Would you talk about s*x ‘n’ Shakespeare in your Shared Reading group?

libertia
Libertia doing its energetic thing in the front garden

This weekend I met a reader who said, ‘I love Silas Marner and reread it this year, but I liked it on the blog when you were reading a poem a day from the Oxford Book of English Verse and finding things that were new to you!’

For that reader, I’ll turn now to the Helen Gardner edition of the OBEV and I’m lighting on a Shakespeare poem I’ve never read: ‘Courser and Jennet.Why have I passed this poem over hundreds of times when flicking through the anthology looking for something to read (read myself, or read with a Shared Reading group?) Well, the name.  Sorry but I am in a rush and it sounds unlikely. Secondly, if I did stop to look, it’s about a horse… I like horses but is that the kind of poem I want to read today? Always – until now – the answer has been ‘No!’ I’m usually looking for something human, which I can recognise as having to do with me.  But when looking for a poem I’ve never read I have to go outside of my specialist area. And here I am.  How do I decide to choose it over the other three poems I’ve never read that I’ve looked at this morning? A quick read through and it seems full of energy. That’ll do.

Need to know – Courser is a swift strong horse, as ridden by knights in battle, a warhorse. A Jennet is a light spanish horse.

As I re-read I notice ‘Adonis’ and realise the poem must be part of the longer poem Venus and Adonis, (1593) which I’ve also not read. Or if have read, have forgotten.

But before we look it up – let’s just read the thing and see what we can make of it, just us! With no footnotes and no critical apparatus. Roll your sleeves up, readers.

Read aloud!

Courser and Jennet

But, lo! from forth a copse that neighbours by,
A breeding jennet, lusty, young, and proud,
Adonis’ trampling courser doth espy,
And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud:
The strong-necked steed, being tied unto a tree,
Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he.

Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder;
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds,
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven’s thunder;
The iron bit he crusheth ‘tween his teeth,
Controlling what he was controlled with.

His ears up-pricked, his braided hanging mane,
Upon his compassed crest now stand on end;
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again,
As from a furnace, vapours doth he send:
His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire,
Shows his hot courage and his high desire.

Sometime he trots, as if he told the steps,
With gentle majesty and modest pride;
Anon he rears upright, curvets and leaps,
As who should say, “Lo! thus my strength is tried;
And this I do to captivate the eye
Of the fair breeder that is standing by.’

What recketh he his rider’s angry stir,
His flattering “Holla’, or his “Stand, I say’?
What cares he now for curb or pricking spur,
For rich caparisons or trappings gay?
He sees his love, and nothing else he sees,
For nothing else with his proud sight agrees.

Look, when a painter would surpass the life,
In limning out a well-proportioned steed,
His art with nature’s workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed;
So did this horse excel a common one,
In shape, in courage, colour, pace and bone.

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.

Sometime he scuds far off, and there he stares;
Anon he starts at stirring of a feather;
To bid the wind a base he now prepares,
And whether he run or fly they know not whether;
For through his mane and tail the high wind sings,
Fanning the hairs, who wave like feathered wings.

He looks upon his love, and neighs unto her;
She answers him as if she knew his mind;
Being proud, as females are, to see him woo her,
She puts on outward strangeness, seems unkind,
Spurns at his love and scorns the heat he feels,
Beating his kind embracements with her heels.

Then, like a melancholy malcontent,
He vails his tail that, like a falling plume,
Cool shadow to his melting buttock lent:
He stamps, and bites the poor flies in his fume.
His love, perceiving how he was enraged,
Grew kinder, and his fury was assuaged.

His testy master goeth about to take him;
When lo! the unbacked breeder, full of fear,
Jealous of catching, swiftly doth forsake him,
With her the horse, and left Adonis there.
As they were mad, unto the wood they hie them,
Out-stripping crows that strive to over-fly them.

 

The ‘But lo!’ opening tells us that we are in the middle of something. We don’t know what is going on in the bit of the picture that is out of shot: we can only see the horses.

But, lo! from forth a copse that neighbours by,
A breeding jennet, lusty, young, and proud,
Adonis’ trampling courser doth espy,
And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud:
The strong-necked steed, being tied unto a tree,
Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he.

Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder;
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds,
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven’s thunder;
The iron bit he crusheth ‘tween his teeth,
Controlling what he was controlled with.

See what I mean about the energy: the poem seems to be in very fast pentameter (five beats) – look at this line: ‘And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud’. what I vaguely remember about Venus and Adonis is that Venus pursued Adonis, who wasn’t interested. The horses are in a different state of mind, or body. The Courses is so affected by the appearance of the lively Jennet that he breaks the bonds his human captivity has put on him, rein, girth and bit. Like the Jennet, the Course too is  alive with uncontrolled energy  ‘Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds’.

Would you talk about sex in a Shared Reading group? Sometimes it has happened to me that I’ve tactfully averted my eyes from sexual implications in a text, only to find a group member quite willing to broach the subject. That might happen here, because this is sexual energy Shakespeare is describing.  Makes me wonder how this extract sits in the bigger poem, which (I’m guessing) must partly be about frustrated sexual energy?

But let me go back to the poem, where you’ll see I’m not reading anything into it that isn’t there:

His ears up-pricked, his braided hanging mane,
Upon his compassed crest now stand on end;
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again,
As from a furnace, vapours doth he send:
His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire,
Shows his hot courage and his high desire.

Sometime he trots, as if he told the steps,
With gentle majesty and modest pride;
Anon he rears upright, curvets and leaps,
As who should say, “Lo! thus my strength is tried;
And this I do to captivate the eye
Of the fair breeder that is standing by.’

I love the movement from the unconstrained energy of ‘hot courage’ and ‘high desire’ to those little mincing movements we’ve seen in racehorses at Aintree. And the account of the deliberate attraction behaviour of any animal in hot pursuit – ‘and this I do to captivate the eye’! This is fiction, but Shakespeare has drawn it from real horses. And people? Are you thinking only of horses as the images  come into your mind? Or are you thinking of women tossing their hair and cracking jokes, men flaunting wit or muscles?

What recketh he his rider’s angry stir,
His flattering “Holla’, or his “Stand, I say’?
What cares he now for curb or pricking spur,
For rich caparisons or trappings gay?
He sees his love, and nothing else he sees,
For nothing else with his proud sight agrees.

Actually what I’m seeing here is my dog Davy heading off over the hill towards Caldy when either a bitch or a ditch by smell was calling him.

What recketh he his rider’s angry stir,
His flattering “Holla’, or his “Stand, I say’?

He could not hear me. My voice was nothing against those smells. There comes a point in any animal life where human commands are as nothing. And what is true for animals is also true for humans: ‘He sees his love, and nothing else he sees’.

If we were reading in a Shared Reading group now,  people might have accounts of bold deeds done for love, how he came back  from Brazil or she ignored her father’s command. That conversation could well run and run but at some point, we’d have to say, ‘let’s get back to the poem.’

Look, when a painter would surpass the life,
In limning out a well-proportioned steed,
His art with nature’s workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed;
So did this horse excel a common one,
In shape, in courage, colour, pace and bone.

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.

This is an interesting bit, because Shakespeare seems to become aware of himself as the writer, or as a maker of art, a maker of an image of a horse –  ‘so did this horse excel a common one’. And the language here becomes the kind of language I associate with Shakespeare. In fact there are recognisable rhythms – (‘inch thick, knee deep’, The Winter’s Tale) there’s a kind of play, of pleasure in the way the words can be lined up: ‘thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide’.

Oh, time’s up. More tomorrow. Or maybe I go back to Silas.

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