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The Phoenix and the Turtle
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents

Type of Work
Publication
What Was a Phoenix?
The Turtle 
Meaning of the Poem
Summary
Complete Poem, Notes
Figures of Speech
Themes
Rhyme and Meter
Study Questions
Essay Topics
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
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Type of Work

William Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle" is a poem that may be characterized as both an allegory and an elegy. An allegory is a literary work with a hidden meaning (and sometimes several hidden meanings). An elegy is a somber poem lamenting a person's death or memorializing a dead person.

Publication

“The Phoenix and the Turtle” appeared in a 1601 book that also included works by Shakespeare contemporaries Ben Jonson (1572-1637), George Chapman (1559-1634), and John Marston (1576-1634). 

What Was a Phoenix?

In Egyptian mythology, the phoenix was a bird that lived five hundred years, then died in a fire after the sun ignited an Arabian tree on which the phoenix was perched. The tree was located near Heliopolis, Egypt. From the ashes, the phoenix rose to new life. The turtledove is a small pigeon sometimes erroneously referred to as a mourning dove because of its melancholy cooing. (The mourning dove is native to America, not Europe.)

The Turtle

The turtle is a turtledove, an affectionate wild dove known for its plaintive cooing.

Meaning of the Poem

The hidden, or symbolic, meaning of “The Phoenix and the Turtle” is open to interpretation. In other words, what or whom the birds symbolize is a matter for the reader to decide. Some readers believe the birds represent Queen Elizabeth I and the Second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux (1566 or 1567-1601). Devereux had distinguished himself in a military campaign in The Netherlands against the Spanish in 1586 and went on to become a favorite of the queen. But he provoked her ire when he took part in a Portugal campaign without her consent and then, in 1590, married the widow of writer Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586).
 
However, he regained her favor after leading an English force against France in 1591 and enhanced his position at court by uncovering an alleged murder plot against the queen in 1594. But after he participated in further military exploits against the Spanish in 1596 and 1597, he fell in disfavor because of his unruliness and ambition, and on one occasion the queen even slapped him. On a campaign against rebels in Ireland, he suffered a defeat and made an objectionable truce. Consequently, Elizabeth stripped him of his estates and political offices. In 1601, he led a failed uprising against the queen and was executed for treason in the Tower of London. 

Interpreted against this background, the poem could mean that the love between Elizabeth and Essex simply burned itself out, like the phoenix and the dove in the poem. However, distinguished critic G.B. Harrison, editor of Shakespeare: The Complete Works maintains that the exact meaning of the poem (if one was intended by Shakespeare) may never be revealed because its symbolism was apparently known only to a select inner circle in Shakespeare’s time. “Until these persons and events are discovered,” Harrison says, “The Phoenix and the Turtle will remain an enigma” (Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952. Page 1590).

Summary

In Shakespeare's poem, the birds become one in their love and die together in a fire. The poem begins when other birds are summoned for a funeral pageant. Banned from attending are the fiendish screech owl (Stanza 2) and “fowls of tyrant wing” (Stanza 3). But the eagle, a “feathered king” (Stanza 3) is welcome, and a swan is to act as “the priest in surplice white” (Stanza 4). The crow, too, may attend (Stanza 5), his caws and sable feathers appropriate to the occasion. The poem then describes the loving relationship between the phoenix and the turtledove. Stanza 9 is particularly moving; its last line–either was the other’s mine–is superb with its double-meaning. On the one hand, it suggests a fusing of identities: I am you, and you are I; or, put another way, you are mine, and I am yours. On the other hand, it suggests that either bird is a mine–as in gold mine or diamond mind–for the other bird.
 
The poem ends with a "threnos" (funeral song) eulogizing the birds.
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The Phoenix and the Turtle

Let the bird of loudest lay,1
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey....................4

But thou, shriking2harbinger,3
Foul pre-currer4 of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.........................8

From this session interdict5
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king:
Keep the obsequy6 so strict...............................12

Let the priest in surplice7 white,
That defunctive8 music can,
Be the death-divining9 swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right...........................16

And thou, treble-dated crow,10
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go....................20

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.............................24

So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain...........................28

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder..............................32

So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight:
Either was the other's mine................................36

Property11 was thus appall'd,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was call'd............................38

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either-neither,
Simple were so well compounded.......................42

That it cried how true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none
If what parts can so remain................................46

Whereupon it made this threne12
To the phoenix and the dove,
Co-supreme and stars of love;
As chorus to their tragic scene...........................48

THRENOS.

Beauty, truth, and rarity.
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd in cinders lie.................................51

Death is now the phoenix' nest;
And the turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,..........................................54

Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.......................................57

Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.................................60

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer......................63

Notes

1....lay: Song, voice.
2....shriking: Said of a shrike, a predatory bird with a hooked beakin this case, an owl.
3....harbinger: Herald of doom.
4....pre-currer: Precursor, forerunner.
5....interdict: Forbid, ban, block.
6....obsequy: Funeral rite.
7....surplice: White, loose-fitting garment worn over a cassock by priests and altar boys.
8....defunctive: Having to do with the dead; for the dead.
9....death-divining swan: Swan that prophesies death in its song.
10..treble-dated crow: Long-living crow. According to an ancient belief, a crow lived three times as long as a human being. 
11..Property: Proper individuality. It was not proper for one individual to become part of another.
12..threne: funeral song, dirge.

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.

Alliteration
Let the bird of loudest lay (line 1)

Be the death-divining swan (line 15)

That it cried how true a twain (line 43)

Truth and beauty buried be (line 60)

Metaphor

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be
Comparison of the bird to a herald and a trumpet

Paradox

Distance, and no space was seen (line 30)

Themes

The main theme of the poem is the intense love that binds two creatures to each other, turning them into a single being. A secondary theme is the sadness that pervades the poem.

Rhyme

In each of the four-line stanzas (quatrains), the last line rhymes with the fourth; the second line rhymes with the third. The first stanza demonstrates the pattern.

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
Note, however, that the second stanza has close rhymes only, unless one alters the pronunciation of harbinger, making it har bin jeer, and the pronunciation of fiend, making it fe end.

In the threnos, the first, second, and third lines of each stanza rhyme. However, note that in the first stanza of the threnos, lie must be pronounced as lee or the y in rarity and simplicity must be pronounced as an i.

Meter

There are seven syllables in each line. The stress falls on the first, third, fifth, and seventh syllables, as the second stanza indicates:

BUT thou, SHRIking HARbinGER,

FOUL pre-CURrer OF the FIEND,

AUgur of the FEver's END,

TO this troop come THOU not NEAR..

The metric pattern thus is trochaic tetrameter, meaning each foot consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable and that each line has four feet. However, the last foot of each line is catalecticthat is, it consists of only one syllable.  The following presentation of the second stanza illustrates its metric format:
.......1..................2................3............4
BUT thou,..|..SHRI king..|..HAR bin..|..GER,

.......1.................2.............3............4
FOUL pre-..|..CUR rer..|..OF the..|..fiend,

.....1............2............3...........4
AU gur..|..of the..|..FE ver's..|..end,

.....1................2...................3..............4
TO this..|..troop come..|..THOU not..|..near..

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1...Write a short poem that imitates the rhyme scheme of "The Phoenix and the Turtle." The topic is open. 
2...Write a short poem that imitates the metric scheme of "The Phoenix and the Turtle." The topic is open. 
3...Write an essay that informs the reader about ancient myths involving the phoenix.
4...In your opinion, what is the meaning of lines 55-57?  (See below.)

Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.