25 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/17

two enemy soldiers, mortal foes, join together

                            O Marcius, Marcius!
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy. If Jupiter
Should from yond cloud speak divine things,
And say, " 'Tis true," I'd not believe them more
Than thee, all noble Marcius. Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grainèd ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarred the moon with splinters. Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valor. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars, I tell thee,
We have a power on foot, and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose my arm for't. Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me.
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat,
And waked half dead with nothing. Worthy Marcius,
Had we no other quarrel else to Rome but that
Thou art thence banished, we would muster all
From twelve to seventy, and pouring war
Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome,
Like a bold flood o'erbeat. O, come, go in,
And take our friendly senators by th' hands,
Who now are here, taking their leaves of me
Who am prepared against your territories,
Though not for Rome itself.

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act IV, scene 5, ll 105 - 139

Tullus Aufidius is the great soldier among the Volscians, as Caius Marcius (given the honorary name Coriolanus for the slaughter he made when caught alone behind the walls of the Volscian city Corioles) is among the Romans. Though each represents a society, he is also an individual, motivated by a sense of individual honor and glory. The tension between the individual and the society he fights for is one major theme of this complex and subtle play, in which every point has a counterpoint. It is based on a story well-known to the first audience: Coriolanus, a great soldier who cannot hide his arrogant contempt for the common people, is exiled from Rome, whereupon he joins with the enemy Volscians and leads a destructive path to the very gates of the city. There he is met by Volumnia, his formidable mother, who tells him that she is as proud and fierce as he is – he received those qualities from her – and if he invades Mother Rome, he will do so over the dead body of his actual mother. He gives in to her, and though peace is arranged he is killed by the Volscians for what their generals see as a betrayal of their cause. The identification of Rome with his mother is part of this theme of comparison and tension between the individual, seen as a body, and the larger state.

The play opens with a scene of social unrest, which Menenius, a genial and garrulous aristocrat, tries to quell by reciting the fable of the belly: the other body parts, finding the belly pampered, greedy, and useless (as the mob sees the Roman elite), rebels against it, only to find that without it they starve and cannot perform their own functions. So the body, which had broken down into individual and opposed parts, proves to be an indivisible unity after all, with benefits and dangers ultimately spread among the whole. The tension between the individual and the group also plays out on the bodies of soldiers, particularly that of Coriolanus himself. As part of the honors heaped on him for his great achievements in killing in Corioles, he is nominated for Consul, and though his election is considered a foregone conclusion he is not allowed to omit a crucial part of the ceremony of nomination, in which he must strip himself (either naked or mostly naked) and, while asking the common people for their votes (referred to as voices, emphasizing the physical reality of their power, the power of popular opinion), he must display to them the wounds received while fighting for Rome. His tactless reluctance to play this part, broadcast and manipulated by the Tribunes of the People, who hide their cynical contempt for the commoners with a great political show of zeal, is what leads to his exile. Coriolanus is surprised that Volumnia does not approve of his defiance: Would you have me / False to my nature? Rather say I play / The man I am (Act III, scene 2, ll 12 - 14). To play the man I am: there is a sense of manhood as not only something to be displayed, but something put on, an act, not something inherent in him. He represents Rome, but what he feels as the glory of his manhood, his soldiership, is an individual matter – yet he has been bred this way by his mother, and his actions are to please her, even more than his gentle wife; even an individual achievement is inextricably linked back to the crowd.

Inevitably, the soldier's body as the focus of social tensions (individual vs group, war vs peace, aristocratic generals vs plebian soldiers) becomes eroticized, or rather springs from eroticism, from lust and longing and admiration and jealousy, as we see in this strange speech by Aufidius welcoming the exiled Coriolanus, who has come to him in disguise and offered either to join him in league against Rome or to submit to execution by him (in the end, both offers are accepted). Aufidius, tactfully avoiding the name Coriolanus, which is a reminder of a great and still-fresh Volscian defeat, refers to his foe as Marcius. During this speech, the audience will remember that after their previous encounter, Aufidius has vowed that he will eventually best Caius Marcius, by fair means or foul: how sincere is he in this greeting? He certainly sounds sincere, but we've already seen that everyone (except for Coriolanus and, ironically enough, the commoners) is able to hide his or her true feelings to gain his or her private ends (that is, they can submerge the individual in order to persuade the group in order to achieve what the individual wants).

Aufidius mythologizes their battles, referring to gods like Jupiter and the warrior Mars, making their fights titanic enough so that splinters reached the moon. His immediate impulse is for the two of them to touch, for him to twine his arms about that body, as lovers do. Yet he also makes Marcius's body something both more and less than human, something like iron or rock rather than weak and wounded flesh: his grainèd ash (his spear) splinters against this body, scarring the moon rather than Marcius (yet we know that Marcius's body is full of scars received in battle; they are considered a sign of honor – is Aufidius subtly diminishing Coriolanus's scars by eliding them?). He refers to his former enemy as the anvil of his sword: that is, a block that has forged Aufidius's own sword; he must clip this anvil: clip means to embrace, but it also suggests to trim or shorten something. Again, the actual body and honorable wounds of Marcius are dismissed and disappeared by the very words meant to praise and magnify them.

Aufidius announces that he is happier to see Coriolanus on his hearth (and in his power?) than he was when he first slept with his beloved wife. I think the point of this passage is not some blustery assertion of heterosexuality, as it would be in a work contemporary with us, but rather to link Aufidius's feelings for Coriolanus with his deepest and most central social connection: to his wife, and through her to his home, his family, and by extension his city and his people. Yet the comparison has an inescapably sexual charge (as does, for these warriors, battle), and Aufidius describes his emotions towards Coriolanus in increasingly erotic terms. But it is an eroticism filled with violent struggle, down together, fisting throats, unbuckling, and he wakes from these dream encounters half dead with nothing, an exhaustion of frustrated dream-desires. He continues with another image of forced physical violation of the Roman body: pouring war / Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome, / Like a bold flood o'erbeat: the bowels were considered the seat of deep emotion, particularly compassion, but they're also the small intestine, reached through the anus: Aufidius is saying that the Volscian enemy will be an enema to Rome, poured relentlessly into its bowels (again, the polity is personified as a vulnerable body) until, like an overflowing river, the surrounding banks (the invaded body, Rome) are flooded (o'erbeat: the suggestion of beating is part of this speech's imagery of physical force tinged with sadism).

Aufidius ends by inviting Marcius in to meet the friendly senators – friendly only, we can presume, through the offices of Aufidius – and to take them by the hand, a gentler and more amiable sort of physical contact. He informs the former Roman, now expelled from that body, that the Volscian armies are even now heading into Roman territories (in violation of their treaties), though not for Rome itself: the presence of Marcius will change that; the Volscian armies, subdued to his singular revenge, will march to the walls of Rome, only to be stopped by his individual submission to the inescapable force of his ties to his mother and his motherland, a submission which will bring peace between the Romans and Volscians but death to the headstrong, overly complicated, and now unneeded soldier.

I used the Signet Classic edition of Coriolanus, edited by Reuben Brower.

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