On Saturday I met with Clive Allen and Adrian Buckner in a cafe on the campus of Nottingham University. The meeting was one of our regular ones at which we bring a poem of our own to discuss and critique, and also, one by another poet. My poem by the 'other poet' was Shakespeare's poem beginning "Let the bird of loudest lay...". The poem in question, usually titled (though not by the author) "The Phoenix and the Turtle", has been one that I've re-read often in recent weeks and which I've been somewhat haunted by. You can read the poem here.
Part of the appeal of this poem is that it's enigmatic and unclear - one reads it as through a glass darkly. Compared to the other poems of WS, it has an unmodern quality: the session of birds and the allegorical figures hark back to Chaucer and the medieval period. But apart from its distance in time, the poem treats its subject matter obliquely, and has a number of puzzling lines. Much ink has been spilt over the possibility that it has coded Catholic sympathies, and there's a convincing theory that the two eponymous birds represent Roger and Anne Line, a married couple, Roman Catholics, who were separated when Roger was exiled for his beliefs, then died abroad. Anne was arrested for harbouring catholic priests and was hanged at Tyburn in 1601, the same year this poem was published. There are remarkable correspondences between this story and the poem; for example, the Lines were known to have taken a vow of celibacy within their marriage, and were childless; in the poem there's the puzzling lines:
Leaving no posterity:--
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
as well as this:
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen;
"Distance and no space" is Euclid's definition of a line, something WS would have been aware of from his schoolbook geometry. Despite these correspondences, the evidence is not conclusive, and there are other theories, none of which are ever likely to be finally confirmed. While hauntingly beautiful, the poem remains elusive; were there contemporaries - a select few perhaps - to whom its coded messages were clear? Or are there no coded messages, but a deliberately elusive poem by a supremely skilled writer? Further, how many of us twenty-first century readers can enter the mind of renaissance England to read the poem as contemporaries would have read it? Have the intervening periods - The Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, the age of science and technology - changed us so much that what we read now is analogous to a translation? I'm reminded, in all this, of a short piece of writing by by Jorge Luis Borges: "The Parable of Cervantes and The Quijote". The parable talks about how the opposition in Cervantes' novel was between "the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the ordinary, everyday world of sixteenth century Spain". The parable continues:
"They did not suspect that the years would smooth away that discord, they did not suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight's lean figure would be, for posterity, no less poetic than the episodes of Sinbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.
For in the beginning of literature is the myth, and in the end as well."