11 May 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/19


O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears;
O life, no life, but lively form of death;
O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs;
Confused and filled with murder and misdeeds!
O sacred heavens! if this unhallowed deed,
If this inhuman and barbarous attempt,
If this incomparable murder thus
Of mine, but now no more my son,
Shall unrevealed and unrevengèd pass,
How should we term your dealings to be just,
If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust?
The night, sad secretary to my moans,
With direful visions wake my vexèd soul,
And with the wounds of my distressful son
Solicit me for notice of his death.
The ugly fiends do sally forth of hell,
And frame my steps to unfrequented paths,
And fear my heart with fierce inflamèd thoughts.
The cloudy day my discontents records,
Early begins to register my dreams
And drive me forth to seek the murderer.

Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, Act III, scene 2, ll 1 - 21

In case you're wondering: this is the same Hieronymo [sic] run "mad againe" referred to at the end of Eliot's The Waste Land. The reason for his recurrent lapses in sanity is grief over the murder of his son, whose only crime was loving and being loved by the beautiful Bel-Imperia. It's part of a complicated web of intrigue making this Elizabethan play an early and influential example of the revenge tragedy (leading to the greatest of them all, Hamlet, in which Shakespeare had the genius idea of making the man responsible for revenge one who is profoundly unsuited for the role, personally and philosophically). About half-way through Kyd's drama we have this set piece, whose elaborate and formal rhetoric, which might seem distancing to modern ears, actually signals an increased intensity of emotion.

Hieronimo begins with a series of negations: he addresses his eyes, only to announce he has no eyes, instead they are fountains of endless tears; he addresses his life, but he is not truly alive, since his overwhelming grief has left him emotionally dead (he's a counterfeit of life: a "lively form of death"); he addresses the world, only to find it not the world he once knew but a collection of random and chaotic crimes. He begins with his eyes, which are the way he perceives the world; he moves on to the meaning of his individual life, and then, in the third step, branches out from his own existence into that of humanity at large: all is revealed as false, deluded or deluding, either committing "murder and misdeed" or mourning for them. As a high-ranking official in the Spanish court, Hieronimo had reason to be content with his life (remember that at this time Spain, thanks to gold and silver plundered from the North American continent, was one of the great world powers – Hieronimo is a powerful and influential man, who has so far led an exemplary and useful life). The murder of his only son has reversed what he thought he knew of the world. His speech is balanced and paradoxical: O eyes, no eyes is followed by O life, no life and O world, no world – each address (to his eyes, to life, to the world) is swiftly followed by its antithesis; the language is balanced, but it indicates his despairing suspension between what he once knew and what he now knows about the nature of our life.

He then addresses Heaven; his continued use of the vocative case (O sacred heavens) links this new section to the preceding one. Moved beyond questioning human justice, Hieronimo now questions divine justice. It's the old perplexity raised whenever bad things happen to people who are, or consider themselves to be, good: how can these terrible things happen and go unpunished? His language continues to be balanced: sacred heavens find their counterweight in unhallowed deed, and Hieronimo then expands for several lines on how horrifying it is that his innocent son was murdered. We tend to use incomparable mostly in a positive sense, but here (in the seventh line) it means unequaled in its horror. Hieronimo continues to use a rhetoric of reversal showing how the world he once knew has been flipped for him: hence his reference to mine, but now no more my son, meaning that the only son he once had now is no longer his son, since he is a corpse (yet it is exactly this loss that leads him into grief, madness, and revenge).  He continues to accuse the justice of heaven, with the balanced epithets unrevealed and unrevenged: at this point, he does not know who has killed his son (though he's about to find out), and, without knowing the killers, he cannot seek revenge on them. He ends his questioning of divine justice by asking how we can call God just if he treats unjustly those who trust in Him. Hieronimo uses another balanced set of terms: just / unjustly / justice; again, the qualities he once thought he saw in the world are swiftly followed by what he sees now: just gives way rapidly to unjustly, though the final justice hints that perhaps he will eventually achieve his revenge.

He then returns to his personal state: night is the sad secretary to his moans. Secretary here means something like record-keeper; at night, bad dreams disturb his sleep (direful visions wake my vexèd soul) and night (suggestive here of darkness and hidden deeds) hears his painful moans. These dreams, along with his son's wounds, remind him of his pain, and his need for revenge (solicit me for notice of his death, in which notice means both these things make me constantly aware of his murder and these things give me notice that I need to do something about his death).

Night brings him to hell, and Hieronimo balances his earlier impeachment of Heaven's justice with a reference to the growing power over him of Hell: the ugly fiends do sally forth, which indicates sort of a bursting forth of demons, leading Hieronimo away from his orderly, lawful life into that of an investigator, a schemer, a murderer in his turn, a revenger: these are the unfrequented paths this nobleman and administrator must now walk down, and these demons fear (that is, fill with fright) his heart with fierce and inflamed thoughts (inflamèd maintains the devilish theme by bringing to mind the fires of Hell).

Earlier Hieronimo had talked about night as the companion of his woes; now he balances that statement with a reference to day: cloudy day, because no sunshine is left in this world for the grieving father. Day, too, records his discontents, and registers his dreams: in short, there is no escape, day or night, from his distress, and from his haunting dreams: both drive him forth to seek the murderers, and revenge.

I took this from an old New Mermaid edited by J R Mulryne that I bought used at Moe's Books, but if you're really into this play you might as well go all out and get the Norton Critical Edition (which I have not seen, so I'm just going on general reputation here).


Michael Strickland said...

Gosh, that's two dark, satanic verses in a row for Poem of the Week. What's up, dude?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

This was going to be a little run of "speeches from Elizabethan plays" but I realized the one I had planned for next week (Richard II's abdication) was too long and too often interrupted by impatient noblemen. So I picked a different poem, from a different era, but which, your comment has just made me realize, is also pretty dark (but also kind of spitefully funny, in a way?. So, to answer your actual question: just business as usual, I guess.

I'll look for something lighter, but I have the next few weeks planned out, so hang on in the darkness as long as you can. And thank you as always for reading these!