One of my favorite sonnets by Shakespeare is number 50, for the circuitry between rider and horse on this woeful journey, its sounds that mimic a sad plodding, an image that encapsulates so much of the poem’s pain, its invisible impetus, and its solemn mood, which will not relent.
The image of an hourglass – sand streaming down, glass tipped to begin again, the fluidity of that back and forth – comes to mind when I picture the speaker upon his horse, that poor beast bearing human burden, human woe, human weight, who then is spurred, not to move faster, but out of human anger. The horse’s groan of physical pain is felt in the rider’s mind, and there is no salve for either. Horse and man, flesh and emotion, are bound together as one circuit of pain, testing the limit of what can be borne, until it is met and released through wound and sound.
How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider lov’d not speed being made from thee.
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.
How heavily the poem begins, the words ‘heavy,’ ‘journey,’ ‘way,’ filled with such weight that to read them aloud mimics the plodding steps. A faint respite is in the second line with the word ‘seek’ (that light, searching word), only to return, heavily, with ‘weary travel’s end.’ These three words seem exhausted. And we’re still only at the beginning.
Along the lines of word invoking mood, ‘provoke’ seems itself so spur-like. The p a soft leaning against horseflesh, the r digging in harder, the sharpness of the v and k like metal teeth, the o and o of the held center. Doesn’t the word seem so much like a little spur?
And what precedes this rich ‘provoke’ is the masterful image of the bloody spur, which, encapsulates so well the grief, the soreness, the banal pain of this journey. The blood belongs to the horse, yes, with the spur being pain’s medium, but the blood seems also to belong to the rider, since man and animal are fused throughout. I adore the vividness of this bloody spur, how visible it is in the poem’s center and in my mind.
As a counterpart, what (or who) is invisible is also essential, this ‘friend,’ that ‘joy’ left miles ago. Nowhere and yet everywhere, source of anguish and tension, that estrangement of love-left-behind looms with every step of the poem.
I appreciate this poem’s mood of despair, which does not lift. I love its slow insistence, which mirrors the action within it: there is nothing but grief to reach. There is no happy ending, yet it moves forward with a steadiness and nobility that is moving.
I’m returning to this poem after completing a collection of poems based on Japanese Edo-period (1603-1868) artworks. One inspirational painting was ‘Young Samurai on Horseback’ by Okumura Masanobu. Depicted is a young man on his decorated horse, getting ready to leave for war, with two women whispering behind a window in the house he is leaving. His isolation is palpable, as is the horse’s impatience. I think about this man in contrast to Shakespeare’s rider, who is instead in the middle of his journey, and it seems that there is no more tortuous, more downtrodden place to be then en route, with all of that time to think and feel above the hoof-beats.
Image © Rembrandt