I had a little nut tree…

I had a little nut tree is easily one of my favorite nursery rhymes. There has always been something, to me, beautiful and mysterious about it. Of all the nursery rhymes, this is the only one that has ever had a touch of the profound and reminds me of the mystical poems one would otherwise expect from a poet like Rumi.

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

If any of you are already familiar with this rhyme, then I’m sure you’re probably aware that it has been associated with actual events in English history.The poem was first recorded in 1797, printed in London in the Newest Christmas Box. At a later date, the antiquarian James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (who devoted himself to antiquarian research, specifically English literature, and later to a Life of Shakespeare) asserted that the poem was much older. Halliwell-Phillips was a man who loved literature. More importantly, and judging by his later interest in Shakespeare, he was keenly interested in the history behind the literature. When he gave up textual criticism in the 1870’s, he devoted himself to piecing together the particulars of Shakespeare’s life. This revealing bent for biography and explication is important when considering his opinions on the origin of A Little Nut Tree. As concerns this rhyme, Halliwell-Phillips wrote [this first link will take you to Google books and a reprint, I think, of the actual book from which the quote comes]:

“The following perhaps refers to Joanna of Castile, who visited the court of Henry VII in the year 1506.

‘I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear;
The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me,
And all was beacuse of my little nut tree.
I skipp’d over water, I danced over sea,
And all the birds in the air could not catch me.'”

[Notes and queries, Volume 72, by William White p. 521]

Because of my abiding interest in all things science, I’ve learned the value of skepticism. That extends to literary scholarship. Worth knowing is that Shakespeare scholarship was, and still is, rife with speculation, excess and outright fraud. I haven’t found anything to suggest that Halliwell-Phillips engaged in that sort of excess, but he was also a man of his times. If no information was forthcoming then speculation was fair game — the responsibility of the scholar, it seems, was often to speak even if there was nothing to be spoken of. This was a time when reputation often trumped the truth.

The first thing I wondered was whether the The Little Nut Tree was a fake. Don’t think it’s not possible. More than a few modern scholars speculate that some of the nursery rhymes in Mother Goose were cooked up. The 18th and 19th century was rife with forgers, the most famous being William Henry-Ireland. A recent book was written on Ireland called The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare. Or consider the struggling poet James Macpherson. He only gained real success when he fabricated the mythical Gaelic bard Ossian. He announced:

“Though the poems now published appear as detached pieces in this collection, there is ground to believe that most of them were originally episodes of a greater work … by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius, no less valuable than those now given to the world, might be found in the same country where these have been collected. In particular there is reason to hope that one work of considerable length, and which deserves to be styled an heroic poem, might be recovered and translated, if encouragement were given to such an undertaking.”

The English of the 18th and 19th century were besotted with their “newly” discovered literary past. The true genius of Shakespeare was just beginning to be appreciated and the corpus he left behind would have made any nation proud. The British, naturally, wanted more. They began looking in dusty pantries, the shelves of old libraries, and any other nook that might yield a new literary treasure (and fame). If it couldn’t be found, then arrangements could be made. To this day, scholars dispute the provenance of Double Falsehood. Just in the last decade, the Shakespearean scholar Brean Hammond made a name for himself by once again (just as the original scholar Lewis Theobald almost 300 years before) trying to link a forgery (at worst) to Shakespeare.

Collecting old sayings and nursery rhymes was undoubtedly part of this general besottment with literary history. There’s no reason to exclude the possibility that there wasn’t a touch of fraud in that collecting as well. Scholarly fidelity was understood a little differently. If a little ditty could be passed off as original, then what harm in that? It’s not as if they were forging a Shakespeare play or a fifth biblical testament. The world could stand one more nursery rhyme and the perpetrator could go to his grave knowing, in some small anonymous way, that a piece of himself had attained literary immortality. Not all the Mother Goose rhymes may be original, but there’s no way to know.

Fortunately, the modern scholar can narrow down the odds. For a rhyme like Monday’s Child, one can find precedent going all the way back to the 1500’s (and before). There are parallels, and poems like Monday’s Child are mentioned, in passing, by writers during the 17th century. These sorts of clues suggest that Monday’s Child is probably not a fake and could date back hundreds of years before it was officially recorded in the 19th century.

There’s no similar precedent for Little Nut Tree, but we do get some verification. In the same passage already quoted above, William White mentions that one “Mr. C.W. Penny supplies from memory the same verses, which were taught him about 1842.” Reading between the lines, this tells me that the question of forgery must have occurred to others, and the fact that the poem was being passed on, orally, in 1842, seems to have argued in favor of the rhyme’s provenance (and sufficiently so for those concerned).

This brings us back to Halliwell-Phillips, On what basis does he assert that the rhyme may have stemmed from the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII?

None.

Halliwell-Phillips provides no evidence to support his contention and he doesn’t claim to (which, to me, works in his favor). He writes: perhaps. When you read other analyses of this rhyme on the Internet and elsewhere, and when the analyses are written with an implied certainty, just remember this: It’s speculation. Just as Shakespearean “scholars”, in the past and present, have a rich history of fabricating biography (leading some on the “wild goose chase” of an Oxford, Bacon, or a Queen Elizabethan), Hallewill-Phillips was probably compelled, by the same urge, to speculate on the origins of A Little Nut Tree. (This kind of speculation, by the way, is no different than the speculation surrounding Browning’s My Last Duchess.) All of it makes for a good parlor game and keeps academics in business.

Wikipidia sums up the current thinking on A Little Nut Tree:

The characters in the nursery rhyme are believed to refer to the visit of the Royal House of Spain to King Henry VII’s English court in 1506. The ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ refers to the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. There were two daughters, Princess Juana and her sister Catherine of Aragon. The princess in the nursery rhyme is probably Catherine of Aragon who was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne of England. Arthur died and Catherine eventually married King Henry VIII. It was sad that “So fair a princess” had such a difficult life with Henry as she was the first of Henry’s six wives and discarded by the King to make way for Anne Boleyn. Queen Catherine was much loved by the British who were not fond of her replacement. The young, ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ relates to the young Catherine as a princess, and is immortalised in this old nursery rhyme.

Another site offers a variation on the same:

The characters in the nursery rhyme ‘I had a little nut tree’ are believed to refer to the visit of the Royal House of Spain to King Henry VII’s English court in 1506. The ‘King of Spain’s daughter’ refers to the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. There were two daughters, Princess Juana and her sister Katherine of Aragon. The princess in the nursery rhyme is probably Katherine of Aragon who was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne of England. Arthur died and Katherine eventually married King Henry VIII. It was sad that “So fair a princess” had such a difficult life with Henry as she was the first of Henry’s six wives and discarded by the King to make way for Anne Boleyn. Queen Katherine was much loved by the British people who hated her replacement, who they called ‘The Great Whore’. The young, beautiful princess relates to the young Katherine, as a princess and is immortalised in this old nursery rhyme.

The first question to ask is this: Why did Halliwell-Phillips suggest that Joanna of Castile (6 November 1479 – 12 April 1555) was the subject of the poem? No answer is forthcoming. There’s nothing in the poem to suggest Joanna of Castile but for the fact that the rhyme mentions “the King of Spain’s daughter”. (Joanna of Castile was briefly a guest of a younger Henry VIII due to a shipwreck.) This is probably why later scholars decided a more likely candidate would be Catherin of Aragon. (If we’re going to play this game, then the facts have to fit — at least a little.)

“I had a little nut tree…”

This is where interpretations of the poem remind me of Baconians or Oxfordians reading Shakespeare. It’s easy to read into poetry evidence that isn’t there and that’s because poetry is notoriously figurative and open to interpretation. (That’s largely what makes poetry so powerful.) So, if we want the poem to fit the facts, this is how we read the poem:

I had a little nut tree

This line refers to the genitals of Prince Arthur, Henry the VIII’s older brother. From there, we enter a hall of mirrors where speculation fits the poem to history and history to the poem.

