Friday, October 12, 2007

Set my fancy on a fire!

I always welcome (I suppose) all Hollywood revisits to the 16th century, in the faint hope that things Elizabethan might suddenly seem modish to my students. I am told by those same students that The Golden Age opens here today. So here is Cate Blanchett in a publicity still giving it her maximum Gloriana, while Clive Owen is her 'Sweet Sir Walter'. Ratings over on the IMDB are good:
I suppose I am looking forward, with temperate expectation, to seeing it.

The same kind of conversation led me to mentioning a piece of Elizabethan Petrarchising to a student who knows the originals far, far better than I ever will, and who is (astonishing though it may seem that such people exist) a latterday member of the Petrarchisti, keen to keep Petrarch's wreath of laurel, bay and myrtle in a suitably flourishing state.

The poem I had in mind was a sonnet published in The Phoenix Nest, 1593. Here it is:

Those eyes which set my fancy on a fire,
Those crisped hairs which hold my heart in chains,
Those dainty hands which conquered my desire,
That wit which of my thoughts doth hold the reins!
Those eyes, for clearness do the stars surpass,
Those hairs obscure the brightness of the sun,
Those hands, more white than ever ivory was,
That wit, even to the skies hath glory won!
O eyes that pierce our hearts without remorse,
O hairs of right that wear a royal crown,
O hands that conquer more than Caesar's force,
O wit that turns huge kingdoms upside down!
Then Love be judge, what heart may thee withstand,
Such eyes, such hair, such wit, and such a hand.

The thing that has always struck me about this sonnet is way we react as we read through it. The octave grinds through the conventional rota of compliments in a way that triggers instant impatience. ('Oh, good grief, not another one.') And, as we drag our weary eyes down into the sestet, we stir back awake, even though that tiresome correlative structure is still unfolding. It is addressed to someone that wears a royal crown by right, whose wit 'turns huge kingdoms upside down'. There's only one person fits the bill, and there's Cate Blanchett above impersonating her.

Agnes Latham, editing Ralegh, saw this as a Ralegh-circle poem. He might have had it ghosted, for it is more mechanical than Ralegh's usual wavering line. But more likely, he wrote it himself. Emrys Jones doesn't discount the possibility in his brief note on the poem in his Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse.

Suddenly the cardboard petrarchisms shift aside, and we half glimpse no less a man than Ralegh addressing Elizabeth I. The conventional lover's deference in the poem is the court favourite to the woman whose favour lifted him from being an obscure gentleman-swordsman, hardened in vicious campaigning in Ireland, to what he became ('the best-hated man in England', and other attendant benefits).

So the amusement of it all is, can we possibly imagine a more fantastically boring poem being transacted between two more fantastically interesting people?

1 comment:

Frédéric Moreau said...

I wonder what Elizabeth thought of it. That might be the reason why he fell out of favour with The Queen in 1592, spending his time in a very nice room at the Tower. It puts mine own to shame. He could have tried to write another one to be forgiven. Or maybe, even better, dedicate one to his own Bess. I am sure she would have never married him if he did. Ah! it would have spared him such trouble.