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Shakespeare’s ‘Islamic’ poem, part II.

Second part of ‘A Phoenix for Eliza’, a two-part consideration of ‘Let the Bird of Loudest Lay’
or ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’.

Part Two:


To lovingly welcome Eliza Phoenix.

Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri, the Moroccan ambassador.1

‘‘THE PHOENIX AND THE TURTLE’’ is an outlier poem, even in its prosody. ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ has the lightest structure, bird-like, but suggests so much, it is weightlessly gravid, always escapes conclusive reading.2 The ‘dominantly seven-syllable trochaic lines, which end with a single stressed syllable’,3 or ‘broken trochaics’,4 are a metrical choice that only paradoxically conveys so much abstraction, devotion and mourning. For Aristotle, trochaic rhythm is most akin to ‘comic dance’ (Poetics 3.8). Trochaic, ternary rhythm is perverse, working against the iambic beat of routine prose speech, and in English verse, trochaic lines are shorter than iambics, more rhythmically determined. Histories of prosody record that they are not much in use before the nineteenth century, when they commonly become lyrical – Longfellow, ‘Straight between them ran the pathway’, Blake’s ‘Tyger’ – ‘What the anvil, what the chain’, Poe’s Raven, Shelley’s Skylark, children’s rhymes, weather lore. Shakespeare’s ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ and its childish stanza form, a satiric parliament of fowls in the first five stanzas, is ghosted by the late-medieval rhyme, ‘Who killed Cock Robin’.

F. T. Prince compared the poem’s lyric achievement to that of many songs from the plays….

Trochaic rhythm seems to be consistent in the Threnos, but it is surely possible to scan several lines of ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ as [anapaest–iamb–iamb]? Organisation of the poem is ternary in another way: the first five stanzas, abba, present the mourning birds, then their anthem ‘doth commence’ at verse six for the next eight stanzas, culminating at the ill-numbered thirteenth. From here, the Threnos moves from quatrains to tercets, aaa, even further compacting sense within verse, for another five stanzas. F. T. Prince5 noted these ‘three divisions’, and compared the poem’s lyric achievement to that of many songs from the plays, although ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’, he observed, is ‘a somewhat longer, and independent, example of his powers of incantation’.6

‘Let the bird’ – the verb mode wavers between firmly, descriptively imperative, and what is merely allowing. Modality is in question, from this first briefest word. What is this bird, which can sing most dominantly? The singer remains enigmatic, unspecified, merely the ‘maker’, which foregrounds the song itself as main focus – a nightingale, as if the poet? But the Phoenix is by convention associated with the ‘sole Arabian tree’, so this might imply that the bird is miraculously returned from the ‘cinders’ (55) of its own pyre, alone now, the Dove resting in eternity (58). This is a possible reading, which resolves the poem into a lament of total loss, but a radical indeterminacy that is present only in the first line, the remainder of the poem becoming ‘the lay’ which is summoned.

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The ‘shrieking harbinger’ of the second stanza, like the ‘Herald sad’ of the first, is also unspecified, a ‘foul precurrer’, which is either a striking neologism, the only recorded use, or a misprint for ‘precurser’. Owls ‘carry upon their backs the whole weight of English folklore’,7 and one collective noun for them, appropriately, is ‘a parliament’. This owlish bird of ill omen is banished from the ‘troop’, as if Death itself could be denied (which may be what the poem has so tangentially suggested). Diction now shifts register again, with the legalistic imperative ‘From this session interdict’, a verb found nowhere else in Shakespeare. If the poem was at some level a pledge of obedience to Queen Elizabeth on behalf of Sir John Salusbury, in the fractiously dangerous court politics of early 1601, then the Eagle of the third stanza bestows regal status. But so inappropriately, for a Queen who desired no King. Is this a poem of the profoundest propriety, which even so is compelled to address an aged sovereign’s frailty, and the catastrophic fact of no clear succession?

The Crows burn the Owls.