Nothing would it bear

This is said to refer to either Arthur’s impotence or to infertility. (I personally think this is a peculiarly modern misinterpretation of the line.) Historians argue over whether Catherine and Arthur ever consummated their marriage. The matter was of paramount importance to Henry VIII (who later married her) and some  historians speculate that Catherine expediently lied, claiming that she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. On the other hand, Arthur was quoted as saying (the day after), that “Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.” This sounds like a young husband who enjoyed himself. Then we enter into the hall of mirrors. Some scholars speculate that Arthur said this in order to cover up his impotence. Others counter that Catherine never raised the subject until Henry VIII evinced interest in marrying her. Worth keeping in mind is that nursery rhymes weren’t meant to be historically accurate. Indeed, if this poem really was inspired by the events surrounding Catherine and Arthur, it could have started out in the spirit of a modern day limerick — a jest and a way to explain occurrences that were steeped in gossip.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the poem’s meaning is quite straightforward. All boys are born with “a little nut tree” that, by itself, ‘bears nothing’. That brings us to the next two lines.

But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

Nutmeg was a very valuable and sought after commodity that can be dated back to the medieval cuisine. It was used both as a powder and (more importantly as concerns our rhyme) as an oil (expressed from the nut). Continuing with  our interpretation, it’s hardly a leap to interpret the “silver nutmeg” as a bawdy and humorous reference to Arthur’s semen (presumably “expressed” by Catherine). The pear has a long tradition in pre-Christian and Christian iconography. According to an article by Jules Janick, “The Pear in History, Literature, Popular Culture, and Art“,

The first mention of the pear is found in Homer’s (9th century BC) epic poem, The Odyssey, confirming that the pear was cultivated in Greece as early as three thousand years ago. The pear is included as one of the “gifts of the gods” which grew in the garden of Alcinöus, the King of the Phaeacians…

By this, we learn that the pear was associated with divinity and royalty. Janick adds that “the grouping of pear, apple, and fig would persist in early Christian iconography, probably as a metaphor for sacred trees.” The idea of royal lineage as a sacred tree was a common place. Now, mix this in with the English proclivity for bawdy humor (in just about anything) and we come to Shakespeare:

Your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears, it looks ill, it eats drily; marry, ‘tis a withered pear; it was formerly better; marry yet ‘tis a withered pear. All’s Well that Ends Well i(1).

The comparison of a pear to a woman’s sex could have been original to Shakespeare, but I think it more likely that he was echoing common bawdy that equated the pear’s shape (just as we do today) to a woman’s belly and hips (pregnant or otherwise). What happens when we put all this together? The golden pear turns into an expansive pun and joke that combines the notion of Arthur’s lineage (the tree) and the golden pear (the royal womb). In other words, all that Arthur has to offer (and promise) is his semen, (the silver nutmeg), and an impregnated womb. The pear, or the womb, is gold because it will carry a royal child. (The mention of gold may additionally echo the gold of the crown.) “Nothing would it bear” can be understood, in the grammar of the day, not as meaning that Arthur is barren but that, because Arthur is a Prince, he can’t offer anything but the gold of his lineage. In other words, the Little Nut Tree, the prince’s genitalia, can produce nothing other than ‘silver’ semen and a ‘golden’ pear because of his royal lineage. Translation: The Little Nut Tree won’t settle for anything less than an equally royal womb. The Prince must wait for a Princess.

  • More grist for the mill: From A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance: Pear / pair, appear / a pair 1.) Testicles. Pear-tree (‘pyrie’ – TWR): penis, as in Chaucer’s, ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, where May, wanting ‘peres’, climbed up the tree to her waiting lover. 2.) Copulate (L copula, sexual union, from co(m)-, with apere, to fasten). Pair: a mated couple; to match, couple. Aperire: to open (F).

Knowing that the nut, then as now, was a pun on testicles, and knowing that Chaucer used the word pear as a pun for the penis, still more possible interpretations arise: Nutmeg = Testicle; Silver = Semen; Golden = Royal; and the Pear equals the Penis. If the rhyme originated during Elizabethan times, then we might well expect all these puns and connotations to have existed at once. I personally find it compelling that Chaucer was punning on pear as far back as the 12th century. This suggests that the provenance of the The Little Nut Tree may be far older than anyone has yet suggested – easily predating the events of Catherine and Arthur.

Lastly, Janick makes the observation that “In many parts of the world the pear symbolizes the human heart which it resembles.” It’s all there.

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

The king of Spain’s daughter is visiting in order to be impregnated – for the sake of his “little nut tree”, a euphemism for his royal lineage and its future.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

This is where the rhyme, as a history of Catherine and Arthur, runs aground. It was well-known during the time that Catherine was fair skinned, blue-eyed and red-haired – (nothing like the common Spanish caricatures). This is precisely the kind of gossip the people of Britain closely followed. Apologists will argue that the originator (or originators) of the rhyme probably had to conceal the true target of the poem but I find that a self-defeating argument. If it’s all but obvious to us, several hundred years later, who was targeted by the rhyme, then it would have been obvious to the court of Henry VIII. Would the change from red hair to “jet black” really have protected anyone? I doubt it. In fact, it might have been more insulting had Catherine’s appearance been described as jet black. This would  not have been considered praise.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

This verse, given what has come before, is all but self-explanatory. Arthur will marry Catherine and they will ‘to bed’, where he will give her all the fruit of his “little nut tree”. Many versions of this poem end here. If this rhyme is truly about Arthur and Catherine, then it would imply that the poem was created before Arthur died.

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

This beautifully poetic stanza is probably best appreciated as describing the exhalation of lovemaking. A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and their Significance tells us the following:

  • Dance Fornicate (‘daunce’ — TWR). Dekker and Middleton, The Honest Whore I, III.ii: a reformed whore reviles her ex-bawd who ‘guard’st the dore/Whilst couples go to daunching’. Danser: to dance, leap (Cot). Leap: coit (C;P). Cf. R2, II.iv.12 ‘ruffians [pimps – OED] dance and leap’. De la panse vient la danse: “when the bellie is full, the breech would be figging’ (Cot.)

As I’ve written already, correspondences like this encourage me to think that the poem is as old or older than the events of Catherine and Arthur, though there’s no way of knowing.  But does all this sound convincing? The thing to remember is that this is all, every bit of it, hearsay and gossip based on speculation by a 19th century amateur, almost 400 years after the fact. I personally think it’s a shame that this lovely rhyme, the loveliest of all nursery rhymes in my opinion,  has been buttonholed as a reference to Catherine and Arthur. I was saddened to read a comment like the following:

“The rhyme is neither charming nor cute, but politically ironic in origin, like most nursery rhymes. This one refers to the arrangement to marry the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (who was by no means mad) to Prince Arthur (the elder son of Henry VII) and his failure to perform in the marital bed. Other cutesy ‘nursery rhymes’ originating in the Tudor/Stuart period include ‘Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ (ref. the decapitation of Anne Boleyn)’Little Jack Horner’ (ref. a contemporary Fat Cat trying to cream off from the Dissolution of the Monasteries) and ‘Ring-a-Ring of Roses’ which references the Great Plague. Then there’s ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary ..’ – a snide Protestant reference to Catholic Mary Stuart ….. Not so beautiful, but life as it was: viz. people wanting to comment on the activities of their political masters but afraid to do so overtly. (So, whats new?)”

My own speculation (I can’t stress that enough) is as follows: The wordplay, if that is what it is, makes me think the origins of the rhyme are contemporaneous with or predate the events of Catherine and Arthur. The original poem probably was not exactly like the poem that came down to us. It’s possible that the rhyme was associated with the events of Joanna of Castile or Catherine of Aragon but there is no evidence to support this interpretation. (It’s up to you to decide whether you accept this interpretation.) It’s likely that the original ‘girl’ was not “The King of Spain’s Daughter”. This was probably an alteration meant to suit (what were then) current events or could have been for other reasons (which I’ll touch on). If one is going to take the phrase “The King of Spain’s Daughter” literally, as evidence that the poem was intended to describe either Joanna or Catherine, then it’s willfully capricious and arbitrary to then disregard the fact that the rhyme describes the princess as having jet black hair. If the appellation “King of Spain’s Daughter” strongly argues for Joanna or Catherine, then the princess’s jet black hair as forcefully argues against the claim. As I wrote before, it was widely known that both women were fair skinned, blue-eyed and red-haired – qualities that were considered attributes of beauty, not dark or “jet black” hair.

I do not think this rhyme is about Joanna or Catherine.

