02 March 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/9

(Titania to Oberon)

These are the forgeries of jealousy;
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By pavèd fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beachèd margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud,
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The plowman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drownèd field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is filled up with mud;
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazèd world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, scene 1, ll 81 - 117

. . . because Shakespeare knew about everything, including climate change. When we studied The Tempest in Janet Adelman's Shakespeare class at Cal, she told us, when we came to the scenes of Stephano and Trinculo introducing Caliban to booze, that she found it remarkable that Shakespeare already knew the havoc alcohol would wreak on colonized populations (she had worked on American Indian reservations and seen its effects at first hand). In this excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream, harmonious, musical language tells us of a disharmonious world. I'm posting this because – and I realize that anyone outside of California is going to sneer at me for this – I've really missed winter this year, and I have to admit it's skipping us (possibly because it's doubling up on the east coast). I know, I know: I too roll my eyes when Californians complain bitterly when the temperature drops down to the low 60s. But there really is such a thing as winter in California, and I miss the chill, and the darkness, and the early silence, and I miss the rain. This year we never really got the cold weather that triggers dormancy, and this has given us a misshapen spring. I planted tulips, and for the second year in a row only a few came up, and those have full-sized flowers on stubby little stalks, to weird effect. Roses are blooming all over my backyard, but they are strangely lopsided. I think one of my apricot trees is dead; the other is spotted rather than covered with blooms. The lilacs started budding in December and seem stuck there. I've been describing a place with too little water, and Titania's speech covers a world with too much, but the effect is the same: an unhealthy, and even dangerous, confusion of the regular cycle of nature.

I took this photo in my backyard on 20 December 2014, and that is indeed a lilac starting to bud in late December. But it's now over two months later, and it seems stuck at this stage. It doesn't look very healthy.

To go through the speech: Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, meet accidentally in the woods outside Athens. The meeting is accidental because they are quarreling over possession of a little Indian boy, born to one of Titania's mortal companions. So in the first line, these refers to accusations Oberon has just made about various love affairs of hers (which he has made in answer to similar accusations from her). She dismisses his claims as "the forgeries of jealousy" and goes on to recount the problems caused by his anger: whenever she and her band meet, he shows up brawling, and disturbs them. In the second line, she refers to "the middle summer's spring," which means the beginning of midsummer, but the conjunction of summer with spring prepares the way for the confusion of seasons with which the speech ends. She refers to their sport, but clearly there's deeper significance to their dances, which maintain a sort of regularity and amity in the natural order; without them the wind sucks up fogs and vapors from the sea and dumps the excess liquid on the land. The wind is presented as a sort of orchestra for their fêtes; it is the whistling wind, and it's piping in vain. Let's just pause here a moment to bask in the beauty of the line To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind: the line is not really necessary, but it is essential, which might be a useful definition of poetry. Ringlets to me conveys not only the little circles in which they dance (emphasizing once again the tiny, other-worldly quality of the fairy kingdom in this play), but also curling hair tossing and bobbing in the breeze.

Back to the overflowing waters: remember that in Shakespeare's time (as well as before and after his time) there were medical theories about the disease-causing qualities of certain vapors or miasmas; there was also a theory, derived from ancient Greece, of four humors, linked to the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, the balance among which controlled health and general well-being. So an excess of water indicates a world dangerously out of balance. The food supply is being disrupted; the fields are plowed and grain planted, but it's too wet and the grain rots while still green without reaching the gold of ripeness. The comparison to a youth lacking a beard refers wittily to the tassels of ripe wheat. (Corn refers to grain in general, not to what we think of as corn, which I think had not yet crossed the Atlantic from Mexico.) This was of course written at a time when food storage was in a fairly basic state; failed crops for one year meant hard times, and for two years meant disaster.

The fold – the enclosure for livestock, usually sheep – is empty because the animals have died of the murrain (an infectious disease, referred to here by its older form, murrion) and are benefiting no one but the scavenger crows. Nine men's morris is a board game, but sometimes large equivalents were cut into village greens, and that has been filled with mud, and the quaint (that is, curious, intricate) mazes are sinking back indistinguishable in the grass, since no one is walking through them. The grass itself is wanton (that is, luxuriant and profuse, with an implication of something tending towards the disorderly or promiscuous – what might seem like merely a colorful and appealing adjective is emphasizing the main theme of the speech, a breakdown in what is becoming and orderly). Humanity is being threatened by the squabbling in Fairyland; both work and play are sinking into mud and disease. These are frightful things, but in the Fairy Queen's description they seem so lovely: perhaps this is a sign of her distance from mortal struggles, and of the beauty permeating her existence.

Titania continues that "human mortals want [that is, lack] their winter here" and night is not blest with hymn or carol: both blest and hymn imply a religious significance to this singing; and (remember that the play takes place in ancient Athens) Artemis, the goddess of the moon, responds angrily to the lack of due praise: again, the excess of water caused by the disruption in the regular order of things leads to disease (here, specifically, rheumatic diseases). The result is a topsy-turvy world that intermingle the seasons in a confusing and destructive way. Hiem is the Latin for winter, used here, as it often is in poetry, as a personification of the season. This confused profusion of different seasons appearing simultaneously leaves the world mazèd, that is, amazed, lost as in a maze.

Autumn is described as childing, that is, fruitful, breeding. This reference to childbirth continues in the end of the speech, in the terms progeny, parents, and original (that is, origin) and will echo through the play. Remember that their quarrel is about a child; and the play itself will end with all the sets of quarreling divided lovers joined in amity, and conclude (right before Puck's epilogue, which stands outside the action of the play) with Oberon blessing the newlyweds and wishing them healthy children: "And the blots of Nature's hand / Shall not in their issue stand. / Never mole, harelip, nor scar, / Nor mark prodigious, such as are / Despisèd in nativity, / Shall upon their children be." (Act V, scene 1, ll 411 - 416): nothing prodigious (in its now archaic sense of unnatural or abnormal) shall harm their children. Order is restored.

There are of course dozens of editions of A Midsummer Night's Dream; I use the one from Signet Classic.

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