No. 14: BIRDS OF A FEATHER
by Marie Delgado Travis
This revises a previous post, and continues our discussion of Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle. I confess (punny— you’ll see what I mean), upon first reading, I found the opening “underwhelming” for the man who wrote Shakespeare:
Let the Bird with the Lowdeft Lay (“Loudest song”) …
In other Shakespearian works, there’s an occasional “poor bird,” “wild bird,” or one, as we’ll see below, that is “tangled in a net.” For the most part, Shake-spears is quite specific as to the type of bird— the lark, for example, in Romeo and Juliet, the cuckoo in Richard II, eagles in Henry IV Part One. Here, in fact, is an article about someone who let the sheer variety of Shake-Speare’s birds affect his brain:
Why would Shake-Speare choose such a “generic” word, bird, in what should be an “attention-grabbing” first line? Well, if I know my man Shakespeare, that usually means there‘s more to the passage than meets the eye.
Sure enough, I realized, for one thing, that although the poem is signed …
… the hyphenation suggests it’s more of a statement of intent than a “real” name. As you may have noticed from previous posts, I love anagrams (word puzzles). They may not be “scientific,” but it is fun to note that when unscrambled, the first line does spell the name of “Edward de Vere,” the 17th Earl of Oxford— whom many believe to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon:
Let the bird with the lowdeft lay
Edward de VVere (Vere)
It is Vere possible that the man who wrote Shakespeare wasn’t fully resigned to anonymity, or letting someone else take credit for his work, and therefore, left clues scattered throughout his work, which he hoped someday would lead to him.
Be that as it may, Claire Asquith, current Countess of Oxford and Asquith and others have suggested that the man who wrote Shakespeare was actually paying tribute in the opening line of The Phoenix and the Turtle to the musician-composer, William Byrd (sometimes referred to in writing as Mr. Bird).
Maestro Byrd was a Catholic recusant, somewhat unique for the period, in that he managed to survive—and thrive— while actively composing and “setting forth” in print, not only secular music, but music for both the Anglican Church, and— albeit more clandestinely— his own Catholic faith.
Byrd’s musical compositions, as Oxfordian author Hank Whittemore and others have observed, include a piece based on Edward de Vere’s poem, If Women Could be Fair and Yet Not Fond, which first appeared in Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets [sic] & Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588).
De Vere’s poem is neither a psalm, sonnet, nor even sad. So that leaves “pious.” In fact, as I read it, Jesus’ Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-6) came to mind. The word “fond,” in fact, meant “foolish” in Elizabethan times.
So let’s take a look at de Vere’s delightful and useful (“dulce et utile”) poem. It reads in part:
If women could be fair and not fond
Or that their love were firm, Not fickle still
I would not marvel that they make men bond
By service long to purchase their good will;
But when I see how frail those creatures are
I laugh that men forget themselves so far.
De Vere forgot himself much too far indeed with his mistress, Anne Vavasour (she delivers his child in 1581). So there is a great deal of irony and self-effacing humor in the lines. But that‘s Vere much a topic for another Musing.
The full text of de Vere’s If Women Could Be Fair … is available at:
— and here is Maestro Byrd’s musical interpretation of de Vere’s poem:
Note the poetic structure used by de Vere:
- Six lines per stanza, composed of a quatrain (abab), followed by a couplet (cc)
- in iambic pentameter (unstressed / stressed).
This pattern has been called “rare” in English literature— although it is said that there is some affinity with rhyme schemes in Romance Languages. Other poets like Philip Sidney and Thomas Lodge have used the pattern, but in longer sequences— not six lines per stanza (sestain).
I realize that these discussions on “structure” may seem boring. But precisely because the pattern is “rare,” it may form a kind of “signature,” pointing perhaps to a particular “hand,” or at least to artistic motivations.
In 100 Reasons Shake-Speare Was the Earl of Oxford, Hank Whittemore points to Shake-Speare’s narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, as another of the few examples of this ababcc pattern.
So let’s look at lines 87 -92 of Venus and Adonis, primarily because of its “bird” mention [as in The Phoenix and the Turtle (dove)].
Look how a bird lies tangled in a net,
So fasten’d in her arms Adonis lies;
Pure shame and awed resistance made him fret,
Which bred more beauty in his angry eyes:
Rain added to a river that is rank
Perforce will force it to overflow the bank.
Note the use of the words “perforce” / “force” in the last line of the excerpt. Does it perchance sound like someone who is contemplating the pros and cons of civil disobedience? Adonis does “rebel” against the advances of the goddess Venus (Elizabeth I), but meets a tragic end, killed while hunting, by a boar.
While this follows Shakespeare’s source, the story of Venus and Adonis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (famously translated into English by de Vere’s maternal uncle, Arthur Golding), the boar was a de Vere family symbol, of which Edward was evidently proud:
Shake-Speare’s Venus and Adonis, as we’ve discussed in the past, is dedicated to the Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was not only a reluctant suitor to Elizabeth Vere, Edward de Vere’s eldest daughter. Eight years later, he would be on trial as a principal conspirator in the Essex Rebellion— a capital case for treason against the Queen in which de Vere, and his son-in-law, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (who did marry Elizabeth) had to— under penalty of law— act as jurors.
