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The Mystery of ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’

  • James P. Bednarz
Chapter
Part of the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies book series (PASHST)

Abstract

If ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ is a masterpiece, why is it so commonly neglected by readers who otherwise know and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays and poems? A main obstacle to its popularity has always been the perplexing difficulty of its poetic beauty as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who championed its rediscovery and helped set the terms for its reception, was among the first to acknowledge. Around 1870, deeply moved by his experience of reading it, Emerson recorded in his journal that it is ‘a poem’ that ‘comes only once in a century, & only from a genius’.1 He soon shared this enthusiasm by including it, in 1874, under the title ‘Phoenix and Turtle Dove’ in his poetic miscellany Parnassus. There for the first time it gained parity with some of Shakespeare’s most famous passages from Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and the Sonnets. But even though Emerson considered the poem to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements, when he came to publish it in Parnassus he had convinced himself that the very quality that had made it so powerful — its mystery — guaranteed that it would never be fully appreciated. Emerson characteristically praised Shakespeare for being an unusually accessible writer, but reading did not seem to diminish his uncertainty about what ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ meant.

Keywords

Title Page British Library Moderne Writer Turtle Dove Celebrity Writer 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson, Parnassus (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1874), vi.Google Scholar
  2. Henry Augustin Beers, Four Americans: Roosevelt, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920), 71–2, recalls how he heard Emerson eloquently read ‘that mysterious little poem’, on request, in 1879 to a group gathered in his library at Concord as part of an informal symposium on Shakespeare.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    John Masefield, William Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1911), 249.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Other Early Essays (New York: Dover, 1998), 17, from The Athenaeum, 2 May 1919: 18.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    John Middleton Murry, Discoveries: Essays in Literary Criticism (New York: Collins, 1922), 25.Google Scholar
  6. Oddly, Hyder Edward Rollins (ed.), A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, The Poems, 27 vols (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1938) 22: 564, missing the critical momentum in its favour, concludes that, ‘Editors and other more or less professional scholars seldom indulge in praise’ of the poem. Scholars who consult this important volume are consequently left with an unfairly diminished appraisal.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Bernard H. Newdigate, The Phoenix and Turtle (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1937), xi.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 491.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Inga-Stina Ewbank, ‘Shakespeare’s Poetry’, A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 104.Google Scholar
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  11. Peter Dronke, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, Orbis Litterarum 23 (1968): 199–220, calls it ‘brilliant’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Louis Zukofsky, Bottom: On Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 45, writes that ‘Wittgenstein’s Tractatus travels with the flames of “The Phoenix and Turtle”’.Google Scholar
  13. Walter Oakeshott, ‘Loves Martyr’, The Huntington Library Quarterly 39 (1975): 30, considers it ‘the quintessence of poetry’. Roman Jakobson, ‘Verbal Interanimations’, review of Poetries: Their Media and Ends by I. A. Richards, TLS, 5 September 1975: 985, lauds it as ‘Shakespeare’s masterpiece’,Google Scholar
  14. and John Berryman, Berryman’s Shakespeare, Essays, Letters and Other Writings (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1999), 34 and 138, as ‘magnificent’ and ‘beautiful’.Google Scholar
  15. 10.
    F. T Prince (ed.), Shakespeare: The Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), xlii. It is, he adds, ‘a priceless addition’ to the canon that shows ‘the imaginative power which charges one after another of Shakespeare’s mature plays with inexhaustible suggestions of meaning’ (xlii). Nowhere else, he adds, ‘have we an opportunity to see this power at work in isolation and in so small a compass’ (xliv).Google Scholar
  16. Muriel Bradbrook, Shakespeare in His Context: The Constellated Globe (Totowa: Barnes and Noble, 1989), 74, calls it Shakespeare’s ‘highest achievement’ in ‘the Grand Style or the Sublime’.Google Scholar
  17. 11.
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  18. 13.
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  20. 14.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Shakespeare, or, The Poet’, Representative Men in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 720.Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    See Colin Burrow, ‘Life and Work in Shakespeare’s Poems’, Shakespeare’s Poems, ed. Stephen Orgel and Sean Keilen (London: Taylor & Francis, 1999), 18.Google Scholar
  22. Patrick Cheney, Shakespeare’s Literary Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), xv, incorrectly lists ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ as being part of Lintott’s 1709 and 1710 editions of Shakespeare’s Poems, but Lintott, reprinting The Passionate Pilgrim from 1599, having eschewed Benson’s edition, missed it.Google Scholar
  23. 17.
