William Shakespeare – Sonnet 143
Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feathered creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe, and makes all 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, cudgelsCT.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.
The 1609 Quarto Version
LOe as a carefull huſwife runnes to catch,
One of her fethered creatures broake away,
Sets downe her babe and makes all ſwift diſpatch
In purſuit of the thing ſhe would haue ſtay:
Whilſt her neglected child holds her in chace,
Cries to catch her whoſe buſie care is bent,
To follow that which flies before her face:
Not prizing her poore infants diſcontent ;
So runſt thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilſt I thy babe chace thee a farre behind,
But if thou catch thy hope turne back to me:
And play the mothers part kiſſe me,be kind.
So will I pray that thou maiſt haue thy Will,
If thou turne back and my loude crying ſtill.
1. Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catchLo, as – this introductory phrase signals the start of an extended simile, after the epic style of Homer and Virgil. (See the example above and the introductory note).
Lo = look, behold.
housewife – pronounced ‘hussif’. Usually a married woman, she looked after the running of the house. Domestic economy in those days, depending on the size of the household, would also include looking after the chickens in the barnyard. Even town houses kept chickens.
careful – suggestive of economy and prudent management. It could also mean ‘full of anxiety’.
runs to catch = runs after, in order to catch. The imagery creates in the first two lines a mental picture of the woman in panic, rushing after a fluttering bundle of feathers, forgetting, in her eagerness to catch it, everything else which might be important to her.2. One of her feathered creatures broke away,One of her feathered creatures = a hen, goose, bantam, turkey etc. creatures is a slightly derogatory term, meaning animal, beast, servant, puppet. Feathered creatures could be a reference to overdressed courtiers, such as the young woman might have been in the habit of pursuing; a popinjay, a dandy.
broke away = which has broken out (of the chicken run, or the yard).3. Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatchSets down her babe = puts the child she is carrying on to the ground.
makes all swift dispatch = runs as fast as she can. As in
Therefore the Dukes of Berri and of Bretagne,
Of Brabant and of Orleans, shall make forth,
And you, Prince Dauphin, with all swift dispatch,
To line and new repair our towns of war H5.II.4.4-7.4. In pursuit of the thing she would have stay;the thing = the creature, the object of her pursuit.
she would have stay = that she desires to keep in its place, to stop. to stay is either to remain in one place, (intransitive), or to cause to remain in one place (transitive). The woman desires that the fowl should not run away in the first place, and that she will be able to stop it when it does.5. Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,holds her in chase = runs, chases after her.6. Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
Cries to catch = cries as she tries to catch; cries in order to catch.
her whose busy care is bent = the housewife, whose only fussing concern (busy care) is directed towards (bent).7. To follow that which flies before her face,flies before her face = flees from her. Also, flies in the air close to her face, and appears to taunt her. There are various expressions using to flee (or to fly) and face, e.g. to flee from the face of (danger etc.), to fly in the face of (= to contradict). To flee and to fly were often used interchangeably, as the action of fleeing was similar to that of a bird taking flight. (See OED flee v.6.). As Lady Macduff, when in imminent danger of being murdered exclaims: Whither should I fly? I have done no harm. Mac.IV.2.72-3.8. Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent;Not prizing = not valuing, not being aware of. Similar to the archaic verb apprize, to set a value on.
discontent = unhappiness, misery.9. So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee,So runn’st thou = in just such a way you run from. The point of the simile is reached. All this chasing is like the woman’s pursuit of men, and the poet’s pursuit of her.10. Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;I thy babe = I who am your babe. Some commentators think that this and line 12 reveal Oedipal longings in Shakespeare’s psyche. No doubt it does, but it is common enough, for we learn how to love mostly from our mothers, and there is an element of comfort seeking in all loving.
afar behind = far off in the distance; while I am far behind you (as you run away).11. But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,thy hope = the man you are chasing and hoping to win.12. And play the mother’s part, kiss me, be kind;play the mother’s part = behave like a true mother; take on the role of a mother, who gives comfort, and dandles her infant, rather than the role of a distant stony-hearted goddess (or betraying hussy).
be kind = be generous and gentle, favour me with your kisses; act like a mother, do not be unkind, i.e. unnatural.13. So will I pray that thou mayst have thy ‘Will,’So will I pray = if it turns out as I have described, and you comfort me, then I will pray that etc. But since he does not know if she will come back, perhaps the meaning is ‘If you can see this scenario developing as I have described it, then I will pray etc.’
thy Will = your desire; sex; (possibly) the man called Will whom you are chasing; me whose name is Will. (See especially Sonnet 135)14. If thou turn back and my loud crying still.
If thou turn back = if, when you have finished your pursuit (of the man or the chicken) you return and see to me, or, if you turn round and remember me. Possibly a sexual reference, as in the nurse’s garrulous account of Juliet’s fall in her childhood:
And then my husband–God be with his soul!
A’ was a merry man–took up the child:
Yea, quoth he, dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit; RJ.I.3.40-3.
still = bring peace to my crying, quieten me.