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Shakespeare’s ‘Islamic’ poem.

‘A Phoenix for Eliza’

First of a two-part consideration of
‘Let the Bird of Loudest Lay’ or ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’.



The first.

The silver vault of heaven hath but one Eye,
And that’s the Sun: the foul-masked Lady, Night
(Which blots the Clouds, the white Book of the Sky,)
But one sick Phœbe, fever-shaking Light:
..The heart, one string: so, thus in single turns,
..The world one Phœnix, till another burns.

The burning.

Suppose here burns this wonder of a breath,
In righteous flames, and holy-heated fires:
(Like Music that doth rapt it self to death,
Sweetening the inward room of man’s Desires;)
..So she wastes both her wings in piteous strife;
..The flame that eats her, feed the other’s life;
….Her rare-dead ashes, fill a rare-live urn:
….One Phoenix born, another Phoenix burn.


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 Shake-speare.



‘LET THE BIRD of loudest lay’, known as ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’1 since the early nineteenth century, was first published in a now otherwise forgotten text, Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr, in 1601. Only three copies of this first edition exist; the single surviving item of a 1611 reissue is held in the British Library. Alexander Grosart edited the text for publication in 1878, but it has not been edited or published in full since then.2 Despite the clear attribution, scholars have debated whether ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ and the appended Threnos are genuinely by Shakespeare, and have also puzzled over the possible relations between the two texts. I argue that both are by Shakespeare, and that the Threnos is a conclusion; convincing stylometric analysis relates the diction of the two poems to Shakespeare’s vocabulary at the turn of the century, and more closely to his Sonnets, specifically, between 104 and 126, ‘thought to have been composed between 1598 and 1604’.3 The poem to which Shake-speare’s name is linked appears as the fifth in a sequence of fifteen pieces, a reflective commentary (a ‘descant’, wrote Peter Dronke4) on Robert Chester’s own, discursive versifying:

Hereafter follow diverse Poetical Essays on the former subject; viz: the Turtle and the Phœnix. Done by the best and the chiefest of our modern writers, with their names subscribed to their particular works : never before extant. And (now first) consecrated by them all generally, to the love and merit of the true-noble Knight, Sir John Salisbury. Dignum laude virum : Musa vetat mort. MDCI.

I.A. Richards nominated ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ ‘the most mysterious poem in English’. Our two-part investigation by Nigel Wheale begins here.

These ‘Poetical Essays’ begin with a chorus and dedication to Salusbury (the spelling favoured currently, ‘Salbri’ is the Welsh version) by the Seers (Vatum), then the poems as above, The first., The burning., signed ‘Ignoto’, and ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’.5 Shakespeare’s contribution is followed by ‘A narration and description of a most exact wondrous creature, arising out of the Phœnix and Turtle Doves ashes’, and three other poems, signed John Marston; then ‘Peristeros: or the male Turtle’ by George Chapman, and finally, ‘Praeludium’, ‘Epos’ and ‘The Phœnix Analysde’, signed Ben: Iohnson. There was a thematic programme to this sequence, and the poets chosen, ‘the best and the chiefest of our modern writers’, were certainly among the more ambitiously learned talents of the day – ‘Ignoto’ (now possibly identified), Shakespeare, Chapman, Jonson, and Marston.

Intriguingly, Maurice Evans suggested that the first two ‘Poetical Essays’ might have been written by John Donne, signing himself ‘Ignoto’, ‘by an Unknown’6. If so, these are the only secular, literary works by Donne that were printed in his lifetime; his collected Poems finally appeared, acknowledging him, two years after his death, in 1633. In 1601, Donne was serving as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper and Lord Chancellor; he was lodging near the Savoy, and was secretly courting Ann More; they married clandestinely three weeks before Christmas, ‘without the allowance of those friends, whose approbation always was, and ever will be necessary, to make even a virtuous love become lawful’.7 Ann’s father, Sir George More, was outraged, and had Donne committed (briefly) to prison and ejected from his elite position.

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

George Chapman, born 1560, was the senior figure among the contributors to Chester’s collection (he has sometimes been identified with the ‘rival poet’ in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence – but then so has nearly every significant poet of the period),8 Shakespeare the next in seniority (1564), Jonson and Donne were contemporaries (1572), and Marston, the young squib, c.1575.

