Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
"Fear no more the heat o' th' sun"

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"Fear no more the heat o' th' sun"

William Shakespeare, from Cymbeline

What was it like to be a pagan Briton, on the verge of the Roman world, just at the time when Christ was born in a small village far away? I suppose that’s what Shakespeare had in the back of his mind when he wrote Cymbeline, the most sprawling of the three great romances with which he ended his career on the stage. Here’s what he read about Britain in those days. According to that old tale-weaver Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Romans under Julius Caesar had managed, barely, to bend the neck of the Britons and have them agree to render tribute to Rome. It wasn’t an easy job, because, wrote the king Cassivelaunus, “We have grown so used to the idea of freedom that we know nothing at all about what it means to submit to slavery.” But they did end up rendering the tribute — this is what Geoffrey says — and there were generally friendly relations between Britain and Rome, such that the future king, Cymbeline, was raised in the household of Augustus Caesar, and when he became king, he paid the tribute willingly. And all at once Geoffrey has this to say: “In those days was born our Lord Jesus, by whose precious blood the human race was redeemed, which had before been bound by the Devil’s chain.” And that’s all that Geoffrey tells us about Cymbeline. But it does set up our Poem of the Week, the song that many people name as the sweetest in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

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As I suggested, the event that nobody in the play knows about is in the back of the poet’s mind, and our minds too, if we were in the audience then and somebody had mentioned it to us. For Cymbeline features two apparent resurrections from the dead, and a pair of lost brothers, sons of Cymbeline, who disappeared when they were baby boys, and a hero much in need of redemption — Posthumus Leonatus, born after the death of his father. All these seem to echo the two great Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter. But the role of a lifetime for an actress on stage is that of Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter, who has married Posthumus, from whom she is forcibly separated when Cymbeline banishes the young man from the kingdom, because he wants to marry Imogen off to his dolt of a stepson. He’s under the evil influence of his second wife, the Queen (she’s not even given a name), much enamored of poisonous drugs, which she uses on dogs and cats for practice.

Imogen leaves the court dressed up as a page boy, in search of Posthumus. I can’t get into all the details of the plot. It’s pretty complicated. Let it suffice to say that she ends up in the care of those lost brothers, now young men, living as hunters in the mountains, and that she drinks of the potion the Queen secretly prepared. Imogen believes it to be a cordial. It seems instead to be deadly. When the boys and their “father” return from the hunt, they find the beautiful lad, who is really a lass, dead in their grotto. At least, they believe she is so, and they lay her gently on the ground and sing this song.

You’ll notice that there’s no hope in it. How could there be, when they did not know the promise of eternal life? They sing instead of the trials that the poor boy won’t have to undergo. They sing of the changes that time so quickly brings. One day we are young and in the full bloom of life, and the next day the lily has withered on the stalk. I asked my father, just before he died, whether he felt any different from the way he felt when he was a boy, and he said he didn’t, and now that I’m almost ten years older than he was then, I can say the same thing. I am still that same boy looking at the sunlight on the snow-crystals, the same boy whose first present he ever asked for was a dog, with our new puppy Molly now napping by my side.

The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep,” Vilhelm Pedersen (for Hans Christian Andersen's Fairytale). Public Domain.

It’s beautiful and sad, yet not at all morose, even though the word dust ends the first three stanzas — the first one, in a gentle sort of jest. All that the boys know of life and death, they put into a few short words; all they can give, they give. They say there will be no more broiling sun; no more pinch of hunger; no more fear of princes; no more worry about slander. What the world, their world, did not know was that there would be more — infinitely more. For unto us a boy is born.

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Fear no more the heat o' th' sun
   Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
   Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' th' great;
   Thou art past the tyrant's stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
   To thee the reed is as the oak.
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
   Nor th' all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
   Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee,
Nor no witchcraft charm thee.
Ghost unlaid forebear thee;
Nothing ill come near thee.
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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