Beauty still gaz'd on dyes

March 18, 2015

Authored by Andrew Zurcher, Fellow and Director of Studies at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge. Andrew edits 16th-century materials for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

I went searching for information about this week's solar eclipse. I found what I was looking for, but finding what I was looking for wasn't what I'd wanted to find.

Jason and his Argonauts notwithstanding, it may well seem that we live in the age of the search. Google registers just shy of 50,000 searches a second, and, I find (by googling), has on the day of my writing already clocked up over four billion. Never in the history of humanity, I suppose, have so many searched so successfully for so much. Speaking for those of us lucky enough to enjoy cable and wireless access to the internet pretty much wherever and whenever we find ourselves requiring it, we must be about the most satisfied people ever. Not for us the hungry disappointments of www-weaning.

Indeed, instant illumination on so many and so diverse subjects is now so easy that it has become, for want of a better word, cheap. Anyone can get informed about anything. I can now furnish calculations about the position, motion, and luminosity of the sun that would have made Archimedes weep a tub of tears. The mystery and the riddle, the arcane, the esoteric, the specialist and technical, the key to all mythologies, the enigma, the shibboleth – all these days within easy reach, all to be had for a penny.

The word "cheap" has certain misogynistic overtones, perhaps one of its chief attractions for a discussion of the internet, which itself registers a pretty profound misogynistic undertone; but the sidestep into the via erotica does bring one sweet toy, this verse sometimes attributed to the seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick:

Vaile thou thine eyes a while my Deare, 
and muffle vp those twins of light, 
Suns which euery day appeare 
surfeit the eye and dimne the sight 
preserve those fyers 
till vennom'd age shall me benight 
of my desires 
sights seene aloofe more strictly tye the sence 
to due observance of their Excellence, 
The Lilly or the blushing rose 
wrappt in a mantle of pure lawne 
more gently strokes the sight of those 
whose eyes by that Eclipse are drawne, 
then should they lye 
tendring themselv's a naked pawne 
to every eye 
Beauty still gaz'd on dyes, but somtimes hid 
doth strike amazement & cheape eyes forbid 

Text credit: 'The Eclipse' in The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, ed. L. C. Martin (1956)

The eclipse (from Greek ekleipsis, from ekleipein, meaning "to leave its accustomed place, to fail to appear") has long been a conceit and theme of love poetry. Poets like lovers seduce their gazing readers with partially obstructed senses, for it is resistance or the obscure which "strokes the sight of those | whose eyes by that Eclipse are drawn"; as the American poet Wallace Stevens later wrote in a similar sort of mode, it is the "obscure moon" and the "shrinking from | The weight of primary noon" that we equate with the "motive for metaphor". Matthew 7:7 may tell us, "ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you"; but if we are to accord truths, even metaphysical or divine truths, their proper "observance" – not, with Google, their simple observation – we may have to peep a little pervily through a pinhole. "Cheape eyes forbid".

Herrick reminds us that erotic eclipses, with their slow and obstructive burn, are what we do and should like most of all. John Donne argues in "The Sunne Rising" for a different sort of eclipse. Donne's lover remonstrates with the "busie old foole" for calling on him and his lover too early in the morning, or indeed at all, and dispatches the bright planet to go pester people who really must keep to a schedule – schoolchildren, apprentices, court sycophants, field labourers. Love, he says, knows neither "season" nor "clyme", "nor hours, dayes, months, which are the rags of time". By drawing the curtains against the sun, by closing their eyes, Donne's lovers can "eclipse" the sun "with a winke". This eclipse leads to a torrent of hyperboles from the lover, who blows the back end of the poem right open with a series of inflated claims about his happiness, wealth, and power: all of the east and west Indies lie in his bed, with every king of the world; all honour he calls mimicry, all wealth alchemy; and by the end of the poem the bedroom has quite literally eclipsed everything outside of it. But the hyperbole is the truth, or a truth anyway: this personal heliocentrism is exactly what love feels like. For Donne's lover, the eclipse of regular illumination, with its "pedantique" schedule, its empirical geographer, its punctual and punctilious courtier and tradesman and farmer, is the means to a new kind of revelation. This eclipse of reason, time, and duty may not be right, but it feels fine.

Other possibilities abound among the effusions of early modern English poets, for the sun's eclipse served them as the theme or emblem for everything from the Christian sinner's shame (Henry Vaughan, "The Ecclipse"), the birth of the future Charles II (Ben Jonson, "An Epigram on the Princes birth"), the sickness of the king (Thomas Carew, "Vpon the Kings sicknesse"), and the collapse of the Stuart court after the Battle of Naseby (John Cleveland, "The General Eclipse"), to a misogynistic attack on women's pride (Sir William Davenant, "Against Womens Pride"), or an only slightly less misogynistic account of women's beauty (Thomas Stanley, "Excuse for wishing her less Fair").

In fact, the eclipse appears to have been among the most popular of early modern poetic metaphors, adaptable to almost any occasion – which is not surprising, really, because it's a very apt metaphor for metaphor itself: the superimposition of one body by another, which despite darkening its light reveals something important about it. When Herrick writes that "beauty still gaz'd on dyes", his quip insists that beauty – the value and power that someone or something beautiful holds for us – is ultimately the effect not of their own intrinsic excellence, so much as the meaning we attach to it. So when these influential heavenly bodies next enact their dismal and cataclysmic event, I will be with the poets, wondering what it all might mean.

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