Sweet, Not Lasting

I have been marveling over Laertes’ advice to Ophelia in Hamlet. Perhaps only Shakespeare could write what amounts to an anti-carpe diem poem without sounding preachy or prudish. Laertes comes off as sincere, caring, and savvy. He is not trying to control Ophelia (as their father is later in the scene). In fact, he is advising her to avoid being controlled by what he suspects are Hamlet’s sexual whims. The sincerity of the monologue keeps it from feeling didactic. It has the flow of wisdom. Laertes articulates the great value of virtue.

But Hamlet does love Ophelia, and later in the play, standing before her, angry and hurt, he mirrors Laertes. Laertes advises, “[Keep] out of the shot of danger and desire.” Hamlet demands, “Get thee to a nunnery.” Laertes warns, “Virtue itself ‘scapes not calumnious strokes.” Hamlet rages, “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.”

Laertes and Hamlet, through different emotions and motives, tell us a truth about a common human attitude towards virtue.

*

The carpe diem tradition tells a truth as well. The fact is we grow old and lose our luster. And all of us, to some extent or other, feel the small stab of lost moments. Even prudent and measured youth is full of a kind of sexual potential energy, an energy most remember with fondness. This is why Andrew Marvell’s exquisite To His Coy Mistress has such staying power. It’s one of the world’s most famous love poems, and yet its best imagery is of death, the grave, decay––even worms. It is a kind of inverted vanitas painting: instead of warning us not to waste our lives on frivolity, it encourages us to taste all we can of life before it’s gone.

*

I don’t mean to suggest that Shakespeare was a monk and Marvell was a libertine. That would be an incorrect characterization of both men. Marvell can write with plenty of moral indignation, and Shakespeare can get downright filthy. But the pull between Marvell’s poem and Shakespeare’s monologue is beautiful to me.

It’s worth pointing out that the speaker in Marvell’s poem says that beauty is fleeting, but Laertes says that it is lust that is fleeting. Laertes is, of course, talking to his sister. If we was talking to his lover, he’d probably recite some Marvell.*

______

Laertes’ Advice to Ophelia

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.

For nature, crescent, does not grow alone
In thews and bulk, but, as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will:

[But] weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster’d importunity.

Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself ‘scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary then; best safety lies in fear:
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.

-William Shakespeare

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vaults, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasure with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

-Andrew Marvell

*Yes, I’m aware of the anachronism.

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