On The Twelfth Night

Edmund Hardy

In mid-winter some words freeze into ice & others are lagged with snow, as Castiglione relates; thus, on the twelfth night, when dark is light (for now the windows are clear as barricades) and our style is dubiety, an amusing carnival of fire to bring a thaw to speech: appetite, given excess, might die, or even kill its host as many this Christmas who had cause to phone NHS Direct to complain of stomach pains no doubt feared, when they heard, instead of a qualified nurse, the taunting words of Feste down the line, "as the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, 'That that is is'."

What if echoes, ever the bound insurgents, were given our own limbs with which to sing? "How dost thou like this tune?" asks Orsino of Viola who is, with her brother, one of two echoes of a never seen, third person, who would be that guarantee of these multiplying images, if that person were, and Viola replies

It giues a verie eccho to the seate
Where loue is throned.

If we echo, then, like the viols which delight Orsino, we must to a great extent be hollow – or else the stuff (which does not endure) we are stuffed with does reverberate. To be filled full would be to die, to no longer echo, a danger of the winter feast. So, in our moment of revelry, the sun which thaws speech and thus makes society possible has also evaporated, by the cruelty of images, that final guarantee – the indivisible, the ink from the "secret book of your love", the one idea, the ontological fixative – and, to quote Viola out of place, "what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve".


When Heinrich Schütz composed Die Weihnachshistorien (The Christmas Story) for festive vespers in 1660 he brought the nativity out from unaccompanied plain chant and into recitative. The Evangelist sings most of the narrative, though Herod and the angels are also given voice. The emphasis on a bass Herod presents us with the "old dispensation", as Eliot put it in 'Journey of the Magi', singing out its frozen words, for that was a time always described as dark & cold, its last upheaval or death throe setting the Holy family in flight. The slaughter of the innocents, as remembered on the 28th of December, becomes the old dispensation's emblem. The event as Gospel only appears in Matthew, where it fulfils the prophecy of Jeremiah, whose words are most often quoted in nativity settings, as in the Schütz, Rahel beweinte ihre Kinder und wollte sich nicht trösten lassen, denn es war aus ir ihnen. (Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.) Berlioz sets the first part of his triptych, L'Enfance du Christ, almost entirely in the court of Herod, who sings his dream aria,

O nuit profonde
Qui tient le monde
Dans le repos plongé,
A mon sein ravagé
Donne la paix une heure

(O, deep night,
Holding the world
Plunged in sleep,
Grant to my ravaged breast
But one hour's peace)

before consulting his soothsayers; they in turn perform a dance to evoke the spirits, who advise the policy of slaughter. These spirits counter the bright, angelic ones who, in the short scene at the end of this part, warn Mary & Joseph of the danger. Two forces which duel and project their brilliance onto human will. So the holy Son, whose double and ghostly third are clearly delineated & whose birth has thawed the old, cruel earth and given meaning to an insurgent Christian society, has also deposited a revelatory guarantee, of the new world & the soul in kind; one book, always reserved, on which the perspectives, as on the face of Viola, multiply.


To want to fall in love and to fall are perhaps the same, or what you will. That that is is, except for this.

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