“jet black hair…”

My own theory as to the identity of the princess with the jet black hair is steeped in folklore and mythology. In 1959, Eric Berne wrote an article called The Mythology of Dark and Fair: Psychiatric Use of Folklore. In the article, discussing northern European mythology, he writes that  golden hair was an attribute of the pure and innocent maiden, while dark hair suggested the ardent, passionate, inexpressibly terrible temptress who offers the treasure trove of a great sin.” Dark hair and complexion was also seen, in a conventionally literary sense, as less desirable. It’s for this reason that Shakespeare could write his sonnets to the “Dark Lady” in the full knowledge that his audience would “get it”.

Sonnet 127

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet Sidney, also stews in the sexual promise of the dark haired girl (and black’s contrary associations with death and mourning):

ASTROPHEL AND STELLA

VI

When Nature made her chief work – STELLA’S eyes
In colour black why wrapt she beams so bright?
Would she in beamy black, like painter wise
Frame daintiest lustre, mixed of shades of light?
Or did she else that sober hue devise,
In object best to knit and strength our sight?
Lest if no veil these brave gleams did disguise,
They sun-like should more dazzle than delight.
Or would she her miraculous power show?
That whereas black seems beauty’s contrary
She, even in black, doth make all beauties flow!
But so and thus, she minding LOVE should be
Placed ever there, gave him this mourning weed;
To honour all their deaths, which for her bleed.

In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, the inviting dangers of the dark lady’s sexual excess are made explicit:

Sonnet 129

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest, to have extreme,
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe,
Before a joy proposed behind a dream.
All this the world well knows yet none knows well,
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The point isn’t that Sidney or Shakespeare wrote the The Little Nut Tree, but that they wrote with the expectation that their audience understood the associations surrounding the dark haired girl and woman — that there is something of the forbidden and alluring about them: libidinous and desirable.

“the King of Spain…”

From what I can tell, the temptation has always been to assume that the “King of Spain” must be a literal historical figure. However, other features of the nursery rhyme don’t quite add up. My own hunch is that the “King of Spain” was more a symbolic reference than a literal one – like the King of the Elves.

If we think of the rhyme as having originated sometime between the 15th and 17th century, we find that relations between England and Spain could be surprisingly cordial and warm. Most importantly, Spain had discovered the Americas. Whole new trade routes were being explored. New and exotic products — herbs, spices and fabrics — were being exported to England, along with stories of fabulous wealth and strange peoples. For a period of time, the King of Spain must have seemed, indeed, like the King of a fabled magical horizon burgeoning with strange delights, untold riches and fantastic stories. (The newfound wealth and trade routes of the Spaniards would increasingly rankle the jealous British aristocracy.) My hunch is that the King of Spain, in The Little Nut Tree, is better  understood as a sort of mythical King in a land that allures with new and exotic wealth and strangeness.

In this light, the idea of the daughter with the jet black hair also makes more sense. She is the archetypal dark haired beauty who epitomizes the allure that is sexual, dangerous, promising, fecund, unknowable but desired. All of the previous analysis still stands, minus the intrusion of Catherine and Arthur. Not only that, but there’s an inner mystical beauty to the rhyme that makes itself felt – and may account for it’s survival.

I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg,
And a golden pear;

As before, the nursery rhyme can be read as a little fable — a foretelling of every child’s sexual awakening (and its necessity). The little nut tree is the boy and young man’s genitalia. “I have a little nut tree”, says the mother to the little boy (as though speaking for him) and “nothing would it bear”. It cannot and never will without union (remember the pun on pear and pair) with a girl or woman. He has nothing to offer but a silver nutmeg (his semen) and a golden pear. The golden pair serves as a pun on his penis and symbolizes the fruit of his lovemaking – the golden (their combined love) pear or the impregnated womb.

The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.

The King of Spain is every father and the Princess in the crimson dress and jet black hair is every daughter. The King of Spain is the mysterious, feared and powerful King whose alluring wealth is his mysterious and exotic daughter with the jet black hair. Someday, says the mother through the nursery rhyme, the King of Spain’s daughter will come to visit you all for the sake of your little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.

Crimson, as we all know, symbolizes passion and sexuality, but also suggests the blood of a woman’s virginity and her period – what she has to offer for the boy’s silver nutmeg. The daughter’s “jet black hair” (which is always symbolically jet black) symbolizes the daughter’s sexual allure, mystery and libido. She promises pleasure and wealth by asking for the boy’s golden pear (his penis). Their “pairing” (and his child in her womb) will make him a “King of Spain”.

I said, “So fair a princess
Never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit
From my little nut tree.”

…a dress made of crimson…

In these lines we can hear the mother, through the rhymes, instructing her son. She will be beautiful. Do not be afraid. Give her all the fruit of your little nut tree. Give her your silver nutmeg (your semen) and your golden pear.

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

In the closing stanza, without which (in my opinion) the poem is only half the poem it could be, the mother promises the boy the physical and spiritual ecstasy of sexual union, love and lovemaking (in terms he won’t yet understand). The mother could also be describing her own ecstasy, and that of his father’s, during the conception of their son. Read in this light, the poem is nothing if not a beautiful prompting and celebration of love and procreation.

Naturally, the bawdy and humorous elements are there; and the poem is enriched by them.

But there’s also a mystical undercurrent that captures my heart. We can read the little nut tree as our  soul. The King of Spain is the physical world and his daughter, the princess, is the gift he offers our soul — crimson, jet black, sexual and of the earth. The beautiful girl offers us both life and death. If we freely give to her all the fruit of our soul when she asks for it (both sexual and spiritual), the reward will be a physical and spiritual ecstasy — the golden pear. On that day we will dance o’er the water and dance o’er  the sea and not even the birds i’th’air will catch us.

·

·

·

I danced o’er the water,
I danced o’er the sea,
And all the birds in the air,
Couldn’t catch me.

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Poets, Poetry & the Perfection of Women

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my other new book…

As promised, my other post about poetry and women (my two favorite subjects). The previous post was about the treachery of women. So, my other summer reading is How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. The “book” is workbook sized (which means it’s about the size of a college workbook) and I’ve only just begun it.

The history of poetry in China is astounding. For hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years no one with any governmental ambitions could advance to even the most menial position without passing an arduous exam predicated on a thorough knowledge of poetry (and literature in general). Poetry was tremendously valued and esteemed to a degree (in its longevity) unmatched by any other culture. The history of English poetry pales in comparison.

Part of the reason, I think, comes from the continuity of Chinese writing & language. Unlike the Western Alphabet, Chinese script doesn’t reflect pronunciation. Any given symbol (such as the moon) could remain essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. If Elizabethans wanted to read poetry from a thousand years before, they needed to learn the actual languages – Latin, Greek or Anglo-Saxon because western writing reflects pronunciation. A Chinese poet, on the other hand, only needed to be literate.  If we used a similar system in the west then all of us could read and understand classical languages (though we wouldn’t know anything about the original Latin and Greek words). Similarly (and setting aside issues of grammar) any western reader can learn to ‘read’ Chinese without speaking the language. The moon is the moon is the moon.

What got me thinking about this post were some comments in the introductory material:

“Love and Courtship” is a prominent theme in the airs of the Book of Poetry [the earliest extent collection of Chinese poetry]. Many of the airs are bone fide erotic love songs, featuring unabashed accounts of a tryst or an affair. In these songs , women show few signs of inhibition and, indeed, are often the daring and resourceful initiators of a secret affair. Such uninhibited, self-willed women are not seen in later literati compositions, with the exception of Yuan songs. In most literati compositions, women often fall into two rather static types: the beautiful and the abandoned. ¶ “The Beautiful Woman” shows how the literati reconceptualized woman as an abstract, static object of desire—for spiritual fulfillment, sensual pleasure, or both.”

Above · The sign for Woman from 1500 BC to the present. AncientScripts

And that’s interesting because this same abstract idealization of women also occurred (and occurs) in Western Literature (and probably in all cultures with an accumulated history of literature).  Why? I suspect that the early and rambunctious poetry of erotic love is deemed too vulgar as art develops. The earliest poetry all seems to spring from popular lyrics — consider modern rock, country and rap — and as “a literature” begins to establish itself (separate itself) and come into contact with more patrician and aristocratic circles, it’s possible that erotic poetry is considered too gauche and unrefined. In general, all cultures place a premium on the spiritual as a more fit pursuit for philosophy , art, music and literature. How do women fit into such otherworldly pursuits? Uneasily. And usually (or at least historically) it’s because men are doing the defining.

