The Phoenix and the Turtle

Original Text: 
Robert Chester, Loues martyr: or, Rosalins complaint. Now first translated out of the venerable Italian Torquato Cæliano [pseudonym of], by R. Chester. ([R. Field] for E. B., 1601.) STC 5119.
7Augur of the fever's end,
8To this troop come thou not near.
9From this session interdict
10Every fowl of tyrant wing,
11Save the eagle, feather'd king;
12Keep the obsequy so strict.
13Let the priest in surplice white,
19With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
20'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
21Here the anthem doth commence:
23Phoenix and the Turtle fled
24In a mutual flame from hence.
26Had the essence but in one;
29Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
30Distance and no space was seen
31'Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
33So between them love did shine
35Flaming in the Phoenix' sight:
39Single nature's double name
40Neither two nor one was called.
41Reason, in itself confounded,
42Saw division grow together,
43To themselves yet either neither,
45That it cried, "How true a twain
46Seemeth this concordant one!
50To the Phoenix and the Dove,
51Co-supremes and stars of love,
52As chorus to their tragic scene:
53Beauty, truth, and rarity,
54Grace in all simplicity,
56Death is now the Phoenix' nest,
57And the Turtle's loyal breast
58To eternity doth rest,
59Leaving no posterity:
60'Twas not their infirmity,
61It was married chastity.
62Truth may seem but cannot be;
63Beauty brag but 'tis not she;
64Truth and beauty buried be.
65To this urn let those repair
66That are either true or fair;
67For these dead birds sigh a prayer.


1] First printed in 1601 in Loues Martyr: Or Rosalins Complaint. Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue, in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle. A Poeme ... by Robert Chester .... To these are added some new compositions of seuerall workes, vpon the first subiect: viz. the Phoenix and Turtle. The poems were "consecrated by them all generally, to the loue and merite of the true-noble Knight, Sir Iohn Salisburie...." Other contributors to the volume were Jonson, Chapman, Marston, Vatum Chorus, and Ignoto. The phoenix and the turtle are familiar symbols of Love and Constancy (see line 22). The poem falls into three divisions: the summoning of the other birds to a funeral pageant, the Anthem, and the "threne." The best modern edition is that by F. T. Prince in Shakespeare: The Poems (London: Methuen, 1960).
bird of loudest lay: not necessarily the nightingale; simply the bird of strongest voice. Back to Line
2] Arabian tree. According to mythical tradition the unique phoenix bird, after a life of five hundred years in Arabia, was consumed in fire ignited by the sun on the Arabian tree near Heliopolis, Egypt. A new phoenix was born from its ashes. Back to Line
3] trumpet: trumpeter. Back to Line
4] chaste wings: i.e., of the other birds. Back to Line
5] shrieking harbinger: the screech-owl, whose doleful call was popularly believed to be a foreboding of death or of some other disaster. Back to Line
6] precurrer: precursor, forerunner. Back to Line
14] defunctive music can: understands funeral music. Back to Line
15] death-divining swan. An allusion to the belief still current, that dying swans break out into beautiful song. Back to Line
16] right. Ambiguous in meaning; "due" or "rite." Back to Line
17] treble-dated crow. Crows were believed to have a life-span three times as long as that of man. Back to Line
18] That ... tak'st. Alludes to the belief that crows and ravens conceive and lay eggs at the bill, the young ones becoming black on the seventh day. Back to Line
22] is. Singular, since love and constancy, the phoenix and the turtle, are one. Back to Line
25] So ... slain. Cf. Donne, "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" and "A Canonization."
as: that. Back to Line
27] distincts: separate persons. Back to Line
28] Number: that is, two becomes one, one being no "number." Back to Line
32] But in them: in any one else but in them. Back to Line
34] his right: what was due to him. Back to Line
36] mine: double meaning possible: "mine own" and "treasure"; the latter is less plausible. Back to Line
37] Property: peculiar quality, personality; from Latin proprietas. Back to Line
38] That ... same: i.e., that personality had been destroyed. Back to Line
44] Simple: simples, elementary elements. Back to Line
47] Love has reason: for love ordinarily has no reason. Back to Line
48] parts: departs. Back to Line
49] threne: funeral song. Back to Line
55] Here enclos'd: enclosed in this urn; the comma, omitted in many editions, is essential to the sense.
cinders: ashes. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
F. D. Hoeniger
RPO Edition: 
3RP 1.137.