The Phoenix and Turtle (Vol. 76) - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Phoenix and Turtle

For further information on the critical history of The Phoenix and Turtle, see SC, Volumes 10, 38, 51, and 64.

Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and Turtle was originally published as part of the 1601 collection Love's Martyr, or Rosalyn's Complaint, compiled by Robert Chester and dedicated to Sir John Salusbury, a patron of the arts. This collection of verse bears the subtitle Allegorically Shadowing the Truth of Love in the Constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle, a reference to the subject of Shakespeare's poem: the funeral of a mythic phoenix and a turtledove, forever linked through their faithfulness and love. The poem features three distinct sections—a twenty-line introduction that summons mourners to the funeral, a thirty-two-line funeral “anthem” that praises the love and beauty of the Phoenix and Turtle, and the concluding fifteen-line “threnos,” a funeral song or lament for the dead.

An enigmatic work that is nevertheless recognized as one of Shakespeare's finest poetic compositions, The Phoenix and Turtle has long puzzled critics, who have sought to unravel its central paradoxes, such as the portrayal of a funeral for a phoenix—a legendary bird capable of resurrection. Other commentators have speculated about possible allegorical links within the poem, equating the Phoenix and Turtle with such historical personages as Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. Still others have sought to distinguish the poem's varied metaphysical influences, which range from medieval Scholasticism to Neoplatonic mysticism. The varying critical approaches to The Phoenix and Turtle were first categorized by Heinrich Strauman, who observed in his 1953 Phönix und Taube; zur Interpretation von Shakespeares Gedankenwelt that theories regarding the poem can be divided into roughly three categories: positivist, formalist, and idealist. The positivist approach includes readings that provide an allegorical interpretation of the poem supported by biographical and historical investigation. The formalist method views the poem within the context of its presumed genre, investigating the literary traditions and conventions that may have influenced Shakespeare's composition. The idealist category represents critics who either address the poem in terms of its own themes, without consideration of any literary or historical context, or within the thematic context of Shakespeare's dramatic works. Critical discussion of The Phoenix and Turtle since the mid-twentieth century has tended to fall into one of these categories or to combine two or more of them.

Idealist conceptions of The Phoenix and Turtle have been somewhat rare in late-twentieth-century criticism. Such views are represented by K. T. S. Campbell (1970, see Further Reading), who regards the work as an example of “self-conscious” poetry that principally makes reference to its own world while providing clues about Shakespeare's development as an artist. Formalist readings of the poem have been more prevalent; however, positivist or biographical assessments have been generally disparaged by critics. Responding to positivist evaluations of The Phoenix and Turtle, which he maintains tend to overly sentimentalize or mystify the work, Murray Copland (1965) represents a typical mid-century formalist understanding of Shakespeare's poem. Copland places The Phoenix and Turtle within the tradition of metaphysical poetry exemplified by the work of John Donne, whose use of conventional poetic images was invariably accompanied by an unconventional twist. In the spirit of Donne, Shakespeare employed the image of the phoenix as an inverted stock conceit used to signify not beauty reborn, but beauty suffering a final and irreversible death. In Copland's view, The Phoenix and Turtle dashes abstract, Platonic ideas such as Truth and Beauty and instead depicts a more complex, if no less paradoxical, world. David Seltzer (1961, see Further Reading) considers the work a superlative example of metaphysical poetry and a distillation of the love-tragedy form. J. W. Cunningham (1952, see Further Reading) asserts that Shakespeare employed concepts from medieval theology in crafting the poem's central conceit (the mystical union between the Phoenix and Turtle), arguing that the Scholastic doctrine of the Trinity underlies its diction and structure. A range of literary conventions—from classical mythology to Neoplatonism—inform Peter Dronke's (1968, see Further Reading) study. Dronke finds in the work a sense of immortality or transcendence derived from the eternal quality of love that survives the death of the Phoenix and Turtle. Dissatisfied with evaluations of the poem that tout the term “metaphysical” but fail to adequately address its central enigmas, Marjorie Garber (1984) focuses instead on literary genre. Assessing The Phoenix and Turtle as a work that employs metaphysical paradox to transform the classical funeral elegy into an epithalamium, a poetic celebration of marriage, Garber claims that the poem fuses two generic forms, making the Phoenix's funeral its marriage as well.

