Daniel Patterson assumes shackeroon to be a variant on “shackerell,” an obsolete word for vagabond.
Swash is to be worthless.
A rangel must obviously be something of a similar sort. Rangle is gravel fed to hawks to help with digestion, so perhaps this is an alternative spelling.
Summary: Should I be a fine thing in name and yet a wretched thing in actuality? This idea chills my heart.
He gives a series of six images in contrast: grape vine, olive tree, heir, spouse, dressed with angel-feathers in his cap.
With the exception of the final image, the images are all important pictures of the way the Christian is said to relate to God.
The Grape Vine
This image comes from John 15, and has particular poignancy here. The nature of the image is that the believer is said to abide as a branch in the grape vine of Christ. Christ provides growth and fruitfulness. If one lacks fruitfulness, it is a dead vine to be pruned.
The passage reads:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”
John 15:1–8 (ESV)
The Olive Stand
This image comes from the 11th Chapter of Romans, and concerns the complicated issue about the relationship of the Covenant People of Israel from before the coming of Christ with the current church. The details of that theological dispute are not critical for this poem. What is important is that God broke off branches and then grafted in branches onto the olive tree. Someone like Taylor would be a wild branch grafted into the tree. But that grafting again comes with a warning (which I have highlighted):
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Romans 11:17–24 (ESV).
Thus, the first two images do not convey merely the idea that he is not living up to the ideal; they also convey that he may be an imposter. Although not explicitly alluded two in this stanza, there is an idea from the Sermon on the Mount which may be lurking in the choice of these allusions:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV)
This is a substantially more encouraging image. In the 8th Chapter of Romans, Paul refers to believers as “joint heirs with Christ”; and this is made as a matter of comfort and assurance:
15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Romans 8:15–17 (ESV)
While the language of heir includes a conditional (“if we suffer with him”), the language of the spouse, found in both Ephesians and Hosea is even more encouraging. The spouse will not be lost:
The first example comes the prophet Hosea, who refers to Israel as the Bride of God. Israel’s sin will be put away and she will be reconciled and not lost to God:
16 “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. 18 And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. 19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.
Hosea 2:16–19 (ESV). There is a pun here which makes little sense in English. The words “Baal-i” mean “my Lord, master”. This can be used as a reference to the god “Baal” or can be used of a husband. But it does create a subservient position for the wife. In place of that word, God says you will call me “husband.” Here is the more technical and detailed explanation:
The second level is that of vocabulary at home with Hosea and his audience but not so with modern readers. In classical Hebrew the familiar terms ʾîš (“man”) and ʾiššâ (“woman”) also express what modern readers understand by husband and wife. Thus in 2:2 one could translate quite literally: “She is not my woman and I am not her man.” The noun baʿal means “owner, master, lord,” and in certain contexts “husband.”12 Both senses of the word are presupposed here in 2:16. In the patriarchal, non-Western societies of ancient Canaan, a husband was the owner and master of his household, which included his wife. In a few instances in the OT the related verb bāʿal is used with the meaning “to marry, to take a wife.” A wife, furthermore, could be described as bĕʿûlâ, a feminine passive form, meaning “possessed [by a husband],” i.e., married. And as a noun, baʿal also is used for Canaanite deities. They were masters of certain powers and possessors/owners of property and people. “Baal” is not a proper name, even though in reference to deities it often functions like one. A Canaanite god called upon as Baal would additionally have one or more names and perhaps some epithets. The same thing can be said for a goddess, if called upon as baʿălâ/baʿălat. A modern parallel is the invocation of a deity as “Lord.”
The declaration in 2:16 that Israel will no longer call YHWH ba‘al presupposes that some in Israel had called upon YHWH with this common noun, a term completely at home in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the Phoenician-influenced areas. To call YHWH ba‘al carried with it, at least in Hosea’s eyes, an unacceptable form of syncretism with the broader Canaanite culture of which Israel was nevertheless a constituent part. YHWH was worshiped as a deity in the land of Canaan, but for Hosea not all attributes of the Canaanite deities could be applied to the one Lord of Israel.
YHWH should no longer be called ba‘al, but it would be a sign of covenant intimacy to call him husband (ʾîš). It is a metaphor, signifying intimacy as well as indicating more mutuality between God and people than was found in the hierarchy and role specificity of a Canaanite pantheon. As the gracious giver of a covenant to Israel, YHWH is the father, husband, and owner of the people. These are his identities in his relationship to Israel, reflecting modes of his self-revelation. And in his household he can be known by the simplest relational term, ʾîš. Nevertheless, YHWH is no more essentially male than collective Israel or Samaria are female. In the comprehensiveness of his being, YHWH had attributes that belonged to various deities in the Canaanite world. These attributes were not uncritically assimilated to him, and as the comprehensive Lord for Israel, YHWH transcends a defining by gender.
J. Andrew Dearman, The Book of Hosea, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 123–124.
The second example would be from Ephesians, where Paul speaks of human marriage and the image of the marriage between Christ and the Church. What is of primary importance for our allusion is not merely the fact that spouse is appropriate, but further that the husband is love and give himself up for the wife:
28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Ephesians 5:28–31 (ESV)
The love of the spouse is overwhelming, unchanging, and thus should be transformative. As Paul writes in another place, “For the love of Christ controls us.” 2 Cor. 4:14
An Angel Feather
This last image has no parallel in Scripture, but would be an image following upon the first stanza’s references to “livery.” If I graced with an Angel Feather, I am a courtier of the heavenly court, then why?
Understanding the images we can easily see the failures:
Shall I thy vine branch be, yet grapes none bear?
A grape vine should grow grapes. If it does not, is it a grape vine?
Graft in thy olive stand; and fatness lack?
Fat would be the oil: If I am an “olive tree” and don’t bear olives, then what am I?
A shackeroon, a rangel, yet an heir?
A joint heir with Christ would own all things. This is underscored by the passage upon which the poem is based, “All things are yours … Christ is yours.” If I have an heirship in all things, then how could I be dressed a homeless vagrant?
Thy spouse, yet, oh! My wedding ring thus slack?
If I am a true spouse, why have I lost my wedding ring?
Should angel-feathers plume my cap, I should
If I am a courtier of heaven, then why am I worthless?
But oh! My heart hereat grows cold.
The first two images came with startling warnings (You will be burned). The third image came as a conditional. The fourth image came with a promise (but does not that promise apply to me?). The final image comes as a confession by a traitor.
As he contemplates this, it freezes him: am I being judged?
(I know I have not completed the poem by Taylor, but I am easily distracted)
In the year 1799, [Setting] Captain Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, in Massachusetts, commanding a large sealer and general trader, lay at anchor with a valuable cargo, in the harbor of St. Maria–a small, desert, uninhabited island toward the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili. [Setting] There he had touched for water.
On the second day, not long after dawn, while lying in his berth, his mate came below, informing him that a strange sail was coming into the bay. Ships were then not so plenty in those waters as now. [We have (1) some historical context: sails were not common; (2) an important scene: here comes the antagonist; that would make Delano the protagonist; (3) a symbol, a “strange sail.” I know it is a symbol because there is no need to call it “strange.” Something from outside is now intruding into reality.] He rose, dressed, and went on deck.