The fourth stanza returns to the anonymous imperative form of the first, ‘Let the priest … That defunctive music can’, a supremely, strangely dense line – ‘defunctive’ another nonce word, another way of not naming death or mourning in any overt way. The concision of ‘can’ is extreme, the line creating a compressed periphrasis for singing mournfully to accompany this ‘requiem’. This is the Catholic mass for repose of souls (one of the earliest recorded uses; see the Priest, deploring Ophelia’s rites, ‘We should profane the service of the dead / To sing a requiem and such rest to her / As to peace-parted souls’ (Hamlet 5.1.225-7 (Thomson and Taylor: 2006: 427)). Swan-lore is less elaborate than owl-mythology, but the graceful white bird becomes an emblem of mourning, the ‘death-divining’ swan, through the myth of ‘swansong’. Emilia has the most beautiful version of this trope, in her final lines to Desdemona –

Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan
And die in music. (Othello, 5.2.245–6)

The ‘Schwanengesang’ may derive from a behaviour of the large Whooper Swan, its long trachea emits a distinct ‘final expiration of air from the convoluted wind-pipe … a wailing flute-like sound given out quite slowly’.8 The fifth stanza introduces a fourth, final bird, the ‘treble-dated’, reputedly long-lived, crow, ‘the most unloved of British [bird] species … the classic symbol of evil and portent of misfortune’.9 Shakespeare invokes all corvids, most intelligent, therefore most sinister, of birds, just so:

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse.
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse. (Macbeth, 3.2.50; emphasis added.)

Dowland, composing as ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ may have been written, fuses the emblematic owl and crow:

Flow my teares fall from your springs,
Exilde for euer: Let mee morne
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me liue forlorne. (‘Flow my teares’, Second Booke of Songs (1600); emphasis added.)

If only Dowland had set ‘Let the bird’. But to begin to imagine this is to recognise that this was a text to be read, not airy enough to be simply given to air – ‘this work was meant for the page, or perhaps for reading aloud. It is meant to be studied’.10 The poem compels a reading focus, bird-like as its prosody may be.

‘The King of the Crows addresses his subjects.’

Some lore, as late as last century, talked of the ‘Doom Crow’ – the sight of a single bird as harbinger of bad news, death. These birds were believed to reproduce via their beaks, and the emblem-bird in this stanza sublimes sexuality and reproduction by way of an exchange of breaths, to produce its ‘sable gender’.11

Both sexuality and mortality are in these ways distanced by the reprovingly impersonal lyric, which, at one level of reading, agonises about what commitment to another does mean. Desire and death may never be directly presented, properly so, within the abstracts of this argument. How else might we consider them, between us?

Binding for the Mantiq al-Tayr, Isfahan, c. AH 1009/1600 CE.

The five stanzas of this first section compress a universal genre in early and high medieval culture – the ‘council of the birds’.

The five stanzas of the first section compress, or glance off, a universal genre in early and high medieval culture – the ‘council of the birds’. This was a vigorous, ‘flyting’ convention in European writing and public performance, and shared with many cultures beyond. By the level of its abstraction, ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ summons these earlier texts and tropes, through the common bestiary lore of the natural world, but then above and beyond, by a uniquely sophisticated, literate allusiveness. The thirteenth-century poem, Altercacio inter filomenam et bubonem (The Owl and the Nightingale), authorship unknown,12 is the earliest surviving ‘debat’ poem in Middle English. Here, the (female) Owl is ill-omened, as in ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’, but medieval lore also associated the Bubo with uncleanness, and inevitably, spiritual error. Because the owl is mobbed and attacked by other birds, it became the figure of a wretched scapegoat, sometimes compared to the outsider status of the Jewish presence within medieval Christian society. The ‘shrieking harbinger’ is similarly outcast, forbidden to approach ‘this troop’. The Owl and the Nightingale – and Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls – are fundamentally satirical poems, both worldly, robust critiques of their contemporary contexts.13 To say this is to throw into high relief the unworldly, abstracted truth of ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’.

The utter strangeness of Shakespeare’s poem in English literary convention is revealed by comparisons, and connections, with texts from older, more exotic traditions.

The utter strangeness of Shakespeare’s poem in English literary convention is revealed by comparisons, and connections, with texts from older, more exotic traditions – Indian, Persian, Arabic, Berber Numidian, which have resonances with these verses from the English Midlands, around 1601. Sir John Salusbury strategically distanced himself from Essex’s planned insurrection against the ageing Elizabeth, in late 1600. Elizabeth and her counsellors were during these same months negotiating with the Moroccan ambassador, al-Annuri, to forge an alliance between Protestant England and Sunni Muslim Morocco, against the common enemy, Philip of Spain. The Moroccans were ambitious to recapture their lost kingdom, al-Andalus, with English help (Granada could be ours!). Was Salusbury also discretely aligning himself in this attempted alliance with Islam against Spain, through patronage of an exotic poem, a courteously diplomatic exercise in an ‘Arabian’ motif?

