Saturday, September 09, 2006
Do you want to know what Tennyson’s favourite line of Shakespeare was? No? Well I’m going to tell you anyway.
It’s this, from Cymbeline: ‘hang there like fruit, my soul, till the tree die!’
Actually, and despite the fact that what I’ve quoted there is a perfectly serviceable pentameter line, in the original it’s actually two half-lines. Imogen, or (since modern editors are adamant that the ‘m’ is a misprint in the Folio) Innogen, Shakespeare’s most complete example of an actively virtuous wife and woman, has been reunited with her husband Posthumus. Poor old Posthumus had been banished by the King, Cymbeline (Innogen’s father) for having the temerity to marry his daughter. If that weren’t bad enough whilst he was away he’d gotten himself fooled by several people. First, he was tricked by a friend into believing that his wife had committed adultery (which she hadn’t); and then, after losing his self-control and ordering his servant to kill Innogen for her betrayal, he was tricked by his servant into believing that she was dead (which she wasn’t). He repents his rage and decides to forgive her, but by then he believes it’s too late. There’s a deal of romance-storyline complications over and above this, rather more, indeed, than can be digested by any ordinary audience in the course of a five-act play; but we end up in the final scene with all the key players on stage revealing the true identities underneath their various disguises and tying up every single one of the myriad loose ends. Innogen has been passing herself off as a man at this point. Her disguise is so good, indeed, that even her husband has not recognised her. Thinking she’s a page he throws her away from him, knocking her down. When the true identities are revealed they embrace, and this is where the lines come.
INNOGEN: Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?
Think that you are upon a rock, and now
Throw me again.
POSTHUMUS: Hang there like fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die! [V.v. 261-4]
There are no stage directions in the Folio at this point, but modern editors supply them in order to explain these lines. So, for instance, when I said ‘they embrace’ a moment ago, I should actually have said: we assume they embrace, in order that we can then make sense of Posthumus’s saying ‘hang there my soul’ by suggesting that he’s addressing his wife as she hangs about his neck. But maybe he’s not. And that line ‘think that you are upon a rock’ is difficult to comprehend (what rock?), unless Innogen is mildly taunting her husband – something (and I’m speaking now as a husband) that wives have been known, even in our more enlightened modern times, to do. Which is to say, her words mean in effect: ‘you chucked me away when I first came to you for an embrace, you idiot! Why? Go on, I dare you to do that again! I double dare you! Go on: take a firmer grip with your feet, like a wrestler standing on rock, and just do that again. You’ll be sleeping in the bathtub tonight if you try it …’ To which he says: ‘darling! Nah! It was all a misunderstanding. Here, let me hug you, and stay there til I drop dead, blow me if you don’t.’
Not sure my paraphrase has the real Shakespearean smack. Still.
My problem with Tennyson’s favourite line, or double-half-line, of Shakespeare, is that it makes no sense. It’s not just that there is a strange disjunction between Innogen’s wrestling idiom (if that’s what it is – for wrestlers don’t generally wrestle on rock after all) and Posthumus’s fruit-image. I mean, there is a strange disjunction between those two things, but it’s not just that. No, it’s that Tennyson’s favourite line itself is wrongheaded. It’s a bafflegab. ‘Hang there like fruit, my soul, till the tree die!’ A fruit may grow on a tree, yes. But fruit does not outlast the tree. It’s the other way around.
Frank Kermode likes this passage almost as much as Tennyson (and it is a strangely powerful piece of poetry), but he passes on the opportunity to explain why.
Here the figurative switch from wrestling to horticulture, with an agility unimpeded by the emotion of the moment, has a kind of success it is easier to applaud, or simply register as “Shakespearian”, than to explain. [Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language (Penguin 2000), 264]
I’m really not sure this is good enough. Can’t we, as critics, do better?
