Wednesday, 22 June 2011

To a Mistress Dying

This one has always sent cold thrills running down my spine since I first met it.

To a Mistress Dying

by Sir William Davenant

YOUR beauty, ripe and calm and fresh
As eastern summers are,
Must now, forsaking time and flesh,
Add light to some small star.

Whilst she yet lives, were stars decay'd,
Their light by hers relief might find;
But Death will lead her to a shade
Where Love is cold and Beauty blind.

Lovers, whose priests all poets are,
Think every mistress, when she dies,
Is changed at least into a star:
And who dares doubt the poets wise?

But ask not bodies doom'd to die
To what abode they go;
Since Knowledge is but Sorrow's spy,
It is not safe to know.

Sir William Davenant (~1606 - 1668) was a poet, playwright, and theatrical producer of much colour and adventure. The actual godson and tenuously rumoured natural son of Shakespeare, he became Poet Laureate in 1638; got into all the political trouble you could shake a ramrod at through his activities in the king's cause during the Civil War; staged purportedly the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes, in his house during the height of the Puritan ascendancy; and was still writing and producing in full spate shortly before his death. John Dryden collaborated with him, and later succeeded him as Laureate, for whatever that particular bay may be worth.

It seems to me that there is a lot going on in this poem, beneath its conventionally morbid surface, and the more often I read it, the more humane ironies and sinister ambiguities I find myself reading into it.

Is it really the lover, or the philosopher, who is nearer feeling the woman's death as a catastrophe just like his own?

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