Combined critical assessments of The Phoenix and Turtle that draw upon positivist, formalist, and idealist criteria also proved popular in the late-twentieth century. William Empson's (1966) positivist-formalist evaluation of The Phoenix and Turtle calls attention to Shakespeare's composition of this occasional poem for Sir John Salusbury, and the poet's possible thoughts on the “alien” theme of married chastity. The critic, however, dismisses allegorical connections between figures in the poem and historical personages, finding such speculation absurd. Empson also expresses his critical indebtedness to G. Wilson Knight (1955, see Further Reading), who examines the poem's autobiographical background, but generally emphasizes its metaphysical theme of perfected love. John Klause's (2002) assessment of The Phoenix and Turtle places the work within its historical and literary contexts. Klause asks why Shakespeare wrote this particular poem for inclusion in Chester's Love's Martyr. While he denies an allegorical schema for the work, he nevertheless wonders what Shakespeare knew about Sir John Salusbury, its intended recipient. Klause concludes that Shakespeare chose not to pursue the myth of love and constancy devised by Chester to praise his patron, but to create an alternative, one that used the poet's subtle reflections on “Love, Death, and Truth” to denigrate Salusbury rather than to congratulate him. Other critics, including Ronald Bates and John Buxton (1955 and 1980, see Further Reading), have observed in The Phoenix and Turtle Shakespeare's intricately crafted critique of Chester's “clumsily contrived myth” of constant love and beauty.

Murray Copland (essay date July 1965)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Copland, Murray. “The Dead Phoenix.” Essays in Criticism 15, no. 3 (July 1965): 279-87.

[In the following essay, Copland claims that The Phoenix and Turtle is a “sad, searching, tender, human, and humane” meditation on the death of Truth and Beauty, and reproaches interpretations that mystify or sentimentalize the poem.]

The Phoenix was a striking bird on three counts: (a) its beauty, (b) its uniqueness, and (c) its self-resurrecting habit.

In Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and Turtle the attribute (a) is prominently present:

Truth and Beautie buried be.

Here Truth = the Turtle, and Beautie = the Phoenix.

As for (b), Robert Chester, whose Love's Martyr prescribed the bare postulates for the poem, had introduced a personal variation of a certain imaginative power. The usual Phoenix is complete in itself; Chester's requires a mate, and finds that mate in a true Turtle. This is not necessarily a muddling idea. If the Phoenix is seen as a poetic hyperbole for the summit of female attainment in beauty, accomplishment and virtue—the vision of a lady who might be complimented on such freedom from flaw as to seem virtually superhuman, so that one might expect her, by some divine dispensation, to be raised above the embarrassing necessities of normal human procreation—then the Turtle becomes, equally, a hyperbolical compliment to a man refined enough to deserve her. I do not claim that Chester's own intention was as simple as this; but it does seem to me that it is on much these straightforward terms that Shakespeare elects to understand Chester's brace of birds.

Countless writers, even Wilson Knight among them, have committed the howler—for surely it is that—of referring to Shakespeare's poem as ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’. If, in Platonic terms, the Phoenix represents the ‘idea’ of female beauty and the Turtle the ‘idea’ of fidelity, mated they have grown into a third ‘idea’ which by virtue of its ideality will necessarily have to include these two. This is, of course, the ‘idea’ of human love—human love in its barely imaginable perfection. Now I take it that an ‘idea’ cannot be a duality; it must be a unity. Shakespeare appears to have called his poem The Phoenix and Turtle. That is, the subject is one thing, not two.

In the line

Phoenix and the Turtle fled,

they are presented as separate creatures, but only in aid of the next antithetical line wherein they are all the more strikingly fused:

In a mutuall flame from hence.

Here Phoenix needs no article, precisely because of the bird's uniqueness: whereas Turtle needs its ‘the’ to establish (for this is the first mention of the dead protagonists) that this is not any old turtle (as, in fact, is the case in Love's Martyr) but itself a type, an ideal, and therefore unique, just as much as its mate.

It is immaterial whether Shakespeare had two actual dead lovers in mind. But I do not think the poem is being properly read if the reader does not realise that human love is under discussion; he should appreciate that behind the birds an eminently desirable human possibility is being mooted. If such a man and woman could exist and love like this, then The Phoenix and Turtle would be their fitting elegy.

It may be clear by now that I am against overmuch mystifying of this poem, which critics have tended to etherealise out of existence.

Is it so very crude to see in Shakespeare's acceptance of Chester's bright idea of a mated Phoenix a rather original, compellingly beautiful, but nonetheless natural and likely enough conceit to come upon in a late-Elizabethan Platonizing poem? Donne himself filched the idea for his own ‘Parliament of Fowls’ poem, the delightful St. Valentine's Day Epithalamion, where the application is wholly unmysterious and as ‘human’ as could be—an actual wedding:

Till now, Thou warmd'st with multiplying loves
          Two larkes, two sparrows, or two Doves,
          All that is nothing unto this,
For thou this day couplest two Phoenixes.

But Donne is not here in a particularly ‘Platonic’ vein; that would scarcely suit his occasion:

          … one bed containes, through Thee,
          Two Phoenixes, whose joyned breasts
Are unto one another mutuall nests,
Where motion kindles such fires, as shall give
Yong Phoenixes, and yet the old shall live.

