Thursday, February 6, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Cardinal Wolsey

So farewell to the little good you bear me.
Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man, to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost;
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventur'd,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must forever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye:
I feel my heart new open'd. O! how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes' favours.
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have;
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.
This is a soliloquy by Cardinal Wolsey from Henry VIII. Wolsey, has just been fired from his job as Lord Chancellor, because Wolsey was unable to secure a papal annulment of the marriage between Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. Ahem. Henry usually didn't just fire people, and Wolsey is on the run for what he fears is his life.

Henry VIII is a late play in the Shakespearean corpus, probably not entirely written by Shakespeare, but with the help of John Fletcher. If you look, you'll note a lot of the lines are eleven-syllable, ending with an unaccented syllable. This is supposed to be characteristic of Fletcher. But nevertheless an annotated edition I read once said this had to be written by Shakespeare, it was too good to be written by Fletcher. Poor Fletcher, maybe he had a good day, and still it was discounted...

Well, be it Fletcher or Shakespeare, this is one of my favorite soliloquies, and from a play not often read or performed. I bring it out now for all you who are (re)-reading Hilary Mantel in preparation for the drop of the final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy this spring. I haven't started rereading myself, but I'm planning on it.

'Mercy/of a rude stream' served Henry Roth as the title of his magnum opus.

Jennifer has a powerful Tony Harrison poem this week.


  1. I thought of Mantel too when I started reading the poem. But Shakespeare's Wolsey seems less powerful and less obstinate than the one portrayed in Wolf Hall. But it has been a few years since I read it, so maybe I remember wrongly. I will read The Mirror and the Light but am not re-reading in preparation. Hope that's not a mistake!

    1. I didn't reread the whole play, but as I remember Wolsey is a bit more masterful in the early part. (The soliloquy is from the end of Act III.) I remember thinking when I read Mantel that she certainly knew the play.

      Cromwell, though, is a pretty minor character in the play.

  2. I have an old Oliphant commentary on Shakespeare's plays. I wonder what he says about it. If I have time to look, I'll get back to you!

  3. it doesn't sound like S to me... it's too easy to follow: not enough obscure coloration...

    1. Ha! Willy the Shakes isn't always obscure...

      I did look at the Wikipedia article which cites Erdman & Fogel (1966) as saying it's Fletcher. Go Fletcher! Maybe Cleo can give us another opinion.

    2. she's probably busy in the 8th C. BC...