Synopsis

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The Phoenix & the Turtle

Synopsis

Principal characters

PHOENIX, female bird

TURTLE, Phoenix's husband

REASON, speaker of the "Threnos"

 

The Story

The poem, written in heptasyllabic (with some octosyllabic) trochaic tetrameter, laments the death of the Phoenix and Turtle-dove, true lovers who perished together. In the opening five stanzas, each of four lines rhyming abba, an unnamed speaker summons the mourners. The first stanza invites "the bird of loudest lay," which may be the new phoenix because of the reference to the "sole Arabian tree," on which the phoenix traditionally sits. Another possibility is the crane. The speaker refers to the bird as "herald" and "trumpet," and Geoffrey Chaucer in "The Parlement ofFoules" (c. 1377), a possible source for Shakespeare's poem, wrote  of the crane "with his trompes soune" (with his trumpet's sound). The cock, lark, and nightingale have also been proposed. Stanza 2 orders the screech owl, "shrieking harbinger," not to appear, and stanza 3 continues in this vein of interdiction, barring all birds of prey except the eagle, which is royal without being tyrannical. Stanzas 4 and 5 complete the guest list of mourners with the swan and crow. The swan's whiteness makes it the ideal priest, and its reputation for singing just before death links it to the dirge. Both the swan and the crow were regarded in the Renaissance as symbols of chastity and marital fidelity. The crow's sable hue also suits it to this occasion. 

The following eight stanzas, also of four lines each with the abba rhyme scheme, shift from the imperative to the declarative mood as they praise the dead lovers. These lovers overcame the physical and metaphysical forces that would divide them to become one being, as indicated by the use of the singular verb in line 22 and the singular noun "simple" (meaning a compound and usually plural) in line 44.  Reason speaks the last fifteen lines, consisting of five three-line stanzas each with a single rhyme. Reason had listened to the praise of the lovers in stanzas 5-12 and had found the paradoxes puzzling. Reason's response accepts the excellence of the pair of birds, but the tone of the "Threnos" shifts from celebratory to elegiac.  However remarkable these birds were, they now are dead, and with them have perished "Beauty, truth, and rarity." Reason concludes by urging those who survive to visit the um containing the ashes of these lovers and "sigh a prayer" for them.

 

To view other The Phoenix and the Turtle sections:

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

 

To view other Shakespeare Library sections:

Biography     Plays     Poems     Sonnets     Theaters     Shake Links

 
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