Kermode calls the moment ‘Shakespearean’ because Shakespeare is always doing shit like this. If you look up catachresis in a dictionary of literary terms you’re likely to find, as explanatory example, a famous line from Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ speech, simply because it’s the most famous example of catachresis on the books: “to take arms against a sea of troubles”. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with that line. This is partly because the question outraged interpreters ask of it expecting the answer ‘nobody’ (viz, ‘but who takes up arms against a sea? Nobody does! The image makes no sense!’) actually has several valid answers (Cúchulainn for one; Xerxes for another); but mostly because there is an clear-enough emotional connection that segues the two elements of the image: taking up arms is here something done in fury against a furious foe, and in suicidal courage against a foe that cannot be beaten and will certainly destroy you. Actually, indeed, most of the supposed catachresis plucked from Shakespeare’s imagery isn’t catachretic at all. Most, but not everything. But is there such an emotional logic that parses the fruit-soul of Cymbeline’s line? I’m not sure.
The ‘my soul’ seems to be addressed to Innogen as she hangs fruitlike upon ‘the tree’ that is her husband. But this surely can’t be right: a wife does not ‘grow’ upon her husband, especially in a play that has shown Innogen to be spirited, independent, brave, capable and strong, and has shown her husband to be a weebly straw blown in the breeze.
I suppose we could say that the image of one’s own soul as ‘fruit’ makes sense up to a point. A soul is (not everybody thinks this of course, but it could be put forward as a poetic proposition) something that grows organically within you, something more beautifully coloured and delicious than the gnarly wood and leathery leaves that make up the vile flesh. Insofar as we think of fruit as the point of the fruit tree, this orients our understanding of ourselves into a properly spiritual mode. But the inappositenesses of the conceit outweigh these points, I think. A fruit tree produces a great many fruit, then drops them; and then does the same again a year later, and goes on doing this through the course of the tree’s life. But human beings do not create souls after this fashion. Neither is any individual fruit the summation, heart or essence of the fruit tree. In fact it is the seed of another, quite different fruit tree. It is not possible, I think, to imagine a person’s soul in this fashion.
Here’s the argument to make, I think: it may be the very gap, the way the line pulls us across the imagistic divide between unconnected notions by the force of its emotional intensity, that makes it so memorable.
The implied gaps in between the imagery might, tentatively, be filled in (via Kermode’s ‘emotion of the moment’ rather than any rational or logical connection) as follows:
SHE: You threw me from you in anguish.
You are rootless without your wife.
You threw me away because you think I am already gone.
But I am not gone, and you are not rootless
You are not in turmoil, because I am alive.
I am your foundation. You are upon rock.
I cannot be thrown away, because
I am the very rock you stand upon.
HE: Yes! I am rooted – but in earth rather than rock;
I am rooted in a growing medium;
You are tree, and fruit, the soil that holds me,
And the soul that grows within me.
Well, yes. Paraphrasing Shakespeare is a mug’s game. Anyway.
I’m arguing, in other words, that the step-up in this image is precisely about the recalibration of an image of emotional solidity (we might say: emotional security) from something inorganic into something alive. The living rock; and therefore soul. The appropriateness in ‘fruit’ is as an image of both Posthumus’s own soul and his wife; which is to say, as the imagistic vector linking the sensual delights, perhaps even Edenic pleasures, with imagery of fertility; and above all of harvest. This is the timely moment of the play where all the work done in the previous acts, all those narrative complications, are brought off. This reunion is the point of the play; it is the play’s fruit. And that, I suppose, is why this line, that makes such little sense rationally, and resists explanation even on an emotional level, nevertheless feels right.
Or perhaps I am over-reading it.
As more than once before, I like this but can’t think of anything to say about it. That’s not meant as a left-handed compliment— your pieces often seem free-standing and autonomous, rather than as starting-points for discussion.
"A fruit may grow on a tree, yes. But fruit does not outlast the tree. It’s the other way around.”