John Marston was born in Coventry, to an Italian mother; his father attended the Inner Temple and practised as a lawyer. Marston was admitted to Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1592, and following his father into the law, went on to the Middle Temple in 1595. By 1598 he had disappointed those sensible expectations with the publication of his first known literary works, The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image and The Scourge of Villainy (which mentions Romeo and Juliet and parodies Richard III, ‘A man, a man, a kingdom for a man!’). The Middle Temple was one of the four Inns of Court, hostels that evolved to function as colleges, which had been established around 1300 to man the burgeoning legal and administrative institutions of fourteenth-century London. By the late sixteenth century, the Inns of Court also served as ‘finishing schools’ for sons of the gentry, who might have no intention of going on to practise law; John Donne attended Lincoln’s Inn between 1592 and 1594, in this spirit. Gray’s Inn and the Middle Temple were particularly associated with the staging of masques and revels; Jonson dedicated Every Man Out of His Humour to the Inns, and The Comedy of Errors was performed at Gray’s Inn, 28 December 1594, so Shakespeare had an early connection with these networking law-hubs, which could only grow closer.

A steady stream of aspiring young men proceeded from Stratford to the Middle Temple; Marston sponsored the admission of Shakespeare’s ‘cousin’ (friend), Thomas Greene, who went on to become Stratford’s Town Clerk and Treasurer to the Middle Temple (Greene lodged for a time at Shakespeare’s New Place, in 1609). It may have been through Greene that Marston got to know Shakespeare. Other Templars from the Midlands included William Catesby (the Guy Fawkes conspirator), poet Fulke Greville, and Sir Henry Goodyer, Donne’s friend and patron of poet Michael Drayton (of Hartshill, Warwickshire). Another local lad at the Middle Temple was Thomas Russell, also esteemed by Shakespeare, who bequeathed Russell £5.

TWELFTH NIGHT was performed in the hall of Middle Temple, 2 February 1602, Love’s Labours Lost and Troilus and Cressida may have been written for performance there, both sparringly (tediously?) lawyerly witty plays, that refine upon ever more refined points of debate, which may also cut to the heart – vide Shylock v. Portia. But poetry as well as drama was intensively cultivated at the Middle Temple. Versifying was so popular at the Inns of Court that inevitably much of it was of little merit. The extensive writings of John Salusbury of Lleweni, Denbighshire (c.1567–1613) and his close friend, Robert Chester (later his chaplain), are generally thought to be of this quality. Salusbury had considerable, if complicated, social status; his family descended directly, though illegitimately, from Henry VII, through his mother, Katheryn Tudor of Berain, Llanfydd, Conwy (c.1540–1591), by this line a first cousin (once removed) of Queen Elizabeth.

Her portrait is unsigned, and attribution uncertain; the Arden Poems names Lucas de Heere (98), but the National Gallery of Wales now favours Adriaen van Cronenburgh, portraitist to the Friesian nobility, through stylistic comparison with other works by him, mainly in the Prado. The painting had been bought by a Dutch collector in the 1930s, and was seized, along with so much else, by Goering, during the German occupation of Holland; rescued by the Allies, the work was bought for the nation in 1957, and now hangs in the National Gallery, Cardiff. Katheryn of Berain was the daughter of Tudur ap Robert Vychan of Berain, Clwyd, and via him, (illegitimate) great-grand-daughter of Henry VII. She married four times, ensuring wealthy and influential connections with each alliance; she became known as ‘Mam Cymru’, Mother of Wales, due to her 6 children, two by each of her first three husbands, more than 30 surviving grandchildren, and some 16 step-children besides.

John Salusbury, her first husband, died in 1566, around the time of the birth of their son, the eventual dedicatee of Love’s Martyr. The portrait of Katheryn may have been painted in the Low Countries, on the occasion of her second marriage, to ‘Sir’ Richard Clough (the title merely honorific), affluent merchant of Denbigh, and factor (agent/partner) to Sir Thomas Gresham. Clough courted Katheryn when he visited Wales in 1566, and they married in April 1567; the couple returned to Antwerp, via a stay with Gresham in London, in May of that year. Clough was said to have been the husband whom Katheryn Berain loved most dearly, and her precipitate second marriage, so soon after her first husband’s death, became the subject of amused and scandalised gossip – Clough, for example, proposed to her as they walked in to the church for Salusbury’s funeral, trumping Maurice Wynn who had foolishly waited till the ceremony was over. Katheryn did eventually marry Wynn, on the death of Clough. (And, the casket in the portrait contains Clough’s ashes [No, it’s a prayer book]; the skull beneath her left, sinister hand is that of her first husband, whom she poisoned, along with the other five [No No No]; one was murdered by pouring molten lead in his ear, then buried in her orchard [Yes! No]). In the portrait, Katheryn Berain is portrayed with formal propriety, displaying the four rings that signify her widowhood and legitimate her remarriage.

