November 13th, 2005

bear by san

A gown made of the finest wool / which from our pretty lambs we pull....

*obdisclaimer: I am not now, nor ever have I been, a particularly rigorous scholar. Please then file this under literary speculation rather than hard fact.

Or, more on why Kit Marlowe was a Scary Genius (tm)

(and great thanks to cpolk, jmeadows, katallen, truepenny, and kateelliott for inspiring, listening to me hash out details of, and contributing talking points which I'm shamelessly exploiting in this essaylet.)



I commented in last night's progress report that a penny dropped for me while digging up a quotation from As You Like It that quotes, in turn, Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love" for kateelliott.

Specifically, she said:
In an unknown context (a book title), when I see Shepherd, I think Jesus, although the "dead" part makes that problematic. My issue with the title is that it doesn't give me any kind of image or context to identify the book - is this mystery, scholarship, sf, western? Other than that, it is unexceptional.

And somewhere halfway through penning my reply, my brain went click. Because of course "The Passionate Shepherd...." (quick, go read it. It's short. Done now? Good. Moving on--) is a Christian poem, if you read it at the right angle. And it's not much of a stretch at all: I'm not about to foist any declarations of auctorial intent on a man dead lo these four hundred years and twelve, but I can't find anything in the poem that's problematic to that reading.

Anyway, it's one of those very neat poems that looks straightforward on the surface, and unpacks like a mofo once you stare at it hard. It's generally considered notable as one of the earliest examples of the English pastoral poem, and one of the interesting things about pastoral poetry is that it is often political satire concealed under a fine mosquito netting of love poem or pastoral lament. Which is something that's often ignored about pastoral poetry. (When 'they' teach it to undergrads, they tell us it's about a longing for simpler times and simpler pleasures, and not to be considered the equal of more serious poetical traditions, like The Sonnet. Look, guys, Will doesn't need the shoring up, I promise. He can hang onto that tiara all by his lonesome.) 

(Pastoralism is also a poetical tradition lifted from the ancient Greeks, unsurprising as Marlowe was something of a notorious classicist, with special attention to the dirty bits.)

And here's another interesting thing. As part of the ongoing critical marginalization of Marlowe, I have never seen this poem discussed in terms of its politics. There's a fairly consistent ongoing debate about whether the poem is meant to be read as a heterosexual or a homosexual love poem (much of which swirls around period use of the word "kirtle" and whether it can be a man's garment or not, all of which is much too tiresome to elaborate here) but nobody talks about its politics.

Or the way Marlowe (and his contemporaries) were prone to politicial and social commentary in the intersices of their work. Especially notable for the use of allegory as a blunt instrument was Ben Jonson, of course, whose satires were not just transparent, but often downright nasty--but Kit could certainly get a word in edgewise when he wanted to.

And a great deal of Tudor political and social dialogue is heavily coded, because it was a police state and the Powers That Be'ed could have you hung, emasculated, eviscerated, and then burned still sort of halfway alive on very little excuse at all. So after a while, you start looking for the allegory everywhere.

Which offers the backstory to the penny dropping. Now go read that poem again, and instead of thinking "It's a love poem," look at it through this lens: The speaker is assuming the voice of Christ as the Passionate Shepherd.

First off, there's a hint in the word "Passionate," isn't there? (Although this may not be Marlowe's title for the poem, but that's a whole different essay, relating heavily to Elizabethan publishing practices, which are mad, mad I tell you.)

Wow. Freaky, huh? As jmeadows pointed out also in private correspondence, there are echoes of New Testament imagery here: Rev. 19:8 in particular, which she quotes: It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen in the righteous acts of the saints (I think that's the American Standard, but I'm too damned lazy to go look it up)--compare:

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold


It, in fact, works very well--especially when you start looking for Christian symbolism in things like roses and ivy and lambs and so forth, as katallen pointed out in the same conversation. And then there's a lovely crowning irony there in its resemblance to a Greek pagan pastoral, and a wonderfully Marlovian arrogance in casting the poet himself as the voice of Christ-as-seducer, promising heaven to those who come to him. Around then, cpolk, resident pagan, made the trenchant point of sacred marriages, and jmeadows came back with the idea of Church-as-Bride-Of-Christ.

