“Lo! as a careful housewife runs to catch/One of her feather’d creatures broke away,…”

Shakespeare Sonnet #143

Lo! as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather’d creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe and makes an swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay,
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent;
So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind:
So will I pray that thou mayst have thy ‘Will,’
If thou turn back, and my loud crying still.

Although this sonnet follows the previous one in requesting that the woman be kind to him and take pity on him, it differs considerably from its predecessors. It takes the form of a lengthy simile in which the beloved is compared to a flustered housewife, the poet’s rival is a chicken in flight, and the poet himself is a tear-stained, blubbering child. Not exactly the sort of images which exalt the participants in any way. This is far removed from the typical Petrarchan sonnet in which the beloved is a goddess or a saint, the lover is a penitent hermit clothed in sackcloth, and no rivals are seen unless they are permitted to adore and wonder from a safe distance. Nevertheless the Petrarchan tradition had been expanded by Italian and French sonneteers to include far-fetched and curious comparisons, and their influence had spread to the English sonnet writers, who blatantly borrowed from their Continental counterparts, usually without any acknowledgement. Thus in the sequence to Chloris, the poet laments that he is not like a hound which eats grass in order to vomit, or a snake which sloughs its skin.

The Hound, by eating grass, doth find relief:
For being sick, it is his choicest meat.
The wounded Hart doth ease his pain and grief,
If he the herb
Dictamion may eat etc. Chl.19. Smith 1596.
Later he finds that women are unlike wild animals, in that they cannot be domesticated:
The elephant, although a mighty beast,
A man may rule according to his skill.
The lusty horse obeyeth our behest,
For with the curb you may him guide at will.
…..
Only a woman, if she list not love,
No art, nor force, can unto pity move.
ibid.39.

One therefore half expects that this sonnet with its chicken chasing imagery might have its counterpart in the works of Ronsard, Du Bellay, Desportes, or their numerous imitators, and an assiduous search might reveal it. However Shakespeare was less slavishly dependent in his sonnets on what had gone before, and in so far as his work was derivative, he tended to draw and absorb materials from a wide variety of sources. Commentators have suggested that he would have recalled an episode from The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:
This sely widwe, and eek her doghtres two,        widow, daughters
Herden these hennes cry and maken woo,          
heard, woe
And out at doores sterten they anoon,                 
started, immediately
And syen the fox toward the grove goon,           
saw
And bar upon his bak the cok away;                    
bore, back, cock
And cryden ‘Out! harrow! and weylaway!         
cried, hunting cries
Ha, ha, the fox!’ and after him they ran,     
And eek with staves many another man etc
.       also, cudgels       CT.4565-4572(OUP 1962).

Also the description of a fowl from the Faerie Queene by Spenser.
As fearefull fowle, that long in secret cave,
For dread of soaring hawk herself hath hid,
Nor caring how her silly life to save,
She her gay painted plumes disorderid etc.
FQ.II.3.36.

The use of extended similes in poetry dates back to the epic poems of Homer – The Iliad and The Odyssey, of about 900 – 700 BC. Chapman was working on his translation of Homer at about this time, for some books of The Iliad were published in 1598. The works would have been known before that in Latin translations. The poetry of Virgil, especially his epic poem The Aeneid, was also well known to the Elizabethans. It is difficult to guess how much Shakespeare might have been influenced and inspired by these sources. I give below the Homeric simile which I think is closest to the simile used here, the picture of a child clinging to her mother’s skirts being particularly striking. It comes from Book 16 of the Iliad in which Patroclus weeps over the death of so many of his comrades, and Achilles asks him why he is weeping.

Many of the extended Homeric similes are developed in such a way as to become almost independent of the subject they are trying to describe. The most famous ones are the string of four that describe the armies of the Achaeans pouring forth on to the plains of Scamander. They are like fire blazing from the peaks of a mountain, casting a terrible glare. Or like the tribes of winged fowl, wild geese, or cranes, or long-necked swans, on the Asian meadows, crying loudly and flying up, around and forwards in ceaseless change. Or like the swarms of flies that buzz to and fro in the farmyard, in the spring, when milk drenches the pails. Even so did the tribes of the long haired Achaeans pour forth from their ships and huts onto the plains of Troy. No doubt Shakespeare would have enjoyed such homely imagery, and this sonnet is striking because it goes to such lengths to create the picture of the fowl in flight, the flustered woman chasing after it, and the child chasing after her, so much so that it almost seems as if the poet forgets why the image was created by him originally. But he does finally remember, just as the woman finally remembers the crying child she has abandoned, so the story does have a reasonably happy ending, or at least one hopes it does.

The imagery is nowadays likely to appear antiquated, unless one happens to live in a remote rural area. Women no longer chase chickens across the fields, and dump the baby while they run after it. Most of our fowls are reared in hidden cages and mansions. It is interesting to note, however, that the Homeric simile to which it seems to be related (given below) is almost as fresh as ever, despite the two and a half millenia or more which separate us from that alien world. One would not be too much surprised to see a similar scene on the streets of New York or London, for the crying child is almost universal.