The most ambitious avian-debate poem was certainly (directly) unknown to Chaucer and Shakespeare, but would have been a work familiar to Ambassador al-Annuri – The Conference [Language] of the Birds 14 by the Persian Sufi poet, Farid un-Din Attar, Attar of Nishapur.15 Translations to English only begin in the nineteenth century, seemingly. Attar may have derived the bird-conceit of the Mantiq al-Tayr in part from a section of the (originally) Sanscrit text, the Panchatantra, one of the oldest surviving collections of animal fable lore, stories from which are found throughout the world. Attar would also have known The Recital of the Bird, by the tenth-century scientist, philosopher and theologian, Ibn Sina, called ‘Avicenna’,16 the wondrous polymath of that ‘Golden Age’ of Islamic culture.

Sassanian silk fragment showing a Simorgh.

In Attar’s Mantiq al-Tayr, the birds of the world assemble to elect their king, and the wise hoopoe suggests the Simorgh, a benign, winged creature, present throughout Iranian culture:

A hundred thousand veils of dark and light
Withdraw his presence from our mortal sight (717–8)

The Simorgh is disparagingly compared to the Phoenix in the influential De Ave Phoenice, which may have been a source for ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’:

magnifice terries Arabum quae gignitur ales. Vix aequare potest seu fera seu fit avis

‘The winged one which is produced in the land of Arabia / Can scare equal her magnificence, whether it be beast or bird’. In the Sufi allegory, each bird (few are explicitly identified) represents a human frailty that hinders final enlightenment, all have to traverse seven valleys in search of the Simorgh: Talab (Valley of the Quest), Ishq (the Valley of Love), Marifah (Valley of Insight into Mystery) where,

The Self will disappear; then, from within
The heart of all he sees, there will ascend
The longed-for face of the immortal Friend …
Now let the sea of Gnosis drown your mind …
And if you cannot find His beauty there
Seek out Truth’s mysteries and persevere! (3486–8, 3501, 3505–6)

The fourth valley is Istighna (Detachment), the fifth, Tawhid (Pure Unity), which comes close to the most abstracted stanzas of ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’:

The many here are merged in one; one form
Involves the multifarious, thick swarm
(This is the oneness of diversity,
Not oneness locked in singularity);
Unit and number here have passed away … (3702–6)

The sixth Valley, Hayrat (Bewilderment), and the culminating Valley, Fana (Poverty and Nothingness, also translated as Fulfilment in Annihilation):

Destroy the body and adorn your sight
With kohl of insubstantial, darkest night. (3980–1)

BY THIS STAGE, the mystical-religious compulsion of the Mantiq al-Tayr predominates, so that despite what I argue are real parallels with the abstractions of Shakespeare’s enigma-text, this emphasises the secular nature of the argument in ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ – which nowhere depends on (Christian) theological conventions of the ‘via negativa’ or mystical rapture. The concluding vision of the Mantiq al-Tayr is striking, and also unconventional as a mystical ‘ascent’. The thirty birds experience a sublime vision of the Simorgh: si means ‘thirty’, and morgh translates as ‘bird(s)’.17 They are confronted with themselves:

There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw
Themselves, the Simorgh of the world – with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.
… How is it true
That ‘we’ is not distinguished here from ‘you’? (4234–7, 4244–5)

Attar (he traded in perfumes, musk – think ‘Attar of Roses’) firmly identified himself as a Sufi believer within Sunni Muslim Islam. The central obsession of Attar’s poem is the annihilating power of love, in all its kinds, often homosexual, sometimes uniting slaves and sheiks’ or sultans’ wives, even Muslim with Christian, in all cases, ‘Hearts remote, yet not asunder’ (29). This is a subliming of the self through relationship:

Since to the Self the Self cannot be shown,
A mote’s self by a mote remains unknown. (183–4)
A lover … Is one in whom all thoughts of Self have died;
Those who renounce the Self deserve that name. (1165–6)

Attar’s particular genius was to explore what this transforming, inhuman experience might mean, through mundane, thoroughly secular life – as if the Paradiso informed The Canterbury Tales.18 This is a profound tension, which the Mantiq al-Tayr explicitly addresses:

Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam; (1185–6)

These lines are followed by one of the most transgressing, and challenging of all the episodes, ‘The Story of Sheikh San’an’, a Believer’s consuming love for a Christian girl, who is destroyed by her experience. The Phoenix features in the Conference of Birds, as an emblem of the invincibility of death, even for a creature that can rise from its own ashes. The description of its song has some resonance with the opening of ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’:

In India lives a bird that is unique:
The lovely phoenix has a long, hard beak
Pierced with a hundred holes, just like a flute –
It has no mate, its reign is absolute.
Each opening has a different sound; each sound
Means something secret, subtle and profound –
And as these shrill, lamenting notes are heard,
A silence falls on every listening bird; (2320–27)

Episodes presenting ‘ Jesus and the Dream’ and ‘The Death of Socrates’ follow closely on ‘The Phoenix’, figures by association that were singular, representing quite different kinds of claim to immortality.

Mantiq al-Tayr manuscript, bearing an allusion to Sura 27:16. 19

Here we come to the Berber Numidian presence in ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’. Firmianus Lactantius (c.250–c.325), a North African convert to Christianity, was a powerfully influential writer and theologian, counsellor to Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome. Renaissance Humanists valued his Latin, calling him the ‘Christian Cicero’, and his works were widely edited and printed in the period. The Carmen de Ave Phoenice is sometimes attributed to Lactantius (or a ‘Pseudo-Lactantius’), and became a source-text for the Old English Exeter Book poem, The Phoenix. Lactantius’s work20 is more pagan than Christian, but the Anglo-Saxon adaptation reads the bird as an allegorical figure of Christ. The Carmen’s description of the earthly paradise where the Phoenix lives was surely one of the sources for Milton’s Eden, and for the description of Raphael’s descent into Paradise:

Down thither prone in flight
He speeds, and through the vast ethereal sky
Sails between worlds and worlds, with steady wing
Now on the polar winds, then with quick fan
Winnows the buxom air; till within soar
Of towering eagles, to all the fowls he seems
A phoenix, gazed by all, as that sole bird
When to enshrine his relics in the sun’s
Bright temple, to Aegyptian Thebes he flies. (Paradise Lost, V.266–74)

Here Milton quotes a part of the myth found in one of Shakespeare’s favourite sources, Ovid, Metamorphoses XV.391–407 (but which Shakespeare does not include), that the regenerated Phoenix flies up to Heliopolis, City of the Sun, and place its nest, ‘his cradle and his father’s tomb’,21 in front of the doors of the Sun’s temple.

In the vast literature of the Phoenix, only in Chester’s Love’s Martyr is a (male) Turtle Dove introduced as lover for the Phoenix. This is the new conceit with which the commissioned poets had to conjure. A consequence is that the Phoenix is now decisively gendered as female; in the Pseudo-Lactantius, gender itself is indeterminate:

Femina vel mas haec seu neutrum seu sit utrumque (163)

‘Female or masculine or neuter or whatever…’

The verses following the avian debate in ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ conjure with notions of singularity and fusion, unity in division, essence and shadow. In these central stanzas, the poem pursues paradoxes that structure so many of Shakespeare’s works, and drives them to a further limit. The poem enabled the infinitely more rigorous debates of the plays that follow, it is the transition between what could be thought in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night, and what would be explored, compulsively, in Hamlet, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. The diction and conceits of these seven verses are informed by passages from the De Ave Phoenice, and from many ideas diffused through medieval theological adaptation of classical philosophy (Aristotle via Aquinas, the main route). This is not to argue that Shakespeare was a medieval scholastic, but that he was able to explore his compulsive paradoxes through theological argument, for example about the nature of the Trinity, that was commonplace in the religio-political culture of the period. A dangerously political question, on which these arguments are also founded, was that of the complex status of an individual in relation to the divinely sanctioned institution of monarchy that they incarnated. Richard II and Henry V personified this dilemma.22

The seventh to thirteenth stanzas proceed by this series of extreme paradoxes: Two are in One, ‘essence’, ‘division’ and Number’ are pure categories of the highest abstraction. ‘Essence’ here may depend on Trinitarian theology, in the sense of ‘A synonym of “substance”, as denoting that in respect of which the three persons in the Trinity are one’ (OED 4b). This was a truism, in the understanding of the nature of monarchy, and of the divine nature. The subtlety of these conceptions can be appreciated in the extraordinary prose of the theologian, Richard Hooker, whose Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie (1594, 1597) is the major exposition of Reformed Christian belief, within the institution of Elizabeth’s established church. In other words, a temporizing, temperate achievement:

