Friday, September 28, 2012

`He Has Drunk Deeply of Shakespeare'

A reader’s son teaches English and English literature, including Shakespeare, to students in Brazil. After reading Monday’s post, the son suggests we read Arviragus’ flower-filled speech in Act IV, Scene 2, of Cymbeline: 

“With fairest flowers,
Whilst summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I'll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured hare-bell, like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Out-sweeten’d not thy breath: the ruddock would,
With charitable bill,—O bill, sore-shaming
Those rich-left heirs that let their fathers lie
Without a monument!—bring thee all this;
Yea, and furr'd moss besides, when flowers are none,
To winter-ground thy corse.” 

This is a favorite passage and I’ve cited it before. “The azured hare-bell” causes confusion. Most likely, Shakespeare is referring to Scilla nutans, the wild hyacinth, “the sanguine flower inscribed with woe,” as described by Milton in "Lycidas." Linnaeus called it Hyacinthus non-scriptus. However, with another species, Campanula rotundifolia, it shares the common names “harebell” and “bluebell.” Listen to the knell of negatives: “not,” “nor,” “no, nor,” “not,” “not,” “none.” Fidele – Imogen – is not dead, though Arviragus thinks she is, and the harebell, azure blue, traditionally is associated with fidelity (“true blue”). Earlier in the play, Iachimo watches Imogen sleeping and says: 

“…the flame o' the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure laced
With blue of heaven's own tinct.”  

A little further glossing: “eglantine” is a wild rose and “ruddock” is a robin. As to the etymology of “harebell,” the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, a little lamely, “perhaps as growing in places frequented by hares.” Among its citations the OED includes one from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925): “His harebell eyes showing only cold...practical logic.” My reader writes of his son in Brazil: 

“He doesn’t teach this particular play, but he has drunk deeply of Shakespeare, starting when he was not more than a mere boy. I tease him, express astonishment that he can move easily from the mellifluous words of Shakespeare to the hard rock music he prefers, do so without a hint of contradiction, without a disconcerting incongruity.” 

The harebell shows up in John Clare’s “Cowper Green” (“Where the insect and the weed / Court my eye”), a veritable field guide to the wildflowers of England: 

“Thine's full many a pleasing bloom
Of blossoms lost to all perfume:
Thine the dandelion flowers,
Gilt with dew, like suns with showers;
Hare-bells thine, and bugles blue,
And cuckoo-flowers all sweet to view.” 

And Emily Dickinson renders a smutty little number: 

“Did the Harebell loose her girdle
To the lover Bee
Would the Bee the Harebell hallow
Much as formerly? 

“Did the Paradise -- persuaded --
Yield her moat of pearl --
Would the Eden be an Eden,
Or the Earl -- an Earl?” 

In The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University Press, 2004), Judith Farr writes that “sexuality as a theme is frequently represented in the Dickinson canon by the `sweet’ intercourse between bee and flower.”

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