My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun

Last time we made some fun of Shakespeare’s honest love poem, his Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.”  Well today, let’s give it it’s due.

The fun was that if was a poem meant to attract or hold a lover, it’s, well, not complementary—but there’s no evidence internal to the poem or external to what little we know about its writing, that says that was its intent. It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets that was written to “the Dark Lady.” Great title that. We may feel put off if the meaning of a poem isn’t clear to us right away, but in love and biography, most of us love a mystery. Let’s examine that mystery a bit.

First bit of mystery: it’s not clear exactly how autobiographical the typical Elizabethan poet, such as Shakespeare, intended their poetry to be. The idea of art as a mode of direct self-expression has become increasingly more common in the past 200 years, but it wasn’t necessarily the mode of the 16th Century poet. Showing off one’s language skills and elaborate allegorical metaphors while speaking of popular and entertaining subjects scored points in the game then, and it was less about biography that rhymed.

Poets of that era liked to revisit the same subject over and over, because playing on the same topical court let them measure themselves against each other. And so it was when writing a series of sonnets about love troubles.

But no author can avoid the personal entirely. This has lead to the detective game to identify the “Dark Lady.”

A leading solution is Emilia Bassano Lanier. Like a lot of Elizabethans, a fascinating character of which only scattered but intriguing facts are known. She may have been Jewish, North African, or Italian. Family described as “black” in Elizabethan times. Had connections to the same theater and artistic world that Shakespeare did in London. Musical family. Her father helped Queen Elizabeth with her lute when she was a young girl. Emilia wrote the first book of poetry published by an Englishwoman, and she seems remarkably independent and kick-ass. She even makes it onto the lists of the people who “really wrote Shakespeare.”

Nicholas Hillard possible Emily_Bassano
This may be a portrait of Emilia Bassano Lanier

Shakespeare wouldn’t be the first writer to use a person they knew as a model for a literary character as an in-joke that his crowd would get, or just as a handy way to gather a matrix of characteristics. And yes, Shakespeare and Lanier might have been a thing.

It’s fairly clear that Sonnet 130 is another answer record/dis cut like our dueling shepherd poems from the same era. However biographical or invented, the poet is telling us that as far as his love is concerned, all the bullcrack about white skin, golden hair, and rosey cheeks doesn’t get his motor running. There is that breath “reeks” thing in his poem, but I’m not sure it was automatically funky in Shakespeare’s time. The word comes from the Middle English word for smoke or steam—so not necessarily stinky breath, just not literally like perfume.

Elsewhere in the “Dark Lady” sonnets Shakespeare praises “black beauty.” Was the Dark Lady Black in the modern sense of the term? I don’t know if we can say for sure. Sub-Saharan Africans were in England in those times, including a trumpeter who was part of Elizabeth’s father’s court.

Meeting of Henry VIII and King Francis 1 c1520 with John Blanke shown

Birth of the Crewel? Henry VIII and the king of France take in a WWF tag team match.
In the upper left of this tapestry, on trumpet, is John Blanke, also spelled Blak

Was Shakespeare “answering” one particular poem? One doesn’t have to look far for targets, but some point to a poem set to music by William Byrd “Of Gold All Burnished:”

Of gold all burnished, brighter than sunbeams,
Were those curled locks upon her noble head
Whose deep conceits my true deserving fled.
Wherefore mine eyes such store of tears outstreams.
Her eyes, fair stars ; her red, like damask rose ;
White, silver shine of moon on crystal stream ;
Her beauty perfect, whereon fancies dream.
Her lips are rubies ; teeth, of pearls two rows.
Her breath more sweet than perfect amber is ;
Her years in prime ; and nothing doth she want
That might draw gods from heaven to further bliss.
Of all things perfect this I most complain,
Her heart is rock, made all of adamant.
Gifts all delight, this last doth only pain.

The poem’s 9th line might be a mondegreen, as it makes sense if the last words aren’t “amber is,” but the perfume “ambergris.” Who wrote the words? That’s not stated in the book which published Byrd’s piece in 1589, but a modern musician and relative of Emilia has put forth the idea it’s a poem by Emilia Bassano Lanier, though I can’t access any cite for his evidence.

Maybe I should have tried to make a lute sound here for the music, but it’s 12-string guitar, bass, a small string section and just a bit of recorder back in the mix for Sonnet 130. To hear it, use the player.

Before the Feast of Shushan

Choosing to make even one arbitrary choice can be a great aid to creativity. After all, though many of us are driven by various and powerful urges to create art, the choice to do that is arbitrary itself.

Today’s piece comes from several, singular, arbitrary decisions.