The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky seemed a gray mantle. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms.
[Symbol here: this is literally foreshadowing! There is a storm coming, another symbol]
Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.
[This is an important fact, which Delano does not understand. The ship is supposed to show its colors, that is where it is from. Chile was part of Spain at the time, so it would be perfectly appropriate in this place. We are now entering into something strange – like the sail]
To Captain Delano’s surprise, the stranger, viewed through the glass, showed no colors; though to do so upon entering a haven, however uninhabited in its shores, where but a single other ship might be lying, was the custom among peaceful seamen of all nations.
[Those who don’t fly flags are pirates. Why wasn’t he frightened?]
Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectualperception, may be left to the wise to determine.
[This is key to the movement of the story: He doesn’t (and won’t) understand what is happening]
But whatever misgivings might have obtruded on first seeing the stranger, would almost, in any seaman’s mind, have been dissipated by observing that, the ship, in navigating into the harbor, was drawing too near the land; a sunken reef making out off her bow. This seemed to prove her a stranger, indeed, not only to the sealer, but the island; consequently, she could be no wonted freebooter on that ocean.
[It couldn’t be a pirate, because this was not a good sailor]
With no small interest, Captain Delano continued to watch her–a proceeding not much facilitated by the vapors partly mantling the hull, through which the far matin light from her cabin streamed equivocally enough; much like the sun–by this time hemisphered on the rim of the horizon, and, apparently, in company with the strange ship entering the harbor–which, wimpled by the same low, creeping clouds, showed not unlike a Lima intriguante’s one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta.
It might have been but a deception of the vapors,
[This is how Melville enters a symbol or something to think about: maybe our senses were wrong, but] but, the longer the stranger was watched the more singular appeared her manoeuvres. Ere long it seemed hard to decide whether she meant to come in or no–what she wanted, or what she was about. [This ship that they will encounter will be completely ambiguous.]
[The first big plot point was the entry of the ship. Here is the next plot point, based upon the first. They decide to go to the mystery ship. I can’t help thinking about the Ancient Mariner, where the ship when it had rounded the southern most point of south America headed up and became a ghost ship. Melville would have known the poem. Chapter 52 of Moby Dick is titled, “The Albatross” and is an allusion Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
[That ship moved in a zig-zag. The ship Life in Death is described advancing like this:
A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered.]
The wind, which had breezed up a little during the night, was now extremely light and baffling, [great word here: the captain will be baffled] which the more increased the apparent uncertainty [again] of her movements.
Surmising, at last, that it might be a ship in distress, Captain Delano ordered his whale-boat to be dropped, and, much to the wary opposition of his mate, prepared to board her, and, at the least, pilot her in. On the night previous, a fishing-party of the seamen had gone a long distance to some detached rocks out of sight from the sealer, and, an hour or two before daybreak, had returned, having met with no small success. Presuming that the stranger might have been long off soundings, the good captain put several baskets of the fish, for presents, into his boat, and so pulled away.
From her continuing too near the sunken reef, deeming her in danger, calling to his men, he made all haste to apprise those on board of their situation. But, some time ere the boat came up, the wind, light though it was, having shifted, had headed the vessel off, as well as partly broken the vapors from about her.
Upon gaining a less remote view, the ship, when made signally visible on the verge of the leaden-hued swells, with the shreds of fog here and there raggedly furring her, appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees.
[He is making a point here: The ship is 10,000 miles from Spain and it looks like it is a washed out monastery in Spain. I’m not sure what the point is.]
But it was no purely fanciful resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led Captain Delano to think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him. Peering over the bulwarks were what really seemed, in the hazy distance, throngs of dark cowls; while, fitfully revealed through the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters. [Black Friars were Dominicans: they were sent to preach. So this ship is going to be a sermon to somone.]
Upon a still nigher approach, this appearance was modified, and the true character of the vessel was plain— He is resolving the symbol into something real a Spanish merchantman of the first class, carrying negro slaves, amongst other valuable freight, from one colonial port to another.
A very large, and, in its time, a very fine vessel, such as in those days were at intervals encountered along that main; sometimes superseded Acapulco treasure-ships, or retired frigates of the Spanish king’s navy, which, like superannuated Italian palaces, still, under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state. [Spain was a declining empire by this time]
As the whale-boat drew more and more nigh, the cause of the peculiar pipe-clayed aspect of the stranger was seen in the slovenly neglect pervading her. The spars, ropes, and great part of the bulwarks, looked woolly, from long unacquaintance with the scraper, tar, and the brush. Her keel seemed laid, her ribs put together, and she launched, from Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones.
[Melville often raises a vivid description to a symbol. This again reminds me of the ship in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman’s mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
The approaching slave ship is the ship of Life-in-Death. At least that certainly seems to be the allusion.]
In the present business in which she was engaged, the ship’s general model and rig appeared to have undergone no material change from their original warlike and Froissart pattern. However, no guns were seen.
The tops were large, and were railed about with what had once been octagonal net-work, all now in sad disrepair. These tops hung overhead like three ruinous aviaries, in one of which was seen, perched, on a ratlin, a white noddy, a strange fowl, so called from its lethargic, somnambulistic character, being frequently caught by hand at sea. Battered and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay. Toward the stern, two high-raised quarter galleries–the balustrades here and there covered with dry, tindery sea-moss–opening out from the unoccupied state-cabin, whose dead-lights, for all the mild weather, were hermetically closed and calked–these tenantless balconies hung over the sea as if it were the grand Venetian canal. But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.
[Another symbol: a dangerous mythical beast is crushing another figure: both are masked. You cannot tell who they are. When the captain gets on the slave ship he assumes one group is oppressing the other, but in reality (at least or a time) the roles are reversed. The figures are masked because the captain does not know the truth. Melville even says this is a symbol.]
Whether the ship had a figure-head, or only a plain beak, was not quite certain, owing to canvas wrapped about that part, either to protect it while undergoing a re-furbishing, or else decently to hide its decay. Rudely painted or chalked, as in a sailor freak, along the forward side of a sort of pedestal below the canvas, was the sentence, “_Seguid vuestro jefe_” (follow your leader);
[This is ironic: the slaves are not following the captain of the ship as a leader – but they are following their own leader.]
while upon the tarnished headboards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals, once gilt, the ship’s name, “SAN DOMINICK,” each letter streakingly corroded with tricklings of copper-spike rust; while, like mourning weeds, dark festoons of sea-grass slimily swept to and fro over the name, with every hearse-like roll of the hull.
[Another symbolic use: the ship sounds like a hearse, a vehicle delivering dead bodies.]
As, at last, the boat was hooked from the bow along toward the gangway amidship, its keel, while yet some inches separated from the hull, harshly grated as on a sunken coral reef. It proved a huge bunch of conglobated barnacles adhering below the water to the side like a wen—a token of baffling airs and long calms passed somewhere in those seas.
Climbing the side, the visitor was at once surrounded by a clamorous throng of whites and blacks, but the latter outnumbering the former more than could have been expected, negro transportation-ship as the stranger in port was.
