The Phoenix and The Turtle

by William Shakespeare. First published in 'Loves Martyr' which was dedicated to Sir John Salusbury (d. 1612).

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 makest
With the breath thou givest and takest,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they loved, 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 phoenix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.

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 phoenix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.

THRENOS.

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed, in cinders lie.

Death is now the phoenix' 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.

Notes (numbers refer to line numbers):

First printed in 1601 in Loues Martyr: Or Rosalins Complaint. Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue, in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle. A Poeme ... by Robert Chester .... To these are added some new compositions of seuerall workes, vpon the first subiect: viz. the Phoenix and Turtle. The poems were "consecrated by them all generally, to the loue and merite of the true-noble Knight, Sir Iohn Salisburie...." Other contributors to the volume were Jonson, Chapman, Marston, Vatum Chorus, and Ignoto. The phoenix and the turtle are familiar symbols of Love and Constancy (see line 22). The poem falls into three divisions: the summoning of the other birds to a funeral pageant, the Anthem, and the "threne." The best modern edition is that by F. T. Prince in Shakespeare: The Poems (London: Methuen, 1960).

'Turtle' refers to a turtle dove.

1] bird of loudest lay: not necessarily the nightingale; simply the bird of strongest voice.

2] Arabian tree. According to mythical tradition the unique phoenix bird, after a life of five hundred years in Arabia, was consumed in fire ignited by the sun on the Arabian tree near Heliopolis, Egypt. A new phoenix was born from its ashes.

3] trumpet: trumpeter.

4] chaste wings: i.e., of the other birds.

5] shrieking harbinger: the screech-owl, whose doleful call was popularly believed to be a foreboding of death or of some other disaster.

6] precurrer: precursor, forerunner.

14] defunctive music can: understands funeral music.

15] death-divining swan. An allusion to the belief still current, that dying swans break out into beautiful song.

16] right. Ambiguous in meaning; "due" or "rite."

17] treble-dated crow. Crows were believed to have a life-span three times as long as that of man.

18-19] That ... tak'st. Alludes to the belief that crows and ravens conceive and lay eggs at the bill, the young ones becoming black on the seventh day.

22] is. Singular, since love and constancy, the phoenix and the turtle, are one.

25-28] So ... slain. Cf. Donne, "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" and "A Canonization."
as: that.

27] distincts: separate persons.

28] Number: that is, two becomes one, one being no "number."

32] But in them: in any one else but in them.

34] his right: what was due to him.

36] mine: double meaning possible: "mine own" and "treasure"; the latter is less plausible.

37] Property: peculiar quality, personality; from Latin proprietas.

38] That ... same: i.e., that personality had been destroyed.

44] Simple: simples, elementary elements.

47] Love has reason: for love ordinarily has no reason.

48] parts: departs.

49] threne: funeral song.

55] Here enclos'd: enclosed in this urn; the comma, omitted in many editions, is essential to the sense.
cinders: ashes.

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