    Malone’s edition of 1790, for instance, begins with a grouping of the four ‘Venus and Adonis’ sonnets, having cut the earliest published versions of what were later designated sonnets 138 and 144. Yet he retains, in a new arrangement, the three poems from Love’s Labour’s Lost. ‘Live with me and be my love’ and ‘Love’s Answer’ are gone, but Malone rounds out his shortened collection with ‘Take, oh, take thy lips away’ (XVII) (now attributed to Fletcher) and concludes with the still untitled ‘Phoenix and Turtle’ (XVIII). Malone’s notes, however, supply the poem’s first detailed set of local readings. Brian Vickers, William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 1774–1801 (London: Routledge, 1981), 76, n97, reveals that Edward Capell had also planned a collection of the poems and left notes for an edition (Trinity College, MS 5) that comment on the beauty and obscurity of ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 20.
    Helen Vendler, Coming of Age as a Poet, Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 65: ‘We recall that the phoenix of Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and Turtle” is male, and is therefore available to Keats as a self-image’.Google Scholar
  25. 21.
    James Orchard Halliwell (afterwards Halliwell-Phillipps), Some Account of R. Chester’s ‘Loves Martyr, or Rosalins Complaint’, a very rare volume published in 1601, including a remarkable poem by Shakespeare. The Facsimiles by E. W. Ashbee (London, 1865), British Library shelfmark 11765.bb.11 (number ten).Google Scholar
  26. 24.
    Synopses of Love’s Martyr are usually made to support contradictory historical allegories. These include Grosart’s Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr, xlv-lxi, which views it as a failed effort to secure a match between Essex and Elizabeth; Brown’s Poems by Sir John Salusbury, liv-lxx, which reads it as an epithalamion on Salusbury’s marriage to Ursula Halsall; and Thomas P. Harrison’s ‘Love’s Martyr, by Robert Chester: A New Interpretation’, Texas Studies in English 30 (1951): 66–85, the one currently most popular, which interprets it as the triumphant union of Salusbury and Elizabeth. For an overview, see Richard Allan Underwood’s chapter on ‘The “Chester Commentators’“, Shakespeare’s ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’: A Survey of Scholarship (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), 29–82. Chester’s adaptations of earlier chronicle material are traced by Charlotte D’Evelyn, ‘Sources of the Arthur Story in Chester’s Love’s Martyr’,]EGP 14 (1915): 75–88, and Ida R. White, TLS, 21 July 1932: 532, documents his widespread plagiarism of sources published between 1557 and 1592. Possible allusions to Venus and Adonis and Lucrece are cited by Colin Burrow (ed.), Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 84, and to Shakespeare and Spenser’s works by Andrew Hadfield, ‘The fair Rosalind’, TLS, 12 October 2008: 13–14.Google Scholar
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    Richard Allan Underwood, Shakespeare’s ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’: A Survey of Scholarship (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), 10.Google Scholar
  28. 30.
    Ibid., 4–6. Kenneth Muir and Sean O’Loughlin, The Voyage to Illyria: A Study of Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1937), 129, note that although one twentieth-century scholar ‘Ranjee’ has suggested that John Fletcher wrote it, ‘he offers no valid evidence’.Google Scholar
  29. 31.
    For Blount, see David Kastan, Shakespeare and the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 61–3,Google Scholar
  30. and for Jaggard, see James P. Bednarz, ‘Canonizing Shakespeare: The Passionate Pilgrim, England’s Helicon, and the Question of Authenticity’, Shakespeare Survey 80 (2007): 252–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 32.
    G. Wilson Knight, The Mutual Flame: On Shakespeare’s Sonnets and The Phoenix and Turtle (London: Methuen, 1955), 204.Google Scholar
  32. 34.
    Newdigate, The Phoenix and Turtle, xix; John Buxton, ‘“Two Dead Birds”: A Note on The Phoenix and Turtle’, English Renaissance Studies Presented to Dame Helen Gardner on Her Seventieth Birthday, ed. John Carey and Helen Peters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 48; and Duncan-Jones and Woudhuysen, Shakespeare’s Poems, 112.Google Scholar
  33. 38.
    See Roelaf van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971) and Underwood, Shakespeare’s ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, 303–17, for the myth’s diverse forms and applications.Google Scholar
  34. 41.
    Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.165, trans. Frank Justus Miller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  35. 45.
    See James P. Bednarz, ‘Imitations of Spenser in A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Renaissance Drama 14 (1983): 99–101.Google Scholar
  36. 46.
    See Patrick Cheney, ‘“The Phoenix and Turtle”: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser’, Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, ed. Curtis Perry and John Watkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1009), 103–25, who emphasizes this tradition. For a previous strategy of engagement with Chaucer, in As You Like It, see Catherine Belsey, ‘William and Geoffrey’, Shakespeare Without Boundaries, Essays in Honor of Dieter Mehl, ed. Christa Jansohn, Lena Cowen Orlin and Stanley Wells (Lanham: University of Delaware Press, 2011), 175–88.Google Scholar
  37. 49.
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  38. 50.
    J. W. Lever, review of ‘The Poems’, Shakespeare Survey 15 (1962): 29.Google Scholar
  39. 51.
    S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 327–8.Google Scholar
  40. 52.
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  41. 53.
    Jeffrey Knapp, Shakespeare Only (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 55.
    See Lukas Erne, ‘Print and Manuscript’, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry, ed. Patrick Cheney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 54–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 57.
    Katherine Duncan-Jones, ‘Was the 1609 Shakespeares Sonnets Really Unauthorized?’ Review of English Studies 34 (1983): 151–71, and Colin Burrow, ‘Life and Work’, 34–6, as well as his edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 60.
    See Marcy L. North, The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© James P. Bednarz 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • James P. Bednarz
    • 1
  1. 1.Long Island UniversityUSA

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