[There is another hint that something is wrong the proportions of the crew to slaves is wrong.]
[Here is exposition: the backstory. Hearing this information is a new plot point: A strange ship appears, then the ship tells a harrowing story of death.]
But, in one language, and as with one voice, all poured out a common tale of suffering; in which the negresses, of whom there were not a few, exceeded the others in their dolorous vehemence. The scurvy, together with the fever, had swept off a great part of their number, more especially the Spaniards. Off Cape Horn they had narrowly escaped shipwreck; then, for days together, they had lain tranced without wind; their provisions were low; their water next to none; their lips that moment were baked.
While Captain Delano was thus made the mark of all eager tongues, his one eager glance took in all faces, with every other object about him.
[Melville keeps underscoring the strangeness of this event. To enter into the ship is to enter into an enchantment.]
Always upon first boarding a large and populous ship at sea, especially a foreign one, with a nondescript crew such as Lascars or Manilla men, the impression varies in a peculiar way from that produced by first entering a strange house with strange inmates in a strange land. Both house and ship–the one by its walls and blinds, the other by its high bulwarks like ramparts–hoard from view their interiors till the last moment: but in the case of the ship there is this addition; that the living spectacle it contains, upon its sudden and complete disclosure, has, in contrast with the blank ocean which zones it, something of the effect of enchantment. The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces, but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave.
Perhaps it was some such influence, as above is attempted to be described, which, in Captain Delano’s mind, heightened whatever, upon a staid scrutiny, might have seemed unusual; especially the conspicuous figures of four elderly grizzled negroes, their heads like black, doddered willow tops, who, in venerable contrast to the tumult below them, were couched, sphynx-like, one on the starboard cat-head, another on the larboard, and the remaining pair face to face on the opposite bulwarks above the main-chains. They each had bits of unstranded old junk in their hands, and, with a sort of stoical self-content, were picking the junk into oakum, a small heap of which lay by their sides. They accompanied the task with a continuous, low, monotonous, chant; droning and drilling away like so many gray-headed bag-pipers playing a funeral march.
[Again the ship is Life-in-Death. There living beings, but it is a ship filled with death.]
The quarter-deck rose into an ample elevated poop, upon the forward verge of which, lifted, like the oakum-pickers, some eight feet above the general throng, sat along in a row, separated by regular spaces, the cross-legged figures of six other blacks; each with a rusty hatchet in his hand, [Here is another missed clue: the slave is holding a hatchet. Who would let someone who has nothing to lose by fighting you to the death a weapon?] which, with a bit of brick and a rag, he was engaged like a scullion in scouring; while between each two was a small stack of hatchets, their rusted edges turned forward awaiting a like operation.
Though occasionally the four oakum-pickers would briefly address some person or persons in the crowd below, yet the six hatchet-polishers neither spoke to others, nor breathed a whisper among themselves, but sat intent upon their task, except at intervals, when, with the peculiar love in negroes of uniting industry with pastime, two and two they sideways clashed their hatchets together,’ like cymbals, with a barbarous din. All six, unlike the generality, had the raw aspect of unsophisticated Africans.
But that first comprehensive glance which took in those ten figures, with scores less conspicuous, rested but an instant upon them, as, impatient of the hubbub of voices, the visitor turned in quest of whomsoever it might be that commanded the ship.
[Here we are going to meet the antagonist. Delano is going to be confused as to who is the real antagonist in this story (remember the Satyr with the mask). Delano thinks the Spanish captain matters, but really he has an adversary in the short man near the Spanish captain.]
But as if not unwilling to let nature make known her own case among his suffering charge, or else in despair of restraining it for the time, the Spanish captain, a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and rather young man to a stranger’s eye, dressed with singular richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and disquietudes, stood passively by, leaning against the main-mast, at one moment casting a dreary, spiritless look upon his excited people, at the next an unhappy glance toward his visitor. By his side stood a black of small stature, in whose rude face, as occasionally, like a shepherd’s dog, he mutely turned it up into the Spaniard’s, sorrow and affection were equally blended.
[Delano seeks to do good to the Spanish ship.]
Struggling through the throng, the American advanced to the Spaniard, assuring him of his sympathies, and offering to render whatever assistance might be in his power. To which the Spaniard returned for the present but grave and ceremonious acknowledgments, his national formality dusked by the saturnine mood of ill-health.
But losing no time in mere compliments, Captain Delano, returning to the gangway, had his basket of fish brought up; and as the wind still continued light, so that some hours at least must elapse ere the ship could be brought to the anchorage, he bade his men return to the sealer, and fetch back as much water as the whale-boat could carry, with whatever soft bread the steward might have, all the remaining pumpkins on board, with a box of sugar, and a dozen of his private bottles of cider.
Not many minutes after the boat’s pushing off, to the vexation of all, the wind entirely died away, and the tide turning, began drifting back the ship helplessly seaward. But trusting this would not long last, Captain Delano sought, with good hopes, to cheer up the strangers, feeling no small satisfaction that, with persons in their condition, he could–thanks to his frequent voyages along the Spanish main—converse with some freedom in their native tongue.
While left alone with them, he was not long in observing some things tending to heighten his first impressions; but surprise was lost in pity, both for the Spaniards and blacks, alike evidently reduced from scarcity of water and provisions; while long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniard’s authority over them.
But, under the circumstances, precisely this condition of things was to have been anticipated. In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery. Still, Captain Delano was not without the idea, that had Benito Cereno been a man of greater energy, misrule would hardly have come to the present pass. But the debility, constitutional or induced by hardships, bodily and mental, of the Spanish captain, was too obvious to be overlooked. A prey to settled dejection, as if long mocked with hope he would not now indulge it, even when it had ceased to be a mock, the prospect of that day, or evening at furthest, lying at anchor, with plenty of water for his people, and a brother captain to counsel and befriend, seemed in no perceptible degree to encourage him.
[A ship of death in life, an enchantment, a problem upon the ship which Delano cannot understand and now apparent madness; these are all elements which Poe uses to much effect. Poe is ten years younger than Melville. I don’t know if Melville read Poe, but this idea was something “in the air.”]
His mind appeared unstrung, if not still more seriously affected. Shut up in these oaken walls, chained to one dull round of command, whose unconditionality cloyed him, like some hypochondriac abbot [There is a lot of imagery around monks.] he moved slowly about, at times suddenly pausing, starting, or staring, biting his lip, biting his finger-nail, flushing, paling, twitching his beard, with other symptoms of an absent or moody mind. This distempered spirit was lodged, as before hinted, in as distempered a frame. He was rather tall, but seemed never to have been robust, and now with nervous suffering was almost worn to a skeleton. A tendency to some pulmonary complaint appeared to have been lately confirmed. His voice was like that of one with lungs half gone—hoarsely suppressed, a husky whisper. No wonder that, as in this state he tottered about, his private servant apprehensively followed him.
[Again, Melville writes an extremely ironic description. Delano apparently can only think of the Africans as subservient, even though this is not true.]
