An enigmatic allegory that seems steeped in Elizabethan court politics is full of music worth listening to for its own sake
This week's poem, William Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle", was first published in 1601, in an anthology entitled Love's Martyr. The collection begins with a long poem by Robert Chester, and includes work by various hands, including Ben Jonson and George Chapman, all of it having a "phoenix and turtle" theme. The volume is thought to have been designed as both a lament for the coming extinction of the Tudor monarchy, and a celebration of the Jacobean succession. The phoenix, that splendid mythological bird which is self-consumed by fire every 500 years and regenerates itself from its own ashes, was a symbol associated with the Virgin Queen.
Shakespeare's allegorical subtext has long kept the scholars asking questions. If the phoenix represents Elizabeth, does the turtle-dove represent her lover, the second Earl of Essex, executed in the February of 1601? Do the many birds represent specific historical figures? Could the "bird of loudest lay" in line one be a disparaging reference to James I of Scotland? Those who share the persuasion that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic sympathiser have taken a different view, and, for some, the phoenix and the turtle-dove represent the martyred St Anne Line and her husband, Roger.
The language of the poem is compressed. There are words whose meanings have changed ("property," for example, for "personality") and references a modern reader might find obscure. So a complete line-by-line "translation" is useful. At the same time, it's a pity to reduce the poem to a puzzle, especially a puzzle that, once solved, concludes the poetic interest. Many of the allegorical interpretations are conjectural. Once you've grasped the surface meaning, and the bird-lore, it might be rewarding to read "The Phoenix and the Turtle" as a metaphysical fable about a chaste but intense love-affair. Neither should the musical structure be overlooked.
Shakespeare's "defunctive" music has two parts. The trochaic tetrameter of the first 13 stanzas suggests a dead-march, formal and grand: we can hear the harsh, dark sound of the trumpet mentioned in the second line, and imagine the tread of the bearers in time to a monotonous drumbeat. For all the bird-life in the poem, there are not many sweet sounds – or not until the "Threnos". Does the fact that mere birds are performing such solemn rites suggest that Shakespeare had certain parodic intentions?
While retaining the same metre for the threnody, the poet shifts to a tercet-stanza, and the trio of rhymes in each is more gently cadenced. Now the "tragic scene" can be felt on the pulse. The identity of the imagined singer might surprise us: it's Reason, "confounded" in stanza 11 by the way in which "two" have merged into one.
The thought behind this development takes us back to the Neo-Platonist Plotinus and his theory of the three essences: the One, the Intelligence and the Soul. (This, perhaps, underlies the shift to tercets.) You'll notice a possibly familiar proximity of Truth and Beauty, strongly re-emphasised in the fourth tercet. Neo-Platonism conceives of an indivisible goodness and beauty combining in the "One". That ardent student of Shakespeare and investigator of Hermetic philosophy, John Keats, brings a related concept into his "Ode on a Grecian Urn".
The Canadian scholar, Thomas Dilworth published a brilliant essay on this subject last year in the TLS ("Keats's Shakespeare"), unfortunately not available online without subscription. Keats, in Dilworth's reading. obeys Shakespeare's injunction to the "true" or "fair" to "repair" to the urn where Truth and Beauty are interred.
In interpreting the meaning of "Truth" for both poets, the symbolism of the turtle-dove is useful. He represents fidelity, "being true" in the sense of "being constant". As Shakespeare – and long tradition – suggest, Truth (as in constancy) and Beauty, are rarely combined. In his poem, they unite and die. The phoenix is not reborn. The birds lack offspring and burn to cinders in one blaze. But, if it is that Elizabethan urn that speaks in Attic guise in Keats's Ode, it proves that poetry, at least, can be reborn from itself. "The Phoenix and the Turtle," thanks to Dilworth's reading, helps unlock the cage of Keats's chiasmus: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty…" Perhaps the hidden turtle and phoenix of the Ode represent a further impossible union – that of the constant John Keats himself and his beloved Fanny Brawne?
The Phoenix and the Turtle
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice white
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phœnix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phœnix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.
Property was thus appall'd,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was call'd.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded,
That it cried, "How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain".
Whereupon it made this threne
To the phœnix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd in cinders lie.
Death is now the phœnix' nest;
And the turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.