We have hitherto spoken of the person and of the presence of Christ. Participation is that mutual inward hold which Christ hath of us and we of him, in such sort that each possesseth other by way of special interest, property, and inherent copulation … The persons of the Godhead, by reason of the unity of their substance, do as necessarily remain one within another, as they are of necessity to be distinguished one from another, because two are the issue of one, and one the off-spring of the other two; only of three, one not growing out of any other. And with that they are all are but one God in number, one indivisible essence or substance, their distinction cannot possibly admit separation. For how should that subsist solitarily by it self, which hath no substance, but individually the very same whereby others subsist with it? Seeing that the multiplication of substances in particular is necessarily required to make those things subsist a-part [sic], which have the self-same general nature, and the persons of that Trinity are not three particular substances to whom one general nature is common, but three that subsist by one substance which it self is particular; yet they all three have it, and their several ways of having it are that which maketh their personal distinction. The Father is therefore in the Son, and the Son in him; they both in the Spirit, and the Spirit in both them. 23

Crucial terminologies are shared between the poem and this deeply considered theological position: mutual, interest, property, substance, essence, nature – (copulation, implied).

Crucial terminologies are shared between the poem and this deeply considered theological position: mutual, interest, property, substance, essence, nature – (copulation, implied). Hooker is rarely cited as a possible source for Shakespeare’s writing, but it is hard to believe that the dramatist would not have been aware of this major Anglican doctrinal statement.

Distincts(27) is the only instance of the adjective functioning as an abstract noun; it was a crucial term for Aquinas: ‘we must not, in speaking of God, use the words “diversity” and “difference” lest we should compromise the unity of nature; we can, however, use the word “distinction” [distinctio] on account of relative oppositions … we must avoid “separation” [separatio] and “division” [divisio] as a whole divided into parts.’24

‘Number’ (28), in its grammatical meaning, as plurality, is abolished by the experience described. That lovers are distinct individuals yet somehow become a unity is a paradox often explored in the ‘conceited’ poetry of the period; ‘Hearts remote yet not asunder’ summons the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.’ A significant shift in perspective occurs in the sixth and seventh stanzas, which focalize from the point of the view of the Turtle Dove, and so objectify the Phoenix, his ‘Queen’: this confirms her gender, which elsewhere in the convention is male, or indeterminate (conversely, the Turtle Dove is usually female).

Either was the other’s mine. (36)

The Arden Poems argues against a reading of ‘mine’ as an excavation of resources, or indeed as an explosive device; ‘Shakespeare rarely uses “mine” for underground excavations’ (425 n.36), where Burrow (Oxford: 375n.36) glosses the line, ‘each of them was a source of riches for the other’. Arden emphasises the binary dilemmas of these verses: ‘Either begins a sequence of references to mutually exclusive categories: other / self, single / double, either / neither, two / one, simple / compound, twain / one, either / or.’

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same:
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason in itself confounded … (37–41)

‘Property was thus appalled’: ‘Property’ (37) here is that which can be owned, but simultaneously, the philosophical category of identity. Thomas Wilson’s The Rule of Reason (1563): ‘a natural proneness and manner of doing, which agreeth to one kind and the same only and that evermore’ (Burrow, 375n.37). But ‘Property’, is also personified, in that it is ‘appalled’ (made pale). ‘Appal’ occurs in Macbeth, and in Hamlet’s ‘rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy – ‘Make mad the guilty and appal the free’ (2.2.499).

The paradoxa fold back upon one another, line after line; the more complex the argument, the more simple the diction becomes.

INDEED. THE PARADOXA fold back upon one another, line after line; the more complex the argument, the more simple the diction becomes. ‘Selfhood’ its self is confounded. ‘Self’ in our understanding, what is uniquely particular to us in our nature, is first recorded as a meaning in 1674, for the OED. Were there no selves before this date? Were we more collective, less tiresomely individuated, as beings, in the medieval and early modern periods, and way before? OED cites Edmund Spenser’s SONNET.XLV from his Amoretti sequence, 1595, as the first instance of ‘self’ in the sense of ‘An assemblage of characteristics and dispositions which may be conceived as constituting one of various conflicting personalities within a human being’:

Leaue lady in your glasse of christall clene,
Your goodly selfe for euermore to vew:
and in my selfe, my inward selfe I meane,
most liuely lyke behold your semblant trew …
But if your selfe in me ye playne will see,
remoue the cause by which your fayre beames darkned be.

