Phoenix & the Turtle

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Poem Text



The Phoenix and the Turtle

The Phoenix and Turtle is Shakespeare's allegorical poem on the mystical nature of love. The Phoenix and Turtle consists of 13 quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhyming abba, followed by five triplets (stanzas of three rhyming lines) all in iambic tetrameter . The poem tells of the funeral of two lovers the phoenix, a mythological bird associated with immortality, and the turtledove (usually called 'turtle' in Elizabethan English), a symbol of fidelity. The two birds have burned themselves to death in order to be forever joined in love. The allegory celebrates an ideal of love in which an absolute spiritual union of the lovers, defying rationality and common sense is chastely achieved through death, the ultimate refection of the world. 

This allegory reflects a notion that was widespread in the Renaissance: ideal love was felt to transcend reason and thus to represent a truer state of being than that of the material world. This idea, whose roots lay in the writings of Plato, is also related to the Christian concept of the state of grace that God offers to believers, and The Phoenix and Turtle has been interpreted as a specifically Christian allegory. More generally, it may be seen as illustrating the possibility of transcendence through love, an ideal that informs much of Shakespeare's work, particularly the Comedies. 

The Phoenix and Turtle does not have a literary source, although the idea of an assembly of birds was a common one; for example, it appears in Chacuerís The Parliament of Fowls and a famous mock funeral in Ovidís Amores, to name only two great authors whom Shakespeare is known to have read and admired. The more specific motif of love between phoenix and turtledove was determined by its use in Robert Chester's Loveís Martyr, a long allegorical poem celebrating the marriage of Sir John Salisbury and his wife; Shakespeare's poem was apparently written to be published with that work in 1601. The idea of love between these two symbolic birds was novel, originating with either Chester or his patron. 

Salusbury and his wife are the likeliest subjects of any specific symbolism the phoenix and the turtledove may carry, in addition to their joint role as an emblem of ideal love. In addition, scholars have long speculated on possible hidden meanings in Love's Martyr and/or The Phoenix and Turtle, and various obscure references have been proposed. The two birds have been seen as Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex and as Essex and the Earl of Southhampton, among other pairings. However, such hypotheses are not provable, and in any case the poem transcends whatever particular purposes it may have had, surviving as a mystical and powerful invocation of love.

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Main Poem Page       Poem Text         Synopsis         Commentary


To view other Poems  sections:

Poems Main Page      Venus and Adonis     The Rape of Lucrece      A Lover's Complaint     The Phoenix and the Turtle


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