Clough’s financial partner, Thomas Gresham, was one of richest and most powerful men of his time, educated at Gonville & Caius, Cambridge, and founder – at the suggestion of Clough – of the Royal Exchange, declared open by Elizabeth in 1571. The Exchange, alas destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, was modelled, structurally and as an organization, on the Antwerp Bourse, where both men dealt and invested, to great effect. Gresham’s speculations there had restored the finances of Edward VI, and he continued as a highly valued royal agent (and sometime spy) for Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth. Clough was a friend and patron of mapmakers, studied astronomy, and had a house built at Plas Clough, Flemish in style, and the first brick construction in Wales – where he intended to live with Katheryn, who was his second wife. Clough died suddenly, in Hamburg, in 1570, before he could accomplish this. He was buried there, but Katheryn brought back his heart to Wales in a silver casket, where it was buried, unmarked, in the Clough family church, St Marcella’s, Eglwys Wen, Denbigh. Patrons of a local pub, the Salusbury Arms at Tremeirchion, relish telling you that Clough was seized and taken by the Devil, when Katheryn discovered him pursuing alchemical and other occult sciences, as well as still relating the gossip about their ‘o’erhasty’ marriage.

Katheryn was now an extremely wealthy widow, and by 1573 (as promised, according to the gossibs) became the third wife of Maurice Wynn, of Gwydir, MP, member of another prestigious Denbigh clan.9 Wynn died in August, 1580. In 1584, now in her 40s, Katheryn married her fourth and final husband, Edward Thelwell of Plas y Ward, Denbigh. The Thelwells were another prominent Clywd family, Edward’s father, Simon, had gone to the Inner Temple in 1556, was called to the Bar, became MP for Denbigh and eventually High Sheriff, and member of the Council for the Marches. Edward was a widower with three sons, and must have been significantly younger than Katheryn. This dense web of marital connection was woven between the Salusburys, Wynnes, and Thelwells, often child marriages pledged to create affluent alliances between the social elites of Denbeigh and Clywd, and Katheryn of Berain was at the centre of the nexus:

In some parts of Britain there are good reasons to regard kinship relations as central to the structuring of economic life. In the Welsh clan lands prior to 1542, title to land depended upon co-ownership among descent groups (though this system was gradually giving way to the recognition of individual freeholds)…Throughout Britain, bonds of kinship also had a significant role in the ‘social uplands’ of the aristocracy and gentry.10

During his time at Middle Temple, Katheryn Tudor’s second son, John Salusbury, was elevated to Court circles as one of the Esquires of the Body – by this period an honorary rather than a functional role – to Queen Elizabeth. Salusbury’s grandfather, also Sir John, had been Controller of North Wales for Henry VIII, and built Lleweni, a large, imposing house, where music and poetry were enjoyed. Lleweni no longer exists, but the great hall, medieval in style, is recorded in a watercolour drawing. Westminster Hall provided the inspiration, and the structure was a truly impressive space, its roof supported by three hammer-beam trusses, ‘each incorporating a pierced Gothic screen above the tie’, which ‘ lead the eye to the raised dais under the painted canopy’, where the Salusburys dined in state.11

But the dedicatee of Love’s Martyr was also ‘a contentious and arrogant man, who had many enemies in Denbighshire’.12 Salusbury inherited title and Lleweni from his brother, Thomas, who had been executed in 1586 because of his part in the Babington Plot – the plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and install Mary, Queen of Scots, as Catholic monarch. Salusbury’s cousin, Owen, had been killed in the Earl of Essex’s absurdly miscalculated ‘uprising’ against Queen Elizabeth on 8 February 1601, but Salusbury chose his side strategically, and was knighted by Elizabeth for his support during the insurrection. There was also a potentially compromising connection to Shakespeare here. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare’s wildly successful, break-out Ovidian narrative poems, published in 1593 and 1594, were both formally dedicated ‘To the Right Honorable Henrie Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield’. (Wriothesley – say it ‘Rosely’, his father concocted the silly spelling.) Southampton, barely 20 when two miraculous poems were gifted to him, went on to become one of the closest allies of Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex, at Court, and he was sentenced to death for his involvement in the 1601 plot against Elizabeth; his patron, Robert Cecil, the Queen’s most trusted councillor, contrived to have the sentence commuted to imprisonment for life, and Wriothesley was released at the accession of James VI and I; his earldom was restored to him, and he became more favoured in the Stuart court than he had been in Elizabeth’s.

WAS THIS THE ‘tender churl’, (1.12), unthrifty loveliness (4.1), the beauteous niggard (4.5) who, contracted to his own bright eyes, fed his light’s flame with self-substantial fuel (1.5–6)? ‘The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end …’ wrote Shakespeare. ‘What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours’.13 Typical payment for a literary dedication was around £2, though the Earl subsequently became a generous and imaginative patron to authors.

