Saturday, June 28, 2008

Glistery, Glittery, Gold

Dear Everybody:

Quick and easy one today, both narrative and clear as clear. Here it is:

On a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
by Thomas Gray

Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purr'd applause.

Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What Cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled.)
The slipp'ry verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd:
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

And what can we learn from this? (Aside from the fact that poets feel free to replace syllables in words with apostrophes in order to maintain scansion, I mean.) We learn that popular quotations, the ones we can quote without having ever read their sources, are often wrong. Gray was actually paraphrasing Shakespeare here at the end: "All that glisters is not gold," from The Merchant of Venice.

In the original, Portia is being wooed by the Prince of Morocco and gives him his choice of three caskets, one of which contains her picture. If he chooses rightly, she'll marry him. The first, of gold, is inscribed, Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire. The second, silver, reads Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves. And the third, dull lead, has, Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath. You've all read fairy-tales. You all know how this one plays out.

The prince doesn't. He chooses gold. There's a poem inside, which reads:
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:

Many a man his life hath sold

But my outside to behold:

Gilded tombs do worms infold.

Had you been as wise as bold,

Young in limbs, in judgment old,

Your answer had not been inscroll'd:

Fare you well; your suit is cold.

Which is to say, don't judge by appearances. Well, at least the (mis)quotation gets the meaning right. Many don't. That "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech that everybody quotes so approvingly? They overlook the fact that Polonius, who made that speech, was a blatant fool.

All best,

p.s. Notice how every line of the Shakespeare poem rhymes with "gold?" Try to imagine what's in the silver cask. "All that glimmers is not silver..." And then eight more rhymes for "silver." I don't think even Will could have made that into something decent.


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