Swinburne, The Masque of Queen Bersabe

13 Jan


I am the queen Aholibah.
My lips kissed dumb the word of Ah

Dorothy Sayers fans might recognize that couplet, quoted by Peter Wimsey in Busman’s Honeymoon (only the best love scene in all of literature, but I digress).

The line is from Swinburne’s, The Masque of Queen Bersabe, my other contender for a great alternative reading at a wedding, if the happy couple can loose themselves from the bonds of the literal and celebrate fate and passion.

In the poem a king named David calls his knights together and asks for help deciphering a sign he’s received, a bird, “as red as any wine” with “a long bill of red” and “a gold ring above his head” that flies between the king’s feet, “shut his two keen eyën fast” and “woxe big and brast.” We’re assuming this means the bird closed its eyes and cawed in a freaky way.

The king’s advisers debate the meaning, with some saying the bird is a sign from God, and some from the devil. The king’s new wife, Bersabe, says (in a line I love):

Peace now, lords, for Godis head,
Ye chirk as starlings that be fed

But then a prophet comes in and reveals that Bersabe, until recently, was the wife of a different knight, who loved her very much.

Likewise great joy he had to kiss
Her throat, where now the scarlet is

King David has taken Bersabe from the man, and murdered him for good measure. The prophet calls upon the court to sit still and listen, and hear from “all queens made as this Bersabe,” whose fates have been both good and bad.

I suspect the setup was basically the excuse for Swinburne to describe the queens, which he does gloriously.

I am the queen Aholibah.
My lips kissed dumb the word of Ah
Sighed on strange lips grown sick thereby.
God wrought to me my royal bed;
The inner work thereof was red,
The outer work was ivory.
My mouth’s heat was the heat of flame
For lust towards the kings that came
With horsemen riding royally.

Next comes Cleopatra, the “queen of Ethiope” who says “Love bade my kissing eyelids ope.”

My hair was wonderful and curled;
My lips held fast the mouth o’ the world

There’s Azubah, the “queen of Amorites” who says “My face was like a place of lights”; Aholah “queen of Amalek” who has “no tender touch or fleck”; and the queen Ahinoam “like the throat of a soft slain lamb.”  The pageant goes on and on, a tribute to the terror and majesty of passion.

Afterwards, the king says that he’s been a fool to think that he controlled his own destiny, and that his fate is in the hands of God. And the prophet says that now that he realizes that, everything will be OK.

Like I suspect Swinburne did, I like this poem for the amazing descriptions of the queens and the atmosphere of celebratory terror. Various messages could be worked, with that one, into a wedding speech.

One Response to “Swinburne, The Masque of Queen Bersabe”

  1. Jean mercer September 24, 2016 at 3:33 pm #

    Woxe big and beast means swelled and burst.

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