‘And in my self, my inward self I mean’. I argued in Part One that ‘Let the Bird’ is in dialogue with the two poems by ‘Ignoto’, possibly John Donne, that immediately precede it in Love’s Martyr. There is another, faintest mark of a possible collaboration between the two poets, at this period. An entry for 3 January 1600 in the Stationers’ Register, entered by Eleazar Edgar, records ‘Amours by J. D. with certen other sonnetes by W. S.’ No copy of this fugitive item is known; it may never have been printed, and the initials may not be those of Donne and Shakespeare – but I love the notion of this trace of such a compelling text – the Amours of JD/WS.25

‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ is a far/near song, no song, which suggests so very much. The absolute concision, the perfection of these lines make any attempt to ‘expand’ or ‘unpick’ them seem infinitely lame; they are, in a real sense, unapproachable. But if we argue that the poem is fundamentally about the nature of human intimacy, and what that might be (is it?), then its most acute commentary may be found in another, infinitely evasive poem:

There’s a sacred limit to any closeness,
Even the passionate fact can’t transcend
Though in fearful silence lips on lips may press
And the heart love tears to pieces won’t mend.

And friendship is powerless and years
Of intense high-minded happiness,
Where the soul is free, a stranger to fears
Of the slow langours of passionate excess.

Those who reach it play the part
Of madness, those who succeed are stricken – And
Now you understand why my heart
Is not beating beneath your hand.26

Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for written for the Fortnightly may be found here.

In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration.


  1. Resident in London, August 1600 / January 1601. Neil MacGregor, ‘From London to Marrakesh. African Treasure’, Ch. 13, Shakespeare’s Restless World (Allen Lane, 2012). Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, 2016). Brotton argues that this is the earliest known portrait from the life, in England, of a Muslim. Artist unknown.
  2. The text of the poem:

    Let the bird of loudest lay
    On the sole Arabian tree,
    Herald sad and trumpet be:
    To whose sound chaste wings obey.

    But thou shrieking harbinger,
    Foul precursor of the fiend,
    Augur of the fever’s end,
    To this troop come thou not near.

    From this Session interdict
    Every fowl of tyrant wing,
    Save the Eagle, feathered King:
    Keep the obsequy so strict.

    Let the Priest in Surplus white,
    That defunctive music can,
    Be the death-divining Swan,
    Lest the Requiem lack his right.

    And thou treble-dated Crow,
    That thy sable gender mak’st
    With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
    ‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

    Here the Anthem doth commence:
    Love and constancy is dead,
    Phœnix and the Turtle fled,
    In a mutual flame from hence.

    So they loved as love in twain
    Had the essence but in one,
    Two distincts, Division none:
    Number there in love was slain.

    Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
    Distance and no space was seen,
    ‘Twixt this Turtle and his Queen,
    But in them it were a wonder.

    So between them love did shine
    That the Turtle saw his right
    Flaming in the Phœnix’ sight;
    Either was the other’s mine.

    Property was thus appalled
    That the self was not the same:
    Single Nature’s double name
    Neither two nor one was called.

    Reason in it self confounded,
    Saw Division grow together,
    To themselves yet either neither,
    Simple were so well compounded,

    That it cried, ‘How true a twain
    Seemeth this concordant one;
    Love hath Reason, Reason none,
    If what parts can so remain.’

    Whereupon it made this Threne
    To the Phœnix and the Dove,
    Co-supremes and stars of Love,
    As Chorus to their Tragic Scene.


    Beauty, Truth, and Rarity,
    Grace in all simplicity,
    Here enclosed, in cinders lie.

    Death is now the Phœnix’ nest,
    And the Turtle’s loyal breast
    To eternity doth rest.

    Leaving no posterity,
    ‘Twas not their infirmity,
    It was married Chastity.

    Truth may seem, but cannot be,
    Beauty brag, but ‘tis not she;
    Truth and Beauty buried be.

    To this urn let those repair
    That are either true or fair,
    For these dead Birds, sigh a prayer.