That’s true, but I read the line as invoking a deliberate inversion of that natural pattern: Posthumus (in my experience it’s always spelled that way, though, you know, Shakespearean spelling. . . ) imagines his soul as a fruit that, rather than falling from the tree, will remain there until the tree dies. But of course that still doesn’t cause the sentence to make any sense! For me the key word, the word that makes the interpretive puzzle, is “there.” Hang where? Whatever “his soul” means — I don’t take it to mean Immogen — where the hell does he want it to hang? Is it a place? A moment? What?
Alan: “Posthumus (in my experience it’s always spelled that way, though, you know, Shakespearean spelling. . . )”
Quite right! How embarassing for me! I’ve gone into the article and corrected the spelling throughout, following Alan’s kind suggestion; but let the record stand that I initially got it wrong and spelled it ‘Posthumous’.
Alan’s kindness is such that he even provides me with a half-face-saving opportunity for return-correction (I’m sure he did this on purpose):
I don’t take it to mean Immogen —
I don’t think it’s ever spelled that way, you know.
For me the key word, the word that makes the interpretive puzzle, is “there.” Hang where? Whatever “his soul” means — I don’t take it to mean Immogen — where the hell does he want it to hang? Is it a place? A moment? What?
This makes me wonder if the line is more straightforward without the there. ‘Hang, my soul, until the tree die.’ I’m not sure that works.
John E: Thank you! (I think ...)
I do think that ‘my soul’ refers to Imogen. I checked a search engine to see if there are other cases where Shakespearean characters refer to loved ones in that way, and I found,
“Stay, gentle Helena; hear my excuse:
My love, my life my soul, fair Helena!”
[Midsummer’s Night Dream 3.2]
“Nor that is not the lark, whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads:
I have more care to stay than will to go:
Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.
How is’t, my soul? let’s talk; it is not day.”
[Romeo and Juliet 3.5]
I also think the direction they embrace makes sense not only of Posthumus’s line but also makes the preceding “Throw me again” more joyful and dramatic.
Of course I misspelled Emmagene deliberately, Adam! Surely you didn’t suppose I had made a . . . what’s it called? — oh yes, a mistake. Nah. Couldn’t be.
(Seriuously, though, don’t most editions have “Imogen”?)
Mike J’s research is helpful too. Perhaps, as Adam suggests, it’s a double reference.
Alan J.:"(Seriously, though, don’t most editions have “Imogen”?)”
There’s only one edition of the play, in the First Folio (no quartos or anything) and there the heroine is called ‘Imogen’, yes; but in all the myriad sources for the story that Shakespeare read and drew on the character is called ‘Innogen’, so most modern editors (eg the Oxford Shakespeare, the Norton) ‘correct’ the name to Innogen.
Mike J is surely right that the lines make much more sense if the characters are actually embracing.
Thanks for the info, Adam. The Riverside (which is what I have at hand) uses Imogen, and I think the Pelican does too. Strangely, no matter how I pronounce the lady’s name I still can’t figure out what Posthumus is saying, nor what she is saying either. Your gloss of her line, Adam — “like a wrestler standing on rock” — could convey a message of stability, I suppose, but if I were wrestling and wanted to get leverage with my legs, I think I’d rather stand on dirt or even grass. (Rocks can be slippery.) And in any case she adds the indefinite article and a distinctive preposition — “upon a rock” — which to me conveys a sense of perching, perhaps unsteadily: someone standing “upon a rock” could easily fall off, couldn’t he? So her statement is just as much of a puzzle to me as his response. Curiouser and curiouser. Damn Tennyson.
"Mike J is surely right that the lines make much more sense if the characters are actually embracing”
But embracing how? Pure speculation of course. One image that came to my mind was of Posthumus holding his wife up horizontally off the ground, one arm under her lefs, the other under her back, while she has her arms wrapped arounf his neck. In which case “throw” and “hang” would make more sense to the audience. And “throwing” a person in such a position would be quite difficult, leaving one off balance, if not falling down. In fact you can’t, if you imagine a log or bag of sand, you have to move your hands closer to your body in order to make the throw.