  • The renaissance angel at left could be a  woman or a young man. The book Angels in the Early Modern World has this to say: “Other definitive assumptions about angels also began to crystallise in the early centuries of the Church. Angels were asexual spiritual beings, though they usually took the outward form of young men. An idea only partially attributable to Scripture – that angels appeared as winged creatures – was becoming an almost universal iconographic convention, as angels were increasingly depicted in wall painting, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. The very question of whether these figures could legitimately be represented in art was definitively settled in the affirmative by the second Council of Nicea.” The effect, ironically or perhaps deliberately, is to eroticize spiritual iconography and spirituality itself- not just through the representation of women and girls, but men and boys. In other words, the perfect woman (the angel) is homoerotic as well.

The exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of spiritual and religious practice isn’t isolated – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists (inasmuch as Taoist sects have organized), Hindus, etc… The presence of women among men gives rise to the inevitable: they become objects of lust, they arouse and are desirous, emotions that just don’t jibe with otherworldly detachment and contemplation. It’s no wonder women have been excluded.  Millions of years of evolution seems more than most men can overcome. Easier to hide women away, exclude them or, in the case of literature,  idealize them, than be around them. They become paragons of untouchable virtue and beauty. The literature pretends to ignore the raw, physical and erotic allure of women’s femininity (just as religious iconography asexualizes them). They become the angels of Renaissance painting. They symbolize an archetypal otherworldly beauty acceptable because it is, in theory, detached from physical longing. They are an idealized representation of the spiritual pursuit – it’s detached beauty. I write in theory because the iconography, ironically, transforms the other-world beauty of angels into its own kind of eroticism and homoeroticism.

  • Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer. The painting at right comes from the end of the 19th century and early 20th . Thayer was known as a painter of Ideal Figures and his paintings of angels are his most popular and  critically recognized. The painting at right is the most famous. No other painting before or since so beautifully captures the ineffable beauty that both eroticizes and denies the erotic. The model was his daughter Mary, but absent that knowledge, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the model was a boy. Her youth encourages a certain asexuality.

Anyway, this is my stab at some sort of explanation for the idealization of women in art, philosophy and religion. More than this requires a degree in gender studies and sociology. However, I suspect that this impulse to “asexualize” women is all part of the same spectrum (whether in art or religion). It is a desire to transform or redirect physical desire and it’s a hard place for women to inhabit. The result is that women are seen as either/or, either angels or as devils. Everything in between gets lost: girlhood, their own desires, romance, sex, childbirth, motherhood, marriage, housekeeping. That’s why Anne Bradstreet’s poem, Before the birth of one of her children, is so important.

  • The image at left is one that I found on the web. I don’t know whom to credit but clicking on the image will lead you to one possible source. There’s something about this image that appeals to me. It’s as if the conventions – the concealments and misdirections of two thousand years – have been, like clothes, stripped away. The woman behind the iconography is revealed. But even so, a new ambiguity confronts us. What do you feel when you view her? Strength or vulnerability? Eroticism or reticence? We are invited, perhaps, to recreate the angels of our desire and spirituality. Who will she be? Will she be permitted into the inner circle of our theologies – as we have made and make her? – or as she is?

The West’s Book of Poetry

The west’s poetic tradition, unlike China’s, isn’t confined to one language or society. It begins with the Greeks and Romans and from there their influence spread through the various languages of Europe.

The women of Rome, to judge by Ovid’s Amores, had more in common with China’s rambunctious women than anything idealized. Like the Chinese women, they “show few signs of inhibition and, indeed, are often the daring and resourceful initiators of [secret affairs].” One of my favorite poems by Ovid (for it’s eroticism and self-effacing good humour)   was beautifully translated by Christopher Marlowe – the greatest poet and playwright after Shakespeare and the man who was, perhaps, also Shakespeare’s elder friend, collaborator and inspiration.

Ovid’s Sixth Elegy: Book III of his Amores • Christopher Marlowe

All of Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s Erotic poetry can be found at the Perseus Digital Library.

  • Interestingly, Ovid’s first version of the Amores (now lost) was longer and probably more explicit. Even within an artist’s lifetime, one sees a progression from the more to the less explicit.

The earliest “English” poetry is that of the Anglo-Saxons. (English, in this sense, refers more to the nation than to the language.) The degree to which the Anglo-Saxons were exposed to the great poets of Latin or Greek is debatable. However, the Anglo-Saxons were certainly exposed to Latin itself, both by the Romans and later by missionaries and their establishment of Christianity. Anglo-Saxon poetry doesn’t appear to have been influenced by the meters of Greek or Latin and I don’t know whether that was through ignorance of classical poetry or other reasons. The verse forms of Anglo-Saxon are those of its proto-germanic heritage.

The most popular and well-known understanding of Old English poetry continues to be Sievers’ alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types can be used in any verse. The system was inherited from and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages. New World Encycopedia

If Anglo-Saxon is to be considered the earliest poetry of the English language, then the Exeter Book of Riddles is the closest parallel to China’s Book of Poetry. Interestingly, and contrary to expectation, the position of women in Anglo Saxon society was more liberated (or more modern) than the ignorant barbarity of England’s 19th century legal practice. Whereas 19th century woman could expect to be left in poverty and destitution upon divorce (all their properties having become that of their husband). The women of Anglo-Saxon Britain (who were not slaves) were entitled to half their combined worth:

Within marriage, finances belonged to both the husband and the wife. This we know from wills and charters. Æthelbert’s law number 79 from the seventh century says about divorce:

If she wish to go away with her children, let her have half the property.

The greater equality of women is, I think, reflected the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. There isn’t the same idealization of women that would become the Courtly Convention of  Chaucer’s time (the literati’s equivalent to China’s abstracted “Beautiful Woman” with her loss of self-will) – a convention from which Chaucer worked to liberate himself. The Exeter Book is full of poetic riddles that hint at erotic and sexual relationships between Anglo-Saxon men and women:

The poem/riddle roughly  translates as follows:

I’m the world’s wonder, for I make women happy
–a boon to the neighborhood, a bane to no one,
though I may perhaps prick the one who picks me.

I am set well up, stand in a bed,
have a roughish root. Rarely (though it happens)
a churl’s daughter more daring than the rest
–and lovelier! –lays hold of me,
and lays me in larder.

She learns soon enough,
the curly-haired creature who clamps me so,
of my meeting with her: moist is her eye!

(The answer to the riddle may not be what you think it is.) And here is riddle 54:

The translation comes from Hullweb’s History of Hull (the translation doesn’t follow line by line):

A young man made for the corner
where he knew she was standing;
this strapping youth had come some way –
with his own hands he whipped up her dress,

·

and under her girdle (as she stood there)
thrust something stiff, worked his will;
they both shook. This fellow quickened:
one moment he was forceful, a first rate servant,
so strenuous that the next he was knocked up,

·

quite blown by his exertion. Beneath the girdle
a thing began to grow that upstanding men
often think of, tenderly, and acquire.

To the Anglo-Saxon man, the perfect woman resembles himself

The Elizabethans

The rambunctious celebration of women if not always as sexual equals then at least as gameful erotic partners didn’t reappear until the Elizabethan Era, some six hundred years later. The Elizabethans were probably unaware of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Their models were the classical poets of Rome and as far as they were concerned, they (meaning they themselves) were the beginning of English literature. They were aware of Chaucer and Gower but they generally didn’t treat them as models.

The Elizabethans felt a more compelling link to the Roman poets with their mix of urbane wit, winking licentiousness and generous decorum. This was the poetry of empire and the Elizabethans were nothing if not a budding empire. Wit was the vapor the Elizabethans breathed. Sidney was first among the poets with his double-meaning erotic gamesmanship. That said, the reader of Sidney’s sonnets never gets a sense of Stella’s own desires and personality. She is only a vessel for Sidney’s sparkling wit.

Shakespeare, predictably enough, was the poet to breathe life into women. In his dramas, his female protagonists unabashedly match wits with men. The same liveliness can be found in Shakespeare’s  Dark Lady sonnets 127 through 154. Here is Sonnet 130 (perhaps the most famous among them):

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
….And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
….As any she belied with false compare.

