the delight of the Elizabethan audience, who laughed along with Brutus and Cassius.

A stroke of genius, if you ask me (and if I’m right). Let me know what you think.

Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets

 

Byron_ShelleySo, the other book I read was Byron & Shelley in their Time: The Making of the Poets. This is written by Ian Gilmour. Gilmour’s writing is much different from Sisman’s. Whereas Sisman’s narrative voice is more generically reportorial, Gilmour packs his narrative with subjective opinion and analysis – revealing a knowledge of culture and politics that Sisman nowhere matches.  Gilmour digs in, hard, giving opinions on both Byron and Shelley’s behavior — and doesn’t pull any punches. I frankly like Gilmour’s style of writing more than Sisman’s. If Gilmour thinks Shelley was  being ridiculous, he says so. And there’s plenty of opportunity. Interestingly, it strikes me that Gilmour repeatedly dismisses Shelley’s atheism and I do have to wonder whether part of that is because of his having been a Conservative MP from 1962 to 1992, “having served as Secretary of State for Defense under Edward Heath and then as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.”  I don’t know if a conservative MP is the same thing as a conservative in the United States (those in the United States never saw a problem the Bible couldn’t fix.)

The downside to Gilmour’s biography is that there’s relatively little poetry. He spends much of his time on Byron and Shelley’s politics (which makes sense, I suppose, given his background) and sexual proclivities, speculating time and again on whether their various physical ailments were due to STD’s. To be fair, the lion’s share of the biography takes place before they had written anything memorable, and yet some influence on their later work ought to be demonstrable. If you visit Amazon you’ll see that other readers thought Gilmour dwelt too much on the “biography” and too little on the poetry.

As for myself, the whole book was an education on the brutal Lord of the Flies that was the British educational system, and the incompetent, self-interested, cruel corruption that characterized the rule of the aristocracy. What really struck me is how, in certain respects, little has changed. We still see the same forces battling each other today, including in the United States. The aristocrats have been replaced by monied conservatives and Republicans. The Republicans of Byron and Shelley’s day, on the other hand, have become our modern liberals. Just as the authoritarian English aristocrats felt they were entitled to their money and status (and didn’t owe a shred of their wealth to the less well off) so it is with modern authoritarian conservatives — whose cries of socialism are little more than an affirmation of Social Darwinism (which is all well and good when the money’s in their pocket).

The British  government didn’t serve the people; it was the other way around and knowingly so. And Religion, by the way, really was the opiate of the masses. The upper classes knowingly expected the Church (which has almost always enjoyed the status of an aristocracy) to uphold the social order:

Together with Napolean and many others, Edmund Burke was convinced that only if religion was able to keep the poor, if not contented, at least quiescent, could great inequalities of wealth survive. Thus to the Church — long an important part of the state — fell the task of providing ‘divine cement’ to hold society together by urging the poor to seek their consolation in the next world, not this one. [p. 48]

In our own time, the parallel is to the elevation of unregulated Capitalism. Just as the poor were urged to seek consolation in the “next world”, the poor in the United States are urged to seek consolation in the promise that they too, given the right  circumstances, could enjoy the ‘next world’ that the wealthy and rich already enjoy — the ‘divine cement’ of modern America is the illusion of “equal opportunity” or rather, the notion that all opportunity is equal, that the same wealth can be had by all — promised (though through different means) by both Republicans and Democrats. Gilmour goes on to add:

William Wilberforce, who took a much stronger line on slavery, of course, also urged the poor to be grateful for having to withstand fewer temptations than the rich, consequently they should be content to have ‘food and raiment’ (even though many of them did not have enough) since ‘their situation’ was better ‘than they deserved at the hand of God.’ [p. 48]

And for comparison’s sake, here’s Tucker Carlson of Fox News:

 “All of us should be happy about one thing, and it’s that for the first time in human history you have a country whose poor people are fat.  So this does show this sort of amazing abundance.  For the last however many millennia, poor people starved to death.  And this is a country that’s so rich, whose agriculture sector is so vibrant and at the cutting edge technologically, that our food is so cheap, poor people are fat! I mean, I don’t know. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”

It’s the same monied aristocracy alive and well today. By today’s standards, Shelley would be a scrappy progressive writing blistering jeremiads for far left think tanks, giving Republicans dyspepsia (he reviled marriage before settling, it seems, for an open marriage), and Byron would be the well-heeled Democratic Senator from Massachusetts (a devastatingly handsome, brilliant, womanizing, Ivy-League progressive with a gated colonial at Martha’s Vineyard). Both Shelley (and Bryon especially) came from aristocratic families, and both were active in their political leanings. For example, the British law of the entail requires that the passage of (a landed estate) [be limited] to a specified line of heirs, so that it cannot be alienated, devised, or bequeathed.” This meant, by law, that Shelley was entitled to his father’s inheritance and estate (and none of his sisters). And, as it turns out, William Bysshe Shelley was the first and only eldest son and aristocrat, in the history of England, who tried to disinherit himself — so disgusted was he by the whole system. Shelley’s father, Timothy Shelley, a cold, disinterested and inept father of strong conservative conviction would have been equally happy to disinherit his son:

Shelley had had no word from his father. As soon as Timothy received his son’s letter of 25 August, posted by Charles Grove (which, as we have seen, boorishly demanded his belongings), he hastened to London to consult Whitton, his solicitor. He would have liked to disinherit his son, but Whitton showed him that the entails ruled that out, much as they had ruled out Shelley disinheriting himself. [p. 280]

And that was that. Gilmour also devotes a chapter to Shelley’s trip to Dublin, Ireland.

The object of his Address to them, which he had written at Keswick and revised in Dublin where it was printed cheaply and shoddily, was to ‘awaken… the Irish poor’ to the evils of their present state and suggest ‘rational means of remedy — Catholic Emancipation, and a Repeal of the Union Act, (the latter the most successful engine that England ever wielded over the misery of fallen Ireland,)… Hence, Shelley had ‘wilfully vulgarized its language… [to suit] the taste and comprehension of the Irish peasantry who have been too long brutalized by vice and ignorance.’ [p. 306]

Gilmour goes on to assert that Shelley misjudged the Irish only insomuch,  it seems, as he was too progressive. “Shelley further offended his target readers by telling them that the gates of heaven were open to people of every religion, which was not the general view in a country where, as Byron had written… ‘jarring sects convulse a sister isle'” [p. 307] Byron, on the other hand, is portrayed as a more practical personality with a more  even-keeled intelligence. And that’s where I discovered that I liked Byron after all, and more than Shelley (though I don’t dislike Shelley).

Byron’s ill-repute is based on his womanizing, his  incestuous relationship with his sister, and his aristocratic hypocrisy (while decrying the undeserved entitlements of the ‘nobility’, he nevertheless took offense at the most trivial slights to his own). In another biography of Byron and Shelley (I’ve just started) the author, John Buxton, puts it this way:

Charles Hentsch, the banker, who at twenty-six was already well known [in Geneva] came [to Byron] to apologise for not recognizing Byron when he visited the bank on the previous day. He had the tact to say that he had had no idea that he was then speaking to one of the most famous Lords of England. Byron took to him at once (as he would not have done had Hentsch called him one of the most famous poets of England… [p. 6 Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship]

That made me laugh. And I’m inclined to agree with Buxton. The thing about Byron though (and this is also true of Shelley) is that one has to consider his upbringing before judging his adulthood. Byron was born with a club foot (or an abnormality that was inaccurately diagnosed as such). As a child, he had to wear a brace (concocted by a quack) which was ostensibly meant to correct the leg but only caused extreme pain and possibly worsened Byron’s leg. Once Byron landed in school, a brutal environment where a hundred boys might be ‘disciplined’ by a single adult, he was bullied mercilessly because of it  (like Shelley for smallness, eccentricity and effeminacy). Sex between adolescent boys was, if not rampant, tacitly accepted. Boys were expected to grow out of their homosexual experimentation (if not desperation) once they reached manhood. Education for the young men of the aristocracy was a brutal affair, a true Lord of the Flies tale of bullying, favoritism and ruthless hierarchy. Shelley learned to identify with the downtrodden, as did Byron, who pointedly protected younger students from bullying once he was old enough (another reason I like him).

Byron was also sexually exploited [abused?] as a child by his nurse, May Gray:

According to Byron, he ‘certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; yet he had sexual experiences. These were provided by his nurse Mary Gray. As the boy subsequently told his solicitor… his sternly Calvinist nurse ‘used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person… [p. 35]

Add to this the extremes of anger and affection that characterized his mother, the utter abandonment of his gold-digging (if not sociopathic) father, and the Gordon and Byron family history of murderous dysfunction  (too much to go into), it honest-to-God makes George Gordon Lord Byron look like a Saint (compared to who he could have been). If incest and aristocratic hypocrisy are the worst of this crimes, then I love the man. As to Byron’s seemingly “misogynistic” attitude toward women, this was not unique to Byron, but was shared by nearly all men of the age (except perhaps the ‘pantisocratic‘ Coleridge). Women, by in large, were considered light-brained, trivial beings, incapable of much beyond macramé and sugar plums.

The opinion I have of the generality of women–who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar plum than my time, forms a barrier against matrimony which I rejoice in. ~ John Keats

And if we’re fair, women chased Byron with as much alacrity as he chased them. It’s not as if Byron thrust himself on them (or his sister). The Byron that I discovered (more so than with Shelley I think) was a deeply intelligent man, inquisitive, gentle, sensitive to the suffering of others, compassionate, with a fixed sense of right and wrong, but also proud, quick to take offense, and volatile. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, prompted by the 1812 Frame Breaking Act, he could write the following:

But suppose it past,—suppose one of these men, as I have seen them meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less than the price of a stocking-frame ; suppose this man surrounded by those children for whom he is unable to procure bread at the hazard of his existence, about to be torn for ever from a family which he lately supported in peaceful industry, and which it is not his fault than he can no longer so support; suppose this man—and there are ten thousand such from whom you may select your victims,—dragged into court to be tried for this new offence, by this new law,—still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jefferies for a judge!”