    — William Shakespeare.

  3. Colin Burrow (ed.), The Complete Sonnets and Poems, (Oxford, 2002): 87.
  4.  Barbara Everett, ‘Set upon a Golden Bough to Sing: Shakespeare’s Debt to Sidney in “The Phoenix and the Turtle”’, Times Literary Supplement (16 February 2001): 14.
  5. Profiled for The Fortnightly Review by Anthony Howell here.
  6. Introduction, The Poems (Arden, 1960): xlii-iii. A number of song settings have been made from the poem during the twentieth century, but apparently none earlier than the mid-nineteenth century ( archive).
  7.  Clive Fairweather, ‘Owls Strigiformes’ in Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (Chatto & Windus, 2005): 281.
  8.  Witherby, H.F.; Jourdain, F.C.R.; Ticehurst, Norman; and Tucker, Bernard, The Handbook of British Birds, five vols, (London, 1938–40): 2: 169.
  9.  Cocker and Mabey (2005): 419, 420.
  10.   Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language, (Allen Lane, 2000): 69.
  11. ‘Gender’ in the sense of offspring, another early use, again as in the near-text, Hamlet: Claudius, describing Hamlet’s repute, ‘the great love the general gender bear to him’ (4.7.19)
  12.  The Owl and the Nightingale, annotated translation by Bella Millet, Wessex Parallel Web Texts (Southampton, 2003). Charlotte Eloise Dunn, ‘Debate in medieval English and middle-Scots poetry’, MRes thesis (Glasgow, 2017).
  13.  Patrick Cheney, ‘The Voice of the Author in “The Phoenix and the Turtle”: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser’ in Curtis Perry and John Watkins (eds) Shakespeare and the Middle Ages (OUP, 2009): 103–25.
  14. Mantiq al-Tayr, AH 573/1177 CE.
  15.  Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis (trans.), Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds (Penguin, 1984, rev. edn 2011).
  16.  Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital trans. Willard R. Trask (Bollingen Foundation: 1960).
  17.  Darbandi and Davis, The Conference of the Birds: 234, note 25.
  18.  ‘Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is a group of stories bound together by the convention of a pilgrimage … a panorama of contemporary society; both poems accommodate widely different tones and subjects, from the scatological to the exalted to the pathetic … With Dante’s Divine Comedy Attar’s poem shares its basic technique, multi-layered allegory, and a structure that leads us from the secular to the divine, from a crowded random world … to the ineffable realm of the Absolute. And in all three authors we can discern a basic catholicity of sympathy at odds with the stereotypes of inflexible exclusiveness often associated with both medieval Roman Catholicism and medieval Islam.’ Darbandi and Davis, Introduction, The Conference of the Birds: xviii–xix.
  19. Sura 27:16: ‘And Solomon was David’s heir, And he said, “Men, we have been / Taught / the speech of the birds, and we / Have been given of everything; surely / This is indeed the manifest bounty.” And his hosts were mustered to Solomon, Jinn, men and birds; duly disposed;’ ‘The Ant’, The Koran Interpreted, Arthur J. Arberry, (OUP, 1964).
  20. Notes, commentary, text of De Ave Phoenice and translation by Keith N. Harris may be found here. (The English translation begins on ms. p 50.)
  21.  Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A.D. Melville (Oxford, 1986): XV.403.
  22. I take these arguments from Frank Kermode, ‘Shakespeare’s Learning’, Ch 5 in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne. Renaissance Essays (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971). Kermode is the most insightful reader of ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’, for me, though his account emphasises the philosophical nature of the text, while I read it as debating the nature of human intimacy. The poem is of course both simultaneously. And see Note 10.
  23. Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. Eight Bookes (London: M.DCC.XXIII). Book V. ‘… That touching several publick duties of christian religion, there is amongst us much superstition retained in them …’, 56. ‘The union or mutual participation which is between Christ and the church of Christ, in this present world’, fol. 199 recto.
  24. Summa Theologiae (London and New York: n.d.) vi.89 (1a.31.2); quoted, Burrow, Complete Sonnets and Poems, 374 n.27.
  25. R. C. Bald, John Donne. A Life (OUP, 1970): 208, n.4.
  26. Anna Akhmatova, Poems, Selected and translated by Lyn Coffin, ‘There’s a sacred limit …’, (Norton: NY, 1983): 27. Alas, how would this be, in its proper language?

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