Sometimes the negro gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the negro the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world; one, too, whom a master need be on no stiffly superior terms with, but may treat with familiar trust; less a servant than a devoted companion.
[The true antagonist is Babo – he has been introduced as subservient and is introduced only in connection with the Spanish captain. Delano’s inability to understand Babo is one of the keys to the plot.]
Marking the noisy indocility of the blacks in general, as well as what seemed the sullen inefficiency of the whites it was not without humane satisfaction that Captain Delano witnessed the steady good conduct of Babo.
But the good conduct of Babo, hardly more than the ill-behavior of others, seemed to withdraw the half-lunatic Don Benito from his cloudy languor. Not that such precisely was the impression made by the Spaniardon the mind of his visitor. The Spaniard’s individual unrest was, for the present, but noted as a conspicuous feature in the ship’s general affliction.
[This is like the Fall of the House of Usher, where the a place is associated with the mental disturbance of the character who inhabits the space.]
Still, Captain Delano was not a little concerned at what he could not help taking for the time to be Don Benito’s unfriendly indifference towards himself. The Spaniard’s manner, too, conveyed a sort of sour and gloomy disdain, which he seemed at no pains to disguise.
But this the American in charity ascribed to the harassing effects of sickness, since, in former instances, he had noted that there are peculiar natures on whom prolonged physical suffering seems to cancel every social instinct of kindness; as if, forced to black bread themselves, they deemed it but equity that each person coming nigh them should, indirectly, by some slight or affront, be made to partake of their fare.
But ere long Captain Delano bethought him that, indulgent as he was at the first, in judging the Spaniard, he might not, after all, have exercised charity enough. At bottom it was Don Benito’s reserve which displeased him; but the same reserve was shown towards all but his faithful personal attendant. Even the formal reports which, according to sea-usage, were, at stated times, made to him by some petty underling, either a white, mulatto or black, he hardly had patience enough to listen to, without betraying contemptuous aversion. His manner upon such occasions was, in its degree, not unlike that which might be supposed to have been his imperial countryman’s, Charles V., just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne. [Charles V retired to a monastery. An anchorite is a monk]
When fail they, yet kiss [?] thy love’s white hand
I scarce know what t’make of myself. Wherefore
I crave pardon, Lord, for thou hast store.
Textual note: Stafford reads, “Yet kiss thy love’s white hand.” Patterson marks “kiss” as uncertain and confirms only the “is”. I’m not certain what could be correct not having access to the original manuscript and not knowing exactly what Taylor intends.
At this stanza, the poem takes a new turn. The poet has resolved the question of the presence of sin, but restating his understanding as a wonder that he has not more sin. Rather than concluding, grace must be insufficient or he is not redeemed based upon the presence of sin; Taylor concludes that grace is present, because there is not more sin.
This leads to a second problem: If God has shown such patience and spent such grace on me, then why don’t I love him more?
This question of affections is perhaps more critical than the question of indwelling sin. Puritan Richard Sibbes, from two generations earlier than Taylor writes:
Affections therefore are lawful, yea, necessary in God’s children. All actions in God’s worship are esteemed according to the affections that they are done with. We are as we love, not as we know. What is the life of a Christian but the performance of things with courage, delight, and joy? And therefore the strongest Christians have strongest affections. For religion doth not harden the heart, but mollifies it; and regeneration doth not take affections away, but restores them sanctified and pure.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 125–126. Closer to Taylor’s poem is this passage from Puritan Thomas Doolittle:
That prayer be managed to the spiritual profit of those in the family, the master of the family should get his own heart in good frame, and get his own affections warmed in the duty.—Do you come to prayer with a lively heart, and quickened affections yourselves; your heat might warm them, and your earnest importunity might stir them up unto the same. Let them see you are in good earnest by your fervent praying, as becomes men that are begging for such things as the life of their souls, the pardon of their sin, the favour of God, deliverance from hell, and for everlasting happiness. Whereas if you come to the duty with flat, dull, and cold affections, this will make them so too. As you find it with yourselves when you are under a dull and lukewarm preacher,—you have little workings of affections; so your family will find it under your prayers, if they be such. For as a minister should get lively workings in his own breast of those affections which he would raise in the people,* so should you, in family-duties, get those workings of love, joy, and sorrow for sin, which you would desire should be in those that join with you; for what a minister is in the church, that you are, proportionably, in your house.†
James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 239–240.
Jonathan Edwards, the son of Taylor’s fellow pastor, will work out a substantial theology around the matter of love. (While his sermon on sin appears in high school anthologies, the question of love and desire seem to be the key to his theology. I have not undertaken a thorough study of all his work, but a passing glance shows the importance of affections to his understanding of human conduct.)
Edwards will write:
True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.
Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, Revised edition., vol. 2, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 95.
If love and affection are so critical to true spiritual life, then why is it missing in the life of Taylor? He would certainly assent to these quotations of those before and after him in this religious tradition. Thus, his quandary:
For now I wonder t’feel how I thus feel.
He looks at his love(s) and sees them disordered. First, he loves the wrong things too much:
My love leaps into creature’s bosoms;
The phrase “love leaps” is quite good. And the image of love leaping into the heart of any creature that happens by is remarkably vivid. I am in love with some many things that capture my sense, but they are all mere creatures.
This trouble is set forth in Paul and John. In Romans 1, Paul writes of worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. In 1 John 2, John warns against loving the “world.” This snare, in parallel to Paul’s observation, runs counter to our duty toward God. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
Our love is easily drawn to sensible objects. And while the contention might be that these are “real” things, tangible things; the quickly becomes problematic when you begin to consider what you actually behold with your senses. The difficulties here are far more profound than you may imagine, so for now merely consider that the world may be quite different than what you imagine it to be.
Cold sorrows fall into my soul as steel,
When fail they,
The sounds and pictures are excellent. I’ve marked the end “l” col[d], fall, soul, steel, fail. Also the “O” cold, sorrows, soul. The “f” fall, fail.
A cold sorrow is something: we think of sorrow as tears. Anger may be cold, but sorrow is hot. A cold sorrow however fails. The sorrow comes which should have had an effect, but it “falls” – and from where does it fall? – into the soul and there being cold, it fails.
And so his love is quick, but set on the wrong objects. His sorrow is cold and fails.
Moreover, the idea of steel falling into the soul has more than a hint of murder: it missing word is “sword”.
yet kiss [?] thy love’s white hand
If the text is obscure here, then kiss may be questioned. Indeed, I wonder if this poem not quite finished in other respects. The ideas were in place, but in the first stanzas it works better as argument than poetry.
Does he mean that he does receive God’s love? Or that the sorrows kiss the hand? I’m not sure what to do here.
I scarce know what t’make of myself.
This is a driving theme in the poem: What a strange strange am I and here he does not know what to think of himself.
We are riddle to ourselves in many ways. The Christian has the riddle of the desires which, as Peter says “war against our soul”. How can these conflicting things be present in one life?
I crave pardon, Lord, for thou hast store.
I do not know what is so very wrong with me. What I do know is that I am utterly dependent the grace of God: I cannot even make sense of my own heart. All I can be certain of is the extraordinary grace of God.