 The force of Byron’s personality (which he captured in the heroes of his poetry) led to the neologism: Byronic.

“…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection” ~ Lord Macauley

All that said, if Shelley walked through the door, I’d drop everything: my best wine, a four course dinner. and maybe my lover if he asked. I mean, come on, it’s Shelley and Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Maybe, at some point, we’d discuss poetry; but to spend the evening with that keen and impatient idealist — and intelligence — would be pretty cool.

So, anyway, this post is just some brief impressions and the renewal of my friendship with Byron. Gilmour’s book ends just before Byron and Shelley meet, so while I can guess at the mutual attraction (similar backgrounds, sympathies and politics), I haven’t read the biography. Fortunately, John Buxton’s  Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship (written earlier) will pick up where Gilmour left off. I’ll report on that book too, when I’m done with it.

The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge

Wordsworth&ColeridgeI’ve been reading about Wordsworth and Coleridge —  gaining perspective on their works and accomplishments. (I also read a biography on the friendship of Byron and Shelley which I’ll talk about in a later post — the curious thing is that I ended up disliking Shelley and liking Byron, and that was completely unexpected.) My dislike for Wordsworth, unfortunately, has only been reinforced. Now, not only does Wordsworth’s poetry exasperate me, but I find his person (at least as revealed in Sisman’s biography) more than a little dislikable. I don’t blame Sisman. He treats Wordsworth equitably, but it’s hard to ignore the man’s narcissism, self-centered’ness and the execrable way he treated Coleridge. The “friendship”, after all, appears to have been predicated on both mens’ idolatry and love of Wordsworth (and for  that, Coleridge doesn’t go Scott-free).

Wordsworth was prolific and produced poetry with apparent ease. Coleridge, initially, produced almost as much poetry as Wordsworth, but struggled to a degree that Wordsworth didn’t. Writing didn’t come as easily; and Coleridge was also afflicted with self-doubt (and self-recrimination) in a way that Wordsworth never was. As the friendship progressed, Coleridge fêted Wordsworth’s ego by calling him the era’s great genius and comparing him to Milton, which in some quarters was higher praise than to be called the “next Shakespeare”. On the other hand, Coleridge was considered the far greater poet by his peers and the general public. He was an extempore speaker of genius. He possessed a photographic memory and could recite from memory any piece of writing having read it once. Coleridge’s impression on his peers is hard to overstate.

And so Coleridge’s self-doubt and ceaseless self-recrimination is especially hard to swallow. I, myself, consider Coleridge to be the better and greater poet, despite his minuscule output (as compared to Wordsworth). In my opinion, there’s nothing in all of Wordsworth’s output that compares to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, or Kubla Khan. The Rime was initially published alongside Wordsworth’s poems in a joint publication called Lyrical Ballads. The critical reception of the anthology wasn’t good and was especially hard on Wordsworth’s poetry (Wordsworth was a nobody in those days); and Wordsworth didn’t take criticism well. Sometime later, though, Wordsworth and Coleridge decided to reissue the Ballads. Despite their poor critical reception, they continued to sell (if not as well as they would have liked). And this is where it gets hard to rationalize Wordsworth’s behavior as anything other than cruel (or not to characterize him as a self-serving liar — plain and simple).

The initial plan for the reissue was to include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, for which Colerdige had now written two parts. Wordsworth and his sister were initially ‘Exceedingly delighted with the second part of “Christabel”‘. (p. 320) Or at least they pretended to be exceedingly delighted, for the very next day Wordsworth decided to exclude it from the reissue. Not only that, but as plans developed, Wordsworth informed Coleridge that he would be publishing the joint venture without Coleridge’s name on it. Furthermore, Wordsworth would be taking any and all proceeds, income, money from their publication, despite Coleridge’s Rime being one of the most extensive poems in the collection. Wordsworth had concluded, self-servingly and with little to no evidence, that it was Coleridge’s poetry that had sunk the first collection (not his own). What did Wordsworth substitute for Christabel?

“Meanwhile, Wordsworth was writing a new poem to fill the vacant place at the end of the second volume, ‘Micheal’ was the very antithesis of ‘Christabel’, a pastoral poem evoking the sturdy qualities of the sheep farmers among whom he was now living.”

La! Sheep farmers. There you have it — one of our language’s great poems traded for a didactic poem on sheep farmers. It makes me want to climb into a time machine to  throttle him. Worse yet, Wordsworth, having deluded himself into thinking that his rightful genius was unrecognized solely because of The Rime, persuaded Coleridge to rewrite the poem . Coleridge, by now thoroughly pickled in the Kool-aid of Words-worship, obediently complied. The rewrite prompted the following from Charles Lamb:

“I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere ‘a poet’s Reverie’ — it is as bad as Bottom the weaver’s declaration that he is not a lion but only the scenical representation of a Lion. What new idea is gained by this title, but one subversive of all credit, which the tale should force upon us, of its truth? For me, I was never so affected with any human Tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days…” (p. 316)

According to Sisman, Lamb summed up his opinion of the second volume (of the original edition) stating “that no poem in it had struck him so forcibly as the ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘Tintern Abbey'”. This, apparently, is not what Wordsworth wanted to hear. Wordsworth’s riposte is lost, but not Lamb’s.

“The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my Reluctant Letter-Writer, the purport of which was, that he was sorry his 2nd vol. had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and was ‘compelled to wish that my range of sensibility was more extended…’ — With a deal of Stuff about a certain Union of Tenderness and Imagination…” (p. 317)

Then Lamb goes on to mention a letter received by Coleridge:

“Coleridge, who had not written to me some months before, starts up from his bed of sickness, to reprove me for my hardy presumption: four long pages, equally sweaty and more tedious, came from him; assuring me that, when the works of a man of true genius, such as W undoubtedly was, do not please me at first sight, I should suspect the fault to lie ‘in me and not in them’, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. What am I to do with such people?” (p. 317)

Truth was, there were a number of Coleridge supporters who were very nearly fed up with Coleridge’s cult-like idolatry of Wordsworth, including Josiah Wedgwood, who had generously patronized Coleridge. Wedgwood’s intent had been to encourage Coleridge’s own literary efforts, not subsidize his subservience to Wordsworth. Even so, Coleridge spent the next several months editing the reissue of Lyrical Ballads, his thanks to Wordsworth for Wordsworth’s removing his poetry, his name, and any recompense. And as if Wordsworth weren’t delusional enough, he decided to preface Coleridge’s Rime with an apology to the reader:

“Wordsworth added an apologetic footnote to the ‘Ancient Mariner’ acknowledging the many criticisms of the poem, which ‘had indeed great defects’. He elaborated these defects before listing what he considered to be the merits of the poem. He claimed credit for its continued presence in the volume, ‘as the Author was himself very desirous that it should be suppressed.'” (p. 315)

Such was the gratitude Wordsworth extended to his “friend”. Sisman points out  that in another note written contemporaneously, Wordsworth “warmly defended his own poem “The Thorn” against the criticisms it had received”. Wordsworth’s interest in poetry that wasn’t his own was marginal, if nonexistent. (It’s said that Wordsworth died with an unopened copy of Keats’ poetry in his library.) While Coleridge devoted his time and energy to furthering Wordsworth’s career at every opportunity, Wordsworth’s thanked him by snubing his “friend’s” poetry and career (and especially if he thought it could benefit his own). Such was Wordsworth’s almost sociopathic narcissism. In fairness to Wordsworth, Coleridge seemed to “cheerfully” go along with it, but this was not the decision-making of a healthy man. It’s clear that Coleridge suffered from psychological issues that would gradually degrade his health and mind, manifested, in part, by an addiction to the pain killer laudanum. Wordsworth, in later years, would express deep concern over Coleridge’s health, but one questions whether his concern was for an erstwhile friend or an erstwhile admirer.

Sisman sums up the waning of their friendship this way:

“Wordsworth apologists have claimed that Coleridge accepted the rejection of ‘Christabel’ ‘cheerfully’, and quote his own self-justificatory letters afterwards in support of this argument. They cite Dorothy’s comment on Coleridge’s next visit to Dove Cottage; ‘we were very merry’. But Dorothy, though very fond of Coleridge, was blind to the possibility that her brother might be at fault. And Coleridge tried to put a brave face  on his disappointment. In reality he had suffered a mortal blow; his spirit was broken; he would never be the same man again. ‘I have too much trifled with my reputation,’ he reflected sadly to Poole….

Colridge concealed his distress from the Wordsworths, and perhaps they remained unaware of its true cause. His mind would no longer be wholly open to them. The wound continued to fester. As the years passed, entries critical of Wordsworth began to appear in Coleridge’s notebooks. Though the friendship remained warm a long time, it could never recover the same closeness…” (p. 325)

Sisman then concludes the chapter quoting Coleridge’s letter to Godwin:

“‘If I die, and the Booksellers will give you any thing for my Life, be sure to say — “Wordsworth descended on him, like the γνῶθι σεαυτόν from Heaven; by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet.’

Colreridge’s confidence was in ruins. As he told Godwin, ‘the Poet is dead in me’. He was twenty-eight years old.” (p. 326)

This is a lot to lay at the feet of Wordsworth, but if Wordsworth had reciprocated with even a fraction of the generosity and encouragement devoted to him, Coleridge’s life and poetic output might have been very different. But my heart goes out to Coleridge. Everyman ColeridgeI feel like I’ve discovered his poetry all over again. I see myself in him: Frustrated by a feeling that I haven’t done enough, by self-doubt, self-recrimination, inadequacy. I wish I could have been Coleridge’s friend. His surreal poetry appeals to me like no other poet’s and I can’t help thinking we share a kindred spirit. I love his poem Frost at Midnight. I would trade a hundred pages of Wordsworth for another like it.