Why, Patroclus, art thou bathed in tears, like a girl, a mere babe, that runneth by her mother’s side and biddeth her take her up, and clutcheth at her gown, and hindereth her in her going, and tearfully looketh up at her, till the mother take her up? Even like her, Patroclus, dost thou let fall round tears. Homer Iliad XVI.7-11. Loeb trans.

From David West:

Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch

One of her feathered creatures broke away,

Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch       4

In pursuit of the thing she would have stay,

Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,

Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent

To follow that which flies before her face,

Not prizing the poor infant’s discontent –                   8

So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,

Whilst I, thy babe, chase thee afar behind.

But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,

And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind.            12

So will I pray that thou mayst have thy Will,

If thou turn back and my loud crying still.

Just as a housewife runs after a hen, her baby chases her

and she pays no attention to his crying, so you run after

what flies from you, while I, your baby, chase along behind.

But if you catch what you hope for, turn back, mother me and kiss me.

I will pray you get your will, if you turn back and silence my crying.

 

“1-10  This is a surprising sonnet, a farmyard drama with three characters, a mother whose job includes looking after the poultry, her baby, and a fowl, perhaps a hen, which has broken out of the coop, all making a simile for the love triangle in this part of the plot of the Sonnets. The Black Lady is the ‘huswife’ (this Quarto spelling offers a homely sound, ‘hussif’), the hen she is pursuing is the young man S loved, and S himself is the baby.

A simile is a figure of speech by which one thing is compared to another of a different kind. Sometimes, particularly in epic poetry, there are many such correspondences between the simile and the literal, the simile a queue longue. In the text that follows italics indicate such correspondences between the simile in 1-8 and what it illustrates in 9-14.

Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch

One of her feathered creatures broke away,

Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch       4

In pursuit of the thing she would have stay,

Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,

Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent

To follow that which flies before her face,

Not prizing the poor infant’s discontent –                   8

So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,

Whilst I, thy babe, chase thee afar behind.

But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,

And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind.            12

So will I pray that thou mayst have thy Will,

If thou turn back and my loud crying still.

There is one important point of comparison not brought out by these italics. The housewife is ‘Not prizing the poor infant’s discontent,’ exactly as the Black Lady pays no attention to S’s unhappiness, S being ‘her neglect child,’ ‘the poor infant,’ ‘I, thy babe.’ This poem could be taken as a moving appeal for pity to reinforce the ending of 142. The Black Lady is pursuing the young man whom S loves (she caught him in 133.6), and in 135-6 S grants her freedom to love anyone she wants provided that she still give herself to him, the conclusion of the sonnet.

On the other hand a poem comparing the Black Lady to a farmer’s wife, the young man to a hen, and S to a baby, is not likely to be entirely serious. The loftiness of the language adds to the incongruity (a stock trick with the epic simile as in Fielding’s Tom Jones). ‘One of her featured creatures…makes all switch dispatch/In pursuit’ gives the game away. This is not how Shakespeare would write, unless he wanted a touch of pomposity. Even the word ‘pursuit’ may have a mock-heroic sound. It occurs a score of times in Shakespeare, but only here with the accent on the first syllable. The Black Lady as a careful housewife also gives pause. This would be amusing if the primary reference were to caution and conscientiousness, but, in view of ‘busy care’ in line 6, it is more likely that ‘careful’ suggests rather ‘full of care.’ The Black Lady is overworked, harassed.

This is a frantic crisis in the farmyard, hen escaped, hussif running, baby laid down [somewhere], swift dispatch, baby crying as he crawls or totters in pursuit, hen squawking [and fluttering] as it ‘flies before her face.’ Such would not normally have been part of the Black Lady’s daily duties. Another calculated misfit follows when S likens himself to a ‘neglected child’ and his amorous despair to a ‘poor infant’s discontent.’ The pseudo-poignancy of the baby’s predicament is intensified by the ‘all swift dispatch’ with which the hussif pursues the hen while ‘her neglected child holds her in chase.’ It was a graver matter when ‘spies of the Volsces/Held me in chase’ in Coriolanus 1.7.18-19.

11.14  He begs her to come back to him after she catches what she hopes for, and play the mother to him. Then comes the crowning joke. ‘Kiss me, be kind,’ pleads the lover, and only two words in 11-14 are not monosyllables. He almost lapses into baby language, but the kindness of a mistress is not quite the kindness of a mother (see 142.11-12)

This is the last of the ‘will’ sonnets, and as in the others its climax is on ‘Will.’ In 135-6 the word is heavily punned, occurring in five or six different senses. S is praying that if she catches the young man (the hen), she may receive some of the other meanings of ‘will,’ sexual desire, sexual activity, penis, if only she undertakes to come back, kiss and comfort her baby (S). The sense of this couplet will then correspond to his appeal in 135.5-14, 136.6-9 and, less explicitly, 142.9-10, ‘I pray that you may be loved by the young man, provided you come back and make love to me.’

