23 April 2015

Poem of the Week bonus: for Shakespeare's birthday

. . .
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come ho, and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear
And draw her home with music.

I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

The reason is, your spirits are attentive.
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood:
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods;
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

The Merchant of Venice, Act V, scene 1, ll 55 - 88

For Shakespeare's birthday, an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice. Like Twelfth Night, it is an odd and melancholy play, permeated by music, with a comic villain whose treatment is likely to win an audience's sympathies and whose heroes are sadly selfish. This passage comes towards the end, after the famous trial scene. We switch to Portia's house; Lorenzo and his new bride Jessica, the fugitive daughter of Shylock, are awaiting her return. Under the moonlight, the young newlyweds evoke the nocturnal atmosphere by citing famous lovers; each reference begins like an incantation with the phrase In such a night (this is the passage Berlioz drew on for Dido and Aeneas's duet Nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie / Intoxicating night of infinite ecstasy in his opera Les Troyens). But the swoony-soft mood of erotic teasing is not all that far removed after all from the harrowing court and its grinding wheels of justice and mercy: each of the mythical lovers referenced – Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason – came to spectacularly bad ends. It seems like a bad sign when Lorenzo and Jessica playfully add themselves to the list.

The patens to which Lorenzo compares the stars (the floor of heaven is / thick inlaid with patens of bright gold) are small plates, usually made of precious metals, used for holding the bread during the Eucharist, which seems suitably heavenly. He then refers to the divine music that Ptolemaic astronomy said was produced by the movements of the celestial spheres: there's not the smallest orb . . . / But in his motion like an angel sings, / still quiring [that is, acting like a choir] to the young-eyed cherubins [cherubim]. But again the note of sadness comes in: we cannot hear it while we are alive, while the muddy [since man was made from dust] vesture of decay [our bodies are compared to clothing, which will decay and be cast off] grossly [that is, crudely] closes in our immortal part. And notice how the sound of his speech has changed: from the soft murmuring ms (moonlight, music) and the sighing long es (sweet, sleeps, creep) and the gentle ss (sweet, sleeps, sounds, soft, stillness, sweet again), it sinks into related but heavier sounds: muddy, decay, grossly. He ends on an erotic note (perhaps thinking of a good use for bodies, since we're trapped in them), calling for a hymn that will wake Diana – suggesting that she will not only pay attention to the hymn as sacred praise of her as goddess of the moon, but also suggesting that it might wake her from her cold nature as the goddess of chastity. Even his instructions to the musicians to play for their mistress Portia's return are phrased erotically: he tells them to pierce her ears with sweetest touches. (Perhaps he's also linking her with the goddess Diana whom he wants them to wake: this will be, after all, Portia's wedding night with Bassanio).

Jessica notes that she is never merry when she hears sweet music. We might associate music with laughter and parties; for her it brings melancholy. Lorenzo replies that it is because it concentrates her spirits – her turbulent inner life – removing her from the physical up to the spiritual, an effect he compares to a herd of wild youthful horses suddenly arrested by music: savage eyes turned to a modest gaze, continuing the link between music and spirituality (and opposed to our fleshly failings) that he began with the description of the music of the spheres. The mythological allusions also continue, as he refers somewhat dismissively, or perhaps, in the flirty mood of the scene, playfully (the poet / Did feign) to the poetic legends of Orpheus, whose music drew to him not only humans and animals but also inanimate objects such as trees, stones, and floods (that is, rivers and streams). Note how the ensuing adjectives balance the nouns: the trees are stockish, that is, stationery, like a block of wood, the stones are hard, the floods are full of rage, that is, violently forceful, the way foaming waters can be. (It's worth noting that, like the mythological lovers mentioned in the opening of the scene, Orpheus, too, came to a bad end, in love and in life.)

Lorenzo says that music changes the nature of these things, but he also suggests that it must connect with something inside a person: the man that hath no music in himself, / nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds – such a man is not to be trusted. The motions of his spirit (that is, his inner urges and compulsions) are as dull as night (apparently Lorenzo is as changeable as the moon and has already forgotten how enticing and beautiful he made the night sound just moments ago; here he uses it more conventionally as a time of darkness and weariness). The man without music has affections (that is, emotions in general, not just likes) as dark as Erebus – the classical Greek personification of primordial darkness (it can also refer to the underworld). This condemnation of the man without music is another reminder of the banished Shylock, who had earlier warned Jessica to lock up his house when she heard the drum / And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, and who had cited, as an example of inexplicable but justified natural aversion, those who when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose, / Cannot contain their urine. Part of this reminder of Shylock is of the pain Jessica caused him by her desertion, and the wrong she did him in robbing him before she left. Music under the moonlight comes at a price, and one way or another everyone pays his pound of flesh.

I used the Signet Classic Shakespeare Merchant of Venice but of course there are many editions.

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