Wordsworth’s poetry, meanwhile, continues to leave me cold. As I wrote in a hotly contested previous post criticizing The Prelude, I find all but a handful of his poems tedious, repetitive, full of triviality and above all, exceedingly poorly written. At the close of Sisman’s book, the author quotes Coleridge once again, referring to Wordsworth, and this time the veil is lifted:

“Never does he turn round, or ponder, whether one has [already] understood him, but each word is followed by three, four, five syn- or homonyms, in a tiring sequence of eddies, and in this manner for three, four hours… I was repelled by the infinite number of dissonances which his way of thinking, feeling and arguing created with my own — the worst being his great worries over money and trifling money matters. Recently, all the shortcomings, which marked him in his early manly years, have increased considerably; the grand flourishings of his philosophic and poetic genius, have withered and dried. (p. 424)

 

Tom O’Bedlam reads Skeletons

  • Tom O’Bedlam, of SpokenVerse, has beautifully read Skeletons. I was unfamiliar with Tom’s readings until recently (and astonishingly), but I’m a bit of hermit. Tom read Browning’s poem My Last Duchess, quoted my summary of the poem and provided a link to my post. I listened to his Duchess, then other poems, and then was so taken by his readings that I wrote Skeletons for him; imagining a poem to suit his voice. In truth, the poem is dedicated to him. So here it is, once again, and beautifully read by Tom O’Bedlam. I’d be happy to write him a hundred poems. He’s inspired me.

§

My skeleton and I go out for walks,
Although he mostly likes it in the closet.
I’ll hear him tap, tap, tapping
His skull for some conundrum; there are many.
It’s no small thing for any skeleton
To think. His skull’s a ruined house, its clasps
And door-locks long since gone.
························He teeters, grasps —
Ideas are fretful winds. They blow into
And through his vacant stare, emptily tumble;
Then out the way they came. He stands perplexed,
A sharp forefinger’s bone upraised, his jaw
Aslant — he’d almost had it.
························So it goes
It’s times like these that we go out. I keep
Our walks discreet though every now and then
We’ll meet a passerby (my skeleton
And theirs will pay no mind). We pass a cape,
A woodpile covered by a sheet of tin,
And laundry—skirts and sheets. They billow ghostlike
Above the ruined dooryard.
························He walks
With fingers laced behind his spine; looks
A little this way and a little that.
The dust recoils between his toes and smolders
At his heels. There’s nowhere he’ll stop
Unless it’s where there used to be a house,
Midfield, where now there’s just foundation stone.
He’ll gaze with longing and he’ll heave
And here and there a leaf snagged in his ribs
(And bones withal) will tumble down. They’ll scrape
And skitter through and in between until
He stands in them.
··················He lingers. He’d share
A secret he kept in life; that now,
In death, keeps him. I never asked and yet
One day he pointed where the house had been
With such a trembling grief
He might have been as likely reaching to touch
Another’s unseen fingertip.
························A gust
Took from the cellarhole a crackling smoke
Of leaves.·The sheets of the house nearby
Were chased into the field’s conflagration
Of nettle, thorn and thistle. Too late
They fled but couldn’t flee. The sudden gust
Confounded them — the mother and her child!
I saw them both. How like a mother’s hand,
And like the daughter’s where the small sheet clung
If only by a clothespin to the larger;
As if they’d change what was already done,
As if this time they’d reach his outstretched sorrow;
Undo, a hundred years gone by, the crows
That rise like startled ashes from the ruins—
Their screams dispersed into the neighboring hemlock
And birch.
······His lowering finger curls beneath
Their rake of knuckles. The sheets lay motionless
Under a settling soot of leaves and wildflowers charred
By frost.
······He never afterward did more
Than linger. I’ll not swear that what I saw
Was true, but then I can’t be sure that I
Won’t too, for guilt, regret, or for some sorrow
Dwell in your home.
······You’ll know me, if I’m there—
My bones, a few remains, shelved in a poem;
Willing, if just for company, to share
Your walk and should you need me to — your pain.

Zebediah

Here lies the preacher Zebediah Grey:
A pillar, incorruptible, severe;
Who suffered not the children at their play

Nor tidings but humility and fear.
“Tempt not,” said he, “the wrath of righteous love—
The love that strips the unrepentant bare.
Lure not that retribution from above;
Skull the Purple BlockPrint (Block Print)Look on God’s works, ye blithesome, and despair:
How fleeting be your joys, how little worth!”
The congregation trembled at his scowl
And with him daily praised this hell on earth;
But friend if only you could see him now
····Whose sneering adumbrated mankind’s sins
····If only you could see him— How he grins!

Zebediah
November 16 2014 • by me, Patrick Gillespie

  • As promised, a sonnet — Shakespearean. I can’t bring myself to write any other kind. This isn’t at all the way I started, but once the idea got under my skin, I had to. I wrote most of this yesterday, on the drive home, sparked by the bleak landscape of November’s first snow. Readers familiar with Shelley’s Ozymandias will pick up on a good many echoes.

Skeletons

  • I wrote this over the week-end, and not altogether for Halloween. I’m not sure whether to call this done or a rough draft. I’ve taken some liberties with the meter and experimented with internal rhyme.

My skeleton and I go out for walks,
Although he mostly likes it in the closet.
I’ll hear him tap, tap, tapping
His skull for some conundrum; there are many.
It’s no small thing for any skeleton
To think. His skull’s a ruined house, its clasps
And door-locks long since gone.
························He teeters, grasps —
Ideas are fretful winds. They blow into
And through his vacant stare, emptily tumble;
Then out the way they came. He stands perplexed,
A sharp forefinger’s bone upraised, his jaw
Aslant — he’d almost had it.
························So it goes
It’s times like these that we go out. I keep
Our walks discreet though every now and then
We’ll meet a passerby (my skeleton
And theirs will pay no mind). We pass a cape,
A woodpile covered by a sheet of tin,
And laundry—skirts and sheets. They billow ghostlike
Above the ruined dooryard.
························He walks
With fingers laced behind his spine; looks
A little this way and a little that.
The dust recoils between his toes and smolders
At his heels. There’s nowhere he’ll stop
Unless it’s where there used to be a house,
Midfield, where now there’s just foundation stone.
He’ll gaze with longing and he’ll heave
And here and there a leaf snagged in his ribs
(And bones withal) will tumble down. They’ll scrape
And skitter through and in between until
He stands in them.
··················He lingers. He’d share
A secret he kept in life; that now,
In death, keeps him. I never asked and yet
One day he pointed where the house had been
With such a trembling grief
He might have been as likely reaching to touch
Another’s unseen fingertip.
························A gust

Took from the cellarhole a crackling smoke
Of leaves.·The sheets of the house nearby
Were chased into the field’s conflagration
Of nettle, thorn and thistle. Too late
They fled but couldn’t flee. The sudden gust
Confounded them — the mother and her child!
I saw them both. How like a mother’s hand,
And like the daughter’s where the small sheet clung
If only by a clothespin to the larger;
As if they’d change what was already done,
As if this time they’d reach his outstretched sorrow;
Undo, a hundred years gone by, the crows
That rise like startled ashes from the ruins—
Their screams dispersed into the neighboring hemlock
And birch.
······His lowering finger curls beneath
Their rake of knuckles. The sheets lay motionless
Under a settling soot of leaves and wildflowers charred
By frost.
······He never afterward did more
Than linger. I’ll not swear that what I saw
Was true, but then I can’t be sure that I
Won’t too, for guilt, regret, or for some sorrow
Dwell in your home.
······You’ll know me, if I’m there

My bones, a few remains, shelved in a poem;
Willing, if just for company, to share
Your walk and should you need me to — your pain.

 

Skeletons
November 3 2014 • by me, Patrick Gillespie

What $200,000,000 gets you…

 

So, while I was writing the post immediately preceding this one, Sidney’s Sonnet 47, I visited the Poetry Foundation to see what information they had on the poem and a reliable text. Here’s what you will find (as of today, October 10th 2014):Sindey_Poetry_Foundation

 

So, there are all kinds of problems with this poem, but the most egregious is the typo. That’s okay. There are all kinds of typos in my own posts; although if someone were nice enough to bequeath $200,000,000 to me, I might hire — oh, I don’t know — an “archive editor” to correct my mistakes? So, I thought I’d “report a problem”:

Problem description:
 
 The mistakes: 
 
 "Though" should read "tho'" 
 "Let he go" should read "Let her go" 
 
Also, according to the best resource I've got, there are no 
exclamation points in the original poem. The poem should read: 
 
   What, have I thus betrayed my liberty? 
   Can those black beams such burning marks engrave 
   In my free side? or am I born a slave, 
   Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny? 
   Or want I sense to feel my misery? 
   Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have? 
   Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave, 
   May get no alms but scorn of beggary. 
   Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is, 
   I may, I must, I can, I will, I do 
   Leave following that which it is gain to miss. 
   Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to, 
   Unkind, I love you not: O me, that eye 
   Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie. 

The response:

Dear Patrick Gillespie,

The differences in punctuation between our version and the one 
you found is the result of centuries of various editors 
silently altering such aspects. Our version is correct against 
our copy text.

Sincerely,

James Sitar
Archive Editor
The Poetry Foundation

Seriously? And that would include the typo? Does it get any more incompetent or bureaucratic? So, the text of the poem is obviously wrong, but by God if that’s what “the copy text” says, then that’s what goes to print.

As to punctuation, the “one I found” is based on Richard Dutton’s edition which is, itself, based on the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s Works. But what matter? I mean, how can Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, Sidney’s sister (and editor of the Folio edition), compare to “centuries of various editors silently altering” Sindey’s original? Obviously, the Poetry Foundation’s loyalty is to all those “altering” editors (centuries of) rather than to the Sidneys. And there you have it. That’s what a $200,000,000 endowment gets you. The take away? Don’t go to the Poetry Foundation if you want a reliable text.

Quick Read ❧ Sidney’s Sonnet 47

  • As always, any discussion of Elizabethan “love poetry” that isn’t Rated R (and sometimes X) has never been to Elizabethan England. Sidney’s Sonnets are the work of genius. They are verbally brilliant and filled with puns and sexual innuendos and they profoundly influenced dddddddddddddddddddddShakespeare’s sonnets. These aren’t just the sentimental pluckings of the love-lorn. Each sonnet is a brilliant, tour-de-force display of Elizabethan wit, argumentation and wordplay. You’ve been warned.

