Saturday, November 01, 2014

`Come, Seeling Night'

A puzzling line in Macbeth (Act III, Scene 2), with the king speaking: 

“Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.” 

Seeling, a perfect homonym of ceiling (and “ceiling night” itself a nice image), is a rare practice in the twenty-first century. In falconry, it means to sew shut the eyes of a hawk or other bird (thus, sealing) to hasten the taming process. Shakespeare, whose audience is likely to have known about such things, uses seele (in German, “soul”) in Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. In Macbeth, the king has just arranged for Banquo’s murder, though he tells his wife only that he has planned something and that she will “applaud the deed.” Macbeth is dense with images of darkness and light, blindness and sight, knowledge and ignorance. Scarf up means not, as in the American vernacular, to eat hungrily, but to cover the “tender eye of pitiful day” with a scarf, thus blinding it and concealing the crime in darkness. Macbeth goes on: 

“Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
 While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.” 

Andrew Feld assembles the poems in Raptor (University of Chicago Press, 2012) around the lore of falconry and birds of prey. Feld volunteered at the Cascade Raptor Center in Eugene, Ore., and learned to handle the birds. He includes seeling in his “Brief Lexicon” at the end of the book. In two pages he refers four times to Shakespeare, including the lines from Troilus and Cressida (Act III, Scene 2) spoken by Pandarus: 

“Nay, you shall fight your hearts out ere
I part you. The falcon as the tercel, for all the
ducks I’ the river: go to, go to.” 

Tercel is the male hawk, falcon the female.

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