For a writer frequently claimed to represent or comprehend all of human experience, there is remarkably little theology, mysticism, or overt religiosity in Shakespeare. We have his audience to thank for this, perhaps—Elizabethan London’s playgoers had lost interest in mystery plays, unlike Spain’s Siglo del Oro audience, which had Lope de Vega turning out autos sacramentales. Shakespeare offers us no help in understanding, say, the fanatical religious temperament that makes the news so often in our time—though the Puritans did have a hatred for the popular stage that resembles the Taliban’s toward American television shows and Bollywood films. To conflate the pagan Lear on the heath with the wrathful God of the Old Testament, as more than one critic has done, says more about the critic’s fixations than Shakespeare’s. This is to be expected. A central fact of Shakespearean criticism is that critics see themselves when they look at Shakespeare. He simply mirrors any mind that presumes to study his.
I feel it’s wisest not to resist this phenomenon. If you believe, as I do, that a poem can say more than what its writer “intended” to say (or can, over time, take on new meanings), or if you believe that a poem can dovetail with other poems and ideas from traditions its writer knows nothing of, it needn’t seem jarring or absurd to see Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle placed in the context of Eastern mysticism.
It need not trouble us that Shakespeare never read the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, the ghazals of Rumi, or even Meister Eckhart. The various mystical traditions express a single idea: That of the soul’s attaining unity with the divine through self-extinction. Which is very much the theme of the immolated Phoenix and Turtledove. The poem is best understood as a startlingly direct expression of the “perennial philosophy” described centuries later by Aldous Huxley.
An historically astute criticism would concern itself with what Shakespeare, in 1598, could or could not have known, could or could not have read. From that perspective, using, say, Sufism to explain a line by Shakespeare is nonsense. An ahistorical criticism could conceive a given poem floating free of time, culture, and their limitations. The poem knows more than the poet. This particular poem of Shakespeare’s is a kind of magical foundling, bearing every mark of a distant and exotic parentage. That is why, in the paragraphs that follow, I will speak of the poem doing this or that, and not the poet himself.
The opening stanza places us in Arabia—already an Eastward shift of scene, naturally significant in the work of a dramatist. The “sole Arabian tree” links up with the Qur’anic sidrat al-muntaha, “Lote Tree of the Utmost Limit,” that marks the boundary of the seventh heaven.
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou, shriking harbinger,
Foul precurrer 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, feather’d king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice 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.
The poet warns off undesireable birds in stanzas 2 and 3, a familiar pattern in superstition and occultism: One must actively exclude evil or malignant spirits from a sacred site or ceremony. A key for what comes next is “precurrer,” chosen instead of precursor because it contains the word “recur.” This word refers both to the Phoenix’s periodic return to its immolation-grounds and to its rebirth.
Note that rebirth is not an orthodox Christian or even Islamic belief; it is to be found in Hinduism and Buddhism. And so the poem draws us even further east. This shift is again hinted in the birds welcomed to the funeral. First, the eagle—either Vishnu’s mount, Garuda, or the eagle that Dante sees in Paradiso: The former seems more likely, given how, in the very next stanza, the swan is characterized as a “priest in surplice white,” that is, as a shwetambara (“white-clad”) priest of the Jain religion. The crow is described as engendering its young with its breath. This may refer to a contemporary Elizabethan belief that some birds gestated their young in their bills. That would make this stanza a fine image of an “inspired” poet breathing forth his poems. Yet there may well be more to this. The “Crow” is a yoga pose, the kak asana. Breath control, or pranayama, is a discipline described in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. Their discussions of prana and apana, inhalation and exhalation, connect with the phrase “breath thou giv’st and tak’st.”
Note that the self-immolating Phoenix is, in the poem, a female. Shaivite myth speaks of a Goddess’s self-immolation—a story which prompted, in some parts of India, the practice of sati, kindred image of a couple’s joint immolation.
Indeed, much of the poem’s mystical resonance comes from the play on the numbers two and one. The abolition of the division between self and God has been called many things: Fana’a by the Sufis, moksha by the Upanishads, the unio mystica by Meister Eckhart. It cannot be attained by reason, or in the poem’s words, it “confounds” reason. This is the context in which the next stanzas make sense.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they lov’d, 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 the 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 phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.
Property was thus appall’d,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was call’d.
Reason, in itself 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 phoenix and the dove,
Co-supreme and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.
Number there in love was slain. The poem means Arabian numbers, referring, of course, to line 1; the specific term for self-annihilating love of the One, in Sufism, is ishq. An Elizabethan proverb has it that “One is no number.” The Sanskrit word frequenly translated as “soul” is actually atman—literally, “self.” That the self was not the same, the poem says. Indeed, the selves are not the same: The two birds have been transfigured by fire into one thing. Either was the other’s mine speaks of mutual possession. The lovers possess all in common, and possess each other in common: Either was the other’s ‘mine.’ Yet this new joint being Neither two nor one was called. The Hindu invention, Zero, Shunya, was taken up by the Buddha to describe the state of supreme—“co-supreme”—enlightenment. In the Eastern mystical traditions, these highest states are described as blissful, or else transcending bliss itself.
Not in Shakespeare. For Shakespeare, this is a “tragic scene.” What follows is a threne, or death-song.
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace and all simplicity,
Here enclosed, in cinders lie.
Death is now the phoenix’s 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.
And this is where Shakespeare ends. He does not describe the rebirth. That is left to John Marston’s poem, which follows his in the volume where this poem appears. Why?
It seems that the author of Romeo and Juliet was not content to offer an allegory of the mystical union—neither the mutual annihilation of lovers, nor its larger paradigm, the vanishing of the self in God. The poem seems to describe Shunya, but it ends by bewailing what is lost in that Buddhistic self-erasure: Truth and beauty. This is the truth and beauty of Shakespeare’s stage: The personalities, the quarrels, the pettiness, the transcendence, the poetry. “The Phoenix and the Turtle” seems to comprehend the Eastern mystical goal—yet it refuses to acknowledge that goal as humankind’s highest ideal. Instead it focuses on the truth and beauty that dies in religious self-immolation. It does not progress to the consolation of the rebirth. It stops and insists we look at what was squandered in the cinders. Shakespeare himself was no stranger to men, like the Puritans, “standing in God’s holy fire,” as a later poet would phrase it. The poem is equally cold to the allure of holy fire and the supposedly renewed, holy self that emerges from it.
We have passed through a fair amount of far-removed history and religion to understand “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” discovering elements that have entered the poem without the poet’s will, and without regard for historical or cultural factors. Yet the poem ends up opposing all other descriptions, in Eastern poetry and scripture, of mystical self-annihilation as the supreme good. This Elizabethan poem privileges instead the humanistic ideals of truth and beauty, and so we end with the sense of a perfect historical fit: This is exactly the assertion we would expect from Will Shakespeare.