A while back, I did a quick read of Sidney’s Sonnet 64. This will be similar to that. A reader, Milly, requested that I take a look at this poem. She tells me she has an assignment coming up in a week. So, here goes.

As before, for a brief overview of Sidney’s metrical practice and the types of sonnets he wrote, visit Sir Philip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets. The present sonnet, which follows the same pattern as Sonnet 64, is a hybrid between (what would become) the Shakespearean Sonnet (with it’s closing epigrammatic couplet) and the Patrarchan sonnet. I’ve copied 47 from an edition of Sidney’s selected writings by Richard Dutton. First, in plain text:

 
     What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
         Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
         In my free side? or am I born a slave,
4    Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
     Or want I sense to feel my misery?
         Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
         Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave,
8    May get no alms but scorn of beggary.
     Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is,
     I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
     Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
12   Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,
        Unkind, I love you not: O me, that eye
        Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

I’ve taken my text from Richard Dutton’s edition of Sidney’s Writings, which are based on the 1598 Folio of Sidney’s works. I notice that most of the versions floating around include various exclamation points (which make sense) but they aren’t in the original. (I always prefer what the poet actually wrote.)

Sindey's Sonnet 47

  • Virtue could be pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, so I’ve read that foot as Iambic (though it’s possible to read it as trochaic).

For some background on the names Astrophil and Stella, Wikipedia is a good source:

“Probably composed in the 1580s, Philip Sidney‘s Astrophil and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. The name derives from the two Greek words, ‘aster’ (star) and ‘phil’ (lover), and the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star. Thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star. Sidney partly nativized the key features of his Italian model Petrarch, including an ongoing but partly obscure narrative, the philosophical trappings of the poet in relation to love and desire, and musings on the art of poetic creation. Sidney also adopts the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, though he uses it with such freedom that fifteen variants are employed.” [Wikipedia ~ October 5th 2014]

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article adds the following (quoting the Oxford University Press edition of Sidney’s works):

“There is no evidence that the title is authorial. It derives from the first printed text, the unauthorized quarto edition published by Thomas Newman (1591). Newman may also have been responsible for the consistent practice in early printings of calling the lover persona ‘Astrophel’. Ringler emended to ‘Astrophil’ on the grounds of etymological correctness, since the name is presumably based on Greek aster philein, and means ‘lover of a star’ (with stella meaning ‘star’); the ‘phil’ element alluding also, no doubt, to Sidney’s Christian name.”

So, some interpreters might make hay out of the names Astrophil & Stella, but they may not even originate with Sidney. Caveat Empor. But, as with Sonnet 64, we’ll just go ahead and call Sidney’s real or imagined mistress Stella.

The Argument

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
   Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
   In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?

The sonnet begins with a series of rhetorical questions. The Elizabethan poets prized wit, intelligence and rhetorical flair above all. But it’s the wit that the modern day reader can easily and especially miss. If you’re reading an Elizabethan sonnet sequence between lovers, expect obscene (albeit witty) sexual references to slip right under your radar. There are over 400 years that separate our vocabulary from theirs, and a good many words that look just the same today were very different animals back then.

Take the word liberty. Sidney isn’t just talking about freedom to read informative periodicals or to volunteer at the local SPCA. No. Not at all. If you were an Elizabethan, Sidney’s question is much more serious (especially if you were a young man of Sidney’s age and sex was as easy as the housemaid).

  • Liberty – Excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking. See quotation at drabbing; cf. Othello, III iv 39. [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]

So, the dichotomy or, in plain English, his complaint is that his obsession with Stella has taken him out of circulation. Has he betrayed his “liberty”, his licentious freedom to go chasing other women, gaming and drink, for the sake of a lover who won’t even give him the time of day? Is he mad?

Sidney goes on:

Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
in my free side?

This reference might remind readers of Shakespeare’s “dark lady”. We know from Sidney’s 7th Sonnet that Stella’s eyes are black.

When Nature made her chief work, Stella’s eyes,
In color black why wrapp’d she beams so bright?

  • In the Renaissance, it was believed that the eye saw by emitting (presumably) invisible beams.

3024779-inline-figure81

Black was the color of sexuality, danger and mystery. It’s no coincidence that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, The expense of spirit in a waste of shame, was written to the dark lady, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to assert that Shakespeare was well aware of (and influenced by) Sidney’s own “dark lady”. In the case of Sidney, those black, smoldering eyes “engrave” his free side and free side hearkens back to liberty. In other words, not only does she rob him of his ability to chase other women, but her eyes mark him — they make his infatuation with Stella obvious to other women.

Or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes the yoke of tyranny?

This gets complicated only because we, in America, associate branding and slavery with African Americans. There was no such slave trade in England. Sidney is referring to something different. The condition (and number) of the poor during Elizabethan times was especially worrisome to the aristocracy. Here’s how the learning site sums up the treatment of the very poor — the itinerant beggars who the government found the most worrisome:

The third group were known as Rogues and Vagabonds. This was the group targeted by the government. These were people who could work but preferred to beg or steal. This group worried the government as it was the one most like to get into trouble. The government made begging illegal and anybody found begging was flogged until “his back was bloody”. If he was found begging outside of his parish, he would be beaten until he brand ironsgot to the parish stones that marked his parish boundary with the next parish. Those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged. During the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years. [The Learning Site October 5th 2014]

Remember this, because this is what Sidney had in mind and why he will later refer to his being a beggar. And also of interest:

Different types of torture and punishments were used depending on the victim’s crime and social status. There were also different punishments and tortures used according to the customs of each country. The punishment was adopted in the Dark and Middle Ages by the Anglo-Saxons. In 1547 the Statute of Vagabonds ruled that vagabonds, gypsies and brawlers were ordered to be branded, the first two with a large V on the breast. the last with F for fighter (brawler). Slaves too who ran away were branded with S on cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in 1636. [Middle Ages October 5th 2014]

So, when Sidney refers to himself as being branded on his “free side”, this may possibly be a reference to his forehead. Indeed, the high forehead was considered an aristocratic fashion statement:

“High hairline, perfectly arched brows and bright eyes were also standards of Elizabethan beauty. Many plucked their eyebrows and their hairline back at least an inch to give that aristocratic look of the fashionable high forehead.” [Unusual Historicals October 5th 2014]

And it is precisely there that slaves might be branded. It’s also possible that Sidney was referring to his cheek, although that would beg the question: If there’s a free side, what’s the other side? Another possibility is that he’s referring to his tongue (which could also be branded). At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense: Why would her eyes brand his tongue? Is she always looking at his tongue? But if Sidney was making this comparison, then he might have been figuratively thinking of his poetry as his tongue. In other words, her eyes brand his tongue (meaning his poetry). This last possibility fits nicely with the idea of “engraving”. She engraves his tongue — his poetry — which is itself engraved in being written. She brands his poetry — his “free side”. At any rate, take your pick. And there may be other possibilities I haven’t thought of.

From there, he asks if he wasn’t “born a slave” whose neck “becomes” [is suited to] a yoke of tyranny.

Or want I sense to feel my misery?
   Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
   Who for long faith, tho' daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary.

Is he so addled that he wants [lacks] the sense to feel his misery? — Does he [lack] the sprite [intelligence, spirit, soul] to disdain her disdain?

  • Sprite • 1.) mood, occasional state of mind 2.) mind, soul 3.) any supernatural being [The Shakespeare Lexicon]

Who [in return for] for long [loyal] faith [fidelity], though daily help [sex] I crave [desire],
May get no [Will never get] alms [sexual favors] but [just] scorn for beggary.

  • Alms • what is given in charity [The Shakespeare Lexicon]

And what is “the scorn of beggary”? During Edward the VI’s reign, that scorn was the branding of the tongue. Remember that “those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and hanged [and that] during the reign of Edward VI, caught vagabonds could have their tongue branded and kept as a slave for two years.” Sidney was born the year after Edward’s death. This makes it very likely that he would have seen (or heard of) the branded tongues of beggars and vagabonds. So, given Sidney’s allusion to insistent begging, I’m more convinced that he was referring to his tongue (and by extension his poetry) when referring to his “free side”, a likely reference to himself as a poet (as opposed to a soldier perhaps).

The Volta

Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is,
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

Virtue is another one of those words that was nicely slippery during Elizabethan times.

  • Virtue • Famale chastity: King John, II i 98 (see at rape); Othello, IV i 8. Ex L. vir, ‘a man': the L. virtus = manliness, courage [Shakespeare’s Bawdy]
  • Virtue • Chastity in women (p); but, not surprisingly, the opposite for men: potency, virility (L vir, a man) Vertue: manhood, prowess (Cot.) [A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance]

So, it’s all too easy to read this line with the complacency of our 21rst century vocabulary. Sidney was not talking about the kind of virtue you think he was. He’s saying that it’s time for him to get back in the game. Remember the first line? — Have I thus betrayed my liberty [to be read as excessive freedom from restraint or temperance in sexual matters, gaming, drinking.] His idea of virtue is the freedom to exercise his “liberty”, understood as masculine prowess in womanizing. gaming and drink. If you’re a girl, Sidney was there for you.

But there’s also the pun on a woman’s chastity. The line may be read two ways:

Virtue [referring to her frigidity] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [you’re not going to be beautiful forever]

(Shakespeare picks up on this theme in his own sonnets, urging the young man to make hay while his beauty lasts.) Sidney, by referring to her as “Virtue”, is implying that she’s frigid and stuck up. Alternatively, the punning line is also a reference to himself:

Virtue [referring to his own masculine prowess] awake [wake up!], Beauty but beauty is, [all cat’s are gray at night]

I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.

The hard driving Iambics of I may, I must, I can, etc… nicely enact Sidney’s clenched-teeth-determination to free himself from his infatuation. Why this emotional outburst? What exactly is it that’s got Sidney so worked up? The curiously impersonal phrase “Leave following that” answers the question — yet another of Sidney’s bawdy insinuations. He’s not referring to her, but to her vagina, pussy, twat (forgive me) or “that which it is gain to miss”. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are over a hundred different words for a woman’s vagina. The very title of one of his plays is specifically about the subject: “Much Ado about Nothing“. The word Nothing was a well known and well-used pun on a woman’s vagina. Don’t think it’s odd that I refer to Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Shakespeare used words and made puns which he knew the playgoers would understand — Sidney and Shakespeare were both steeped in the same stew.

