This month's classic poem narrates an adulterous nighttime adventure that doesn't work out as planned. In the 56th poem of Fulke Greville's sequence Caelica (published in 1633), the poet tells of going to a married lady's bedchamber, where, as he puts it, "wonders I saw, who can tell." Gazing at Cynthia, apparently "naked on the bed of play," he launches a "conceit"—an extended comparison—drawing out likenesses between the sky and the object of his adulterous desire. Cynthia's heavenly eyes are stars, he declaims, and her body is the Milky Way. This pale splendor leads his gaze to the "dainty throne" where Vulcan—traditionally the cuckold of the gods—"thinks to dwell alone." (Greville's dizzy, heavenly, and unreined conceit is even longer in one manuscript version, which will be linked to this week in "The Fray.")
The poem presents these poetical musings as a practical and moral blunder. On the one hand, the extravagant conceit fails as practical ars amoris, giving Cynthia time to change her mind and slip away—leaving the amorous poet alone with his arousal: "There stand I, like Arctic pole." On a moral plane, his prolix, poeticizing wonder at Cynthia's body has deluded him, elevating bodily and imaginative play as though they were actually "divine" Erotically charged fancy has distorted his understanding of his own emotions. Or, as Greville puts it, "Wonder hinders love and hate."
Yet the most powerful, arresting element of this poem for me is the quality that most defies description. I mean the way the poem sounds: the rhythm of these "beheaded" (seven syllables rather than eight) tetrameter lines—the form of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"—bound with a mix of self-reproach and excitement. The line "In the night where smooth is fair," as the lustful expedition begins, sounds to me like both a severe moral judgment and an enthusiastic sexual notion: In the dark, anything that feels good is "fair." That line also raises the idea of functional blindness or degrees of vision—seeing less than one might is both arousing and risky, foreshadowing the final couplet, "None can well behold with eyes/ But what underneath him lies." On the level of ars amoris, in other words, make sure you are on top of your lover's body before you start comparing it to heaven. On a moral level, realize that your eyes can take in only the physical world, not the divine or spiritual realm.
A ferocious playfulness and self-mockery characterizes the poem, supersaturating its incantational language: the meaning of "die" as orgasm, here bizarrely linked to a prelude of prayer; the tradition of preaching at the execution place; compact apothegms like "Wonder hinders love and hate" or "Hope went on the wheel of lust." Greville ultimately seems to relish letting his "conceit" go wild, then reining it in with terse moral formulas. That internal, psychological drama heightens the external drama of a sexual encounter that doesn't quite happen.
Caelica 56: "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"
All my senses, like beacon's flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia's name
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury's wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard's heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
"Sweet God Cupid, where am I,
That by pale Diana's light,
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our senses with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine.
Look where lies the milken way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the Gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone."
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust;
Fancy's scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust.
I stepped forth to touch the sky,
I a God by Cupid dreams;
Cynthia, who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams,
Leaving hollow banks behind
Who can neither forward move,
Nor, if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic pole,
Where Sol passeth o'er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace.
He that lets his Cynthia lie
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away.
Let no love‑desiring heart
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature's art.
Wonder hinders Love and Hate.
**None can well behold with eyes
**But what underneath him lies.
Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the Poems "Fray" this week. Post your questions and comments on "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame," and he'll respond and participate. (In the interest of keeping the discussion as rich as possible, please read existing commentsbefore posting your own.) You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.