I have smart and well-read friends.

In correspondence with truepenny, I mentioned that, because Shakespeare is so very relentlessly secular and apolitical in his work that there's a tendency to assume that his contemporaries were. Which is not always a safe assumption: Nashe and Jonson were in and out of jail for overly political writings, and in this era, religion was politics. The Catholicism or non-Catholicism of kings and subjects was the major civil rights issue of the era, and wars were fought and revolutions staged over that.

So talking about God was political.

This brings us to Sir Walter, and his poem, "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," (Read it! It's also quick.) which is a response to Marlowe's poem (originally published on facing pages in a multi-author collection, IIRC, but I'm also too lazy to go look that up) and which, as truepenny pointed out, secularizes and heterosexualizes it quite nicely, limiting the interpretations and making the poem far more safe and less transgressive than it is in its original form.

Cool, huh? And I think, given Marlowe's demonstrated grasp of metaphor and layered meaning, and his much-discussed education (he was, as noted elsewhere, a divinity student--and most assume that, like the rest of the so-called University Wits, it was a matter of a university education and a gent. appended to one's name being of necessity a theological education, but I'm not always so sure: there's a bitterness in some of his reported later pronouncements about religion that is not, to me, the comfortable disdain of the confirmed agnostic or atheist, but the bitterness of the spurned lover believer)  we can't really assume that this was all an accident.

But wait. There's more.

If you give the poem yet a third reading--because Kit, as cpolk noted, was indeed a scary genius--it won't be limited to one or two layers of irony. And Kit being Kit, and--as T.S. Eliot noted, and thank you again whoever sent me that link (see above, too lazy to look up)--prone to a certain savage and unameliorated sort of farce....

I give you again this couplet:

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull

And on and on to the silver plates and the golden buckles and so forth. In a Christian reading of this poem, who are the lambs (the flock?) and who are the shepherd swains dancing for our pleasure?

Do we talk about the bishops and the archbishops living fat off the backs of the parishoners and the parish priests? Are we extending the metaphor of Christ-as-Shepherd and sacred-marriage and subverting it, and creating another layer of irony, where you have the straightforward come-to-Jesus reading, and then yet another reading where, like the church, it is subverted into the procurement of material delights, harvested off the back of the sheep we are meant to be shepherding? Is there a layered condemnation there?

And, in that sort of dashing Marlovian arrogance, are we taking on the voice of the son of God to do it, contrasting the ideal and the reality in a layered and counterbalanced fashion?

Well, I'm not in a position to make categorical statements about auctorial intent.

But I wouldn't put it past him.



Yeah, I love these guys. And not just for the fart jokes. Man.

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bear by san

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth

Progress notes for 13 November 2005:

All the Windwracked Stars

New Words: 947
Total Words: 12,384
Pages: 55
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Mammalian Assistance:  Paladin Wants Something
Stimulants: more tea. more tea. Also, slivovitz (last night, not this morning!)
Exercise: none, but there will be walking or yoga later, or both.
Mail:  nomail
Today's words Word don't know: gorgeousness
Words I'm surprised Word do know: caitiff
Tyop du jour: n/a
Darling du jour: n/a
Books in progress, but not at all quickly: Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass & Other Plays; Lladislav Farago, the Game of the Foxes; The Adams-Jefferson Letters
Mean things: Broke Muire's hand and wrist. Compound fracture. Very unpleasant.
Spam name du jor: Bagels K. Certainty
Other writing-related work: n/a
Interesting tidbits: (I want to write like this:)

Nevertheless I long for the cold, salt,
Restless, contending sea and for the island
Where the grass dies and the seasons alter:

Where that one wears the sunlight for a while.

~~Archibald MacLeish, "Calypso's Island"

bear by san

Misheard Ballads:

I still persist in hearing that line in "Thomas the Rhymer" as "That is the road to Inverness, though some call it the road to Hell."

Too much Pogues.
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