“Gain to miss” is a beautiful pun. First there’s the obvious meaning: He has much to gain (in more successfully pursuing other women) if he misses [gives up on] Stella’s “sex”. There’s also the suggestion of “missing” as would a marksman — arrow, bow and shaft. That is, by giving up on her, he will have “missed” his “aim”. There is also the pun of gain [as in something – a penis] and miss [as in nothing – a vagina]. If you think this is far fetched, then you might want to try reading Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. Even if you end up disagreeing with some of the book’s more outlandish assertions, it will nevertheless open the eyes to a more robust Elizabethan humor. It’s a different kind of wit and brilliance, but witty and brilliant nonetheless.

Let her go. Soft, but here she comes. Go to,

As if recovering from his momentary madness, he corrects himself (and his objectification of her). Let her go, he says. These lines, metrically, are masterful. One might be inclined to read the line as follows:

Let her | go.

But the Iambic patten encourages us to emphasize her as well:

Let her | go. Soft,

So, we have two spondaic feet. He is talking to himself, once again, forcefully, emphasizing each word. The sonnet is written in the spirit of a monologue, a speech in a play — and one wonders whether Sidney might have written plays if he had lived long enough. On the other hand, Donne never wrote a play and his poetry is full of drama. The dramatic voice was in the air during that era.

The Epigrammatic Sting
Or the conclusion of the argument in the final couplet.

“Soft” he says. No sooner does he voice his intention to let her go, but he retreats. Soft [I must speak softly!], “but here she comes”. And then? “Go to!” Come on! Get real!

Go to, [Get real!]
Unkind [unkind woman], I love you not: O me [uh oh], that eye [the one that brands]

And here finally, in the last line, Sidney expressly refers to the tongue, further reinforcing the idea that he is recalling the branding of the itinerant beggar’s tongue.

Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

hart_hind

I’ve read many interpretations of these sonnets that blandly refer to the heart as the heart, but, to quote Frankie Rubinstein, author of A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns, “‘heart’ is no sentimental metaphor”. In a sonnet sequence full of brilliant word play and sexual innuendo, it’s only the naive who don’t or won’t consider that “heart” was among the most punned on words in Elizabethan wordplay — “the hart/hind pun on the male and female deer”. In other words, the hart/heart was synonymous with the penis and the hind was synonymous with the woman’s “hind”, hind-end and vagina. Don’t believe me? It’s no coincidence that the King James translators of the Bible wrote:

“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart.” Jer 4:4

So, read the line literally but don’t miss Sidney’s brilliant bawdiness. On the one hand, the line can be read sentimentally:

Doth make my heart [love] give to my tongue [poetry] the lie [the mark of her branding].

And on the other:

Doth make my heart [my penis’s erection] give to my tongue [his prior words of rejection] the lie.

And that puts into perspective his previous admonition: Soft[possibly a pun on his erection], but here she comes.

It’s all there. If you need this analysis for your high school assignment, I recommend the sentimental interpretation. If you want some time off, being punished for the truth has and will always work.

❧ up in Vermont Oct. 5th 2014

Other Resources:

WB Yeats ❧ Byzantium

william_butler_yeats_2So, I’ve been reading more Yeats. In particular, I’ve been trying to get a foothold in Byzantium.  Whereas Sailing to Byzantium has the feeling of conviction, Byzantium reads more like a hoary Rand Mcnally triptych having no relevance to anyone but Yeats. In her book, Our Secret Discipline, Vendler spends 11 full pages explicating Byzantium without eliciting the least desire to read it. Thankfully, unlike  her analysis of Sailing to Byzantium, she seems to have gotten over her obsession with Yeats’ penis. She doesn’t write such chestnuts as “[Yeats] hopes to regain respect by emphasizing the power of the rigid Byzantine “monuments of unageing intellect. [p. 31]” (The italics are mine.) Which, when one thinks about it, is a little odd.

Anyway, what’s the point of Byzantium? Is it really just the description of souls arriving in some concocted city by a fevered poet drunk on his own “spiritualist” kool-aid? Is it just spiritualist naval gazing? Was Yeats really trying to communicate anything relevant? John Unterecker, in his Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, has this to say about Byzantium’s inception:Yeats wrote “Byzantium” in Italy after his Malta Fever collapse. The first notes for the poem are recorded in his 1930 diary under the heading “Subject for a Poem” and are dated April 30:

Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purefied, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbor, offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to paradise. [p. 217]

And that’s that. It really does sound like the note taking of an aspiring tour guide. But Yeats must have had something more in mind. Unterecker mentions a letter from Sturge Moor, to Yeats:

“As Ursula Bridge notes, Yeats was almost certainly goaded into this stanza by Sturge Moore’s April 16, 1930, letter which had attacked the golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” as an essentially natural thing: “Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as as man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing to to come to Lords and Ladies.”

And here’s the relevant exchange, from here, in its entirety:

[From T. Sturge Moore to Yeats, April 16, 1930] Have you read Santayana’s Platonism and the Spiritual Life? He thinks the Indian philosophers the most spiritual, but his arguments leave me skeptical as to whether mere liberation from existence has any value or probability as a consummation. I prefer with Wittgenstein, whom I don’t understand, to think that nothing at all can be said about ultimates, or reality in an ultimate sense. Anyway I can say nothing that approaches giving me satisfaction, nor am I satisfied by what others say. Your “Sailing to Byzantium,” magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.

[Yeats responds, October 4, 1930] My dear Sturge Moore,

Yes, I have decided to call the book Byzantium. I enclose the poem, from which the name is taken, hoping that it may suggest symbolism for the cover. The poem originates from a criticism of yours. You objected to the last verse of “Sailing to Byzantium” because a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else. That showed me that the idea needed exposition.

Matthew Schultz, in his essay Aestheticism in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats: The Two Byzantium Poems, goes further , writing that the disagreement was “the point of departure for “Byzantium”. Yeats own words would seem to underscore this assertion. Was Yeats really so taken aback by Moore’s critique of a single image that he was prompted to write Byzantium — a kind of refutation? This suggests two thoughts: First, that the image of the golden bird is central to Sailing to Byzantium, and that this is the image/idea around which the second poem is constructed. So, let’s take a look at the poem. I’ve tried to type it in without typos and have used the Richard J. Finneran edition of Yeats’ poetry:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Scansion

Yeats follows a fairly strict metrical pattern in the poem,  suggesting a more formal or serious tone. The underlying pattern is iambic and the underlying meter of the longer lines is iambic pentameter.2nd Byzantium 1rst Stanza

But for the first stanza, in which the sixth line is dimeter, the overall  pattern for the sixth and seventh lines are iambic trimeter, Any explanation for why Yeats chose this  pattern is going to be subjective (lest it come from Yeats). My own thought is that the short lines give the stanzas a sense of momentum and succinctness, especially where Yeats wants to focus the reader and listener on the content. That’s the way, at any rate, I myself tend to think of shorter lines, especially rhyming lines. Based on the rhyme scheme, one could think of the stanza as being comprised of two quatrains. The second quatrain is an Italian Quatrain, four lines that enclose a couplet. In this case, the couplet is:

All that man is,
All mere complexities…

The short lines combined in a couplet draw the reader’s mind to a central assertion: man is mere complexities. Yeats is already drawing a contrast between the temporary ambitions of man and the eternal artifice of Byzantium. Vendler states that the rhymes and rhythms of the poem change unpredictably. I’m not seeing it. Each of the stanzas follow the pattern established by the first. This is hardly unpredictable. The rhyme scheme remains the same from beginning to end. How is this unpredictable?  If she’s only going to consider the first stanza, then by that measure every poem is unpredictable until we read it.

The stanza’s that follow all follow the same pattern and so, if only to make less work for myself, I haven’t scanned them. Just ask, however, if you have any questions concerning the others.

The First Stanza

Byzantium is a sequel or continuation of Sailing to Byzantium and I don’t see how it’s possible to interpret Byzantium without reference to the first poem (though Vendler seem untroubled by such exigencies). Vendler tells us that “‘Byzantium’ gains by being read together with ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” [p. 47] yet makes no effort to connect her interpretation of the first poem to the second. The first poem, she tells us, is an expression of Yeats’ “self-disgust” and his “exclusion—by reason of impotence—from the country of heterosexual intercourse” [p. 34]. By the second poem, Yeats is completely over it (or Vendler is). Surely, given that the two poems are so obviously connected, one would expect her to find evidence, or hints at least, of the same thematic material in both.  She doesn’t, not as far as Yeats’ “impotence” goes.

For my own part, I interpreted the first poem somewhat differently. To be brief, I interpreted Byzantium as Yeats’ argument for a new art. The poetry of youthful song and passion no longer captivated him. Such country is no place for old men. Instead, he turns his art to a more eternal kind—purified by the goldsmiths hammer—and for the spiritually transfigured reader, lords, ladies, Empress and Emperor (which I interpreted as meaning us). Byzantium isn’t so much a poem announcing Yeats’ departure from the world of “blood and mire”, but an invitation for readers to join him in his—a purified and eternal world.

How does this interpretation hold up in lieu of Byzantium?

Yeats doesn’t really describe Byzantium in Sailing to Byzantium. He suggests. He wants to be gathered into the artifice of eternity. Perhaps the atmosphere is suffused with god’s holy fire “as in the gold mosaic of a wall.” There will be a golden bough on which a bird, the artifice of Grecian goldsmiths, will sing to Lords and Ladies. The reader can easily be forgiven for imagining a stately, beautiful, and eternal city full of art and accomplishment.

Well.

