28 October 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/44

Here's one for Halloween week: Joan la Pucelle Invokes Her Devils

Alarum. Excursions. Enter Joan la Pucelle.

The Regent conquers, and the Frenchmen fly.
Now help, ye charming spells and periapts,
And ye choice spirits that admonish me
And give me signs of future accidents.
You speedy helpers, that are substitutes
Under the lordly monarch of the north,
Appear and aid me in this enterprise.
Enter Fiends.
This speedy and quick appearance argues proof
Of your accustomed diligence to me.
Now, ye familiar spirits, that are culled
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.
They walk, and speak not.
O, hold me not with silence over-long!
Where I was wont to feed you with my blood,
I'll lop a member off and give it you
In earnest of a further benefit,
So you do condescend to help me now.
They hang their heads.
No hope to have redress? My body shall
Pay recompense, if you will grant my suit.
They shake their heads.
Cannot my body nor blood-sacrifice
Entreat you to your wonted furtherance?
Then take my soul; my body, soul, and all,
Before that England give the French the foil.
They depart.
See, they forsake me! Now the time is come
That France must vail her lofty plumèd crest
And let her head fall into England's lap.
My ancient incantations are too weak,
And hell too strong for me to buckle with.
Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust.

William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part One, Act V, scene iii, ll 1-29

Pucelle is French for virgin (there are many sly, flirty jokes by Joan and members of the French court indicating this title is just for show). Periapts in the second line means charms or amulets. The lordly monarch of the North is Satan; as noted last week, evil spirits were traditionally associated with the frozen wastelands of the globe's north. Buckle in the second-to-last line means struggle. Like most early Shakespeare, this is fairly direct, clear verse; he grew more complex, knotted, and vast as he grew older – not just in his poetry, but with his characters. Part of his enormous vitality as a playwright comes from his giving us more than the character really needs for his or her part in the story: there are odd lines that act as strange little flashes, illuminating a character's whole psyche. A famous example is Shylock's lament when he hears that his runaway daughter Jessica has traded a valuable ring for a pet monkey: "I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys." Leah is otherwise unmentioned, but presumably she is his now dead wife and the mother of the heedless runaway daughter; there's bizarre comedy in the "wilderness of monkeys" – comedy which endears the speaker to us – but also a depth of emotional attachment to his late wife that goes far beyond the stage stereotype of a miserly money-lending Jew – contrast this complexity with Marlowe's Barabas in The Jew of Malta, who is much more straightforward, though he does also have an energetic determination and a gleeful delight in his own villainy that are strangely appealing, much as Shakespeare's Richard III does.

Richard III, defeated in battle by Elizabeth I's grandfather, brings us to the political aspect of this play for its contemporary audience. Yes, what we have here is the English Renaissance/Tudor dynasty view of Joan of Arc, who had done so much to boot the English out of France about a hundred years earlier – in their minds, to accomplish that she obviously would have to be in league with Satan. Joan was basically their equivalent of a fanatical suicide bomber: driven by an alien faith to defend her homeland against what she saw as interlopers, who considered themselves not only well-intentioned but more capable and more honorable than the natives. I wouldn't really call Shakespeare's history plays propaganda – they're too complex and independent for that – but, not unreasonably, they do generally reflect the standard interpretation of his time, however subtly he undercuts some of the narratives (for example, I've always felt that Henry V, usually considered a celebratory pageant, has a questioning, satirical vein running through it). As a cultural and political antagonist, standing against their enlightened rule, Joan is linked in the eyes of a Tudor audience with the Satanic – quite directly linked, since she shows all the classic signifiers of witchdom: easy communion and bodily intimacy with evil spirits, a willingness to surrender her immortal soul for earthly aims, an ultimate defeat by the devils, who always win in the end against those who think they can bargain with them.

Shakespeare's portrayal of Joan is not exactly rich in those generous extra lines that flesh out a character's whole world, but it is clear that she is motivated by a patriotic love of France; so this devotion to her native land must have made at least some in the audience wonder why she should be condemned for what is considered virtuous in the English. It's useful to remember that the borders between countries were much more fluid then than they are now, depending as they did on marriage alliances and dynastic succession as well as fighting; England's rule over parts of France isn't quite straightforward imperialism, and there really wasn't a single political/cultural entity called "France" that coincides with what we think of as "France" (Germany and Italy were also more a collection of occasionally quarrelsome states). In his own play on Joan, Shaw makes the point that she represents something new in the concept of nationhood. Anyway, Joan in Shakespeare's play is pretty clearly a whore and a witch, and once we get past the shock of seeing the beloved and fascinating Saint Joan portrayed that way (remember that she was not canonized until 1920, almost 500 years after her death, and this is a play written in the country she had fairly recently helped defeat), her character here is actually another of those strangely appealing Elizabethan villains, much more lively and clever than the stolid English with their dull concern with their honor. But my sympathies may say more about my own lack of honor and patriotic sentiment.

I felt slightly guilty posting this, since I've always been fascinated by Saint Joan. On my one trip to France, many years ago, I made a point of going up to Rouen, not just to see the Cathedral Monet painted over and over under different weather and lighting conditions for each canvas, but to see the remaining sites associated with Joan's imprisonment and death. There is only one squat stone tower remaining from the fortress where she was held prisoner. I spent a beautiful rainy afternoon wandering around in it, with the whole place to myself. So I had some hesitation here, but I wanted to post something seasonal other than the usual Weird Sisters from Macbeth, and Halloween, like Carnival, is a time of licensed transgression, so here she is, our saint consorting with their demons. I took this passage from the Signet Classic edition of Henry VI, Part One, but I'm going to expiate this post by mentioning some other works on Joan worth looking into: Shaw's great play Saint Joan, mentioned above; Dreyer's great film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Marina Warner's Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, which I liked a lot when I read it many years ago.


Sibyl said...

Oh do, please, tell me you have seen the recently broadcast BBC version of the Henriad collectively shown under the umbrella title, "The Hollow Crown." All the plays are cut somewhat severely, but the chance to see the through line from Richard II to Henry V (with some quite excellent performances, Tom Hiddleston preeminent among them as Hal/Henry V) is a wow. I probably would have posted something like La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Goblin Market, or Lamia for Halloween, so big kudos for avoiding the obvious!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Apologies for posting your comment late and replying later. I am having major computer problems. If one more thing breaks down around here I think I will just officially declare myself Amish. For example, I no longer get any kind of television reception. I do still have a DVD player, so I wishlisted the Hollow Crown, because it is that time of year. I had just heard about it a few weeks ago. I didn't realize the DVDs had already been released. I also have a set of the History Plays that I think the BBC did in the 1960s -- I think it's called An Age of Kings. I haven't watched it yet, which is one reason I didn't just jump right into the Hollow Crown).

Your Halloween choices are all (of course!) excellent, though I have to say I think of La Belle Dame Sans Merci as more of a November poem. The other two are longer than I usually post here, though I could do excerpts. I do retype the poems each week, rather than copy and paste. It helps me realize things about them.