The Mystery of ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’

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


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.


Title Page British Library Moderne Writer Turtle Dove Celebrity Writer 
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Copyright information

© James P. Bednarz 2012

Authors and Affiliations

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

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