And it is with this sonnet that Shakespeare does something that no poet (with the possible exception of Ovid) did before him. He turns the Patrarchan expectation, that of the perfect and unattainable woman, on its head. The eyes of Shakespeare’s mistress “are nothing like the sun”. Her breasts are dun/dark, not white. Her hair is black and wiry. She has bad breath. And yet he can’t stay away from her. This sonnet isn’t about something as brittle as beauty or spotless virtue. For Shakespeare, a woman’s perfection something else – described in the omission. It is not in her eyes, her lips, her breasts or cheeks; and the same applies for us. We are, to each other, full of flaws and shortcomings; but it’s in imperfection that lovers mysteriously find perfection – and good humor. For all the eroticism, perfection and beauty in Petrarch’s Sonnets, they aren’t funny. (Besides which, the subject isn’t really erotic poetry, but the sense that women are equals in the affairs of men and women.) The Chinese Book of Poetry, Ovid’s Amores, the Anglo-Saxton riddle-poems, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the dark lady (all celebrating the imperfect perfection of men and women)  are rich with wry smiles and outright laughter.

And this brings us to another reason for the abstract idealization of women. Western history teaches us that tragedy is high art and comedy is for the common crowd. Writing about women and men as they are seems to become, inescapably, the province of humor. Ipso facto, literati who wanted to be taken seriously wrote serious poetry; and serious poetry about real, imperfect women didn’t cut it. (Perfect women, it seems,  may be beautiful, but they are humorless.)

And what were women writing?

And this is a huge subject.

The post so far hardly merits a starting point. And there are many cultures whose poetic literature I’m unfamiliar with – India for example or Russia. I don’t read all that much foreign language poetry because I don’t like modern translations. Too many modern translators (heavy quotes) think its OK to translate the carefully structured verse of an original into lackluster free verse. Content isn’t enough for me. I like to get a sense for the language as well. That, to me, is what separates poetry from prose. Cervantes wrote that reading a translation was like looking at the back side of a Persian rug.

All of which is to say: If I haven’t mentioned poets I should have, it’s not because of an agenda.

Also, if any readers want to help me out and suggest other poets, please do.

That said, some poetry, I think, translates better than others. Haiku may be the most successfully translated if only because the haiku’s essence doesn’t reside in its language (to the same degree as a Shakespearean Sonnet) but in a kind of poetic outlook or philosophy. This isn’t to say there’s no wordplay in haiku, but my feeling (which could be wrong) is that the brevity of the poetic form is friendlier to annotation where translation fails.

And what interests me about Haiku is what interests me about Japanese literature in general. Of all the cultures with which I’m familiar, the Japanese, historically, seem the most accepting of women poets. In China, by contrast, there were many women poets but, at least according to the book Women Poets of China, much of their poetry went unpublished if not destroyed:

Writing poetry was an essential part of the education and the social life of any educated man in ancient China, but it was not so for a woman. Most of the poems of those who did write were not handed down to posterity. Many women’s poems were shown only to their intimates, but were never published. In some cases, the poet herself (Sun Tao-hsüsm), or the parents of the poet (Chu Shu-chen), destroyed her work so that the reputation of the clan would not be damaged. Love poems usually led to gossip that the author was an unfaithful wife. Not until the Ching Dynasty ( 1644-1911) with the promotion of several leading (male) scholars such as Yüan Mei and Ch’en Wên-shu, did writing poetry become fashionable for ladies of the scholar gentry class. [p. 139]

On a Visit to Ch’ung Chên Taoist Temple
I see in the South Hall the List of
Successful Candidates in the Imperial Examinations
(9th Century)

Cloud capped peaks fill the eyes
In the Spring sunshine.
Their names are written in beautiful characters
And posted in order of merit.
How I hate this silk dress
That conceals a poet.
I lift my head and read their names
In powerless envy.

Yü Hsüan-Chi  [p. 19 Women Poets of China]

Japan, by contrast, seems to have been almost modern in its acceptance women’s poetry (if not women themselves). The world’s first (generally accepted) novel was written in Japan and by a women, Murasaki Shikibu, and is considered by most to be a work of genius. I’ve read it. I’m trying to encourage my wife to read it. But it’s not poetry, and curiously Japan never produced narrative poetry on the scale of an Iliad or Odyssey.

For whatever reason the Japanese aesthetic has always preferred shorter forms. Perhaps because of this, and because of the deliberately impersonal and ephemeral nature of haiku, the influence of gender is hard to pinpoint. Classical Haiku are not meant to be about the poet. The same autobiographical embarrassments that worried Chinese poets didn’t apply to haiku. This, if for no other reason, probably made the haiku of women acceptable (if they were even recognized as being by women).

It meant that the haiku poet Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) could travel the Japanese countryside like the great poet Basho (who died shortly before her birth). Whereas Basho clothed himself like a monk, Chiyo-ni travelled as a Buddhist nun. It’s worth noting also (and which may also have played a part in the acceptability of women poets) that there was no tradition of publications by individual poets. When haiku (or Tanka) were published, they were usually small print runs – anthologies of current poets. I’ve read that at the height of the form (mid 17th century) fully 1 in 20 of Japan’s population regularly wrote haiku. Anthologizing, I think, also made it easier for women poets to see their work in print. The result is that a poet like Chiyo-ni was appreciated, not as a woman poet (or not entirely) but on the merit of her poetry.

  • It seems Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master has become somewhat of a rarity, and that means Amazon resellers are trying to retire on it. The original price is $14.95 (I own it). If you want a copy and can find a copy close to that price, then you’re doing well.

However, the very thing that may have allowed women to participate in the writing of haiku, their aesthetic of the impersonal , also makes it hard to distinguish them from men. Japanese critics are fond of saying Basho’s haiku are like daimonds and Chiyo-ni’s are like pearls.

how terrifying
her rouged fingers
against the white chrysanthemums

woman’s desire
deeply rooted –
the wild violets

butterfly
you also get mad
some days                            [pp. 84-85]

The only woman in the Western tradition (to my knowledge) who wrote with any sort of sexual freedom (prior to the 20th century) wrote in ancient Greece   – Sappho – born sometimes between 630 and 612 BC. Very little of her poetry remains, but her fame as a poet was and is well-recorded.

Of course I love you

Of course I love you
but if you love me,
marry a young woman!

I couldn’t stand it
to live with a young
man, I being older.

One Girl

I

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig–which the pluckers forgot, somehow–
Forget it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now.

II

Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

And their feet move

And their feet move
rhythmically, as tender
feet of Cretan girls
danced once around an
altar of love, crushing
a circle in the soft smooth flowering grass

More of Sappho’s poetry can be found at Poemhunter.

Why did so few of Sappho’s poems survive? In a word: Christianity.

History tells us that Christians destroyed her poetry around 380 A.D., prompted by Pope Gregory Nazianzen. To be sure the job was done right, Pope Gregory VII organized another book burning in 1073 A.D.. The reasons for her poetry’s destruction haven’t survived, but it’s not hard to speculate. It was probably a combination of her perceived paganism and her open sexuality (as opposed to her reputed sexual orientation – which didn’t become an issue until much later).

There were other Hellenistic women poets and if you’re interested in pursuing the subject, a (fee based) article can be found at JSTOR: Hellenistic Women Poets.

The women of Rome lived in a more liberated time than the earlier Greek poets. However, the only woman whose poetry survives is Sulpicia. What little survives hints at a woman who, like Sappho, wrote freely about herself and her identity.

At last. It’s come. Love,
the kind that veiling
will give me reputation more
than showing my soul naked to someone.
I prayed to Aphrodite in Latin, in poems;
she brought him, snuggled him
into my bosom.
Venus has kept her promises:
let her tell the story of my happiness,
in case some woman will be said
not to have had her share.
I would not want to trust
anything to tablets, signed and sealed,
so no one reads me
before my love–
but indiscretion has its charms;
it’s boring
to fit one’s face to reputation.
May I be said to be
a worthy lover for a worthy love.

More of Sulpicia’s poetry can be found at Stoa.org.

After the fall of Rome and (probably not coincidentally) the rise of Christianity, women’s poetic voices are increasingly silent and silenced. It takes just over a thousand years before Marie de France appears – an Anglo-Norman poet.  Project Gutenburg, increasingly my all-time favorite literary resource on the net, has made
the French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France by Marie de France available as a free E-Book. Don’t expect anything self-revelatory in Marie de France’s writing. Hers was a new age and a world apart. That is, the poets of Rome and Greece were long gone and unknown. Marie de France was writing in a tradition and convention defined by male poets. It would be another 700 years or so (18th and 19th century) before women began liberating themselves from the convention of the perfect woman – before they began writing about themselves, their lives and defining themselves.

