28 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/52

2 Songs (Spring & Winter; The Owl & the Cuckoo)

I
When daisies pied and violets blue
     And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
     Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
                  "Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
     And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
     And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
                  "Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

II
When icicles hang by the wall,
     And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
     And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
                  "Tu-whit
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
     And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
     And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
                  "Tu-whit
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

William Shakespeare, from Love's Labor's Lost

Love's Labor's Lost, a play in which the characters are constantly trapping themselves in self-created theatrical tableaux, suitably ends with a pair of songs that frame Nature itself into matched picturesque vignettes. (One reason I've always loved these songs is that they remind me of the illustrations of the different months in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.)

It's might be useful to review the vocabulary first: in the Spring song, pied means having two or more different colors (that is, piebald); a lady-smock is a flower (Cardamine pratensis) also known as cuckooflower; the cuckoo-buds that flower in the next line, however, are now commonly known as crowfoot (Ranunculus bulbosus) though some commentators think they are a related flower, the bright yellow buttercup; in the second stanza, turtles refers, as it usually does in this period of English literature, to turtle-doves, famous as symbols of fidelity in love, which may be why they tread, that is, mate, as do the rooks and daws, which are types of crow.

In the Winter song: nail here means fingernail; to keel a pot means to stir or skim it, generally with the purpose of cooling it down; a saw is an old wise saying, like a proverb but with a hint that it's bromidic rather than enlightening; and the hissing crabs are small, sour crabapples.

The first song is not going to make much sense unless you know the old association between the cuckoo and the term cuckold, referring to a man who doesn't know his wife is cheating on him, which came about because the cuckoo bird lays her eggs in another bird's nest, leaving the intruder to be raised by the other birds – so the association gets at very deep fears of sexual failure as well as property-related deception. A sour note in such a pretty picture of spring! So pastoral, with the birds, and the flowers, and the shepherds making music with rustic, home-made instruments, and the maidens like flowers themselves (they bleach their summer smocks, cleaning and brightening them in a way that will associate them with the lady-smocks all silver-white we saw earlier): yet underneath all the efflorescence and the music and the fertility is a sense of mockery and unease, reminding us again that in this play, love's labors are lost.

And that may be why the play ends with the coldness yet comforts of love-lacking Winter. Here we see laboring people, with simple and common names (Dick, Tom, Joan, and Marian); the women are greasy (slovenly) and red-nosed rather than flower-like. The birds do not tread or mate, but brood in the snow. The paths are foul due to snow and wet weather. Yet there is a promise of warmth, treasured all the more for the surrounding cold: the shepherd blowing on his hands, the logs brought into the hall for a fire, the hissing bowls and steaming pots. The bird associated with the scene is not the deceptive cuckoo but the owl, traditionally associated with wisdom. Each season gives us an unexpected twist in the refrain: spring brought love and loveliness, but also related uneasiness and betrayal; Winter brings us the owl, singing a merry note amid the chill.

So that concludes the 2015 series of Poem of the Week. I hope readers have enjoyed them. This one is also a bit of a preview of the upcoming year, since 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and the great poet will no doubt be an even more prominent feature of our cultural landscape for the next few months.

I used the Signet Classic edition of Love's Labor's Lost, edited by John Arthos.

6 comments:

chris enquist said...

Thanks. I always enjoy reading your blog.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you!

Unknown said...

What a great way to end the year of poems because this poem is special to me. I remember reading part I of this poem in high school (senior year, I think), and how the teacher explained to us the other meaning of the poem and the other meaning of cuckoo, and, boom, a new world opened. Poems weren't just about interesting rhythms and rhyming or not rhyming and symbolism. They could have word play, too, and be about sex. I'm grateful for that teacher teaching the right poem at the right time, and I'm grateful to you for continuing to open my eyes every Monday.
V

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks! I had not heard this story -- it's refreshing to hear about a teacher opening up poetry to students, since so many say (or claim) that having to read poetry in school turned them away from it.

Michael Strickland said...

Have you considered an all-Shakespeareean weekly poetry year for the 400th in 2016? If not, do consider it. I only know about a quarter of the plays, and most of them not very well, so it would be very welcome.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I've thought about more Shakespeare posts, but not a whole year's worth. I'm not sure it would work well in this format. Even the big aria-like speeches are only semi-detachable and depend a lot on their context. I'll ponder it, though.