Reading the light in Lovelace's `The Grasshopper,'
- Critic: Dale B.J. Randall
- Source: College Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 182-9
- Criticism about: Richard Lovelace (c. 1618-c. 1657)
Comedies (Plays); Lyric poetry; Love poetry; Translations
[In the following essay, Randall discusses the meaning of the ninth stanza of "The Grasshopper."
As the most-discussed of Richard Lovelace's poems, "The Grasshopper," from Lucasta (1649), is not likely to yield many new secrets.1 Some implications of the climactic stanza of the work, however, deserve examination. This ninth and penultimate quatrain concerns the displacement of night by day (indeed, the first word of the stanza is "Night," the last, "Day") and helps to cast an equivocally religious light over the whole.
Occurring as it does in one of the best of Lovelace's poems, this stanza is surprisingly obscure, partly for syntactic and partly for figural reasons. The opening five stanzas describe the grasshopper of the title as a partaker of the "Joyes of Earth and Ayre" (line 5),2 a carpe diem creature whose time of joy lasts only until the coming of harvest and cold ("Poore verdant foole! and now green Ice!" [line 17]). The final five stanzas then describe the writer's friendship with his dedicatee, Charles Cotton, explaining how, unlike the "Poore verdant foole" and in "spite of this cold Time and frosen Fate" (line 23), they will manage to prolong summer into winter, each confidently possessed of the other and, still, of himself. The stanza in question (which immediately precedes a closing "Thus" statement) goes as follows:
Night as cleare Hesper shall our Tapers whip
From the light Casements where we play,
And the darke Hagge from her black mantle strip,
And sticke there everlasting Day. (lines 33-36)
Though the relationship and ordering of elements here are difficult, the surface line of thought may be paraphrased as follows:
Our tapers shall drive night (as clear Hesper does) from the lighted casements of the place where we play, and they shall strip the dark hag (night) of her black mantle and stick there (in those casements where night appeared formerly) ever lasting day.3
More simply, our tapers (like Hesper) shall drive away night and replace it with everlasting day.
Lovelace's dark and cold of night here are in some sense seasonal, of course (as the phrases "frost-stretch'd" [line 27] and "Dropping December" [line 29] indicate), but readers have long perceived that they also reflect the bleak and painful period of turmoil suffered by the English in the mid-seventeenth century. Even at the time, John Taylor wrote in Crop-eare Curried (1644) of "this Mad, Sad, Cold Winter of discontent" (1). A mad, sad period of civil, religious, and military strife was a chilling, life-quenching reality, and some men did, indeed, seek solace sooner or later in retreat to an obscure hearth that could be shared with a friend.
We may also take Lovelace's use of "Night" here to allude to the adversities that all flesh is heir to in any place or time. In particular, and taking one aspect of such adversities, we do not strain either the nature of literary convention or the facts of "The Grasshopper" to read the night as encroaching death. ("Good night, sweet prince," says Horatio as Hamlet breathes his last, "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" [V.ii.359-360]).4 In fact, death operates quite specifically in Lovelace's poem. The imagery of cutting is unmistakably suggestive whether it appear in the classic story of Atropos, the emblem-book image of Time with his scythe, the figure of the mower who ushers the way to a king's death in Marlowe's Edward II (IV.vi), or in Lovelace's own language in the final line of "Amyntor's Grove" ("`Til th' Sithe is snatcht away from Time"), or in "The Grasshopper" itself:
But ah, the Sickle! Golden Eares are Cropt;
Ceres and Bacchus bid good night;
Sharpe frosty fingers all your Flowr's have topt,
And what sithes spar'd, Winds shave off quite.
Here, compacted, we have not merely sickle and scythe, as well as cropping, topping, and shaving, but also night.
Furthermore, it does not strain the facts of the case to read the night in the poem as encroaching ignorance, even as mortal ignorance. "Poore verdant foole!" exclaims the poet. Unlike the impercipient grasshopper, a wise man will endeavor by some means to strip "the darke Hagge" of "her black mantle."