During that time, the writings of Mary Sidney and Emilia Lanier (claimed to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady by A.L. Rose) are relatively conventional. While Lanier’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is rightfully called our first proto-feminist work, and while Lanier was the first woman in the English language to declare herself a poet, we get no sense of Lanier’s own identity through her poetry. The poem remains a conventionally literary (and characteristically Elizabethan) work that sets forth a forceful argument in defense of women. Of the women poets of the Elizabethan era, Lady Mary Wroth is, to me, the most compelling. You can find her works at Luminariam. The following sonnet, by Wroth, plays a curious game with prevailing Elizabethan gender roles. Many poems were written (Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Love being the most famous) urging women to let down their guard. Wroth knows full well that she shouldn’t, assumes the role convention expects, but also, in the end, surrenders to the same “joyes” to which men are entitled.

Am I thus conquer’d?  have I lost the powers,
….That to withstand which joyes to ruine me? *
….Must I bee still, while it my strength devoures,
….And captive leads me prisoner bound, unfree?

Love first shall leave men’s fant’sies to them free,
….Desire shall quench love’s flames, spring hate sweet showers,
….Love shall loose all his Darts, have sight, and see
….His shame and wishings, hinder happy houres.

Why should we not Love’s purblinde charmes resist?
….Must we be servile, doing what he list?
….No, seeke some host to harbour thee:  I fly

Thy Babish tricks, and freedome doe professe;
….But O, my hurt makes my lost heart confesse:
….I love, and must; so farewell liberty.

* …have I lost the powers [to withstand that] which joyes to ruine me?

One senses a uniquely feminine perspective when reading Mary Wroth’s poems, but she still wrote firmly within expected conventions. And this is why Anne Bradstreet, writing about the same time, is such a rarity. While her initial poems are conventionally literary, her later, highly personal poems are a miracle. She is unique. Her few, later, personal poems assume a woman’s voice with as much passion as anything written by the ancient Greek and Roman poets.

My feeling is that women were defined (or trapped) by the convention of the perfect woman – asexual, virtuous, untouched and untouchable. Since I’ve always felt that the various arts share trends and attitudes (how can they not?) the depiction of the Angel, at least to me, parallels the expectation of women in art and society. After the classical era of Roma and Greece in the West, and the Book of Poetry in the East, thousands of years ebbed and flowed before women were free to define themselves in their writings. Some might argue that they’re still constrained; but if so, those constraints have never been weaker.

One last poet I haven’t mentioned (though there are, no doubt, others I’m unaware of): Al-Khansa (image at left) – an Islamic poet of the 7th century whose work was admired by Muhammad. Her poetry precedes Islam and is later influenced by it (through Muhammad himself). The poetry is beautiful but very different from a Sappho. The reader only very indirectly gets a sense of the poet’s personality and desires.

I look forward to ideas and recommendations from readers.

from up in Vermont

August 5, 2010

 

Language, Poets & the treachery of Women

my summer-vacation reading…

I’m making some time to catch up on reading and writing. Two passages from two very different books struck me. Thought I would share them. The first is from Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare’s Late Style. (I’ll write my next post about the other.) For fanciers of language, poetics and Shakespeare, this is a fascinating book. I’m having to read it twice.  Most readers would probably consider the book dry as chalk dust (McDonald isn’t exactly an engaging writer). Me? My second reading involves heavy underlining. MacDonald’s text is thick with information and ideas.

His book is primarily concerned with the “problem” of Shakespeare’s late style. Personally, I’ve never understood why Shakespeare’s late style is referred to as the problem. Shakespeare’s style changed with age. Why is that a problem? Interestingly, Shakespeare’s stylistic progression is no different, in my view, than the progression of all the great artist’s with whom I’m familiar. Consider Bach, Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Frost, even Keats, and the great pianist Glenn Gould (compare his first performance of the Goldberg variations to his final performance). Or what about the Beatles? Their youthful works (such as Bach’s toccatas or the Beatles first albums) are marked by youthful enthusiasm, passionate flourishes (often in excess), and unrestrained (undisciplined) enthusiasm bordering, in some cases, on mawkishness. McDonald quotes the great Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley:

After Hamlet the style, in the more emotional passages, is heigthened. It becomes grander, sometimes wilder, sometimes more swelling, even tumid. It is also more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical. It is, therefore, not easy and lucid and in the more ordinary dialogue is sometimes involved and obscure, and from these and other causes deficient in charm. (p. 30 Shakespeare’s Late Style)

What I find so fascinating is that this criticism is almost, word for word, the same as the criticism leveled at Beethoven’s late music (as well as Bach and even Mozart). That Bradley would consider the maturation of Shakespeare’s style “deficient”, reveals the deficiencies in his own critical acumen – though his comments are typical of his age.

As all these artists aged, they seemed to prune the excess, searching for, discovering and refining the essence of their genius, voice and style, seeking compression and concentration. Compare Bach’s very early keyboard Toccatas to his late works: the Musical Offering or The Art of the Fugue. Compare Beethoven’s lavish early Piano Sonatas to his last (or his late quartets). The album Let It Be was, in large part, the outcome of John Lennon’s desire to get back to the fundamentals of his rock and roll – a pruning of excess (the Naked version supposedly being closer to Lennon’s intent).

Anyway (and to me) Shakespeare’s late style isn’t problematic. It represents the natural progression of a maturing artist – no more problematic than Bach’s Art of the Fugue or Beethoven’s late quartets.

the corrupting influence of women…

The one passage that I found particularly fascinating had little to do with Shakespeare’s late style. Rather, it was McDonald’s observation concerning women, rhetoric and medieval thought. I wanted to excerpt the passage as gist for thought. McDonald is examining Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus. I’m cherry picking passages for the sake of brevity, but hopefully the following will give you some idea of the whole. McDonald begins the sub-chapter with the heading, MEN AND WOMAN AND STYLE. He writes:

Shakespeare’s self-consciousness about the perils and opportunities of language coincides with the contemporary debate over the available forms of prose style and the philosophical implications of those positions. A brief review of the controversy reminds us that the old fashioned Ciceronian model, with its elaborate syntactical constructions symmetrical patterns of words and clauses, and devotion to ornament, came into conflict with the self-consciously modern approach, modeled on Seneca, with its obviously broken periods and asymmetrical grouping of words, a severity of of vocabulary and sound, and a Spartan disdain for decoration. (p. 61)

Interestingly, the tug of war  between aesthetic “excess” or exuberance and aesthetic “restraint” is ongoing. Consider Islam’s historical aversion to representative art – and the religion’s hyper-masculine aversion to the feminine (it’s concealment of women’s facial features and form). Representative art was surely (and remains) tied to the idea of the feminine – to ornament, excess, distraction, treachery and error. Islam is hardly alone. The same strain is to be found in other religions, including Christianity (especially Catholicism), Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. The aesthetic divide seems to be a human preoccupation that expresses itself in all matters pertaining to self-expression. Bach was ceaselessly upbraided by his ecclesiastical employers for the distracting “excesses”  of his music. His employers felt that his music should focus the churchgoers’ mind on (G)od, not music. Bach, to put it mildly, disagreed. In all cases, the root of the aesthetic difference seems to boil down to a difference in a culture’s conception of the feminine. That is what I find so interesting. (Art, much removed from the idealized conception of the war-like male, was considered a feminine pursuit throughout the history of western culture.)  McDonald continues:

This debate is self-evidently grounded in conceptions of sexual difference and related to the figuration of language as feminine and action as masculine in medieval and early modern language theory. This misogynistic tradition propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error. It originates in the classical period and receives virulent expression in the writings of some of the Church Fathers, particularly Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. As Howard Block has demonstrated in some detail, this gendered conception is responsible for the series of identifications, still with us, of the masculine with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity; and of the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material, the duplicitous or ambiguous. In the most notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature, a familiar and loudly asserted complaint against women is their proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding — the most common laments from the molestiae nuptiarum or the tradition of anti-marriage literature, have to do with the verbal miseries inevitably attendant upon the taking of a wife. In other words, the attack on women is often a simultaneous attack on language. (p. 62)

A straight line can be drawn from this tradition to the Pope’s modern day demand for celibacy (an institution still steeped in the medieval dye). The unspoken (or spoken) assumption is that the feminine will have a corrupting and treacherous effect on the priesthood. For an institution that identifies the “word” of God as the fundamental truth, that relies on language to communicate is doctrines, and which conceives this truth as, ultimately, a masculine expression, the feminine influence (read speech) can only be understood as diluting and corrupting. McDonald continues:

Commentators reach as far back as Eden to connect the female with the decorative, the artificial, the inessential: in the Genesis account, Eve’s verbal seduction of Adam into eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree led to the need for covering, and from that time forward there existed a contest between the natural body and the dressings invented for it. As Tertullian put it, “with the word the garment entered.” In a related treatment of the topic, St. Augustine distinguishes between numerical signs as masculine and verbal signs as feminine: “From that time forth she [Reason] found it hard to believe that the splendor and purity [of numbers] was sullied by the corporeal matter of words. And just as what the spirit sees is always present and is held to be immortal and numbers appear such, while sound, being a sensible thing, is lost into the past.” Numerals are identified with the virtues of constancy, order, and clarity, in short, with the spirit. Words connote corruption and impermanence and are linked with the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.