Salusbury was pledged in marriage, age 19, to Ursula Stanley, illegitimate (but legitimated) daughter of Henry, fourth Earl of Derby, and Jane Halsall. Henry and his son, Ferdinando, were significant patrons of drama, and encouraged performances by travelling players in the northern provinces from the 1560s. Ferdinando, Lord Strange, as patron, bestowed his name on Strange’s men, who performed throughout the 1580s; by 1591 they were playing at the Curtain, in London, while the Admiral’s men performed at the Theatre, and Strange’s company acted at Court in winter 1591. The Earl died in April 1594, when the troupe sought and found a new, even more powerful patron, Henry, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain. In the Chamber Accounts for Court performances, 26, 27 December 1594, the company is listed as, ‘William Kempe William Shakespeare & Richard Burbage seruantes to the Lord Chamberleyne’, the first evidence of Shakespeare as a player. He must have been a creditable actor, to be listed alongside these two stage artists, who went on to become the premier clown and foremost tragedian of the period, and who performed Shakespeare’s scripts throughout his subsequent career.

What has all this dense web of alliance and patronage to do with Shakespeare, and ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’? Nothing, with any gratifying precision, alas, but then, everything, in terms of the circulation of text via status in early modern society, which is so difficult to comprehend from now. Salusbury the dedicatee has rarely been considered or even recalled as a context for understanding ‘the most mysterious poem in English’.14 What he or his family, his literary and musical acquaintances, might have made of ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ is beyond recovery. But from a brief review of his biography and family circumstances, we can surely be confident that these were committed readers and writers of poetry, amongst whom Shakespeare’s poem circulated, and we can imagine, stirred interest. The second part of this essay, discussing the poem, follows.

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. But called, on the 1601 title page, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’.
  2. See Grosart’s edition at
  3. MacDonald P. Jackson, ‘Vocabulary and chronology: the case of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, Review of English Studies, n.s. 52 (2001): 59–75.
  4. Peter Dronke, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, Orbis Litterarum XXIII (1968): 199–220, p. 199.
  5. The ‘Poetical Essays’ appendix is reproduced in ‘reduced photographic facsimile’ in Shakespeare’s Poems (Katherine Duncan-Jones and H.R. Woudhuysen, eds), (Arden, 2007): 535–45. The typographic and page-layout aspects of the text are fascinatingly intrinsic to its textual meanings. I have restored some capitalization and italicizing of the text, so inflecting the modernized version given in this edition, 421–8, ‘Verses in Love’s Martyr (‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’)’, which I otherwise follow.
  6. Maurice Evans (ed.), The Narrative Poems (New Penguin Shakespeare, 1989): 58. Another candidate is Henry Goodyer, Donne’s closest friend, since a poem signed H.G. in the Mirrour of Maiestie (1618), quotes the line ‘One Phoenix borne, another Phoenix burne’. And see Duncan-Jones and Woudhuysen (eds), (Arden, 2007): 119, n.1, for the first identification of Donne with ‘Ignoto’.
  7. Isaac Walton, ‘Life’, quoted in R.C. Bald, John Donne. A Life (Oxford, Clarendon: 1970): 131.
  8. Sonnet 86, ‘Was it the proud full sail of his great verse’, is the sonnet where Chapman is sometimes identified – though as ever, the poetry does not signify with these kinds of worldly precision. John Kerrigan, Shakespeare, The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint (Penguin: 1986): 280–3.
  9. Wynn, Maurice (by 1526–80), of Gwydir, Caern, http: //
  10. Keith Wrightson, ‘Beyond the Household: Economic Institutions and Relations’, iv. ‘Kinship’, Earthly Necessities. Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, (Yale, 2000): 82–3. And, ‘Family Formation’, English Society 1580–1680, (Unwin Hyman, 1982): ‘Among the aristocracy, the urban elite and leading gentry families … marriage was a matter of too great a significance, both in the property transactions which it involved and in the system of familial alliances which it cemented, to be left to the discretion of the young people concerned.’ (72) And, ‘Katheryn of Berain’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 40 (1929).
  11. Peter Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside. A Study in Historical Geography, Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, (HMSO, 1975): 100.
  12. Katherine Duncan-Jones, Ungentle Shakespeare. Scenes from his Life (Arden: 2001): 139. I base a lot of my contextual description for the ‘Poetical Essays’ on Duncan-Jones’ work, in this biography that usefully focuses on the ‘midlands’ networks that were Shakespeare’s background, and in her edition of the Poems (co-edited with H.R. Woudhuysen, 2007).
  13. Shakespeare, Dedication to Wriothesley, The Rape of Lucrece (1594).
  14. I. A. Richards, ‘The Sense of Poetry: Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”’, Daedalus 87 (Summer 1958): 86.


  1. wrote:


    I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    when the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

    Paul Laurence Dunbar ‘Selected Poems’ @1997

    Sunday, 16 July 2017 at 19:21 | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    “Ignoto” was one of the pseudonyms of the 17th Earl of Oxford, along with “Shake-speare.” The head-pieces and tail-pieces surrounding the two Ignoto poems are identical to those surrounding the Shake-speare poem. They are used nowhere else in the book, except at its beginning. Hint-hint.

    Thursday, 14 January 2021 at 13:08 | Permalink

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