Bolton’s “Palinode,” glossed

Raphael Sadeler. Allegory of transitoriness. Landscape with two naked youths, one sitting on an urn and blowing a soap bubble, the other lying asleep with his arm on a skull near an hour-glass; after Maarten de Vos. British Museum 1937,0915.158

[After reading the poem, click on any verse to unroll an annotation. (Click again to hide it.)]

A Palinode

by Edmund Bolton

In a palinode, one takes a statement back. Literally, one sings it back—sings it away. The term combines the Greek words πάλιν (pálin), meaning “back” or “again,” and ᾠδή (ōdḗ), meaning “song.” This poem, first published in Englands Helicon, one of the greatest anthologies of lyric poetry in English, in 1600, seems to have been written by a man named Edmund Bolton; his initials appeared at the end. What might he have been trying to take back? Unfortunately, not much is known about him. He only left half a dozen poems in English, plus a few in Latin. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him a philologist, that is, someone who likes to investigate the history of words. That’s evident in another of the poems he contributed to Englands Helicon, “Theorello,” where he riffs on the ability of the Greek word κόσμος (kósmos) to mean both “the world” (as in the English word cosmos) and “an ornament” (as in cosmetics). The Oxford DNB also says that Bolton was a Catholic, for which he was persecuted; that he was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge; that he never had much money; and that his great ambition was to write history. He published a book about heraldry in 1610 and a biography of Nero in 1624, and at his death left behind a manuscript, titled “Hypercritica,” about the need for historians to test the claims of chroniclers against surviving documents. In the year 1600, however, he probably hadn’t even conceived of these books, let alone written or published them. He was only twenty-five years old.
As withereth the primrose by the river,
As fadeth summer’s sun from gliding fountains,
As vanisheth the light-blown bubble ever,
As melteth snow upon the mossy mountains,
Maybe in Bolton’s palinode it’s beauty that’s being taken back? Bolton begins his poems with an epic simile, or rather with four epic similes, each of which makes a comparison to an emblem of beauty—a primrose, sunlight, a bubble, and snow—each of which, in turn, is subject to loss. A gentle loss, in each case, appropriate to the beauty in question and somehow almost a testament to it. Because a primrose blooms in spring, because the sun is named as summer’s, and because snow belongs to winter, the emblems, and their passing, call to mind the succession of the seasons. The fragility of beauty, in other words, is from the poem’s outset associated with the work of time. The number four, by the way, is key to the structure of Bolton’s poem, which has the form of a double sonnet.
So melts, so vanisheth, so fades, so withers
After four beauties in the first four lines, the fifth line insists four times on the loss of them, reversing the order of the verbs previously used to describe their loss. Bolton manages to stay in meter by taking advantage of his era’s open-mindedness about whether the third person singular of a verb ends in -s or -eth.
The rose, the shine, the bubble, and the snow
In line 6, the emblems of beauty return, in their original order, as if Bolton is briefly restoring what time had taken.
Of praise, pomp, glory, joy (which short life gathers)—
Only in line 7 does the reader finally discover that the four similes describe not one but four things. Because Bolton is so careful about order, it seems likely that he means to describe praise as like a primrose, pomp as like sunshine, glory as like a bubble, and joy as like mountain snow.
Fair praise, vain pomp, sweet glory, brittle joy.
Bolton repeats himself in line 8, perhaps to give the reader a moment to breathe—to recover from the complexity of his four-part conceit. But look at the adjectives he has added: fair and sweet have a positive valence, but vain and brittle a negative one. A small variation has been introduced into the symmetry of the poem.
The withered primrose by the mourning river,
The faded summer’s sun from weeping fountains,
The light-blown bubble, vanished forever,
The molten snow upon the naked mountains
Bolton now repeats all four similes, in preparation for making an argument about what they reveal about their objects. Note that he goes byond merely rhyming the third quatrain with the first. Instead he re-uses all four of the first quatrain’s rhyme-words, as if to emphasize, by these samenesses, a difference: previously he had described the emblems of beauty as going; now they are gone. The river is in mourning; the fountains are weeping.
Are emblems that the treasures we up-lay
Soon wither, vanish, fade, and melt away.
According to the orthodox Christian deprecation, the rewards of this world are worthless because they won’t last. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal,” counseled Jesus (Matthew 6:19 [KJV]). Thisworldly praise and glory, Bolton’s similes maintain, are as ephemeral as thisworldly beauty. Are they what Bolton is giving up? Bolton’s imagery is in tension with his ostensible moral here. People do sometimes hope that textiles and metals will last in storage, but Bolton hasn’t mentioned any such treasures, and I’m not sure anyone has that hope about flowers or summer light. Note that in line 14, the last line in the first stanza, Bolton has braided his verbs in a new order, signaling a complication, or at least an interest in complicating. Note also that Bolton hasn’t said anything about the brevity of beauty’s lifespan here below that is likely to make the beauty any less appealing.