This note takes the sonnet as a flirtatious attempt at persuasion. Shakespeare is an accomplished comedian, and his lovers regularly tease each other, Romeo and Juliet, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It, Biron and the Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost. He does not lose his sense of humor when he sits down to write sonnets. Here S is relying on the sense of humor of the black Lady, by making her part of the fun. It would also be typical of Shakespeare to set a comic scene in a tragic context, the Porter before the ‘horror, horror, horror’ of the discovery of Duncan’s murder in Macbeth, and the gravedigger before the funeral of Ophelia in Hamlet. Similarly, the witty genre scene of Sonnet 128 is relief before the cynicism of 129, the prettiness of 145 before the gloomy religiosity of 146. If 143 is a frivolous piece, it makes Shakespearean sense before the despair, devil and hell that follow in 144.”

Or:

Sonnet 143 combines elements of a barnyard chase with a courtly setting to produce a poem of mock-epic proportions. It consists of a long extended metaphor (“Loe as . . “So”), opening with the image of “carefull huswife;” “carefull” suggests full of care – a feature later disproved – as well as economically prudent. A “huswife” or ‘hussif’ is a woman who manages her household with care and thrift, but there is present a strong suggestion, made explicit later, of a ‘light huswife’ or promiscuous woman, as in Iago’s description of Bianca as “A Huswife . . selling her desires,” who is “a Creature / That dotes on Cassio, (as ’tis the Strumpets plague.” 1 The woman “runnes to catch, / One of her fethered creatures.” A first reading is of a fowl or even a cock. (A cock as a penis was current slang in Shakespeare’s day: Nathan Field, a playwright (and actor in Shakespeare’s plays) and author of Amends for Ladies, which was probably performed around 1611-12 has the Widow exclaim, “Oh man what art thou? when thy cock is vp?” 2 A play on cock would anticipate the “Will,” the woman later hopes to catch.) A “creature” was also used at court of one whose position was created out of nothing by a patron and actuated by his will (compare Prospero’s description of courtly “creatures:” “who t’aduance, and who / To trash for ouer-topping; new created / The creatures that were mine”). Since plumes graced hats in the Tudor court, a “feathered creature” is a courtier or lesser retainer. (The image probably extends to a plumed popinjay, associated through its etymon with a parrot.) Finally a ‘creature’ as the quarry in a chase is used by Lear: “And the creature run from the cur.” 3

Once the bird has “broake away,” the woman lays aside her child (“Sets downe her babe”) and straightway starts off (“all swift dispatch” is tautological) after the escaping bird that she wishes would remain (“would haue stay”). In the meantime her “neglected child,” now uncared for, “holds her in chace.” To ‘hold in chase’ was a hunting term meaning ‘to give chase.’ 4 The child “Cries to catch her,” clamors for the mother, but the word is appropriate to the chase, dogs being said to ‘cry’ after their prey. 5 The woman, absorbed in her “busie care,” is inclined toward or intent upon (“bent”) pursuing “that which flies before her face.” To ‘flie before the face of’ was a biblical hebraism intending to ‘flee in advance of,’ although “flie,” also suggests a cornered bird flying up in the woman’s face. (The phrase, ‘to fly in the face of,’ intending not to heed a command or be defiant, was used originally of a hunting dog.) The woman ignores or doesn’t value (“Not prizing”) the discontent of her “poore” infant, strictly one without voice (in + fans = un + speaking).

The sestet shifts the focus to the courtly. The mistress is seen as chasing after her quarry, (“that which flies from thee”), while the poet identifies himself as “thy babe,” who, neglected, “chase thee a farre behind.” His wish is that, if she were to catch “her hope,” that which she desires, she will “play the mothers part,” act as a mother or, since she is involved in courtly games, play the role of a mother. She must “kisse” the poet. She must be “kind,” ‘generous’ as well as ‘natural’ as a mother must be.

The couplet extends the poet’s prayer: “So will I pray that thou maist haue thy Will.” The multiple meanings of “Will” link the poem to Sonnets 135 and 136, which, with their similar capitalization and italicization of the word, suggest that the compositor at least also saw a connection. “Will” firstly intends that which is hoped for or desired; secondly ‘that male organ that you desire;’ thirdly this poet whose name is “Will;” fourthly (possibly but unlikely) another person called “Will;” and finally ‘that which is granted to you as a dependent “creature.”’ All the possibilities are contingent upon her returning to the poet and either calming him or making him silent (“my loude crying still”): kissing will stop the poet’s mouth, so rendering him a voiceless “infant.”

———————

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning – my introduction to The Winter’s Tale.

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One Response to “Lo! as a careful housewife runs to catch/One of her feather’d creatures broke away,…”

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