A Poem That Speaks For Itself

By Robert Pinsky on 4.10.09

Peele wrote this song, with its hypnotic pauses and haunting cadences for his play The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe. The play is read only by scholars, as far as I know; the poem is not easily forgotten by anyone who reads it aloud once.

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Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair;
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me;
Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me:
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of mourning.
          Let not my beauty’s fire
          Inflame unstaid desire,
          Nor pierce any bright eye
          That wandereth lightly.

“Bethsabe’s Song” was written in a period when poetry and song were close. Social life included the expectations that an accomplished, middle-class person would be able to carry a part in a six-voice madrigal. That background is relevant but cannot explain the effects in this poem: the way the two-syllable units at the beginning, from “hot sun” through “white hair” create a plangent expectation—varied not by contrast with some longer syntactical unit but by a movement still more compressed, the one-syllable imperatives: “Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air”: elements charged with energy like that of a magic charm or prayer. The elegant stammer of repetition on the word “cause,” also, but in a different way, concentrates on a one-syllable unit.

But beyond a certain point, what can you say? Description and commentary can make details of a work like this more apprehensible, but ultimately art speaks for itself, or not. There’s no explaining the gorgeous quality, the pathos and grace I find in a line like “Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning.”

topics: Essential Pleasures