Bethsabe’s Song by George Peele
This time, an Elizabethan reading of a Biblical story hot with dangerous sensuality
George Peele (1557-1596) was a gifted playwright, whose work some critics consider prepared the way for Shakespeare. Contemporaries praised the effortless smoothness of his blank verse. The more flexible metres of his poetry show his dexterity. Peele is one of those Elizabethan writers whose verse has a grace and euphony that bring the spoken word uncannily close to the condition of music.
This week’s poem is, in fact, a song. Sometimes known as “Hot Sun, Cool Fire”, otherwise “Bethsabe’s Song”, it comes from a play Peele based closely on the Biblical account of King David’s adultery with the wife of “Uriah the Hittite”, The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe.
The song occurs immediately after the Prologue, headed by the stage direction: “He draws a curtaine and discovers Bethsabe with her maid, bathing over a spring. She sings, and David sits above, viewing her.” The lyrics have an incandescent quality appropriate to this erotic scenario, seeming to fuse the excitement of both the voyeur and the young woman who is his target, and who feels acutely aware of her own attractiveness and vulnerability.
The American poet and critic WD Snodgrass wrote that Peele “probably intended to imitate classical meters based on syllable-lengths, but actually creates a stress pattern.” The first two lines have an undertow of iambic pentameter, and these are followed by four (roughly) four-beat lines, but, overall, the rhythms of the sestet seem shimmeringly unstable and at odds with conventional metrical counting.
The opening words are like chords. “Hot sun” and “cool fire” are both spondees. Their evenly distributed monosyllabic weight gives them a strong presence, although their grammatical position is unclear. They are simply there, relished, dangerous. On the page, you can almost see the sun’s white-hot disc. The fierce heat recedes in the oxymoron of “cool fire”, and is followed by the effect of a gentle breeze with that little rhythmical tremor, “tempered with”. The mood is nakedly sensuous, and the great unwashed Elizabethan audience is surely meant to register Bethsabe’s tingling physical pleasure in her open-air bath.
But, of course, images of heat and coolness inevitably suggest metaphorical parallels: intense, ardent feeling versus the restraint that King David, as Peele’s audience would hardly have needed to be told, is not about to exercise. The moral dilemma is underlined by the strong physical and pictorial contrasts.
There are even sharper contrasts in the next line: “Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair.” As the stage direction indicates the presence of a maid, we can suppose here that Bethsabe’s command is directed at a human “fair nurse”, although the lyric is equally effective if the “black shade” is itself personified as the protective nurse. That Bethsabe’s hair is “white” suggests an additional danger: she is blond and particularly unsuited to direct sunlight. Although the shade is kindly, the word “black” carries a reminder of burning and charring.
The Elizabethan love of paradox fuels this play of antithetical ideas (“shroud me and please me” is another striking example) and also creates an almost delirious, shivery dazzle of shifting sensations. In its compressed, impressionistic syntax, the writing seems almost modern but for the rhetorical devices that enrich the argument and heighten emotion. The chiasmus in line six emphasises the impending complications. A pun on “burning” in line four may imply that Bethsabe suspects she is being watched and is in danger both of arousing passion and of herself being aroused. (In line three, after all, she has demanded “shine sun, burn fire …” ). The heartbeat of the poem seems to quicken with the foreshortened lines and feminine endings.
The tempo increases again in the last four lines, where the pace of the iambic trimeter suggests that danger is now imminent. In fact, that “bright eye” suddenly seems to bring the voyeur into the speaker’s line of vision: at the very least, she has allowed herself vividly to imagine and anticipate the moment of intimate challenge.
Some commentators have interpreted the play as a satire on the relationship of Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. In the song’s final quatrain, Bethsabe’s summary recognition of her “beauty’s fire” certainly has a regal, imperious air. In owning up to her erotic power, she does what royals have done since the Pharaohs, and probably long before: she identifies herself with the sun.
Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair:
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me;
Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me:
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of mourning.
Let not my beauty’s fire
Inflame unstaid desire,
Nor pierce any bright eye
That wandereth lightly.
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