You would be wrong. Yeats clears up that little misconception right from the get-go:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;

Now, and this is the thing that gets me every time I read the poem: What in the hell are drunk soldiers doing at the gates of paradise—an eternal world of fixity? Obviously, the mistake is in thinking that Byzantium is meant to be interpreted as heaven or eternity. It is however, in Yeats’ imagination, a destination for the dead  (or souls), as well as the living. They arrive “astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood”. And what’s with dolphins? It only gets weirder from there. We have a moonlit dome that “disdains /all that man is,” (though apparently not the drunken soldiers tasked with guarding it — from what, we don’t know—and not that they could anyway, being drunk).  In the second stanza, Hades’ bobbin shows up, bound in mummy-cloth, and look, there goes Abbot and Costello, running for their lives, from the mummy and from the “miracle bird” that’s crowing like a cock out of Hell  (or Hades rather).

What are we supposed to make of this place?

Having read various interpretations on the web and in critical books, I have to say (and this is only my impression)  almost nobody has a clue. Vendler puts up a pretty good front, treating the poem with the utmost earnestness and seriousness, but I’m not convinced. To me, the one critic/reader who comes closest to teasing out what Yeats might have had in mind (and it’s not like I know) was William Empson. Empson’s article, in the critical  journal Grand Street, was published in 1982 and much of the “material” that follows is drawn from the article–but the observations are largely my own. In order to pull off his feat of Yeatsian-cryptography, Empson referred to Yeats’ drafts, along with letters. He states from the outset that it’s not something he usually approves of (and neither do I) but Yeats’ Byzantium calls for desperate measures. The first question to be dealt with is why Byzantium? Here’s a city that, far from being considered a mecca of culture and civilization, inspired the word Byzantine.

Synonyms:

Machiavellian, artful, balled up, calculating, canny, collusive,
complex, complicated, confounded, confused, connivent, conniving,
conspiring, contriving, convoluted, crabbed, crafty, cunning,
daedal, designing, devious, elaborate, embrangled, entangled,
fouled up, foxy, gordian, guileful, implicated, insidious,
intricate, intriguing, involuted, involved, knotted, knotty,
knowing, labyrinthian, labyrinthine, loused up, many-faceted,
matted, mazy, meandering, messed up, mixed up, mucked up,
multifarious, pawky, perplexed, plotting, ramified, roundabout,
scheming, screwed up, shrewd, slick, sly, snarled, sophisticated,
stratagemical, subtile, subtle, tangled, tangly, twisted, up to,
wily

At the height of its infamy, Byzantium was famed for political intrigue, decadence, corruption, despotism, assassination and unrivaled venality. And this is where Yeats wants to go? Yeats’s was obviously aware of history’s verdict (hence the drunk soldiers), but the city’s artistic legacy appears to have assumed, to him, mythical proportions.

“There is a record of a tree of gold with artificial birds which sang. The tree was somewhere in the Royal Palace of Byzantium. I use it as a symbol of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted with the instinctive joy of human life.” [Yeats and Byzantium p. 69]

In 1932, lecturing in America, Yeats elaborates:

“Aristotle says that if you give a ball to a child, and if it was the best ball in the market, though it cost but sixpence, it is an example of magnificence; and style, whether in life or literature, comes, I think, from excess, from that something over and above utility which wrings the heart. In my later poems I have called it Byzantium, that city where the saints showed their wasted forms upon a background of gold mosaic, and an artificial bird sang upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor; and in one poem I have pictured the ghosts swimming, mounted upon dolphins, through the sensual seas, that they may dance upon its pavements.” [Ibid p. 70]

Empson then references a first draft but, for whatever reason, doesn’t follow up on the really (in my opinion) revealing “second stanza”.

Now the day is come I will speak on those
Loves I have had in play…That my soul loved
That I loved in my first youth
For many lovers have I taken off my clothes
For some I threw them off in haste, for some slowly and indifferently
and laid down on my bed that I might be…
but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone
O let me be enfolded in my …
and how shall we ever grow every…

As Empson notes, the handwriting is hard to read.  What interests me is how Yeats draws a fascinating parallel between taking off his clothes to make love, and taking off his body for an unspecified (in this extract at least) spiritual union. In other words, Yeats is sexualizing the spiritual union. That is to say, the pleasurable, naked decadence Yeats experienced as a youth when making love is comparable to the pleasure of spiritual union in old age.  And to really drive home my point: Yeats’s longing for spiritual union isn’t that of the ascetic [rigid in self-denial and devotions; austere; severe] but that of the decadent, pleasure seeking lover. Now, you’re obviously asking yourself, where might Yeats find a place that represents both pleasure seeking decadence and transcendent spiritual art? Yeah. Byzantium.

So, with this mind, let’s revisit the first stanza. Once again, the opening lines:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night’s resonance recedes; night walker’s song…

We now know that this Byzantium is not meant to be interpreted as a sexless, spiritually cleansed stand-in for paradise. Yeats liked women, liked sex, and liked sensuality. To him, it would seem, a spiritual realm without its own sexual and sensual parallels was decidedly not heaven.  And yes, this flatly contradicts Vendler’s suggestion that “there are no women in the heaven of sages,” (besides being contradicted by the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare).  Empson, having access to the drafts of Yeats’s Byzantium, reveals the extent to which Yeats originally wanted to emphasize the not-to-be-confused-with-Paradise nature of his Byzantium:

“…it turns out that the earlier drafts made the point much more strongly: “all that roaring route of rascals,” “the emperor’s brawling soldiers,” “the last benighted robber or assassin fled,” “the drunken harlot’s song.” Critics who still insist that this town is Paradise must be struggling to hush up a scandal.” [Ibid. p. 86]

So, the drunken harlot’s song became the nightwalker’s song. Not only is there beer and sex in Byzantium, but both are for sale. What’s not to love? And what does “The unpurged images” mean? One way to to understand this is by examining Yeats’s spiritual belief system (which I find tediously arcane and can’t be bothered with). The second is through the context of the poem.

Here’s how I interpret the matter. Yeats, when referring to life as we know it, uses words like complexity, and phrases like mire and blood ; the fury and the mire of human veins; complexities of mire or blood; complexities of fury.

  • Mire  1. To cause or permit to stick fast in mire; to plunge or fix in mud; as, to mire a horse or wagon. [1913 Webster] 2. Hence: To stick or entangle; to involve in difficulties — often used in the passive or predicate form; as, we got mired in bureaucratic red tape and it took years longer than planned.

grimpen-mire

So, given this not-so-subtly negative summation of life, it stands to reason that it’s these complexities which are to be purged. And what does he mean by complexities? We get some idea by the words and phrases he uses to describe the “opposite”. In Sailing to Byzantium, he writes: “…gather me Into the artifice of eternity”.

In Byzantium he writes:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is

…bird or golden handiwork,
[Can] scorn…
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,

  • Aside: Just for a moment, I want to point out a sexual crosscurrent that may or may not be present in Yeats’s choice of imagery. While Yeats liked women, liked sex and liked sensuality, one might be forgiven for also pointing out that, like many men, Yeats may also have been conflicted. Use of words like blood, mire and complexity all suggest the female body, sex, and reproduction. It’s certainly not a stretch to suggest that a woman’s reproductive organs could be construed as “a mire” — a damp and heated swamp  Sex, menstruation, child-birth, all involve bodily fluids (and a variety of complexities) that might have alternately attracted and repelled Yeats. I wouldn’t call it misogyny, just “issues” (if you know what I mean). In that respect, it wouldn’t be a coincidence that Yeats uses the word “beget”. He is, after all, referring to physical life when he refers to “Those images”, and the necessity that it procreate/beget new life (fresh images) in the mire—the womans’ body—of her blood, fury and complexity. If this surmise is true, then it makes perfect sense that he would write (in an unpublished sketch): “now I will take off my body”. In other words, Yeats wants sex without the blood, mire and messiness of sex. Perhaps Byzantium reveals Yeats’ conflicted attraction and repulsion to sex and women (if subliminally), and not just his spiritual aspirations. It’s not that he wants to escape the pleasure of sexuality, it’s the blood and messiness that repels him. He wants an idealized world of sensuality that is “clean” and changeless.

So, getting back to purging, it stands to reason that purging involves cleansing the soul(?) of the mire and blood that is the transient body. What remains? Right. This is what every criticism and analysis of the poem merrily glosses over. Either that, or we are referred to Yeats’s ‘cones’ (which also  does nothing to explain what Yeats had in mind). Frankly, I don’t even think that Yeats knew. He may coyly distinguish an image from a shade, but that still doesn’t tell us what they are —a soul? – a speck of consciousness? – a disembodied body? What?  All we know is that whatever remains, once we are “purged”, is not mired in blood, fury or complexity. We are presumably “purified”. We exist (whatever that “we” is) in an Aristotelian(?) and sensual realm (art/artifice of eternity?) that is changeless, permanent and ‘not-complex’. If one thinks of it figuratively (which is much easier) then one might say that what remains (of Yeats for example) is to be found in the changeless perfection of his poetry. But Yeats took these matters literally and I doubt that immortality on a bookshelf was what he had in mind – even if he flirted with the notion in his poetry (see my previous post). And frankly, I don’t know that any of this matters. It may simply be enough to assert that Yeats is contrasting the ever-changing, transient realm of the furious physical with an idealized, unchanging, intellectual/sensual realm of art and artifice. In order to get there, you have to be purged. As in Sailing to Byzantium, this purgation involves acknowledging the purer, more permanent song of the miracle bird (hammered by the Emperor’s goldsmiths) and leaving behind the song of “The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,/— Those dying generations”.

Think of it this way, perhaps: To be purged is to surrender the sensuality of the body to the sensuality of the mind.

So, getting all the way back to “unpurged images”. By images, Yeats is referring to physical/bodily life. They are unpurged because they still sport in the blood and mire that is bodily life, that is beer and paid sex.

