Wednesday, September 14, 2016

`Parlezvou'd with Her French Beans'

“Which is the best of Shakspeare’s [sic] Plays? I mean in what mood and with what accompenament [sic] do you like Sea best?”

A reader wants to know my favorite Shakespeare play. On what day? What hour? It’s the sort of question in old science-fiction movies that used to stop a computer dead. As Keats suggests, ranking Shakespeare is like evaluating the ocean. The subject is too vast, and all we can do is stammer (though conceding that Titus Andronicus is no one’s idea of his best). Keats is writing to Jane Reynolds on this date, Sept. 14, in 1817. She is sister to the poet’s friend and frequent correspondent John Hamilton Reynolds, and married to Thomas Hood. The question above is followed by “It is very fine in the morning, when the sun . . .,” and then Keats quotes, from overflowing memory, two lines from Oberon in Act III, Scene 2 of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream:

“Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams,”

Keats’ memory is imperfect. “Sea” ought to be “green.” Continuing his equation of Shakespeare and the sea, he says, “and superb when . . .,” followed by:

“The sun from meridian height
Illumines the depth of the sea,
And the fishes, beginning to sweat,
Cry d —— it! how hot we shall be,”

Keats is having his fun. This is not Shakespeare, and hardly poetry. One Keats scholar calls it “a piece of nonsense then current,” and suggests it may have originated with two Swedish poets. Resuming his mini-anthology, he writes, “and gorgeous, when the fair planet hastens,” followed by more faux-Shakespeare: “To his home / Within the Western foam.” This is from Spenser’s “Epithalamion.” He asks Reynolds, “Don’t you think there is something extremely fine after sunset, when there are a few white Clouds about and a few stars blinking - when the waters are ebbing and the Horison [sic] a Mystery?” This is a Keats nearly mythologized out of existence, a joker who mingles flirtation, scholarly pranks and literary criticism. What follows is one of his inspired riffs, devoted to the wife of his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke:

“ . . . had I remained at Hampstead I would have made precious havoc with her house and furniture--drawn a great harrow over her garden--poisoned Boxer [her dog]--eaten her Cloathes pegs,--fried her Cabbages fricaceed (how is it spelt?) her radishes--ragouted her Onions--belaboured her beat root--outstripped her Scarlet Runners—parlezvou’d with her french Beans--devoured her Mignon or Mignonette--metamorphosed her Bell handles--splintered her looking glasses—bullock’d at her cups and Saucers--agonized her decanters--put old Philips to pickle in the Brine-tub--disorganized her Piano--dislocated her Candlesticks--emptied her wine bins in a fit of despair--turned out her Maid to Grass and Astonished [Charles] Brown--whose Letter to her on these events I would rather see than the original copy of the Book of Genesis.”

No comments: