“The Living Record” – Chapter 25: “Like a Jewel Hung in Ghastly Night”

Imagine the city of London more than four hundred years ago on the night of Feb. 8, 1601, after the failure of the Essex rebellion.  Smoke rises from bonfires in the streets; armed soldiers stand guard at the corners and gates with burning torches; leaflets proclaim that the great popular Robert earl of Essex, the Queen’s general and favorite, has committed treason; word spreads that all the jails are filled with captured rebels; Essex and his twenty-six-year-old boon companion, Henry earl of Southampton [co-leader of the failed rising] are being held in some secret place before a boat will take them after midnight through Traitors Gate into the Tower of London, to be confined until their joint trial and, most certainly, their executions.

Imagine, too, that fifty-year-old Edward earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain of England and highest-ranking peer, has been at Whitehall Palace all day and into the evening, trying desperately to speak with sixty-seven-year-old Queen Elizabeth.  He needs to plead with her to help Southampton, their royal son, who had hoped to remove Principal Secretary Robert Cecil from his ability to control the coming succession.  But now the young earl, an unacknowledged prince who should rightfully succeed his mother upon her death, is in Cecil’s  grip and beyond Oxford’s reach and even beyond that of Gloriana herself.

Now finally imagine Oxford this night returning on horseback to his home in Hackney, several miles away; and in the darkness of his room, trying to settle down and sleep, his thoughts flying to Southampton imprisoned in his room high up in the Tower.  Now all Oxford’s hopes for his son [and for England itself] are gone; and the popular young earl has lost not just the crown but also his liberty and honor and likely even his life.

And now, or soon, Oxford starts a diary recording his efforts to prevent his son’s execution and gain his freedom. Whatever bargain or deal he can make with Cecil, his former brother-in-law, will have to be made quickly and certainly before the Queen dies and he loses all leverage.  He begins on a note of sheer exhaustion from his “travail” or labors today, ending with the sad trip home; and he reports how, right away, the thoughts in his head travel to his royal son in the prison fortress:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travail tired,
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind when body’s work’s expired.

These thoughts are on a kind of holy “pilgrimage” to Southampton in the Tower; they keep his eyes wide open, staring at the darkness the way blind people do:

For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee
And keep my drooping eye-lids open wide,
Looking on darkness, which the blind do see.

But now he sees his son in his imagination.  He envisions the prince, who had been “the world’s fresh ornament” or England’s rightful heir to the throne, as a bright “jewel” hanging in the “ghastly” or terrifying black night of the Tower as well as Oxford’s own room; and so the blackness of the night, and of the world, is restored to its former bright youth and beauty — reflecting his son’s mother Elizabeth, from whom Southampton has inherited his own “beauty” or royal blood:

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel (hung in ghastly night)
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.

[In the traditional view, the actor Shakspere of Stratford is away on tour and misses his beloved Southampton, but in that case the word “ghastly” seems to me to be quite overdone, a form of hyperbole of which “Shakespeare” is never guilty.  In this much different context, however, his use of “ghastly” fits the bill.  As Hamlet might say, it suits the word to the action.]

Having labored for Southampton physically and emotionally in the daytime and now working his mind for him at night, trying to think of what to do, Oxford equates himself with his son. The tragedy has affected them both in equal measure:

Lo thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for my self, no quiet find.

Within this newly perceived framework of time and circumstance, Sonnet 27 has finally found what I believe to be its correct context, where it comes alive in a completely new dimension; and in my view we can finally begin to appreciate the immortal writer’s power and skill in this verse.

It’s not what I might have expected.  If you had asked me how the father of a son with royal blood would react to this dire situation, I probably would have predicted far more “obvious” expressions of distress; I could not have envisioned what we have in Sonnet 27, which, I’d say, can be seen now as the masterpiece of steadily growing emotional power that this verse has been all along.

Published in: Uncategorized on February 18, 2009 at 11:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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