The emblem that comes last in the first stanza of the poem comes first in the second.
For as the snow, whose lawn did overspread
Th’ambitious hills, which giant-like did threat
To pierce the heaven with their aspiring head,
Naked and bare doth leave their craggy seat;
The snow now appears in a new aspect. No longer merely an object to be lost, it is now an actor; the snow is leaving. There’s almost a hint, too, that it’s leaving after a relationship with its mountain that turned out to be difficult. The mountain, ambitious and aspiring, seems to have had an angry way of being in the world.
Whenas the bubble, which did empty fly
The dalliance of the undiscerned wind,
On whose calm rolling waves it did rely,
Hath shipwreck made, where it did dalliance find;
From snow, the element that came fourth in the first stanza, Bolton moves backward to the bubble, which came third there. The bubble, too, now seems to be acting rather than suffering its fate: it flies the wind (in which there seems, again, to be the suggestion of an unreliable partner, whose failing in this case is fickleness), and it makes its shipwreck. To construe these suggestions of active losing and of previous relationships, a reader has to bring to the poem her own sensibility and experience. I think I hear the possibility that the sensual beauty of this world, like the social rewards we find in it, doesn’t exist independent of our perceiving but is created, to some extent, by the need in us that calls for it, and isn’t lost merely in the forward motion of history, but is lived through—enjoyed through the same process that exhausts it.
And when the sunshine, which dissolved the snow,
Four: snow. Three: bubble. Two: sunshine. Next should come the primrose, but instead Bolton has jumped back to snow, his fourth element. And not only has the poem veered out of sequence. For the first time, the relation between the elements isn’t mere juxtaposition. There’s cause and effect. The sun melted the snow.
Colored the bubble with a pleasant vary,
And made the rathe and timely primrose grow,
It melted the snow, it colored the bubble, and it grew the primrose. A vary, by the way, is a variation, and rathe means “early” (another way of saying you would sooner do A than B is to say that you would rather do A than B). The beauties that exist in the world, it turns out, cause one other as well as give way to one other—the way seasons do.
Swarth clouds withdraw (which longer time do tarry);
I’ve made a small emendation to line 26. As originally printed in Englands Helicon, its beginning reads, “Swarth clowdes with-drawne.” I’ve emended with-drawne to withdraw. Instead of the subject-verb-object order usual in English sentences (the cat eats the mouse), Bolton has gone with the less-common but not unheard-of object-subject-verb order (the mouse the cat eats). I suspect that this confused the typesetter, who mistakenly tried to “correct” it. In other words, I think Bolton originally wrote, “And when the sunshine . . . / Swarth clouds withdraw,” meaning, roughly, And when swarthy clouds withdraw the sunshine . . .
The second stanza up to this point (lines 15 through 26) attempts to introduce a new epic simile, intended to answer the four similes of the first stanza. As snow leaves hills, as a bubble makes its shipwreck, and as sunshine, when clouds withdraw it . . . The clouds, by the way, having obscured the sunshine, tarry for a longer time than the sunshine did, the persona of Bolton’s poem observes parenthetically—
—and in the middle of his thought loses track of where he was in his own sentence. Bolton’s speaker breaks off—the term of art is aposiopesis, as the philologist Bolton no doubt knew—as if so frustrated by the difficulty of what he’s trying to say that he needs to give up and tackle it again from a less poetical angle.
Oh, what is praise, pomp, glory, joy, but so
As shine by fountains, bubbles, flowers, or snow?
After all, he seems to fall back to saying, there’s nothing to compare the rewards of this world to other than what he has already compared them to. It’s as if, having lived in his similes long enough, so long that he has discovered in them a new aspect of action and a new context of relationship, it no longer seems likely to Bolton that anyone will confuse perdurability with value. A thing isn’t less meaningful because it doesn’t last. How could we think so? Neither we, beauty, nor the relationships in which we find ourselves and beauty are going to survive. He recants recantation.

Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Bolton’s “Theorello,” Bolton’s “Hypercritica,”, the text of “A Palinode” as printed in Englands Helicon.

The return of clickable Thomas Wyatt

Giovanni Battista Palumba, Diana bathing with her attendants transforming Actaeon into a stag, c. 1500, © Trustees of the British Museum, 1845,0825.627

[Four years ago, I figured out a way to make an interlinear gloss appear and disappear when you clicked on the lines of a poem. Then I switched my blog-hosting software, and all the magic crumbled. But I found a WordPress plug-in yesterday called Collapse-pro-matic, and after a few hours of kludgy hacking, Thomas Wyatt is back in action, as you’ll see if you click on any of the lines of verse below. —CC, 22 September 2016]

They Flee from Me

by Thomas Wyatt

Remembering lost lovers is a bittersweet pleasure.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
Thomas Wyatt seems to be looking back at his lovers from middle age, though he can’t have been too old when he wrote it; he didn’t live to be forty. When this poem was first published, in an anthology that appeared in 1557, a decade and a half after his death, the editor gave the following explanation of what happens in it: “The lover showeth how he is forsaken of such as he sometime enjoyed.” By tradition, men hunt, and women are hunted, but love didn’t always quite work that way even in the sixteenth century, and no sooner does Wyatt introduce the metaphor of hunting than he messes with it. In the very first line, the poet is hunting creatures that once hunted him.
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
Are they deer? “To stalk,” wrote one of Wyatt’s 19th-century commentators, “means to steal softly with noiseless step.” But a hunter also stalks. Naked feet, stalking—I imagine that in the darkness, the poet’s bedroom chamber has become overgrown with verdure, and maybe even forested, like Max’s in Where the Wild Things Are. Or perhaps the creatures are ghosts. Infidelity and death are two ways of losing a lover to time.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
As the poet remembers how the creatures came to him, his memories of them also seem to approach, advancing from the simple past to the present perfect tense. They’re so docile that the reader may wonder whether hunting really is the metaphor in play. The creatures seem to have offered themselves to the poet freely, like the animals who submitted themselves to Adam for naming in the Garden of Eden.
That now are wild and do not remember
Tame in one line, wild in the next. However accustomed to his touch the creatures once were, they don’t know his hand any more; they no longer come when called. I’m reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Fawn, who lets Alice clasp his neck as the two of them walk together through the wood where things have no name, only to shy away from her once he discovers, upon emerging from the wood, that he’s prey and she’s a predator.
That sometime they put themselves in danger
The note of danger returns the reader to his first guess: The poet does seem to be describing an episode of hunting, after all. Hunters lay lures; they hope their victims don’t perceive the threat until too late. But the word danger is rhymed with remember and chamber, raising the complicating possibility that, whatever direction the vector of hazard may have pointed in the past, it’s the poet who’s at risk now, in peril for having ventured so far into memory.
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Maybe it’s hard to distinguish hunting from domestication because the fate of a cow or pig isn’t all that different from that of a hunted deer. Domestication is an act of hunting that takes place in slow motion—over the course of the animal’s lifetime—in a confined space.
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Suddenly the creatures have escaped the confined space; abruptly the metaphor of hunter and deer has dropped away. By betraying an interest in change for its own sake, the fugitives reveal that they have the moral complexity and disreputableness of human beings. I suppose you could describe the “seeking” of the creatures as foraging, if you insisted on finding a way to continue the venatorial metaphor, but I suspect that the important discovery here is that metaphor isn’t able to hold them.

The poet’s tone of voice shifts. Perhaps because he made himself vulnerable in the first stanza, he starts the second one with a touch of bluster.
Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
It would hardly be courtly, let alone gentlemanly, for a poet to boast of his conquests. But after a confession of general romantic failure, in what sounds like middle age, a little boasting about his youth seems licensed. “I graunte I do not professe chastite,” Wyatt once admitted.
Twenty times better; but once in special
Let me tell you about this one time when I totally scored.
In thin array after a pleasant guise
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
The poet is undressing the woman, or rather, recalling how her clothes fell from her.
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Notice that it’s she who caught him. Rather gallantly, he resists describing her naked body, even while describing how it was revealed, until he comes to her arms. It isn’t indiscreet to describe a woman’s arms, and somehow the inherent modesty of arms makes it all the more poignant that he lingers over them.
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?
This is an immortal line. Wyatt’s 19th-century commentator is at pains to insist on “the propriety of this image,” maintaining that it represents a convention of chivalry: “whenever a lady accepted the service of a knight, . . . she gave him a kiss, and this was considered to be an inviolable bond of obligation.” No doubt the kiss that Wyatt received did play on a chivalric convention, but the bond in question turned out not to be inviolable, and it’s the erotic intensity of the image that brings tears to my eyes. I know that the phrasing of the woman’s question doesn’t sound colloquial today, but I feel confident that the rhythm of it was natural in Wyatt’s day. In fact I feel confident that a woman once existed who said these exact words to Wyatt while he was in love with her—I feel as if I’ve heard her say them to him—and I’m sorry, but I imagine that she was doing more than kissing him while she spoke. “Dere hert,” is how the words are spelled in the surviving manuscript and in the first publication of the poem. The poet has himself become the deer and the hart, not clearly distinguished from dear and heart in 16th-century orthography. He was and still is willing to be taken. It’s for this moment, and for the concentration of pleasure into this moment, that she once came into his room, that he is revisiting the memory now, and that we are reading the poem.

In the third stanza, the poet’s tone of voice shifts again, turning conversational, even plain. He acknowledges that he has asked us to believe in the reality of a moment that even he has trouble still believing in.
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
Today we would say wide awake rather than broad waking, but the meaning is the same. He experienced the woman’s love with the channels of his senses completely open.
But all is turned through my gentleness
He has been too kind to her. By gentleness he means not just the mildness of his manners but also the gentility of them. His highmindedness. His willingness to play the role of Lancelot to Guinevere—to let her go back to King Arthur if she wants to (Wyatt was long thought to have been a lover of Anne Boleyn’s before she became the wife of Henry VIII, though the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography doubts the liaison), or to let her take up with another knight altogether. Or maybe there’s a note of self-reproach in the poet’s description of himself as gentle. Maybe he means that he didn’t hold on to her hard enough.
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
Already in the 16th century, seeing other people was a bold thing that lovers tried, in order to prove they weren’t hamstrung by conventional morals. Fitzgerald, on the Jazz Age: “I remember a perfectly mated, contented young mother asking my wife’s advice about ‘having an affair right away,’ though she had no one especially in mind.”
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
Leave means “permission,” and of her goodness, “thanks to her graciousness.” But puns multiply in the poem’s closing lines, and her goodness also means “her goodness,” which the poet would rather not leave. Note that this line, like the two preceding it, is in the present tense. It turns out that the affair must not have happened in the poet’s long-ago youth, as the first two stanzas suggested; the loss of it is happening now. The poet and the woman have just recently had the conversation where they decided on their new terms, and they’re still repeating the terms to themselves, in an effort to convince themselves of the rightness of them. From the first stanza to the third, there has also been a shift from plural to singular, from they to her. It’s a poem crafted by means of what people in Hollywood call “cheating”: the artful dovetailing of unmatched parts to create an impression of unity.
And she also to use newfangleness.
It’s strange that newfangled still sounds like a novelty word, when it happens to be quite an old one. One of Wyatt’s 20th-century commentators observes that “the word is often used by Chaucer.” In Wyatt’s day it could refer to both an item that is “objectionably modern,” as the OED puts it, and to an immoderate inclination to try such items. In the ballad “The Boy and the Mantle,” for example, Queen Guinevere is attracted to a cloak, despite being told that it has the power to expose unfaithful wives, because “the Ladye shee was new fangle.” Wyatt and his lover have given each other permission to try a new and trendy way of being in a romance, which may amount to a propensity for new and trendy lovers.
But since that I so kindly am served,
Kindly here means both “with kindness” and “in kind”: since Wyatt is being treated with such kindness, . . . since Wyatt is being given the kind of treatment he gave his lover, . . . Both meanings are ironic. The implication is that Wyatt has no right to complain of his lover’s so-called goodness and so-called gentleness, because he started it. She’s only repaying him in his own coin. According to one of Wyatt’s 20th-century commentators, the word served in this line may suggest a reversal: the courtly lover is being served by his mistress instead of serving her. But what kind of cavalier serves his mistress by loving others?
I would fain to know what she hath deserved.
If Wyatt is getting what he deserved, namely, a taste of his own medicine, what does his lover deserve? On a first reading the question sounds almost rhetorical, as if the poet were making a half-hearted attempt to be cynical at the expense of his old lover, so as to prove to himself that he doesn’t miss her. But it might be a real question. Perhaps the answer is “Wyatt,” since his lover doesn’t seem to have behaved any better (or worse) than he did. Or maybe the most that she deserves is this poem—a memory of the happiness they briefly made with each other, set somewhat ironically in verse—their real love recalled and lost all over again in a courtly form.