blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


RON SMITH  |  Red Guitar No. 1

Beyond Irony

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—

That’s Romeo first laying eyes on Juliet. For me, those lines work every time, whether I’m reading or seeing the play. They do to me what I believe Shakespeare wants them to do: ravish me, collapse the distance between Romeo and me, make me feel what presumably that dazed youth feels. Shakespeare was a master of complex irony, much of it distancing in its effect. But the impact here is beyond irony. The lines are full of awe, and they awe me.

The first real American critic, Edgar Allan Poe, knew Romeo and Juliet well. It was a play his famous mother acted in many times, yet he suppressed his admiration for the play—not, I would argue, for morbid or traumatic reasons, not, say, because his mother died young like Juliet—but no doubt because the play had become an all-purpose, omnipresent resource and hobbyhorse for the “sensitive.” As J.D. McClatchy says of a slightly later period, “[T]he preferred poetic style of the day [was] too often mere melodramatic narrative and sentimental effusion.” However, when excitable but unsentimental Poe referred to “the elevation of the soul” created by beauty, especially beauty in art, I like to think he had Romeo and Juliet in the back of his mind. Shakespeare certainly aims to lift us.

Consider: Romeo’s probably taller than this as-yet-unnamed girl. But even if Juliet is not in the small upper playing area of the stage, as she probably is not, still the metaphor suggests that Romeo is looking up to her. Because she is that consequence hanging in the stars, because he compares her to a jewel on the night, because he will—Shakespeare knows—soon look up to her balcony, compare her to an even brighter heavenly body, the sun, that he will climb up there, will rise into the sky. She is, yes, his superior. They will be, as the play’s title indicates, co-protagonists, and he is older, but this only serves to emphasize her superior maturity, her astonishing spiritual strength, as well as her role of Platonic ideal.

Romeo’s lines are, for me, a continuing miracle of emotional levitation.

Professional poet Billy Shakespeare was in a dogfight. In his time, every poet in Christendom aimed to impress, dazzle, astonish. It was probably as hard in Shakespeare’s day as in our own to bowl over a sophisticated audience with love language. Maybe harder, since the Petrarchan tradition was still very much alive. Shakespeare would have understood perfectly Roland Barthes’s comment that “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive . . . and impoverished.”

Poe asserted that the long “o” concluding in an “r” was the most mournful sound in all the world. But especially in the context of Romeo’s utterance, the word “torches” is anything but mournful. That tough, alliterative “t” at the beginning and the cacophonous bite at the end, that “ch”—these sounds turn what might have been a love-sick moan into a missile of psychic energy.

So, for forty years now, those lines have worked for me, have worked on me. I re-test them from time to time. As far as I can tell, the effect is always the same. Nostalgia? I can’t discount nostalgia’s effects, but clearly there’s much more to it than that.

Not all the lines I loved when I was a teenager still enthrall me. Some now strike me as childish. The first stanza of Wordsworth’s daffodil poem, for instance:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

In high school, that lifted me, floated me, actually seemed to flutter my heart. Now it makes me smile a sometimes sour smile.

And Shelley’s once-entrancing “The Cloud,” with its meteorological mysticism, its jingly pantheism—oh how it reeks of bad Disney:

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
           From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
           In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
           The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,
           As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
           And whiten the green plains under;
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
           And laugh as I pass in thunder.

Susceptible Romeo may be only 15, but he is always convincingly smitten, always truly transported when his jaw drops and he gasps,

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—


Of course the imagery is gorgeous, a “she” out-flaming torches, torches which reach toward that superior fire like suppliants, the rapid, overlapping transformations of a girl into a celestial body into a jewel—no doubt a diamond—hanging from what must be an African prince’s ear, a figure of mystery, wealth, charisma, dignity, a very Othello. And the lack of specificity of the image is functional. The light of revelation simultaneously reveals and obscures. What, precisely, flames here? Romeo is not talking about her eyes. In his pre-Juliet mooning and posturing he spoke of “a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes,” a crisp and contained image—and of course a hackneyed one. No, the cry illicited by this new beauty speaks more of the impression she makes on his deepest self. He sees her but it’s the effect of seeing her that dominates the image. When he spoke earlier of his love of Rosaline, then, too, did he speak more about himself than of the cause of his emotional state. But here the language is fresh, surprising, where before it was predictable, shopworn. Romeo—that is, Shakespeare, in supplying the words Romeo would use if he could put language to its ultimate use—is trying to say the unsayable.

We’re at the limits of language because Romeo’s at the limits of human experience—and suddenly, without warning. Shakespeare aims to lift the moment out of time, off the earth. And, again I insist, succeeds. These lovers must transcend the social world, the world of feuds and petty quarrels. Hannah Arendt wrote, “Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical. . . .” And indeed this love, in its despairing final and sacrificial ritual, will blow away the political divisions between the Montagues and the Capulets.

No distancing irony in Romeo’s three lines, but the lines do resonate; they ring the play like a bell. And they can be put intriguingly into the context of Shakespeare’s entire career.

We might speculate that what really makes the imagery of the line work are its dark undertones, the suggestion of death in night, the suggestion of damnation in what must be a Muslim cheek. Shakespeare’s audience would have found an Ethiop exotic partly because of his non-Christian status. The poem’s first lines told that audience these were star-crossed lovers, lovers doomed by fate. A few lines before crashing the Capulet party Romeo felt the dread of “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars.” And, now, here’s his star: Juliet, who will complete his identify, who will be his supreme joy and the cause of his death. “Love . . . has two faces; one white, the other black; two bodies; one smooth, the other hairy. It has two hands, two feet, two tails, two, indeed, of every member and each one is the exact opposite of the other. Yet, so strictly are they joined together that you cannot separate them,” says Virginia Woolf in Orlando. And in context Romeo’s exclamation indirectly acknowledges the extreme polarities of male and female, life and death, gain and loss, joy and pain. That black cheek is, though, immediately merely an enhancing backdrop for that bright jewel. We can stretch to find a hint of the Moor Aaron’s calculated villainy in Shakespeare’s earlier and wildly popular Titus Andronicus. So let’s stretch for a moment: Think of the nearly intolerable pathos of Juliet’s later “Alack, alack, that heaven should practice stratagems / Upon so soft a subject as myself!” That cry in Act 3 equates heaven with fate, the eternal sky’s influence upon mortals with cruel exploitation, the kind that Aaron reveled in. And then later in Shakespeare’s career Othello certainly will kill a woman as completely admirable and forthrightly sexual as Juliet when he operatically snuffs out his wife Desdemona. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo will again respond to Juliet’s presence by conjuring up a blurred image of overpowering light. Of her tomb, he says, “[H]ere lies Juliet, and her beauty makes / This vault a feasting presence full of light.”

But Romeo’s three lines can create their essential effect, I’d argue, even in a first reading, even in audiences who don’t know this play or Shakespeare’s other plays at all.

Because of the incalculable subtleties of what we might call acoustic psychology, the magic of a passage like this is probably impossible to define. Certainly, though, some of its effect comes from its perfectly chosen sounds. Alfred Harbage writes that Romeo’s first words about Juliet, “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! monosyllabic, alliterative, with its series of open ‘o’ sounds succeeded by a series of ‘r’ and ‘b’ sounds, actually compel the speaker to begin open-mouthed and gradually compress the lips as in amazement.” Harbage’s “It is a fine full utterance” of course strikes me as a considerable understatement. And when he says it is “succeeded by a brilliant metaphor,” I take it he’s referring only to the second and third lines. If he’s referring to the subsequent lines, though, I think he’s wrong. The whole passage reads,

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure [dance] done, I'll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.

The dove trooping with crows seems hardly original, and it drags a spiritual force down from the night sky to embodiment in a mere bird. And the questionable idiom “her place of stand” strikes my twenty-first century ear as forcing a rhyme. Romeo is not yet purged of his Petrarchan artificialities, though that first blow through the eyes has prepared him for such purging. Stunned by the present moment, he plans for future bliss, reassesses and turns his back on the mere infatuations of his past. The substitute foot “beauty,” trochaic in this iambic framework, emphasizes the exceptional nature of Juliet’s dovelike beauty over that of such crows as the instantly forgotten Rosaline. The spondaic substitute in the third line, in the phrase “rich jewel,” functions like a cinematic zoom as Romeo’s consciousness focuses in on the girl who is a fire, a star, a diamond, a dove. None of these vehicles will quite do for this tenor, and the piling up of comparisons, including the somewhat disappointing one involving birds, both enriches our response to the girl and indicates the impossibility of conveying the reality of her presence. The open vowels convey awe; the high pitched vowels, intense excitement. The conventionally lethargic lover of the first scenes has become a dynamo. The outburst moves through five couplets, commencing with the contrasting bright/night rhyme, and circling back to conclude by rhyming “sight“ with “night.”

It’s true that Romeo can’t yet sustain the level of poetry in his first three lines here. This must be why Harbage says that “the language is not yet different in kind from that in which he expresses his love for Rosaline”—surely, Harbage can’t mean that Romeo’s “fine, full utterance” is merely a Petrarchan cliché. Filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli intensified the visionary moment by cutting the clumsy fourth couplet. Filmmaker Baz Lehrman, either failing to appreciate the best part of the utterance or attempting to do the job purely with cinematic lushness, unfortunately cut the entire speech.

The play’s next speaker, Tybalt, reveals that Romeo has not spoken a discreet aside, that he has blurted out those ten lines. Tybalt’s response does not rhyme, and thus throws into relief the radiant music of Romeo’s exclamation.

This, by his voice, should be a Montague.
Fetch me my rapier, boy. What dares the slave
Come hither, cover’d with an antic face,
To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?

Of course fleer and scorn are the last things Romeo has done or will do. He’s a goner. His couplets not only prefigure the creation of a couple, they have conferred a kind of sacredness upon the Capulet’s mere “solemnity.”

So, do the imagery and the vowel and consonant combinations alone account for the power of Romeo’s initial utterance?

More and more I’m convinced that what stirs and awes me is mainly the movement of the line and especially the movement from line to line.

That run-on line thrills me. The play is full of end-stopped couplets. But here Romeo’s revelation rushes us past the bright/night rhyme, rushes us over the next line’s syllables and hangs, focuses in on the spondee in “rich jewel,” then rushes to the line’s end. That rushing-past-night enjambment is intensified by the long, stunned stop after the first line. The message is clear: real love enlivens, quickens. The enjambment speaks of overflowingness—and of two who before our eyes will make much more than a mere couple. One plus one here equals vastly more than two. Romeo plus Juliet will equal perfect, transcendent, mythologically eternal love.

Juliet spells out this enjambment’s meaning in the next act where she creates the same effect: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have. . . .”

Much has been written about Romeo and Juliet’s first exchange, that tour de force of sonnet-writing-as-dialogue.

ROMEO: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
              This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
              My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
              To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
             Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
             For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
             And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
              They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

This delightful, elaborate verbal fencing eventuates in a kiss. Of course, at the play’s very beginning, Shakespeare had taken this quintessential poetic form for lovers and charged it with doom. The play began with a sonnet, a prologue spoken by the one-man chorus, a sonnet whose content is inescapable disaster and open avowal of the play’s illusion.

  Two households, both alike in dignity,
      In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
   From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
      Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
   From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
      A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
  Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
      Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
   The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
      And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
   Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
      Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
   The which if you with patient ears attend,
   What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Now, near the end of Act I, Shakespeare again surprises the sonnet connoisseurs in his audience by the open contrivance of blending dramatic dialogue into what will one day be called a Shakespearean sonnet. Elizabethan audiences spoke of going to “hear” not “see” a play. Shakespeare could count on even many of the illiterate members of his audience responding to his best effects. And they would have heard in this exchange a beautiful demonstration of a perfect fit by a playwright who is most definitely showing off.

The exchange is more impressive than stirring. It is brilliant and we admire its brilliance. There is more than a whiff of convention here, of predictable amatory fencing. Indeed, Juliet will say in four more lines, after they kiss, “You kiss by the book.”

In subsequent scenes Romeo and Juliet will more and more use the language of transcendent love, of extraordinary devotion, the language of intensity and sincerity. But as they get to know each other, Shakespeare can afford a few flourishes.

He is conducting a workshop in love poetry. He is making it obvious to everybody, especially the poetic competition, that he can write rhyme that sails above the choked conventionality he parodied so effectively in Romeo’s earliest speeches, when the youth believed his infatuation with Rosaline was real love.

But can we finally believe in this love at first sight? Shakespeare certainly understands Mercutio’s vulgar realism, and he was certainly no teenager when he wrote the play. The heyday of his blood was at least somewhat tame. But in As You Like It, the only time in his career he paid homage to a contemporary poet, he quoted Christopher Marlowe’s line from Hero and Leander: “Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”

For all his skepticism in other works, Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet has set himself the task of portraying instant and ultimate sexual love. Toward the end of his career he will revisit this theme of ultimate sexual love with the middle aged lovers Antony and Cleopatra, in another play whose language alone can disarm and convince.

Shakespeare is, of course, both Mercutio and Romeo, both Iago and Othello. He is a realist, yes, but he’s also an idealist, as much transcendentalist as naturalist, as much spiritualist as physicalist.

I like to think Shakespeare somehow spoke through Lawrence Durrell when Durrell said, “It’s unthinkable not to love—you’d have a severe nervous breakdown. Or you’d have to be Philip Larkin.”  

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