I had always found Venus and Adonis to be a political poem, as will be briefly recapped below. But perhaps it was also meant as a stern, but fatherly, warning to Southampton: I would love to have you as my son-in-law and for you to sire my future grandchildren (hence the procreation sonnets). But if you commit treason, you will find me a formidable adversary. “Your Honour’s in all duty,” the author promises, arguably a metaphorical shaking of the spear.
But returning to the poem’s structure, there happens to be another poem, set to music by Mr. Byrd, composed of six-line stanzas, with a rhyme scheme of ababcc, in iambic pentameter, like de Vere’s “If Women Could Be Fair,” and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. What are the chances? (I’m smiling).
To understand this third poem, actually written before those mentioned above, picture a young Protestant lawyer witnessing the barbaric execution of the Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion in 1580 by hanging, drawing and quartering. How incongruous it must have seemed to him to see a fellow Christian literally torn apart, in the name of the “God of Love.”
In his Memoirs of Missionary Priests, and Other Catholics of Both Sexes, That Have Suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts from the Year 1577 to 1684; Volume 1 (1684, 1903), Bishop Richard Challoner explains how drops of Campion’s blood fell on Walpole, as the martyr’s remains were thrown into a vat of boiling water, following the gruesome execution for “treason.”
Walpole’s conversion to Catholicism was, by Challoner’s account, immediate. And shortly after his life-altering experience (— some say that same day), the young lawyer wrote, in part:
Why do I use my paper, ink and pen,
and call my wits to counsel what to say?
Such memories were made for mortal men.
I speak of Saints, whose names cannot decay.
An Angels trump, were fitter for to sound,
their glorious death, if such on earth were found.
Walpole would travel illegally to the continent to pursue religious studies, and would himself become a Jesuit martyr in 1594, after almost a year and a half of inhuman torture and imprisonment, back in England.
So let’s see… The same “rare” pattern, six lines ababcc and iambic pentameter — is found in:
- Walpole’s 1581 poem, Why Do I Use … boldly interpreted by the composer and Catholic recusant William Byrd, at peril to his and his family’s physical and financial well-being, given the repressive religious climate;
- de Vere’s 1588 poem, If Women Could be Fair… also interpreted musically by William Byrd;
- and Shake-Speare’s 1593 Venus and Adonis … which, in Shakespeare’s own words, is a poem about “resistance.”
Does anyone see another pattern here? I mentioned thinking of Venus and Adonis as a poem of political defiance, and it certainly seems that— as well as a cautionary tale. I also can appreciate how some might find the poem to be a commentary on relationships. But I now see it as a poem about religious “resistance,” as well (to use Shake-Speare’s Vere word). Love, like faith, cannot be coerced. I’m sure we’ll return to this topic again.
For now, note the parallels between Walpole’s “angels’ trump” and Shakespeare’s “let the bird of loudest lay … herald and trumpet be” in The Phoenix and the Turtle.
— Perhaps St. Henry Walpole did find his trumpeters here on earth to honor him, St. Edmund Campion, and their fellow martyrs in Byrd and de Vere / Shake-Speare.
Walpole’s poem is reminiscent of the opening of the Fifth and Seventh Seals in Revelations 6 and 8:
- the clamor of martyrs’ for justice (Rev. 6: 9-11);
- the vain attempt by unjust leaders to hide from God’s wrath (Rev. 6: 15-17), and
- the elevation of the Saints’ prayers to God in heaven (Rev. 8: 1-6).
In other words, there is more than a bit of social criticism behind Walpole’s lines, as is the case with Shake-Speare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle (see previous posts below).
In a letter to the editors of The Times Literary Supplement— a reader, puzzled by the possible Bird / Byrd attribution in the first line ofThe Phoenix and the Turtle, wrote that there was nothing “particularly loud” about William Byrd’s work. Yet metaphorically, Byrd’s music— like Shake-Speare’s words— has been clear and loud enough to reach our ears some four hundred years later.
But I think there is also a clever musical pun involved (as in Hamlet’s “the rest is silence,” which never fails to tickle me). Beyond a reference to volume (loudness), the corresponding musical terms forte and fortissimo in Italian also mean strong and very strong respectively— synonyms for brave.
As “the abstract and brief chronicle of the time,” Shake-Speare may well have wanted to acknowledge (albeit covertly, i.e., pianissimo) Byrd’s courage in following his own conscience, despite the many dangers. Perhaps they were both trying to rekindle hope in persecuted Catholics in Elizabethan England (religious and lay), by means of their respective art forms.
We’ll discuss the relationship between Byrd and de Vere in my next post! Meanwhile, please enjoy William Byrd’s motet of St. Henry Walpole’s testimony, gloriously interpreted by members of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, California: