Aurora’s harbinger

The edge of Dawn’s saffron mantle over water. Author photo.

The darkest threshold at the very end night marks the verge of approaching dawn. Dawn brings the light, of course, although the quality of the coming day may be variable. Stormy days may be presaged by the mariner’s old ‘red sky at morning’*, while a dawn chorus of birdsong may usher in the loveliest of days. Dawns may be circumstantial as well as temporal, as in the dawn of new eras or ages, or the dawns of new political regimes. As a liminal moment, a kind of marginal field between between changing states, dawn marks the edge of the mythical forest, the beached margent of the sea, the ephemeral nature of ringlets danced to the whistling wind. In terms of universal energetic flux, Yang’s ascension through the sinking Yin defines the morning. It may also be a moment when the magnetic field inverts and inverts the understanding of the world.

At the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo steals into the forest at the very margin of Benvolio’s perception:

Madam, an hour before the worshiped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad,
Where underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from this city side,
So early walking did I see your son.
Towards him I made, but he was ’ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood.

Romeo and Juliet 1.1.120-7

Romeo avoids his friend, shunning both Benvolio’s company and the sunrise. For although Romeo emerges from the woods at dawn, he continues to flee the growing light. His father notes that in his dim mood, even after day arrives, Romeo prefers the darkness:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew,
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs.
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night.
Black and portentous must this humor prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.

Romeo and Juliet 1.1.134-45

Clouds locking daylight out. Author photo.

This brings to mind another passage, from another one of Shakespeare’s plays, which speaks specifically to an affinity for darkness. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wishing to conclude the night’s enchantments, the fairy king Oberon addresses his servant with a list of things which are yet to be concluded. Puck responds with a warning about time which describes how the guilty dead shun the coming dawn:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,
At whose approach, ghosts wand’ring here and
Troop home to churchyards. Damnèd spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light
And must for aye consort with black-browed night.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3.2.399-409.

In this blog, we have already visited this passage, noting how Puck’s caution spirals curiously into a meditation on the cursed dead retreating from light. The dead begin to flee at the very approach of the morning star, Phosphor (actually the planet Venus, but the star is not to be confused with the goddess in this case), in spite of the fact that Aurora, the dawn goddess, has not yet arrived. The light of the ‘harbinger’ remains far dimmer than that of the actual rising sun, but it still sends the night wandering dead back to their graves.

Romeo, like Puck’s damned spirits, eschews the dawn, avoids the light. Although Romeo’s exile may be more voluntary, it is in some sense even more oppressive than the ghosts’ “exile from light”. Romeo’s chamber is like an earthen “wormy bed” as he “shuts up his windows” and “locks fair daylight out”. The dragons who draw night’s chariot do not cut the clouds as they do in Puck’s verse. Instead, Romeo’s sighs add “clouds to more clouds”, and his humour itself becomes “black and portentous”. Romeo’s sorrow is like shame, secret with a hint of humiliation about it, like shames which ghosts would not reveal to daylight.

When Benvolio asks him the cause of his sorrow, Romeo suggests that his grief arises from being out of favour with her with whom he is in love:

. . . What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?
Not having that which, having, makes them short.
Out of her favor where I am in love.

Romeo and Juliet 1.1.168-73

A bit odd and evasive, Romeo’s response initially sounds like lovesickness, with his sorrow having an overprotested quality. His monosyllabic “Out” makes sense to him, although it doesn’t quite explain the situation to Benvolio (or to us), so Benvolio presses for further qualification. Romeo’s answer ‘Out of her favour where I am in love’ seems awkward. We understand the sense, and the ‘where’ is a convention of the time, love possibly being understood as locative in a certain–being centred in the heart, in the beloved, or even in the gaze in some cases. Love may seem to be located someplace.

But there is also contrast here. Benvolio’s question is specifically temporal, about what “sadness lenghens Romeo’s hours”. Romeo’s answer centres on the locative. He speaks of being “Out of her favour where [he is] in love”, as though his love or his love’s favour might be actual places. Yet, some readers may note that even when we consider poetic conventions, romantic love ultimately tends to be personal, focused not on a ‘where’, but on a specific ‘who’ or ‘whom’. The object of romantic love is almost universally a person and not a place.

This suggests that Romeo may be speaking about something which he doesn’t fully understand. He seems to have an idea about love’s suffering, but he also seems to have little real experience with it. The crux of the matter may be that he is neither in or out of love, but that romantic love itself is missing from his life and he feels this keenly.

The old convention says that Romeo, at this point in the play, is in love with the idea of being in love, but it may be more accurate to say that he is acutely sensible of an exprience that escapes him. This is about to change, of course, for when Romeo first sees Juliet (which happens at night, at the Capulets’ party), she suddenly appears like a beacon in his life. In Franco Zefirelli’s 1968 film version, we see how the dancers at the Capulet ball suddenly part to reveal her as we watch through Romeo’s eyes.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli’s Production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. United States: Paramount Pictures Corp., 1968. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli.

Compare this moment with the aquarium scene from the 1996 film, where Romeo and Juliet’s eyes meet through the fish tank as the fish part to reveal them to each other. Both films offer us a moment of breathless revelation.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 20th Century Fox, 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann.

If we note the lyrics in the latter version, we hear a song about seeing stars–known for “punching holes in the darkness” as Robert Louis Stevenson reportedly said of a lamplighter he watched from his sickbed as a boy.**

Yet, Juliet dispels Romeo’s darkness not as starlight, not as a dim harbinger of dawn, but as a brilliant light against which other lights pale in comparison:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!


The incandescence is sudden and complete. So much for Romeo’s darkness. Still, those making the moth to flame argument may continue to argue that to Romeo, love itself is locative, citing one of Romeo’s most famous lines to prove it:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.


Yet, as the dawn marks the liminal moment of change from night to day, so does Romeo’s “East” transform as lovelight dawns within him. First, the dark itself is dispelled along with night and the moon:

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.


Marking the liminal, the margin, the edge of transformation, this dawn within Romeo is that moment of actual change. Once we have slain the moon and cast off the clothing of night, we suddently see our subject clearly. At this moment, Romeo’s confused conflation of love with light and location resolves into the personal:

It is my lady. O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!


Of course, we suspect that Juliet already knows. Shakespeare has telegraphed this to us. When Romeo and Juliet first talk, and first kiss, at the party, their lines to each other famously craft a sonnet:

ROMEO, taking Juliet’s hand
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
He kisses her.
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.He kisses her.
JULIET You kiss by th’ book.

Romeo and Juliet 1.5.104-21

Here, we see the moment in Baz Luhrman’s film from above:

Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 20th Century Fox, 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann.

And here, we see the meeting scene in Private Romeo, where the final line of the sonnet is truncated:

Seth Numrich and Matt Doyle in Private Romeo, Frameline Pictures, 2011. Dir. Alan Brown.

Naturally, we set aside a number of considerations in order to walk through these lines in this cursory fashion. There is always much more to see. Still, it behooves us to remember that perhaps the most striking thing about Romeo’s recognition and resolution is exactly that–just how striking it is. It seems so resonant with the ways in which our human loves and infatuations take hold. How sharply our realization may focus our being, even to the point of temporarily robbing us of outiside motivation and of our reason. We suddenly see with new clarity and understanding, while lights pale in comparison with the new light before us. In this sense, love gives where it takes away.

When love’s incandescence robs us of our sense of propriety, and even of our geographical and (sometimes in mild and temporary ways) our moral compass. We may find ourselves crashing private events, or climbing over orchard walls, and perhaps waiting anywhere where we might catch some glimpse of our beloved. The world and its compass seem to recede and dim in comparison to the light which we perceive before us as we suddenly find ourselves drawn to an ineluctable brightness. This beacon gives us hope and purpose.

In contrast, night represents a loveless spiritual darkness. It threatens us with a vacancy, an emptiness of love, and potentially of everything. Bottom, the character who (often unwittingly) speaks a great deal of the truth to be found in Shakespeare, expresses it best when he plays the hero Pyramus, who thinks that Thisbe has forgotten to meet him near Ninus’ tomb:

BOTTOM, as Pyramus
O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night! O night! Alack, alack, alack!
I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.179-82.

In striving to make up his rhyme and metre, Bottom repeatedly uses the word “alack” signifying “a lack”, an emptiness, a void. Night represents the lack of love, the lack of human contact and intimacy, the lack of purpose and of joy. In the night of the soul, the human stands alone in the starkest sense, alone in a black, starless universe, a soul in fear, standing against utter emptiness.

At such moments, the stars themselves, with their glimmering light, offer hope that night may end, that light will eventually overcome the darkness. Phosphor’s indications aside, the stars do not bring dawn. They merely promise that light still exists, even at the darkest times. The idea is so ingrained in our consciousness that it pervades western esoterica as well, extending far into popular conceptions of what many perceive as spiritual. For example, the star card in the western tarot deck–a deck of archetypal mythic images often used for fortune telling–typically suggests the idea of ‘hope’.

From The Rider-Waite Tarot deck, drawn in 1909 by Pamela Coleman Smith. Arguably the most iconic and popular tarot deck in the world, the cards are widely available.

Coleman Smith’s drawing depicts a feminine figure, surrounded by a starry sky, who seems to have come down to pour life giving water on fertile ground where flowers bloom. She also replenishes the pool or spring. Life and promise are abundant. In a mythic sense, stars may bring not only hope, but also bring us back to the promise of love. In a well known song that has been recorded by many artists, a nighttime field transforms into “a field of white” with a kiss.

Patti Page from the Patti Page Show, 1956.***

Returning to Puck’s speech, however, we remember that the harbinger of dawn is not a mere star, but the star–the morning star, Phosphor. Harold Brooks notes that a ‘harbinger’ was “originally an officer sent ahead to purvey lodgings for a great personage” (who, in this case, is Aurora, the goddess of the dawn).**** The dragons drawing night’s chariot cut the clouds in the sense that they have not only cut across the clouded sky, but in Shakespeare’s way of sometimes conveying several senses of a word at once, the dragons have also literally cut the very fabric of the clouds, parting the darkness, removing obscurations to make the morning star visible.

Night’s dragons. Author photo.

These dragons, after all, are things of night, the dark counterpart to the steeds that draw Helios’ sun chariot. Brooks notes that, in Marlowe, dragons pull the chariot of the moon:

Nor that night-wandring pale and watrie starre,
(When yawning dragons draw her thirling carre,
From Latmus mount up to the glomie skie,
Where crown’d with blazing light and majestie,
She proudly sits) more over-rules the flood,
Than she the hearts of those that neere her stood.

Marlowe, Christopher. ‘Hero and Leander’, 1.106-11. Widely available in single editions and as part of The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe.

These night dragons appear elsewhere in Shakespeare too. In Troilus and Cressida, the ‘ugly night’ becomes a dragon at the moment of the noble Hector’s death:

Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set,
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels.
Even with the vail and dark’ning of the sun
To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.
I am unarmed. Forgo this vantage, Greek.
Strike, fellows, strike! This is the man I seek.
[The Myrmidons kill Hector]

Troilus and Cressida 5.9.5-10

Moments later, Achilles says, “The dragon wing of night o’erspreads the earth”, signifying both the end of battle and the the deeper darkness brought on by Hector’s shameful death and even foreshadowing the fall of Troy.

Similarly, in Cymbeline, the villainous Iachimo rises from his hiding place within the trunk in Imogen’s bedchamber, having hidden there in order that he may subsequently convince her intended, Posthumus, that he has slept with her. Iachimo notes the details of her bedchamber, notices a mole on her breast, and steals a bracelet that Posthumus has given her–all details that he knows will make Posthumus doubt her chastity. Then Iachimo hides in the trunk again, to await the morning, saying:

Swift, swift, you dragons of the night, that dawning
May bare the raven’s eye. I lodge in fear.
Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here.

Cymbeline 2.2.52-4

These are truly moments of darkness, deeds meant for the figurative dead of night. The murder of an unarmed man by a group of combat hardened warriors, and a sleeping woman disadvantaged, eye raped, by a scheming man so that he may win a bet with her intended. The stuff of sorrows. Moans of empty days and nights. Tattered scraps of old newspaper shivering in tall grass.

The dragons may have been derived from those that pulled Medea’s chariot as she helps Jason win the Golden Fleece before he abandons her. She subsequently murders the sons she bore him for his betrayal, although there are various endings to the tale. Herodotus says she changed her name and resettled elsewhere.

Detail of Medea’s dragon chariot from a painting depicting her flight from Corinth. Late classical painter, ca. 400 bce. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

The stars are not twinkling so/ brightly in vain,/ and it must be at your command that my chariot, drawn by/ winged dragons,/ is ready to take me’

Ovid. Metamorphoses 7. 217-9

The people despair. Potentates stand up and lie. People storm the capitol. People die. We may treasure the illusion of rhetorical independence over the working challenges of union. We craft the end of our own days and nights. Sometimes, in following the rhetoric of remaking, we craft the end of our own world.

Yet, morning comes again, for now, albeit it may be with fallen cities or with lovers meeting in a tomb. We seem to keep fighting. Fighting for Juliet to know that she’s our love, fighting for Thisbe not to forget her promise, fighting for our loves, our lives. Striving to find honest politics, respect, and, yes, love in the world. Brings Seamus Heaney’s poem to mind:

Red winter berries. Author photo.

The Haw Lantern

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Seamus Heaney from “The Haw Lantern”, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1995.*****

We stand against the cold winter, then against the fires of summer, and then against the winter again. Hawthorn berries, glowing against the frozen snow. As if to say, we must become our own harbingers, our own morning stars. We usher in our own early born Dawn, reaching rosy fingered into the shadows to dispel them.

For Dawn gives us the promises of life. Driving off the dragons, we wait for the orchard to bear fruit. We wait for a light in the window. We wait for compassion, friendship, understanding. We wait for love. We are the lark and not the nightingale, but we are not a lark of parting. We are a chorus, joined upon the first streaks of the morn–birdsong of the newborn day.

Perhaps we gash our own gold vermillion light against the sky’s dark throat, crying “Here we are!” We are here too. Still standing against the empty night. Watching for the morning star.

*Traditional weather wisdom, even mentioned in the Bible, is related in various forms, but often as “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning.” In the Bible, the line appears in Matthew 16:2-3, and the verse says, “When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.  And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring.” (KJV)

**An ill child, Robert Louis Stevenson spent much of his childhood confined to his bed in Edinburgh. Some believe that he may have suffered from tuberculosis. The oft told story says that one night Robert’s nanny couldn’t get him to go to bed. Young Robert stared out the window, oblivious to her requests. Finally, she said, “Robert, what are you looking at out there?” Pulling back the curtain, she could see that he was watching the lamplighter making his way down the street, lighting the street lamps. Young said, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!” –Many versions of this story exist, and it is widely favoured by evangelical Christians who like to use it as a metaphor. The story itself may be apocryphal, but I would enjoy hearing from anyone who has more substantive information about the tale.

***Many artists have recorded this song, with notables including Dame Vera Lynn, the award winning Sweet Adelaide acapella quarted Heat, and Gunhild Carling. All these lovely renditions and more are well worth a listen.

****Brooks, Harold Fletcher. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. London: Arden Shakespeare/Cengage Learning, 2007, p.80.

*****Diogenes (412[?] bce – 323 bce) was a Greek philosopher who, at one point, carried a lamp in the day, claiming to be looking for one honest man. Keen gardeners will note that the picture is not a Hawthorn, but a Winterberry, which is actually a type of holly. I simply didn’t have a Hawthorn image that I could use, but this picture gives you the idea.

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