The obverse (or enemy) of the dark (or the several kinds of dark), the means of stripping away the "black mantle," is obviously light--or some kind of light. As a matter of fact, the opening lines of the poem prepare us for an encounter with religious light. Here we learn that at one time the grasshopper fed each night upon "a Delicious teare/Dropt ... from Heav'n" (lines 3-4) to the oaten bough which served as his perch. Vibrating just below the surface of the words here are thoughts expressed not only by Meleager and other writers in the Greek Anthology, but also by Proverbs 19.12 ("his favour is as dew upon the grass") and by Portia to Shylock when she says that mercy "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath" (IV.i.185-186).5 Divine favor is made clearer still in the final line of this same stanza: at the time when the poet writes, the ill-fated grasshopper has already been granted entry into heaven (line 4). Though the grasshopper is addressed directly in the first five stanzas (as Charles Cotton is in the final five: the poem is symmetrical), and though he seems in the opening line to be swinging still on an oaten stalk, we who have read in the first stanza of his reception into heaven are thereafter prepared to remember that all flesh is grass. Grasshopper and grass alike have but a lifetime venue. Flesh, grass, and joys ("thy Joys/Large and as lasting, as thy Peirch of Grasse" [lines 17-18]) are all earthbound, subject to the scythe.
The poet and Cotton, on the other hand, as if able to transcend the flesh, will take measures to ward against the ravages of winter and night--or, to borrow the figure that works both figuratively and literally in the grasshopper's realm--to ward against the scythe. It is striking that having planned specifically to create "A Genuine Summer in each others breast" (line 22), the poet, after only two intervening lines, writes that "Our sacred harthes shall burne eternally" (line 25), thus calling up classical overtones of lares and penates and at the same time veering close within visual and audible range of the Sacred Heart. Though religious elements surface seldom in Lovelace's verse, one should note here not only that both heat and light are involved (in opposition to cold and dark), but that the result is in some sense "sacred."
The safeguarding, night-vanquishing, "everlasting" light that is subsequently introduced in stanza nine is the light of enduring friendship, of course, the light of a perennial summer of the heart. When the poem concludes with the aphoristic "he/That wants himselfe, is poore indeed" (lines 39-40), Lovelace appears to lean in part on the old and common thought that a true friend is another self. As Lyly had Euphues put it in 1578, "I have red ... and well I beleeve it, that a friend is ... at all times an other I ...."6 In this same closing (and therefore important) passage Lovelace also gestures fairly clearly toward the much-desired goal of nosce teipsum--that is, of self-knowledge and self-direction, the opposites of unthinking ignorance. Furthermore, after reading about the grasshopper's reception into heaven as well as about the light and heat of those "sacred harthes," we might conceivably expect the light of religion to brighten the crucial ninth stanza.
Sure enough, the possibility of such light is indicated by the stanza's mention of "everlasting Day" and also, less directly, by its allusion to Hesper. Hesper (or Hesperus) is actually Venus, which in the morning appears as the Morning Star, the crowning solution to man's overwhelming problem of devouring time as well as to all the other hag-ridden nights and winters that afflict him. In a word, the morning aspect of the star (actually a planet) is Phosphorus, or Christ. In the final chapter of the final book of the Bible we read: "I Jesus ... am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star" (Revelation 22.16).7
While "The Grasshopper" is unquestionably "cavalier" in every conceivable way consonant with normal definitions of that term, it may be illuminating to juxtapose it with another and quite different poem of the day. Published some years earlier and well known among contemporary English readers, the fourteenth lyric in Book I of Francis Quarles' Emblemes (1635) is concerned almost entirely with elements that are very similar to those in Lovelace's ninth stanza here: darkness, blackness, night, something horrid, windows, starlight, and tapers, as well as the coming of everlasting day. Most notable within Quarles' poem itself and most thought-provoking with regard to Lovelace's work is the chorus, "Sweet Phosphor, bring the day." Beyond doubt, Phosphor figures Christ.8 When the day that Quarles has in mind comes at last, therefore, it surely will be as everlasting as the heaven that has found a place to accommodate Lovelace's grasshopper.