Coming upon the author of today’s words was a two-step process that has no A and B to it. First, knowing that the change from the 19th to the 20th Century impacted everyone, I wanted to see how African-American writers moved across this change. I was already somewhat familiar with how they moved musically in this era, a momentous cultural act that made American music, to an impressively disproportionate degree, Afro-American music. I was less familiar with the early 20th Century Afro-American poets. I started with Wheatley and Dunbar, as many did then. As our copyright laws effectively forbid me to utter on the Internet most any work written past 1922, I was heartened to find James Weldon Johnson had published a collection of Afro-American poetry just before that.

I read it, and Anne Spencer’s contributions included there didn’t grab me.

That too is arbitrary isn’t it? The poetry (or music, or anything) that can impress you on first encounter is only one element of how it might work.

Then a few weeks later I read a small piece online highlighting a long life of service and art that Anne Spencer had lived across part of the 19th Century and ¾ of the 20th. That moved me immediately. I re-read her poetry.

Did I appreciate her poetry more because she seems to have been such an admirable person? I tell myself, no, that by the time I combine it with music and place it on the Internet, few listeners will have any inkling of that. But I’ve just told you how I encountered her, and yes, that has arbitrary elements.

How did Spencer decide to write “Before the Feast of Shushan?”  Were there arbitrary choices? If you’ve followed me so far, you’d suspect there were. The subject is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and she could have encountered it in any Bible at the start of the book of Esther.  In the sum of cultural appropriation, those ancient Semites have been borrowed from an impressively disproportionate amount, haven’t they?

As I finished the audio piece around sundown last night, it was the beginning of Purim, the Jewish holiday based on the events in Esther.  For a large portion of my life I lived in what could arbitrarily have been called a Jewish household; but family and religious traditions are varied, and I never took part in celebrating Purim. From what I gather that might include elements like unto a Jewish Halloween, with costumes, food, parties, and burlesquing of evil. My wife once summed Purim up as “They wanted to kill all of us. They failed. Let’s eat!”

But Spencer took her story from the beginning of Esther,  a part I’d forgotten, and shouldn’t have. The book of Esther  is a woman-centered book, but before the heroine comes on stage, the first woman we meet is Vashti. Go ahead, and read Vashti’s story if you’d like, but here’s the summary. Xerxes/ Ahasuerus (the former is his Greek name) is ruler of a great world-spanning empire. He’s throwing a multi-day party to surpass all before or since. All his princes, bros and vassals are enjoying the week-long open bar at his palace in Shushan full of absolutely top-line, first-rate stuff his power has obtained. At some point in this sausage-fest, Xerxes (rhymes with jerk-sees) figures what this party needs is for his queen to show up wearing the crown he’s bestowed on her, so everyone can see what a fox he has for a Queen, as she’s a certain 10, if the Persians had been using a base-ten system back then. Some commentary even suggests that his command is to be understood for her to show up wearing only the crown.

Vashti refuses the emperor’s command. Xerxes, a stable genius type, modestly agrees to ask his advisors what to do, no doubt so that he can blame them if anything goes wrong, and they tell him that this is a huge  deal. Not only has the Emperor been disobeyed—it’s like someone didn’t clap at his speech, only worse—because if this gets out, every wife will feel that she can disobey her husband.

O Banquete de Assuero (c. 1490)

In the archway, Xerxes ponders what’s up with Vashti not wanting to show everyone how hot she is

 

Clearly, this won’t do. Vashti is cast off, and that arbitrary action sets in motion the rest of the story of the book of Esther  that results in the celebration of Purim.

The Bible itself offers no commentary on this. The book of Esther  is also unusual in that there is not even one mention of God in it. You are asked to decide yourself.

Anne Spencer doesn’t want us to forget Esther’s  opening, and in “Before the Fest of Shushan”  she writes a very Robert Browning-like monolog for Xerxes to speak. As Xerxes would want it, no one else gets a word in edgewise. Browning was one of the eminent Victorians that Spencer had read in her 19th Century dominated youth, and because it hews so closely to Browning as an influence, it’s considered one of Spencer’s first poems.

Spencer’s prequel scene (it’s “Before the Feast…”) has Xerxes in an explicitly randy mood and he’s somewhat puzzled that Vashti seems to want something more. Spencer’s is a more intimate scene that the coldly political world of the book of Esther.  Likely written before 1920, it shows that Anne Spencer had a clear feminist eye. At that time, if Spencer had overcome the hindrances widely used to deny Afro-Americans the right to vote, granted on paper in 1870, she still would have been prevented from voting—because, she was a woman.

Anne Spencer Wedding Picture

Anne Spencer’s wedding portrait, at the beginning of the 20th Century, 1901.

 

Arbitrary choices—useful sometimes in art. Likewise, they might help people to create businesses or new testable scientific propositions. In art we might own up to them, examine them. Can we do the same in life?

I made an arbitrary choice to lay off the string parts for today’s audio piece—organ, piano and acoustic guitar instead. To hear “Before the Feast of Shushan”  use the player.