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
This last section makes a sort of argument:
To be conscious is not to be in time. Where is a space which is not in time? It is not the present. As the poem says in section I, “All time is eternally present.”
It could be time past or time future: the poet states these all “a little consciousness.”
But it is not the place of remembrance. The rose-garden, the arbour, the church, are all remembered and thus are all “in time.” That cannot be the place of consciousness.
There was the story about the rose-garden in section I, but that event does not seem real: at least it was not in time. Perhaps that is why it is both “conscious” (because it is not in time) and reality “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”
Perhaps this consciousness can take place “at the still point of the turning world.” This would match the case. Of this still point, he writes,
I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Perhaps both the imaginary space and the “still point” are available for consciousness. They do not seem to be the same place, and they are both outside of time.
What then do we do this final line, “Only through time time is conquered.”
What must be conquered in time? And why must time be conquered? Is it to let us escape and enter into the garden with the thrush or to enter the still point?
This seems to bring up an issue early in the poem
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What is this redemption? From where to what? At this point, the question is tantalizing, but the answer is certainly not clear. Fortunately, there are three more sections in the poem.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
This strikes as quite similar to Parmenides’ denial of motion. In his poem, at fragment 8, beginning at line 26 we read:
But motionless within the limits of great bonds, it is without a beginning and without an end, since the birth and death were rejected very far, a real certainty expelled them.
It would be possible to translate the language a bit differently. For instance, it could be “birth and destruction.” The language of “real certainty” is a combination of “truth” and “trust” (or faith or belief). A fundamental difference between Parmenides is that the philosopher seems to hold that all things are without motion. Eliot, on the other hand, seems to be describing a particular place:
At the still point of the turning world.
The world turns, but in the midst of that moving world is a place without motion. This space seems to answer a question which arises with the consideration of the world of the forest floor somehow being replicated in the sky, Where is the place of connection. How does one world touch the other?
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance
This center point is a place where opposites have come together: it not movement from or towards. It is not a place of past or future. There is no “way up” or “way down” (to use the language of motto for the poem).
It is a place without place:
I cannot say where.
It is a place without time
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Notice the opposites which do not exist here:
There is no being:
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
There is physical distance:
Neither from nor towards;
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
There is no movement or stillness:
But neither arrest nor movement.
There is no time:
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Having come through the door we meet the “them” promised by the thrush. Here is what was lurking in the poet’s “first world”
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
The inhabitants are described as follows:
Dignified. That is a curious word to begin. We could just dismiss this as Eliot being proper. But something more seems here. Something which is unreal could easily be ridiculous: but there is an honor here of sorts.
Invisible: How then are known? Imagination. They cannot be remembered, because this is the world which has never been. And so we enter into the imaginary world somehow shared (whether Eliot with someone else, or perhaps with us the reader is unclear).
Moving: The idea of moving is coupled with the “unheard music” compels me to think of a dance. These phantoms (I don’t think “ghost” or “spirit” is right) are dancing over “dead leaves” but they break nothing. They “mov[e] without pressure.”
I’m not sure what to do with the “autumn heat” beyond notice that the whole has the feel of being stifling. There are phantoms, but nothing is stirring. It is hot, but there is no breeze. When this is coupled with the language from earlier about unstirred dust on rose leaves, there is a feeling of an utterly closed-up world.
This was a choice Eliot has made: while this old, closed up world is one way to imagine the never-has-been past, it is also the case that he could have produced a chaotic and vibrant never-have-been. This was a choice.
Notice the environment: the air is “vibrant” but like the dancers without pressure, the vibration is of a music which is not heard. Everything is it seems potential: this is what could have been: dancing, music. But not there.
The bird is here: it is the guide into this imaginary space. The bird calls to the unheard music: it is in the shrubbery, it is off-camera, coming from some place ou cannot see.
The eyebeam crossed: This is an idea as far back as Plato in Timeaus who explained that the fire made within us can cross through the eye and shine upon things to give sight:
“And of the organs they first contrived the eyes to give light, and the principle according to which they were inserted was as follows: So much of fire as would not burn, but gave a gentle light, they formed into a substance akin to the light of every-day life; and the pure fire which is within us and related thereto they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight.”
The idea had various uses in science and art thereafter. Eliot certainly was not proposing this as a real effect (no one believed such in the 20th century). So why then this reference here?
If there is allusion to regret and love in the poem, then the reference to Donne would be appropriate and ironic.
Next comes a line which has always delighted me:
for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
This speculative space of what has never been is inhabited and it effects and affects. The eyebeams of the phantoms (?) have seen the roses – which calls back to rose leaves above. The roses disclose the presence of the lovers seeing one-another. The roses evidence the crossed gazed. The reality of this love played out in the unseen world.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
This raises a question: Is this imaginary space the poet’s own life? Are these true third parties. Or is this some alternative to himself: this is me if the world had been different?
And how then are they here as guests? They are not recriminating: accepted and accepting.
He never quite defines these phantoms. I think they must be poet and someone else (again a lover, the reader, is this written to a particular person and we are overhearing?) are the ones at issue. The “they” is not someone else but rather a who Eliot could have been.
The reference to the “eyebeams crossed” makes this intimacy a moment of lovers. And the prove of their presence is shown in the roses.
And for a moment, there is peace. We are permitted in; and we are at peace with this other self.
In the next movement, this equipoise will be dissolved.
Having raised the question of “what might have been” (from line 6), Eliot takes us into that “might have been”. In these lines he traces out how we get from “the present.”
Since we are traveling there, his description of this place here takes on a new depth of meaning. In line 7, it is an “abstraction”; thus it has some substance as an idea. In line 8, it is remaining and “a perpetual possibility.” At first read, it is easy to take “remaining a perpetual possibility” to be
Thus, there is a reality to the “might have been.”
Here, beginning in line 11, there is a movement from the present to this “abstraction” which is remaining perpetually.
We can confirm this is the event which did not happen in verse 12, “Down the passage which we did not take.” This is the thing which did not happen.
The passage creates a hurried movement: It begins with “footfalls echo”. There is a sense of someone walking, but only as heard. That would intimate the walking is taking place nearby but out of sight.
That place is then defined as “Down the passage”. Next comes “towards the door”. The use of “towards” rather than near, creates the sense of movement.
The door opens onto a rose-garden.
The speed is created by the inability to ever see who is walking. We hear the sound and move to the passage. But when we get to the passage, the sound is now moving toward the door. And as soon as we recognize the door, it has opened onto a rose garden. The effect is mesmerizing.
The place of all of this is the memory: There was a place we did not go, a door we did not open, a garden we had not visited.
This then makes for a bit of a paradox: If it is a memory it is something which did not happen. But, this never happened. Memory could be, “I remember seeing a passage I did not take.” But the memory cannot hear footfalls which never echoed.
This would then, (1) this is a memory of a constructed event. There is a place which he has returned more than once: he thought of what would have happened had he opened the door to the rose garden. He is now remembering his “speculation.” (2) “Memory” is a trick: he is experiencing this construction as if it were a memory. By constructing what never happened, he is pretending that it did happen in fact.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The plot becomes stranger: The footfalls which echoed are now the words which echo – not in my memory, but your mind. We have now entered into an extraordinarily intimate space: His memory of this door never opened are words – were these words never spoken? Are these words now being spoken? Was there an event which did not happen and of which they both spoke?
Does this mean, “You remember our conversation, when I told you of how I did not go into the rose garden?” For the poet, the memory is of the walking through the door. For “you” (whoever that might be), it is my words about that.
It is unclear what words are issue: Is the poems the words which now echo in memory, but stirring up memory?
Whatever is happening, the rather abstraction discussion of time in the first lines has moved the most intimate of spaces, a shared memory of what did not happen.
Since this memory of not happening is being rehearsed, it seems to anticipate a regret.
It appears he is structuring the lines around beat and alliteration. I may be off here, but there is not a regular meter like iambs. The basic line seems to be built off the Old English alliterative four beat line.
TIME PREsent and TIME PAST
Four beats, the T and P repeated
are both PERhaps PREsent in TIME FUTure
The T and F from the first line as well as the P.
This scheme is not cared with perfect fidelity to the alliteration. For instance line 8:
ONly in WORLD of SPECulAtion.
We can get four accents but no alliteration in the line. It would be possible to read this instead as a third beat line.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
“What might have been” is the item under consideration. He then defines it by three characteristics:
First, it is an “abstraction”. It is an abstraction in both senses: It is abstracted,that is set apart from all else It has no connection with the tangible world. Second, it is an idea without tangible substance.
Second, it remains always and only a “possibility.” It had an opportunity to have come into existence, but it did not. It never matures from that place.
Third, it remains in “a world of speculation.” Access to this “might have been” is available only through speculative thought. It has a real existence, but only as a speculation. I can gain access to this “might have been” by thinking it; but it never moves from that space.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
This takes some consideration: Why the addition of “might have been” to what has been? Here he says that might have been and what has been point together to this one point: the present.
The actual past makes sense as pushing a direction to the present. But how does the might of have been participate in this?
Since there is an abstract, speculative existence for might have been, we can’t say that it has no existence; only, no tangible existence.
He is going to develop this “might have been” more as the poem develops, but let’s consider here what it could be. The “might have been” while not have a historical effect outside of my thinking has a profound effect upon me.
Might have been can be the source of enormous regret and loss. But it can also be a ground for thankfulness on tragedy avoided. The might have been is “remaining a perpetual possibility”. When we think of how a might have been actually effects us, that line “remaining a perpetual possibility” grows larger. I am constantly being affected by this perpetual possibility. It is always there.
And this potential acting upon me, and all that has actually occurred have conspired and I am here at this one point, in the present.
Poor wretched man Death’s captive stood full chuff But thou my gracious Lord didst find relief Thou King of Glory didst, to handy cuff With King of Terrors and dashed out his teeth, 15 Pluckest out his sting, his poison quellest, his head To pieces breakest. Hence cruel death lies dead.
Summary: Having passed his introduction, the poet turns to the explanation of his motto, “Death is yours.” The movement is clear: Humanity was under the sway of Death without escape. God found a way to defeat death. Death is now dead.
“Death is yours.” This needs some explanation. The verse cited, in context reads,
1 Corinthians 3:18–23 (AV) 18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. 20 And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. 21 Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; 22 Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; 23 And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.
The people of Corinth were playing favorites and counting themselves as part of a faction of Paul o Apollos or Cephas (Peter). Such factions are wisdom of the world. And why would claim only Paul or Apollos?
“This turns their slogans completely on their head, with the significant difference that the pronoun is plural, not singular. Thus, they may not say “I belong to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas,” not only because that is to boast in mere men, but because that is the precise opposite of reality in Christ. In him, as Eph. 1 will say in lofty cadences, God has begun what he will eventually bring to full consummation, namely “to bring all things in heaven and earth under one head, even Christ” (Eph. 1:10); therefore, all things are yours (plural).” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 153.
The personification of death:Death is here presented as a monster which God defeats: Death has “capatives”; therefore, Death has the capacity to make captive. Death is the “King of Terrors.” Death has teeth, a sting, poison, and a head. Death has also been killed.
Death holding captives:
This comes from Hebrews 2:14–15, “14 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (AV) Here is specifically the “fear of death” which is used to hold us captive.
The Defeat of Death
The primary allusion for this stanza comes from 1 Corinthians 15:54-57, where Paul writes that due to the Resurrection of Jesus, the power of death has been destroyed. Taylor takes much of his imagery from this passage: “54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (AV)
The breaking of death’s head comes from Genesis 3:15, “15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
chuff: here morose, sullen. “full chuff”, does he mean “despair”?
Handy cuff: struck with a hand
Dashed out his teeth This seems to be an allusion to Psalm 3:7 “7 Arise, O LORD; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.” (AV)
King of Terrors This comes from Job 18:14, speaking of one being brought to death as a judgment, “14 His confidence shall be rooted out of his tabernacle, and it shall bring him to the king of terrors.” (AV). This was understood as a reference to death, “Death is of all terribles the most terrible, and is therefore called the king of terrors. But those who have taken God in Christ for their refuge, have what may comfort and establish them, even in that case. Even from the last enemy God it a refuge.” Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: A Soliloquy on the Art of Man-Fishing, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 5 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1849), 66.
Rutherford used the image with the idea of ruling over men, “By one man’s offence, there was a cruel king, death the king of terrors, who hath a black sceptre, set over all and every man without exception.” Samuel Rutherford, Christ Dying, and Drawing Sinners to Himself (Glasgow: Samuel and Archibald Gardner; Niven, Napier & Khull, 1803), 501.
In this sermon by Matthew Sylvester, we see very similar thoughts and imagery to that used by Taylor: “DIRECTION I. Be thoroughly persuaded of, and heartily affected with, a life to come. (2 Cor. 4:17, 18.)—This is the “poise” and pondus of religion; (Heb. 11:6;) this is the heart and strength of godliness. (Acts 24:14, 15, 25.) It is this that strips that king of terrors, death, of all his frightful looks and strength; this spoils his fatal conquest, gripe, and sting. (2 Tim. 4:6–8; 2 Cor. 5:1–10; 1 Cor. 15:51–58.)”. James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 659.
The phrase itself was remarkably common in Puritan writing, whether Public (such as Sylvester’s sermon) or in private correspondence such as this by Thomas Brooks, “Now you should always look upon death under scripture notions, and this will take off the terror of death; yea, it will make the king of terrors to be the king of desires; it will make you not only willing to die, but even long to die, and to cry out, ‘Oh that I had the wings of a dove, to fly away, and be at rest!’ At death you shall have an eternal jubilee, and be freed from all incumbrances. Now sin shall be no more, nor trouble shall be no more, nor pain nor ailments shall be no more.” Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 454–455.
