• Michael Hurd
  • The Phoenix and the Turtle (1974)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • timpstr
  • SATB
  • soprano
  • 13 min
  • Michael Hurd
  • Shakespeare
  • English

Programme Note

Michael Hurd: The Phoenix and the Turtle

Shakespeare's poem was published in 1601 in a collection called Love's Martyr, the contents of which were described on the title page as 'allegorically shadowing the truth of Love'. Like all metaphysical utterances, The Phoenix and the Turtle is open to many interpretations. But the more you try to pin it down, the more it eludes definition, indeed, if a simple explanation were possible, there would have been no reason to write the poem. Better by far simply to accept that it 'rings true', even though that truth can only be glimpsed as through a glass darkly.

I believe utterly in the poem, though what it is I believe I do not quite know. I cannot hope that my music will add to Shakespeare's vision, but I may perhaps trust that I have not betrayed it.

© 1974 Michael Hurd

The Phoenix and the Turtle
by William Shakespeare

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian Tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be:
To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou, shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Auger of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feathered King
Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death divining swan
Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead,
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one,
Two distincts, division none,
Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder:
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt this Turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine,
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same:
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason in itself confounded
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;

That it cried: 'How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.'

Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Cosupremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.


Beauty, truth and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclosed in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix nest,
And the Turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest.

Leaving no posterity,
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be,
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she,
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair,
For those dead birds sigh a prayer.