After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

The first of twelve strokes announces the window in which “images” may be purged. The dome, an image of changelessness and perfection (appealing to the sensuality of the mind), disdains the bodily, Like the miracle bird’s song, and like Yeats’s poetry, the bell is a call to purgation. Vendler very nicely describes what Yeats might intend with the dome:

“…the dome stands for that which is purged of such complexities, that which harbors within itself ideal images already purged and pure.” [Our Secret Discipline, p. 39]

The Second Stanza

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Now. Things are going to get really interesting because I’m going to shock the world (or get myself lynched) by proposing a way to interpret these lines that, to my knowledge, has never been offered before. Here’s the thing: Every critic and close reader who has read this poem (and not without good reason) assumes that Yeats, in the poem as it was finally published, was referring to a mummy (and that’s tied every last one of them into interpretative knots). Yeats himself, before he even began drafts of the poem, wrote:

“Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners…” [the emphasis is my own]

However, I argue that Yeats changed his mind. As Empson himself stated, we must be wary when consulting a poet’s drafts and perhaps even avoid doing so. The reason is that the drafts not only give us clues to what the poet intended (in the course of working out the poem), but also reveal what he decided to change and leave out. I can’t stress that enough. Really. The ultimate arbiter of a poem’s meaning must remain the final, completed poem.

In Byzantium, in the poem as we have it, there is no mummy.

Let that sink in.

Every critic, Empson, Vendler, Bloom, Unterecker, et al… (because, in my opinion, of decades of misreading) have assumed that the mummy of the drafts made it into the final poem. They all read the poem the same way. However, the obvious observation is that Yeats’s final draft never actually states that the image/shade is a mummy. In fact, it’s possible to read these lines in a wholly different way and in a way that’s not self-contradictory.

Here we go:

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

That’s a complete sentence and it ends in a semicolon. Even Yeats was aware that a mummy is not a man, no matter how beautiful the Pharaoh’s linens. A mummy is a skeleton encased by dessicated flesh. Yeats must also have realized the absurdity of his initial drafts.  He tried the following:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
(May better sommon me) Can merrily summon me
To adore…

But rejected them. Merrily? A Mummy? Even Empson found this imagery absurd, writing:

“Merrily” carries a strong suggestion that we have not heard the whole story. Even without this unnerving detail, it would be probable that if we had the science fiction long-short we would find the mummy at least giving some gruff directions to the poet. But, even so, it would be quite unsuitable, and extremely unlike what happens to Virgil…”  [Yeats and Byzantium, p. 88]

Clearly, this was going nowhere. My reading is that Yeats changed the mummy — the guide — to a shade, “shade more than man, more image than a shade”. He also, I think, realized that it made more sense for him to summon the guide, rather than the other way around. But, you protest, what about the next line?

For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;

Here’s the thing: Whose to say these lines are referring to the shade? I think this is fundamentally misreading the lines. It seems to me that Yeats liked the material but recognized the inherent contradictions (and absurdities). A better idea struck him. He didn’t spell it out in the drafts because he didn’t have to. That’s not what drafts are for. He used/reused the imagery of the mummy and the winding cloth to suggest a much cleverer association. What is a bobbin? A bobbin is like a spindle. And what did ancient Egyptians wrap around spindles? Papyrus and linen. And what did we end up with? Scrolls. And what might ancient Egyptians have been writing on a scroll? — that Yeats’ might have been very interested in?

“The Book of the Dead was most commonly written in hieroglyphic or hieratic script on a papyrus scroll, and often illustrated with vignettes depicting the deceased and their journey into the afterlife.” [Wikipedia, September 25th)

732px-Weighing_of_the_heart3“The Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE.[1] The original Egyptian name for the text, transliterated rw nw prt m hrw[2] is translated as “Book of Coming Forth by Day”.[3] Another translation would be “Book of emerging forth into the Light”. Though, book is the closest term to describe the loose collection of texts[4] consisting of a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife and written by many priests over a period of about 1000 years.” [Ibid.]

Viola!

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For [because] Hades’ bobbin [The Book of the Dead] bound in mummy-cloth [a scroll’s linen wrapping or book]
May unwind [like a scroll] the winding path [by summoning or by the knowledge contained therein]];
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath [the written word]
Breathless mouths [the man that is shade, more image than shade] may summon
I hail [summon] the superhuman [the man or shade];
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

This, readers, in my opinion, is Hades Bobbin. Hades Bobbin is not a mummy. “Hades Bobbin” is The Book of the Dead. Hades Bobbin is a scroll. There is no mummy in Byzantium.  Yeats came up with a much better idea and recycled/re-imagined the imagery of the drafts. Hades Bobbin, the scroll, literally and figuratively unwinds the winding path. Thousands of years later, what did this scroll become? A book. It was “bound”, possibly like the scroll itself, in mummy-cloth — the linen that covers the hard-cover of a book. Yeats uses the very word — bound — to describe it.  So, am I suggesting that every other critic and close reader might have missed the farm (maybe even got it wrong)?

Yes.

  • It’s also worth noting that scrolls were sometimes “bound” or wrapped in linen. Was this something Yeats would have known when writing Byzantium? I don’t know.

C heck out this website, where you will find this:

 “Robert Moss’s ambition to give us a Western Book of the Dead has been fully realized in this captivating and inspiring guide to the land of the dead.  Moss shocks and thrills by revealing the hidden truth — that the other world is in fact the famliar landscape of our dreams, where we go every night.  There we can, if we intend it, meet up with our lost loved ones and encounter the great mentors of the past.   His own mentor is the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats with whom he has involved and meaningful conversations.  Moss reminds us that by our night dreaming and waking dreams we prepare for the great journey of the world beyond the mists the Celts called the Blessed Isles. Our dreams are the measure of what we aspire for, and it is in this life, through practicing our imagination, that we can draw our roadmap and our destination. For a better death and life beyond death — but also for a better life in the world of the living — do not miss this classic from a true Western Master.”

And now, the next lines make perfect sense:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

What is a mouth that has no moisture and no breath? A scroll or a book — perhaps even a poem. With Hades Bobbin – the scroll or The Book of the Dead – Yeats is able to “hail”, summon, the superhuman — the man, the shade, the image — his guide. Readers and critics have always assumed that it was the “mummy”, the “shade” or the “guide” who was summoning Yeats, but this makes no sense. Yeats, or the speaker of the poem, is not a breathless mouth. As far as we know, he’s still alive. Furthermore, Yeats never actually writes that he (or the speaker of the poem) was summoned. That’s simply how readers have chosen to interpret the lines. (And if he was summoned, then it was the cathedral’s gong that summoned him.) If interpreted correctly (in my opinion) its the breathless mouth of a book, The Book of the Dead, that has summoned the breathless mouth of a guide or shade. Yeats calls this guide: death-in-life and life-in-death. Be cognizant, also, that The Book of the Dead is filled with spells, incantations and chants that probably appealed to Yeats’ imagination for their nearness to poetry. If my interpretation is correct then, in a sense, Yeats is all but stating that it’s poetry that summons the superhuman.

  • superhuman/ death-in-life and life-in-death This terminology has been subjected to hundreds of pages of scrutiny. I think most readers will instinctively grasp their meaning within the context of the poem (though possibly not, precisely, what Yeats had in mind). If you’re interested to know what exactly Yeats might have meant (and that means having a familiarity with A Vision and Yeats’s esoteric writing) then resources are available.  I say might because nobody knows for sure. To me, the summoning of the superhuman is analogous to the summoning of a poem or a great work of literature. An interpretation near to my own, by Richard Ellman, remains my favorite:

“Gradually the master-image of Byzantium must have assumed dominance of the scene. The completed poem has often been taken as a representation of the afterlife, and Yeats wished this interpretation to be possible; but to him, it seems safe to say, ‘Byzantium’ was primarily a description of the act of making a poem. The poet, who is imprecisely identified with the Byzantine emperor, takes the welter of images and masters them in an act of creation. This mastery is so astonishing to the poet himself that he calls the creation of his imagination superhuman. The image of the golden bird, ‘more miracle than bird or handiwork,’ may be understood to represent a poem; the bird sings, as do Yeats’s poems, either like the cocks of Hades of rebirth — the continuing cycle of reincarnating human life, or with greater glory of the eternal reality or beatitude which transcends the cycles ‘and all complexities of mire or blood.’ Never had he realized so completely the awesome drama of the creative act” (Richard Ellman. Yeats: The Man and the Masks 269).

So, in the first Stanza Yeats has arrived in Byzantium, and in the second stanza, as I read it, Yeats uses Hades Bobbin, the “bound” Book of the Dead, to summon a guide.

The Third Stanza

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

The guide, presumably, has taken Yeats to see the miracle bird — the “artificial bird [that sings] upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor”. Many critics assume that the guide is meant to take “Yeats” to the afterlife. Not so, in my opinion. Why would such a guide be merry (or be a Mummy)? I think it more likely that the guide is pleased because he has been summoned to take the poem’s narrator to something of profound beauty and elegance. Interpreting the poem this way clears up another conundrum that has troubled readers since the poem’s publication: Why does the narrator need two guides — the mummy and a miracle bird? The answer is that the conundrum  arises from misinterpretation — neither the guide nor the bird are meant to guide the narrator into the afterlife.

The third stanza, in the middle and heart of the poem, brings us back to the comment that apparently prompted Yeats to write Byzantium: “…a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.”