The Elizabethans, sexually, must have been on the whole a happily proficient, promiscuous, and uninhibited race. We can assume this from the fascinated glee with which they pounced upon the newly unearthed Platonic version of love and made it all the fashionable rage. Lord Herbert of Cherbury's serious-minded Melander and Celinda are happily conscious of their limelighted position as, in Gilbert's phrase, ‘most particularly pure’ young people. It is their sense of the wild eccentricity of the notion which causes these poets to place such stress on the abstention from physical intercourse. The exaggerated contempt in which they place bodily pleasure has little to do with Plato, who notably conveys an appreciation of its charms.

The Shakespeare stanza about ‘married Chastitie’ comes as a shock because Shakespeare meant it to do so. Poems in the ‘metaphysical’ mode characteristically proceed by shock tactics, both of style and of thought. The Phoenix and Turtle is very obviously a single, somewhat haughtily restrained demonstration on Shakespeare's part that if ‘everyone was doing it, doing it, doing it’ he was very well competent to do it too; and, by a natural enough impulse under the circumstances, there is perhaps present a certain willingness to outdo all the others in sheer transcendence of transcendentalism.

Can it be doubted that this is, consciously, Shakespeare's contribution to the fashion of which Donne was the acknowledged leader—a fashion which I fancy the contemporary bright young men took with a certain seriousness as a discussion of the problem ‘What should love be like’? Think how Lord Herbert's Ode upon a Question moved, whether Love should continue for ever? takes exception to Sidney's In a Grove most rich of Shade (in Astrophil and Stella) and Donne's The Ecstasy cocks a snook at both. Shakespeare's poem is clearly at home in this context. Place stanzas 7-12 of The Phoenix and Turtle beside stanzas 32-33 of Lord Herbert's Ode and stanzas 9-12 of The Ecstasy and the community of ambition to be brilliantly intellectual and ineffably Platonic shines out.

We need not be surprised that this section which celebrates the unity-out-of-duality which love may encompass is, in each of the three poems, one of the easiest parts to interpret. The metaphysical poets prided themselves on their intellectuality, just as their critics tend to do today. But, in spite of themselves, they were first and foremost poets. With the characteristic procedure of poets, they seized upon the most imaginatively captivating and emotionally disturbing of the thoughts which their genuinely intellectual contemporaries came up with, and thereafter, contented, applied themselves to exploiting to the full, by means of ever refined-upon expression, those imaginative and emotional potentialities which their artistic flair had sensed. There are, in fact, few ‘thoughts’ in most metaphysical poems; and those few tend to be bold, clear, and easily graspable. In the passages I have specified it would...

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William Empson (essay date April 1966)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Empson, William. “The Phoenix and the Turtle.Essays in Criticism 16, no. 2 (April 1966): 147-53.

[In the following essay, Empson comments on the puzzling central theme of “married chastity” in The Phoenix and Turtle, and examines the poem's biographical contexts and mystical conclusion.]

This exquisite but baffling poem is the only one written by Shakespeare for publication with other poets (Marston, Chapman and Jonson), and his only consistent use of the Metaphysical style. Love's Martyr by Robert Chester, dedicated to Sir John Salusbury (1601, unregistered), came out at the height of the War of the Theatres, when some at least...

(The entire section is 2660 words.)

Marjorie Garber (essay date fall 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Garber, Marjorie. “Two Birds with One Stone: Lapidary Re-Inscription in The Phoenix and Turtle.Upstart Crow 5 (fall 1984): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Garber offers a structural analysis of The Phoenix and Turtle, evaluating its fusion of two poetic genres—the elegy and the epithalamion—as well as its subversion of logic, grammar, and paradox.]

“What is lapis, William?”

The Merry Wives of Windsor

In the introduction to an anthology of his favorite poems, Parnassus, published in 1874, Ralph Waldo Emerson identified The Phoenix and Turtle as that esthetic enigma, a poet's...

(The entire section is 6587 words.)

John Klause (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Klause, John. “The Phoenix and Turtle in Its Time.” In In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans, edited by Thomas Moisan and Douglas Bruster, pp. 206-30. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2002.

[In the following essay, Klause places The Phoenix and Turtle within its appropriate cultural, literary, autobiographical, religious, and ideological contexts in order to ascertain its proper significance in Shakespeare's oeuvre. The critic concludes that rather than celebrating Sir John Salusbury, as the other contributors to Love's Martyr had done, Shakespeare set out to subtly disparage...

(The entire section is 11486 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bates, Ronald. “Shakespeare's The Phoenix and Turtle.Shakespeare Quarterly 6, no. 1 (winter 1955): 19-30.

Analyzes the language, tripartite structure, and enigmatic tone of The Phoenix and Turtle, maintaining that the poem clashes with the remainder of Robert Chester's Love's Martyr by refusing to valorize its themes of constancy, chastity, and love.

Buxton, John. “Two Dead Birds: A Note on The Phoenix and Turtle.” In English Renaissance Studies Presented to Dame Helen Gardner in Honor of Her Seventieth Birthday, edited by John Carey, pp. 44-55. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980....

(The entire section is 504 words.)