We might now return to Bacon’s attack on Ciceronian style as “that delicate and polished kind of learning” that “allured” the boys from Cambrdige: “delicate and polished” is a gendered phrase, pejorative adjectives denoting a sissified style. Patricia Parker summarizes this debate with a major instance from the early Tudor period:

Erasmus in his Ciceronianus (1528) speaks of seeking in vain in Ciceronian eloquence for something “masculine” and of his own desire for a “more masculine” style. Ciceronian copia in these discussions is both effeminate and the style of a more prodigal youth, to be outgrown once one had become a man: “I used to imitate Cicero.” writes Lipsius; “but I have become a man, and my tastes have changed. Asiatic feasts have ceased to please me; I prefer the Attic.”

And this bias appears also in the Renaissance view of the femininity of verse and the Puritan attack on the effeminacy of the stage, we remember Sidney’s Defense, written as a rejoinder to the attack on theatrical poetry as immoral, frivolous, and unmanly. The sentence cited at the beginning of this chapter, Thomas Howell’s “Women are wordes, Men deedes,” should remind us of Hotspur, that quintessential man of action, who proclaims his contempt for “mincing poetry” and who on the battlefield is infuriated when the King’s effeminate ambassador addresses him in “man holiday and lady terms.” This still-prevalent view that poetry or dramatics is for girls, while science and mathematics – real learning – is best left to boys, descends from this ancient derisory association of women and words. (pp. 64-65)

McDonald’s last observation, that poetry is still considered an effeminate occupation, is one that I would have made myself. Robert Frost, in his own day and referring to his beginnings, stated that one might as well wear a millstone round one’s neck as declare oneself a poet. His grandfather, who effectively bankrolled the first half of Frost’s literary career, expected more “manly” pursuits from his grandson.

  • Image above & right. Bathsheba by Jan Matsys. Image above & left. Bathsheba by Jean Leon Gerome. Do these images of feminine nudity offend you? The biblical story of Bathsheba and the story of Susannah (like the paintings), nicely captures the west’s conflicted attitude toward feminine beauty and seductiveness.  The temptations of Bathsheba’s beauty proves to be a destructive one when David sends Bathsheba’s husband to die in battle. God punishes both lovers with the death of their child. Interestingly, the paintings warn us against the seductiveness of feminine beauty while also lulling us with the same, inviting us to be just as seduced by it. The same attraction to, and distrust of, language characterizes Shakespeare’s great plays and medieval attitudes toward language in general.

Interesting too, is the strong link between religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, intolerance and hyper-masculinity. The puritans, who detested the poetry of Elizabethan England and reviled the dramatic stage (and successfully closed it down for a period of time), were religious fundamentalists who would have found common cause with the hyper-masculine religiosity of present day (fundamentalist) Islamists (such as the Taliban). Their cultural triumph was brief, however. The puritans quickly found themselves on the receiving end of intolerance. What did they do? They fled to Plymouth Rock— not a very pleasant group of people. They are presently celebrated every Thanksgiving as benign settlers seeking freedom from intolerance.  Hardly. As the joke has it: They fled intolerance to more freely express their own intolerance. Londoners were all too glad to be rid of them.

What’s so fascinating is that these biases continue today and are as firmly rooted as they ever were. One is tempted to think there is something in human nature that would recreate this division between the masculine (positive) and feminine (negative), even if the history of such biases were erased. Consider the passage at left, the introductory words to an essay by James H. McGoldrick, published in the The English Journal, Vol. 43, No. 5 (May, 1954), pp. 257-259 .

Notice that it’s not enough to say that poetry is effeminate. Associated with the idea of femininity is the sentimental and that which wastes ones time. The implication is that the feminine, and the pursuit of anything construed as feminine, is unworthy of effort.

Is it really human nature, or is it cultural? Consider the following from The Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature Vol. 2:

Nirala, in that very introduction to Parimal maintains elsewhere: ‘just as metres, being self-forgetful in a state of joy bound within the ambit of rule, dance beautifully and lull the listeners into an ecstacy along with the auditory melody, similarly free verse affords us eternal asethetics of simlutaneity in its extraordinary flow as if it were the little and large waves of the infinite ocean, rising and falling with one single unified motion. Free verse is the verse that remains free even though growing on the ground of metre; the flow of free verse itself sustains and supports it; it establishes its metres and expresses the magesty of its freedom and literature of its law’. Nirala finds the beauty of ‘unequal similarity’ in free verse. He accepts the ‘flow’ of poetry as its great quality. In his famous article ‘Pant aur Pallava’ (1927-28) he writes, ‘In free verse one cannot get the art of music, there is the art of reading; it is not concerned with vowel but with consonant; it is not the feminine tenderness of poetry but the masculine courage or poetry. It’s beauty is not in music, but in conversation.”

Free verse becomes an effort to reclaim poetry’s masculinity. Fascinating, again, are the parallels to the rhetoric of western medieval bias. Remember that the writings of St. Augustine, among others, associated the masculine with the essence – the primary. In Nirala’s rhetoric, free verse is understood as the “infinite ocean” (which is nothing if not primary) whereas meter is understood as the more obviously feminine  – a seductive dance that lulls the listener with its ephemeral beauty. (We are reminded of Bathsheba, Susannah or Salome.) In the latter description, Nirala could as easily be describing the lulling effect of pornography. And there’s no mistake in the choice of  lull, which as part of its definition includes the meaning: to give or lead to feel a false sense of safety; cause to be less alert, aware, or watchful (Dictionary.com). Such a vision of the feminine is thoroughly in keeping with the west’s prejudices.

  • Susanna and the Old Men by Guercino. The old man, having stumbled across Susanna as she bathes, threaten to blackmail her (accuse her of an illicit affair) if she doesn’t have sex with them. She doesn’t. The elder men accuse her of fornication. Although Susanna is exonerated in the end, one is tempted to read the story not as the exoneration of an innocent woman but as a warning against the temptations of feminine seductiveness (and youthful excess). Susanna’s beguiling beauty can only end in destruction (the old men are sentenced to death once their lies are found out). Once again, Guercino invites the viewer to enjoy the beauty of the naked woman even as the narrative warns us against the lurid temptation. Message: Feminine beauty is a youthful folly and should be left to the youthful.

Ezra Pound, heralding the dawn of free verse in his manifesto “A Retrospect“, uses vocabulary no less loaded. He writes:

As to Twentieth century poetry, and the poetry which I expect to see written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppy-cock, it will be harder and saner, it will be what Mr Hewlett calls ‘nearer the bone’. It will be as much like granite as it can be, its force will lie in its truth, its interpretative power (of course, poetic force does always rest there); I mean it will not try to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it. At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.

“Harder and saner” he writes. The implication is that the poetry of the Victorians, drenched in meter and rhyme, was softer (more feminine) and less sane (less rational and too emotional – read womanly). The poetry of free verse will be like “granite” – an inescapably masculine adjective. Pound goes on to describe the poetry of the previous decades as “rhetorical din, and luxurious riot”. There is little that separates such description from the “misogynistic tradition [that] propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error…” Pound’s “rhetorical din” is eerily similar to those “notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature” that associate the feminine with a “proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding…” As if to remove any doubt, Pound uses the adjective painted when describing the Victorians’ over reliance on adjectives. Painted recalls St. Augustine’s association of words with with the “corruption and impermanence” of “the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.” Painted, historically, has the meaning “covered with makeup, esp. to excess.” Pound’s use of the word is meant to imply that the aesthetics of the previous generation (read meter and rhyme) were effeminate, painted, and garish. The blogger Mike Chaser neatly sums up Pound’s manifesto in his post “Chick Lit?“:

In “A Retrospect” from 1918, Ezra Pound states his desire to produce a new, masculine poetry that is “harder and saner,” “nearer the bone,” and “free from [the] emotional slither” that, in his estimation, characterized the effeminate verse of the genteel nineteenth century.