Even if one stops short of pursuing Hesper through to its metamorphosis into Phosphor, the fact remains that light in the Bible frequently represents salvation and deliverance (for instance, Isaiah 58.10: "then shall ... thy darkness be as the noon day"); "day" is frequently used to refer to the time of Christ's appearance (Luke 17.30: "the day when the Son of man is revealed"); and the phrase "day of Christ" describes the time of Christ's eventual re-appearance (Philippians 1.10: "ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ"). Hence the force of Quarles' plea "bring the day" and of Lovelace's phrase "everlasting Day." Moreover, the term "everlasting" itself derives part of its strength here from our recollection of such passages as "his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom" (Daniel 4.3) and "the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended" (Isaiah 60.20). And naturally the traditions that resonate in Lovelace's "everlasting Day" find expression also in the work of a good many of his contemporaries besides Quarles. Donne, for instance, writes of the "first, last, everlasting day" ("The Anniversary," line 10) and again of "the last and everlasting day" ("Ascension," line 1); Crashaw of the "Bright dawn of our aeternall Day" ("Hymne of the Nativity," line 73); and Milton of the "Courts of everlasting Day" ("On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," line 13); and Vaughan exclaims, "Would it were Day! / One everlasting Saboth ..." ("Resurrection and Immortality," lines 68-69).9
In the engraving that accompanies the particular Quarles poem at hand, the figure of humanity (or the human anima) sits disconsolately before a darkened globe that itself is placed against a backdrop of night-time sky. Naturally there is some light or there would be no picture. The sky is only dimly dotted, however, scarcely illumined by stars, and in the foreground, at the side of the human figure, stands a burning taper. Presumably the latter provides all the light that is available to poor, mortal creatures, and part of the point is that such light is woefully inadequate to the needs of man. "How long!" exclaims the soul, "How long shall these benighted eyes / Languish in shades, like feeble flies / Expecting spring?" (lines 6-8). The dwindling taper is "all the suns that glister in the sphere / Of earth" (lines 34-35), the pitiful best that unaided man can achieve for himself. In fact, since Ignorance long ago "puffed out" Christ Himself, Ignorance now might as well extinguish this lesser taper. Then the emblem closes with an epigram embodying one of Quarles' subtlest touches:
My soul, if Ignorance puff out this light,
She'll do a favor that intends a spite;
'T seems dark abroad, but take this light away,
Thy windows will discover break o' day.
It is only when this mortal, finite, temporal taper is puffed out that we will be able to discern at our windows the coming of the Morning Star.
All in all it is fair to say that some provocative questions arise once we become aware of both the religious ballast that Lovelace includes and that which he unobtrusively avoids in his elegant poem on the grasshopper. Having already touched lightly and deftly on religious matters, at the close he has the opportunity of alluding to powers that, according to orthodoxy, far surpass those of even the "best of Men and Friends" (line 21), powers capable of attending not only to each common sparrow but also to each gay and foolish grasshopper. Nevertheless, if we go back to the crucial simplification of stanza nine offered earlier (viz., that our tapers, like Hesper, shall drive away night and replace it with everlasting day), we must conclude that, after all, it is our tapers (i.e., man's tapers or friendship's tapers) that are expected to work the desired miracle. To enhance them, to magnify them, the poet says that they function like Hesper, while Hesper itself, much less Phosphoros, carries forward no action in the poem. The "everlasting Day" that man places at the window in the form of tapers thus tells us something about the speaker's hopes for the permanence of friendship, indeed exalting it by association with the cosmological and religious. But the poem concludes with a quatrain that draws our attention unequivocally to man and man's power: "he/That wants himself, is poore indeed." Religion plays a part in the poem, then, but at the end it proves less a means to suggest religious illumination than to enhance and define the friendship. It is a setting for adumbration of the poet's sense of self, a means of defining his relations with his friend rather than with something above them both.
In short, the "Day" with which Lovelace's ninth stanza concludes, though more civilized than grasshopperly, is a far cry from the "day" that will come at last to the long-suffering soul in Quarles' emblem. And that Lovelace's speaker has glimpsed some such idea may be suggested by juxtaposing his earlier acknowledgment of heaven with his concluding commentary in the tenth stanza. At the close we find that he who either lacks a friend or is not his own man "is poore indeed." Presumably having both friend and self, of course, the poet is "rich" in mortal treasures. On the other hand, judging from the story of the grasshopper, we may infer also that one "is poore indeed" who does not realize that he is little better than a grasshopper if he does not need and ask for something more than earthly bonds; if, in fact, he has not learned to say with Quarles' speaker,
Sweet Phosphor, bring the day;
Light will repay
The wrongs of night. Sweet Phosphor, bring the day.
Unless the witty cavalier learns this, his own "day" is in an important sense not unlike the grasshopper's.