The first thing Yeats tries to clarify is that the bird isn’t just a “goldsmith’s bird”, but a miracle — a bird imbued with not just mechanical wonder but something akin to life and intelligence. In analyzing Sailing to Byzantium, I wrote:

If Yeats is referring to his art, his poetic passion, then the imagery is easier to swallow. Remember too, Yeats’ comment concerning the skills of Byzantine goldsmiths. Yeats glowingly comments that they can create “a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. Yeats, himself, doesn’t think of the goldsmith’s work as mechanical and lifeless, no,  just the opposite. The artifice is not mechanical but “flexible”, not lifeless, but like the “perfect human body”. Yeats is describing a spiritual/alchemical transmutation like a kind of miracle. (…) Yeats, in my opinion, is describing a personal, spiritual transformation as manifested through his art – his poetry. He is, in a sense, identifying himself as his poetry – which is all that will remain after he has died. In this guise, the gold bough is like the magnum opus of his poetry (his Collected Poems).
 ·
The miracle, perhaps, is in the bird’s (Yeats’s poetry) being able to continue speaking, intelligently voicing his dreams and visions. In this sense, and in keeping with Yeats’s own spiritual ideas, the guide is showing him both his future and his past. The bird speaks to the purged soul of all men and women — hence the miracle. The bird, embodying Yeats’ poetry, speaks to the undying truth of our natures. Admittedly, resting so much symbolism in a mechanical bird will probably strike readers as eccentric, and it is.
 ·
“It is hard to say just what “exposition” Yeats had given to the idea of the bird by writing the poem; perhaps he would answer that his treatment had brought out more of the inherent beauty of the “image,” and that anything so beautiful must adumbrate the truth .He was quite capable of teasing his correspondent with a mystery, in a grand manner, and it seems plain that could have chosen a more impressive example of the good which may be done by exalted works of art, if that was all he had required.” [Ibid. p. 81]
cage2705b_261x174q85
  • Note: Interestingly, Empson goes on to discuss what may have inspired Yeats’ golden bird. He remarks that mechanical, singing birds were, in fact, available and for sale during Yeats’ childhood and that his own (Empson’s) great-Aunt used to bring out “exquisitely preserved toys of an antiquity rivaling her own. Chief among them was the bird of Yeats in its great cage, wound up to sing by a massive key; a darkish green tree, as I remember, occupied most of the cage, and a quite small shimmering bird, whose beak would open and shut while the musical box in the basement was playing, perched carelessly on a branch on one side.” [Ibid. p. 83] Empson didn’t recall seeing a golden bough, but that’s surely Yeats’s imagination at work. [The image, above, is of an actual Victorian Mechanical bird with a music box. I couldn’t find a larger version of this image. It sold for $795 dollars. The attached audio file is of the singing bird — the very one pictured in the image.]

Nevertheless, Yeats tries to drive home the argument that this isn’t any ordinary bird or work of art. In can crow like the cocks of Hades and in “changeless metal [can scorn]/ Common bird or petal/And all complexities of mire or blood.” In other words, the mechanical bird is self aware; is alive, intelligent and changeless. When it is “embittered” by the changeless beauty of the moon, surpassing any transient work of man, it can add scorn to its song — something no, mere, mechanical bird can do.

 ·
hadesAnd what of the “cocks of hades” and their crowing? This may be a reference to iconography of Hades, which is often accompanied by a sheaf of wheat and/or the rooster/the cock (both of which were traditional sacrifices to Hades). What Yeats has in mind by this comparison isn’t clear to me. Possibly Yeats intends us to think that the cocks of Hades, having all been sacrifices, would (when crowing) possibly give voice to the desires of those who sacrificed them (presumably, the sacrifice was meant to appease and possibly to win favor or win “a favor”). In that sense, the golden bird on the bough, when crowing like the cocks of hell, would give voice to your innermost hopes and desires. The mechanical bird would speak your own truth (or hidden truths) back to you.
 ·
So, if we continue to follow Yeats’ narrative, it’s possible to read Yeat’s progress like that of Virgil’s. Yeats has been brought by his shade/image guide to the miracle bird which speaks to him of his innermost hopes, desires and truths.
 ·
  • Hades is also a god of fertility and wealth, including precious metals. Being that the miracle bird is beaten out of precious metal, this too effectively makes it Hades’ cock.
The Fourth Stanza
 ·
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
 ·
After the shade has shown the poem’s narrator the miracle bird, and once the narrator is presumably filled with that bird’s revelation (like the revelation of poetry) he is taken to the Emperor’s pavement where he himself is purged or, more certainly, he watches the “images” of others be purged. Why so hedging? The narrator/narration never states that the narrator was purged. Since one assumes that purging is reserved for the dead or dying, and since the poem never actually states that the  narrator is dead,  we can’t assume too much. The narrator might, like Virgil, just be visiting and witnessing. In this sense, the poem is more like Dante’s inferno — a Yeatsian version of it.
 ·
Vendler characterizes the narrator as “the mortally ill poet” [p, 44], but there’s nothing in either Sailing to Byzantium or Byzantium to suggest that she’s right, which is to say, her opinion doesn’t reflect anything intrinsic to the poems. I do read a narrator who is turning away from the trimmings and frolic of youth, but that hardly makes me leap to the conclusion that he’s mortally ill. I mean, for God’s sake, we can be fed up with the pastimes of youth — bodily, mentally and spiritually — without being mortally ill. In fact, putting such habits behind us usually tends to make us much healthier. I read Yeats as remaking himself. His journey to Byzantium is akin to an awakening — a spiritual journey that could be compared to the visions of the American Indians. He is en-souled.
 ·
It’s easy, I suppose to speculate on the deeper metaphysical implications of every line (you can read Vendler for this) but I think most readers will instinctively grasp the meaning of the fourth stanza. These aren’t actual flames, these are spiritual flames (the kind that “cannot singe sleeve”). The agony is not the agony of being burned alive, but the agony of purification, spiritual awakening (perhaps), of a new awareness, knowledge and attainment. These spiritual flames will purge the “blood-begotten spirits” of the complexities which are the ensnarement of blood and mire — lust, physical sexuality and life’s begetting of life. As mentioned earlier, what’s left behind after this purging isn’t exactly clear, but we know what it’s not. My interpretation? I think the Emperor’s pavement is like the page on which poetry is written — perhaps Yeats’ poetry. The flames “that no faggot feeds” are the flames of knowledge. Just as flames are “begotten of flame”, so too is knowledge begotten of knowledge. The inevitable turning from youthful pleasure to knowledge and wisdom is inevitably a kind of agony. In keeping with my reading of Sailing to Byzantium, I’m tempted to read this passage as symbolically describing our awakening to art, poetry, music and the timeless wisdom therein.
 ·
The Fifth Stanza
 ·
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
 
 ·
Whether the narrator turns, or his attention is turned by the guide, is left to the imagination. Yeats doesn’t say. Given my own interpretation of the second stanza, I like to think that the man, “shade more than man, more image than a shade” is still with Yeats and has turned his attention to the gong-tormented sea. There, the narrator sees spirit after spirit arriving in Byzantium. It’s my own opinion that these can be interpreted both literally and figuratively — as the recently dead or as the recently awakened. John Unterecker, in A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, writes:
 ·
“All spirits, in Yeats’s system, are of course purified before being reborn; but in “Byzantium” Yeats is offering the final purification by which the elemental patterns of the dancing floor “break” the cycle of birth and rebirth, the bitter compulsive necessity of the spirits to live their lives over and over, begetting image after image.” [p.219]
 ·
There you have the official, informed by Yeats’s Vision, interpretation of this stanza. Again, there’s no mention of what exactly, remains once all this has happened? — which is why I find this kind of explanation so unsatisfactory. What is left of us? What is left of the spirit? What are we once we’ve broken the cycle of birth and rebirth? The only hint that I’ve found so far is in the draft quoted by Empson:
 ·

but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone…

Being the remnants of a draft, we can only guess at Yeats’s meaning, but perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that just a little of that complexity, love, remains, just a little of that sensuality and yearning for pleasure. It’s this that makes me think we probably shouldn’t too closely apply Yeats’s Vision to any interpretation of the poem. That is, I think it’s a mistake to read either of the Byzantium poems as a footnote to the Vision. Though I can’t back up my assertion (and may well be wrong) I’m of the mind that Yeats the poet didn’t always jibe with Yeats the spiritualist. He was obviously a man of conflicting emotions and desires. In his own poetry, arguably the poetry of the Vision, we find a poetry of sensual beauty, words that physically delight in their melody and repetition, and a powerful intellectual complexity. Personally, this is what I really think Yeats imagines  as the outcome of the purgatorial dance. It’s a youthful desire for beauty, drama, and sensuality that is transformed by age and knowledge into a more awe-inspiring and en-souling beauty, drama and sensuality.

But that’s just me.

The golden smithies of the emperor — figuratively the poets, artists and musicians — await us at the shores of Byzantium, that crazy city of both decadence and enlightenment, ready to transform us, ready to “break the flood” of our arrival.

  • One of the questions lovingly discussed by close readers is this: What’s with the dolphins? If nothing else, the imagery is striking and dramatic, also beautiful. Vendler remarks  that  the dolphins are “symbols of resurrection on Roman sarcophagi” and I’m perfectly content to leave it at that. Makes sense to me.

The Marbles of the dancing floor, for some reason (and without reason) I’ve always imagined as being black and white. And this has always lead me to think that Yeats is alluding to the black and white appearance of words on the page; and this brings me back to my assertion that the “Emperor’s pavement” might be thought of as the page on which poems are printed. In other words, the  “blood-begotten spirits” (you and me) dance on the poet’s page (the Emperor’s pavement) where the black & white marbles (the black and white words on the page) “break bitter furies of complexity” (our confusion). We die in a dance (the act of reading), in a trance (the act of reflection), in the agony of flame (the poet’s imparted knowledge) that “cannot singe a sleeve”. See? This is purely interpretative and I make no claim that this was Yeats’ intention (though I know he would have enjoyed it). Take it or leave it.

  • I say I know that Yeats would have enjoyed it because, in correspondence, he stated that he resisted interpreting his own poems lest others be constrained.

1-sarcophagus-dolphins-rome-335x263

The poem’s final line: “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” is among the most resonant in all poetry. Why is the sea “gong-tormented”? Other close readers have argued, and I’m inclined to agree, that the entirety of the poem takes place during the twelve peals of midnight. The “torment” is possibly a reference to the meaning of the peals. The great cathedral gong is a never-ending call and summoning. (It’s the cathedral gong that summons, not any mummy or miracle bird.) The cathedral gong, perhaps, can be understood as the voluble voice of Yeats’ vision, calling us to share in the awakening of his poetry. And it’s in this sense that my current interpretation, builds on my interpretation of Sailing to Byzantium.

The first poem declares his desire, the second is a Dante-esque vision of its fruition.

Other References:

September

 

I’ve gone to market
And danced in the square.
I’ve picked the grape
And drunk the wine without a care;

But I know too
The howl of the night
When the trees
Recoil in the moon’s cold light

I’ve gone out
With nowhere to go
But to lose
My footfall in a field of snow.

September comes
As though to stay awhile
But in the leaves
Are the colors of her guile.

Don’t be fooled.
Whatever else you do
Love and be loved
Before her last good-night beguiles you too.

~ September

September 16 2014 by me, Patrick Gillespie

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