Just as poetry itself is associated with the feminine, even in Shakespeare’s time, the insulting approbation, effeminate, was used by other modernist poets (including W.C. Williams) to differentiate (or elevate) their own efforts as more masculine (and therefore more respectable). The Ciceronian and Senecan divide was (and is) as alive as ever.

  • With that in mind, it’s breathtakingly ironic when self-professed feminists like Adrienne Rich proclaim their feminism by writing free verse – asserting that form in poetry (meter and rhyme) are oppressive patriarchal contrivances. Such immature and self-serving pronouncements merely reinforce the gendered biases which they are supposedly rejecting. It had been better and more honest if Rich had simply admitted that she lacked the talent to be a “good formalist”, rather than hide behind a rationalization.

McDonald closes his discussion of the feminine and masculine in language with a passage from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:

.     .    .   I prithee now, my son,
Go to them, with this bonnet in they hand,
And thus far having stretch’d it (here be with them),
Thy knee bussing the stones (for in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ignorant
More learned than the ears), waving thy head,
Which often thus correcting thy stout heart,
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling: or say to them,
Thou art their soldier, and, being bred in broils,
Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess,
Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,
In asking their good loves, but thou wilt frame
Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far
As thou hast power and person.

The immediate relevance of this passage is found in its grammatical structure, particularly the contrast with Coriolanus’s masculine style.

Even if the passage is punctuated so as to divide into two sentences, there is no break in thought. The length and the syntactical involutions suggest the association of women and copia: the paratactic, additive form of the plea, supported and extended as it is by the participles, connotes the endlessness of female speech, the ungoverned tongue familiar from the misogynist tradition; at the same time, the hypotactic intrusions and parenthesis attest to the indirections and potential waywardness of women and their words. Metrically, the expectations of regularity established by the pentameter are frustrated by the liberty and variety of the phrasing: the semantic demands and wayward rhythmic drive introduce disruptions that poke holes in the order of the line and threaten a kind of aural chaos. (…)

Coriolanus, then, presents a contest of styles, with each side sexually marked. The Baconian, phallic position informs the laconic speech of Coriolanus, who flees from words. Volumnia, on the other hand, embodies Ciceronian loquacity and indirection. (pp. 64-65)

Compare Volumnia’s statement that Coriolanus “hast not the soft way” with Ezra Pound’s emphatic demand for a poetry and language that is harder and “and that will be as much like granite as it can be”. In case the implication isn’t obvious, Pound, like Shakespeare, drives it home. The “force” of a more masculine language will “lie in its truth”. The inescapable corollary is the that feminine language is the language of deception. (It amazes me how little the terms of the debate have changed over 400 years.) To what degree the generations of free verse poets (who followed Pound) internalized Pound’s language is open to debate. But the tendency, as with Adrienne Rich, to rationalize ones aesthetics (ones likes and dislikes) in gender specific terms has never gone away. For Adrienne Rich, form, rhyme and meter are too patriarchal (read masculine).  Pound, on the other hand, considers the same tradition too effeminate. Go figure.

  • Image above right: Venturia at the feet of Coriolanus. Notice how the artist portrays the women. They kneel subserviently and obsequiously.  Coriolanus may be trying to lift the woman or push her away. His gesture is ambiguous. He is portrayed as a man of action (reinforced by the seemingly indifferent soldier who accompanies him and seems impatient to move on). The women are creatures of language – they resort to complaint and pleading.

Shakespeare’s maturity

According to McDonald, Shakespeare eventually rejects the notion of poetry as effeminate and unworthy. While Shakespeare uses Coriolanus to more or less dramatize the debate which was swirling around him,  Antony & Cleopatra, according to McDonald, represents a dramatic resolution. He writes:

The final movement, from Antony’s suicide to Caesar’s eulogy, may be considered a bridge between the tragedies and the romances because it attests to Shakespeare’s developing attitude toward fictional [feminine] language. Cleopatra seems to have occupied Shakespeare’s imagination, making a great gap in Plutarch’s tale by inserting herself into, and thereby transforming what might have been simply a tragedy of Antony. She not only memorializes Antony in a virtuosic act of poetic [feminine] construction  but also stages her own spectacular end by a creative manipulation of costume, setting, and words [the emphasis is my own].  The represented death of the historical female is for Shakespeare the birth of the fictional Cleopatra…

McDonald goes on to quote from Suffocating Mothers, p. 177

By locating Antony’s heroic manhood within Cleopatra’s vision of him, Shakespeare attempts in effect to imagine his way beyond this impasse [the impasse between masculine and feminine language].

This imaginative union of the masculine and the feminine helps to account for Shakespeare’s re-conceived attitude towards words, dramatic mode, and the theatrical enterprise itself.

Translation: The feminine fiction of Cleopatra’s poetic vision immortalizes the masculine facts of Antony’s deeds.

and the immaturity of the other 2,ooo years…

Shakespeare’s artistic equilibrium made no lasting impression on the generations that followed. Consider the following contemporary article (2007) by Douglas Wilson, entitled “The Loss of Poetry“. It begins:

The causes are not easy to identify, but poetry has fallen on hard times.
Poetry today huddles in its prescribed little ghettoes – the sentimentalism of greeting cards and cupboard poetry, the small clutch of arcane poetry journals with a circulation of thirteen, self-absorbed adolescents scribbling pages of navel-gazing free verse, nationally-ignored poet laureates, and that about covers the world of poetry.

What is the alternative to sentimentalism, self-absorption and navel-gazing? Wilson tells us:

…if we are Christians, we need to learn… [that] our understanding of revelation will continue to be truncated… until we give ourselves to the recovery of poetry.
[A] great problem has been the gradual feminization of poetry. This is not mentioned as a criticism of women with a poetic gift. Rather, rightly understood, poetry is a human phenomenon and should reflect that broad reality. An essential part of this is making a place for masculine poetry, and the fact that masculine poetry seems oxymoronic to us now illustrates the problem nicely.
The upshot is that men no longer lead through poetry; they merely put up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives. When we think of poetry we think of cowslips and dewdrops, and various forms of moon Juning. We no longer think of Beowulf among “ancient kings and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!” We no longer think of David, a warrior king, singing psalms of piercing strength and loveliness. We think rather of a Romantic poet, wandering lonely as a cloud.

Through his definition of masculine poetry (or language), we can tease out his definition of feminine poetry and language (which is necessarily defined as the opposite); and his definition is almost identical to the attitudes of the medieval Christian writers. Wilson (like Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine) defines masculine poetry as a human phenomena, a  poetry concerned  “with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity”. And like the early Christian theologians, he defines “the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material”. Feminine poetry doesn’t reflect “broad reality“.

Masculine poetry leads. Feminine poetry “puts up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives”. Feminine poetry lulls and beguiles with images of the material and ephemeral “cowslips and dewdrops”, while masculine poetry contends with (what Wilson considers) the universal and lasting – ancient kings (status), glory (reputation), mighty swords (conquest), and the psalms of piercing strength (Wilson was surely  aware of the sexual suggestiveness in his choice of words – the insinuation of masculine sexual conquest).

Wilson’s exhortation could have been written 2,000 years ago or it could have been written during Shakespeare’s day. In either case, it would have been warmly received.

And it’s not that the division of masculine and feminine isn’t a useful division or that these terms don’t represent real and natural differences between the two halves of the human population, but that the feminine is so often construed as the negative (or the lesser of the two). But the masculine voice is just as replete with negatives (if that’s the focus) — empty bombast, vanity, boorishness, pretentiousness, and all the attendant preoccupations with station, rank and reputation. Propagandist poetry could be considered masculine poetry – the poetry of nationalism, colonialism, and chauvinism.

My own observation is so obvious as to be trite: The greatest poets, whether male or female, seem to synthesize what is best in both the masculine and feminine tradition. It’s a wonder that it bears repeating.