The major question raised by the poem, then--and naturally one that will be answered differently by different readers--is fundamentally two-sided: In what ways do the speaker and his friend differ from the grasshopper, and in what ways are they alike? Or, in what ways is the grasshopper an admonition, in what ways a model?10 Like the poem itself, a thoughtful answer is likely to be comprised of elements both cheerful and dark. Whatever balance we strike between the two, however, the poem itself points to no grim conclusion. Throughout his works, Lovelace's own religious views appear to be worn rather lightly, and in "The Grasshopper," despite varied threats of darkness and cold, that carefree creature who in life brought pleasure to himself and others is now, in death, "reared" to heaven.
1 See Don Cameron Allen, "An Explication of Lovelace's `The Grassehopper,'" MLQ 18 (1957): 35-43, later rewritten and published as "Richard Lovelace: `The Grasse-Hopper,'" in his Image and Meaning: Metaphoric Traditions in Renaissance Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, enlgd. ed., 1968) 152-164; Cleanth Brooks, "Literary Criticism: Poet, Poem, and Reader," in Stanley Burnshaw, ed. Varieties of Literary Experience (New York: New York University Press, 1962) 95-114; Kitty W. Scoular, Natural Magic: Studies in the Presentation of Nature in English Poetry from Spenser to Marvell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) 108-112; and Bruce King, "Green Ice and a Breast of Proof," College English 26 (1965): 511-515, and "The Grasse-hopper and Allegory," Ariel 1 (1970): 71-82.
Of course the poem is also widely anthologized, as in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, vol. I, ed. Frank Kermode and John Hollander (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) 1128-29, and The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. I, gen. ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: Norton, 1986) 1653-54, as well as in such specialized volumes as Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, ed. Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963) 947.
2All citations here of Lovelace are from C. H. Wilkinson, ed. The Poems of Richard Lovelace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968; 1st ed. 1930).
3To strip the hag of her mantle, we may assume, is not to leave her naked but to negate or deconstruct and thus banish her from the place. Wilkinson paraphrases: "just as Hesperus shines clearer as the day draws to a close, so will our tapers whip Night from the lighted casements of the room where we amuse ourselves, and, by stripping her black mantle from the dark Hagge, put everlasting day in the place of Night" (263). Cf. Manfred Weidhorn: "our tapers, in the guise of Hesperus, or as clear as Hesperus shines at day's end, shall whip night from the casements, ... strip the black mantle from the dark hag, and stick in its place everlasting day" (Richard Lovelace [New York; Twayne Publishers, 1970] 140).
4Cited from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) 1185; subsequent citation is also from this edition.
5For Allen, however, "the Christian tone begins" only in the eighth stanza; "Dropping December," he writes, alludes to "both the King of England and the King of Christmas" (1968: 161). According to King's 1970 essay, which I think pursues its case too far, the poem may be perceived throughout as a tissue of Christian references.
6Euphues in The Descent of Euphues, ed. James Winny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957) 14.
7 King writes that with Hesper, Lovelace "must certainly allude to the star of nativity" and, because public celebration of Christmas was forbidden in 1644, that "The friends are celebrating Christmas privately" (1970: 74-75).
8See my "Phosphore Redde Diem: Ancient Starlight in Quarles' Emblemes 1.14," John Donne Journal 6 (1987): 91-108.
9John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (Harmonds-worth: Penguin, 1971; 1978 printing) 42, 308; The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw, ed. George Walton Williams (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970) 83; The Complete Poetry of John Milton, ed. John T. Shawcross (New York: New York University Press, 1963) 41; and The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughan, ed. French Fogle (New York: New York University Press, 1965) 146. Cf. Marvell's "A Dialogue between Thyrsis and Dorinda," where the matter is presented in classical Grecian guise: Dorinda asks, "When Death, shall part us from these Kids, / ... / Tell me, Thyrsis, prethee do, / Whither thou and I must go" (lines 1, 3-4), and Thyrsis responds "Elizium," adding "Tis a sure but rugged way, / That leads to Everlasting day" (lines 5, 11-12; in The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, Vol. 1, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, rev. by Pierre Legouis with the collaboration of E. E. Duncan-Jones [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971] 19-20).
10Cf. the discussion by Scoular (111).
Dale B.J. Randall, "Reading the light in Lovelace's `The Grasshopper,'" in College Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 182-9.