King of Glory: This is an allusion to Psalm: 8–10 “8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah.” The allusion is quite apt, because the original is a reference to Jesus’ Ascension where he enters having defeated death:
“When Christ ascends into heaven after his sore conflict with his enemies and his glorious victory over them, wherein he appeared to be “the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle” [v. 8], and the word was proclaimed to the gates and doors of that everlasting temple of God, that they should be lift up, that the King of glory may come in, the heavenly hosts are represented as inquiring with wonder and great admiration, “Who is this King of glory?”, as being in their eyes a very wonderful person, and one that had done very wonderful things, as though some very new thing appeared, a remarkable person coming, appearing in such wise as never had been before, a person that appeared with very wonderful glory, and such an one as that it was wonderful that one, with those things that had appeared in him of late and now appeared, should have the title of “the King of glory,” as though it was admirable that such glory should be united with those other things that appeared in this person, which yet it most plainly appeared there had, that appeared in him, by which he appears sufficiently to merit the character of the King of glory, viz. his appearing so strong and mighty in battle, as he had done, and gaining such a glorious victory, as he had done. And therefore it is answered, “The Lord strong and mighty,” etc. [v. 8].” Jonathan Edwards, Notes on Scripture, ed. Harry S. Stout and Stephen J. Stein, vol. 15, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 282.
The Defeat of Death:
Christ before his death had been combating with the powers of darkness and all the subordinate instruments. Death was Satan’s beast of prey that was set upon him; but our Lord foiled it in its own dungeon. The battle between Christ and death was begun upon the cross; he grappled with it there, and they went tugging and wrestling to the grave. Christ, like a prudent warrior, carried the war into his enemy’s country, and there got loose of the grasp of death, foiled it in its own territory. He arose, and left death gasping behind him; so that the quality of the grave is quite altered. Before it was a prison, Satan’s dungeon; now it is a chamber of repose, a bed of ease, ever since Christ slept there.
Thomas Manton, “The Saints Triumph Over Death,” The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 2 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1871), 445
And is it much ‘far better’ to die, that we may be with Christ, than to live here a conflicting life? Why should we then fear death, that is but a passage to Christ? It is but a grim sergeant that lets us into a glorious palace, that strikes off our bolts, that takes off our rags, that we may be clothed with better robes, that ends all our misery, and is the beginning of all our happiness. Why should we therefore be afraid of death? it is but a departure to a better condition? It is but as Jordan to the children of Israel, by which they passed to Canaan. It is but as the Red Sea by which they were going that way. Therefore we have no reason to fear death. Of itself it is an enemy indeed, but now it is harmless, nay, now it is become a friend, amicable to us, a sweet friend. It is one part of the church’s jointure, death. ‘All things are yours,’ saith the apostle, Paul and Apollos, ‘life and death,’ 1 Cor. 3:22. Death is ours and for our good. It doth us more good than all the friends we have in the world. It determines and ends all our misery and sin; and it is the suburbs of heaven. It lets us into those joys above.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 340.
Death lies dead: I don’t know if he means an allusion here to either Donne’s “Death thou shalt die” or Owens’ “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.”
The first line is hard to scan. The effect depends upon how one takes the word “poor” at the beginning. It could read solemnly, “POOR WRETched MAN,” with a heavy accent on “poor.” But one could read the line Poor filling in like a connective word introducing the topic.
The interesting effects are in lines 15-18:
With King of Terrors and dashed out his teeth, 15 Pluckest out his sting, his poison quellest, his head To pieces breakest. Hence cruel death lies dead.
There is no way to force these lines into smooth iambs. The pause in line 15 between TERrors – and makes for a run up to DASHED OUT his TEETH. Perphas Taylor had a cheat syllable of DASH-ed to create iambs.
Line 16 I scan:
PLUCKest OUT his STING, his POIson QUELLest, his HEAD – an enjambment: which creates some movement to line 17
to PIEces BREAKest.
We get a long pause before when come to the conclusion of death’s death.
The strong initial consonsants:
With King of Terrors and dashed out his teeth, 15 Pluckest out his sting, his poison quellest, his head To pieces breakest. Hence cruel death lies dead.
This poem has puzzled me for a bit and so I wanted to think it through.
Portrait of a Lady
By T.S. Eliot
Thou hast committed —Fornication: but that was in another country,And besides, the wench is dead. (The Jew of Malta)
The poem begins with ambiguity: The title apparently comes from the novel by Henry James. But it could also be the generic idea of a portrait in painting or word. And if the reference is to the novel, then what aspect of the novel? The ambiguity increases when we consider the motto and the title: The portrait is of a “lady”. The quotation of a fornicating “wench.” The effect of the original (from Christopher Marlowe) is bit different between it came in conversation:
FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed—
BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.
Without getting too deep into the play, the statement by Barabas is an ironic “confession” of sin.
From these two quotations, we could assume that the poem will be a portrait of a woman with whom someone commits fornication and that woman is now dead. Perhaps we can also anticipate a confession.
Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon
You have the scene arrange itself — as it will seem to do—
With “I have saved this afternoon for you”;
And four wax candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb
Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.
We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole
Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger-tips.
“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”
—And so the conversation slips
Among velleities and carefully caught regrets
Through attenuated tones of violins
Mingled with remote cornets
This first stanza leaves us still unoriented: who is narrating this event? Someone is speaking to us about a scene in the past. The “smoke and fog of a Dececember afternoon” are distinctly “unromantic”. The tone is quite in line with the more famous Prufrock (done to the discussions of music and the fog. This is perhaps the room where women come and go.)
Who has “saved this afternoon”? We are we intruding into this private event? Who has invited us to intrude.
That it is Juliette’s tomb and what has not been said (or said) is rather gruesome, and recalls the motto “she is dead.” There is a romantic meeting implied, but it is a deathly meeting. The relationship has begun where Juliette’s ended.
Who is the “we” have been: Is the narrator a participant? Later that will become clear, but here we cannot tell. The world is private and privileged (these are not working class). They speak with the sort of dilettante voice of those who repeat cliches about art without being profound.
The conversation masks what is actually happening and the people are like the people of the Wasteland whom death has not undone. Everyone is a sort ghost, a not-quite person with weak desires and regrets. The violins are attenuated, the coronets are remote.
We open in the most unreal, spectral locations: “And begins”.
“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,
And how, how rare and strange it is, to find
In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,
(For indeed I do not love it … you knew? you are not blind!
How keen you are!)
To find a friend who has these qualities,
Who has, and gives
Those qualities upon which friendship lives.
How much it means that I say this to you —
Without these friendships — life, what cauchemar!”
Someone – not the narrator – has begun to speak. We assume this is the lady from the diction and from the title. The logic is circular “a friend has the quality of being a friend and without friends, what a nightmare”. The life of this woman is “composed” of “odds and ends.” She praises the other as “how keen you are.”
It is also interesting that the event is narrated in such a detached manner. It is spoken to you, the one who heard these words does not seem attached to it. We learn in the second half of the stanza that our narrator is not a third person, but this is his life “inside my brain”.
The imagery of music, which has been an affectation – and a “pretty” one at that – becomes rather base and painful for him: “dull tom-tom … absurdly hammering … monotone … false note”.
Among the winding of the violins
And the ariettes
Of cracked cornets
Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
That is at least one definite “false note.”
— Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
Admire the monuments,
Discuss the late events,
Correct our watches by the public clocks.
Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.
They are the midst of art – which had promised so much in the prior generation: The “art for arts sake” of Wilde has not performed the redemptive services promised. Poetry and sculpture and music did not elevate life sufficiently and make a substitute for music. They will “admire monuments” after they hear the music. They will keep time (for what reason?). They will sit “half an hour” and drink beer. But even in this there is a distance “our bocks”. They are killing time.
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
We are transported somewhere into the future: It was foggy December. Now the lilacs are in bloom. This being Eliot, we can’t overlook the (possible) allusion to Whitman’s great poem, When the Lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed. There is a brilliant use of the flowers: the flowers are in bloom, and she has brought some inside. When coupled with the description of how she “twists” the lilacs (mentioned twice), the image of cut flowers being brought inside and slowly twisted sounds sinister.
What life is when you hold it in your hands: In the previous scene the two were outside, but now they are inside – in her space. I would suggest that the narrator is now the cut flower, inside. His life is in her hands and she is slowly twisting him.
This is the first indication that there is an age difference: youth. He is apparently the youth, she the elder. She is the victim: youth is cruel, without remorse: you don’t know what you’re doing to me. And so while she is strangling him, it is “really” her who is being twisted. She is not twisting him, but rather she is the one being twisted up. The imagery works in both directions.
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.”
I smile, of course: this is brilliant. Is he hiding from her? Does he understand? Is he maliciously agreeing? That he goes on drinking tea has the effect of keeping her emotionally at a difference. This creates an ironic note when compared to the intimacy of Chopin and the talk of friendship: here there is no friendship, not even passion.
There is April and Paris, but it is a “buried life” and “sunsets.” She is at peace: which sounds like “in the grave”. How then is the world “wonderful and youth”?
He is the artist, Joyce’s Portrait, paring his nails at a distance from his creation.
The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
“I am always sure that you understand
My feelings, always sure that you feel,
Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand.
Here we seem to be at another distance: the now of the poem. This lilac day is in the past: “the voice returns”. It is also unpleasant at this distance. It is not merely “out-of-tune” but it is an “insistent” status “of a broken violin”. It is not an April in Paris, but it is “an August afternoon”
She is “insistenting” something about him which is not true. She pathetically thinks of him as one who understands and sympathizes: but he “smiles, of course” and just “drinks tea.”
You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel.
You will go on, and when you have prevailed
You can say: at this point many a one has failed.
Then she switches her perspective, he is not quite the understanding friend. Instead, he is “invulnerable”. He has “prevailed” but it is over her? Has he prevailed by not becoming involved. How has he been different than other who did “fail”? Fail at what?
Let’s go back to meeting her in Juliette’s tomb: is the death hers, or is the death something she brings upon others? Is she a trap: we have the same ambiguity of the twisted cut flower: who is destroying whom?
But what have I, but what have I, my friend,
To give you, what can you receive from me?
Only the friendship and the sympathy
Of one about to reach her journey’s end.
They only have friendship and sympathy: which is precisely what they do not have. They are in close connection but they are utterly without intimacy.
I shall sit here, serving tea to friends ….”
The tea has returned: the drinking becomes a pose to keep one close and distant I the same move. There is a connection with drinking and eating with one-another: this also becomes a mask and means to keep a distance. She is going to stay “sit here” and she will continue as she has done “serving tea to friends”.
I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
For what she has said to me?
He is leaving. All he has there is a “hat”. Any visitor would have a hat to bring and leave. He has left nothing behind and has brought nothing with him.
Another irony: she has called him the greatest of all heroes, Achilles: he sees himself as a coward. He then paints a pathetic picture of himself as Profrock:
You will see me any morning in the park
Reading the comics and the sporting page.
Particularly I remark.
Even though the trivialities come from the paper and not the internet, there is not a lick of difference: petty, irrelevant gossip:
An English countess goes upon the stage.
A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,
Another bank defaulter has confessed.
He is not quite an invulnerable as she thought him to be:
I keep my countenance,
I remain self-possessed
Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired
Reiterates some worn-out common song
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
Recalling things that other people have desired.
Are these ideas right or wrong?
Now we understand the music: it is the life passion and reality (perhaps). Although the music he now finds is “mechanical and tired”. Must smells of hyacinths in a garden; but more importantly, music is filled with “things that other people have desired.” He is a man seemingly without any desires of his own.
He is so nothing that cannot even his own mind: “Are these ideas right or wrong?” Neither his thoughts nor his feelings are his own.
We then move to yet another time: October. Is this in the past, or is this now the present of the poem?
The October night comes down; returning as before
Except for a slight sensation of being ill at ease
I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door
And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees.
It is October: the night is returning – but is he? Whose steps is he mounting? It is the “lady’s” because she is the only one who speaks out loud in the poem. So is he returning to her house? When he comes to the door of her home it feels like a supplicant begging. He is anything but a hero.
“And so you are going abroad; and when do you return?
But that’s a useless question.
You hardly know when you are coming back,
You will find so much to learn.”
My smile falls heavily among the bric-à-brac.
He is taking his leave. He needs to learn something. Is she being dismissive: you’re a child? Is she protecting herself? No one rightly discloses nor knows themself.
His smile becomes one her possessions: and a trivial one at that: it takes is place among her things.
“Perhaps you can write to me.”
My self-possession flares up for a second;
This is as I had reckoned.
What does this mean psychologically? Does this mean that he would have some control? Is their relationship a matter of control. And if it is something he had reckoned, does that does that mean he finally understood something about her? But it will immediately be lost, his self-possession “gutters”, it flows out like melted wax:
“I have been wondering frequently of late
(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
Why we have not developed into friends.”
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.
He almost speaks – but then in weakness he fails. She says why we never became friends (despite whatever other intimacy)? He rises to speak and then stops. “We are relaly in the dark.”
“For everybody said so, all our friends,
They all were sure our feelings would relate
So closely! I myself can hardly understand.
We must leave it now to fate.
You will write, at any rate.
Perhaps it is not too late.
I shall sit here, serving tea to friends.”
Everyone thought it would be otherwise: And that tea again. There was the possibility that the two could actually “relate” – but it did not happen. Why?
And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression … dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
He is now utterly weakened: He is a dancing bear, who “borrows every changing shape.”
He ends with an utter weakness and tentativeness: If she should die, what would be left for him? He does not even know what to feel or think (understand). He does not if he is wise or foolish, early or late. And then in death, “Would she not have the advantage after all?”
If she were to die, would he have the right to smile.
Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance—
Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose;
Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for quite a while
Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon …
Would she not have the advantage, after all?
This music is successful with a “dying fall”
Now that we talk of dying—
And should I have the right to smile?
If we give this a sort of Jungian read, and the lady is the aspect of his life which is missing: a real soul; then, has he failed to obtain this? Was it offered to him? Or is she a “dominating queen” (like Someone Saved my Life Tonight)? Has he been captured by her?
This is a poem describing some sort relationship, but he seems unable to enter into it or to escape it. He is in the end a cypher, not even a completed man.