Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds

Relief showing Helios, sun god in the Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Between the first quarter of the 3rd century BC and 390 BC. Marble, 85,8 x 86,3 cm. Found during the excavations lead by Heinrich Schliemann in 1872, now in the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, Germany. Public domain.

Enter Juliet alone.

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging. Such a wagoner
As Phaëton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways’ eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalked of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties, or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night. Come, Romeo. Come, thou day in
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night; come, loving black-browed
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love
But not possessed it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed. So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.

Romeo and Juliet, 3.2.1-33.

We get it. Juliet urges the sun to quicken its course across the sky. She’s in a terrible hurry not just to see Romeo, but also to be with him physically, to lie with him. In Juliet’s soliloquy, Romeo becomes a blend of night and day. His brilliance, and perhaps also the brilliance of her attraction, makes him day in night–something which shines out even in the darkness of night.

If only the day would pass more quickly. We can feel this, the idea of having bought the mansion of love but not possessed it–of having given our hearts, but not yet brought our body and soul to the giving. We understand this wild fructifying urgency. It borders on desperation and the need consumes us as it does Juliet.

Yet, as with so many desperate pleas, something within this also feels vaguely apocalyptic. In the first line, for example, yes, Juliet is talking about the horses of the sun–the steeds that pull the sun chariot of Helios/Phoebus/Apollo. While it seems natural that the sun’s horses should be “fiery-footed”, the word fiery also hints at fire’s potentially destructive aspect. A galloping horse afire might suggest the horse of the second seal of the apocalypse in the Biblical Book of Revelation. In the section describing the events indicating the approaching end of the world, a red (fiery) horse comes at the opening of the second seal:

When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come and see.” Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.

New King James Bible, Revelation 6:3

Nuclear weapon test, 1954. Public domain.
“Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.”

Fire, red, blood, Armageddon. Abaddon (from the Hebrew) or Apollyon (from the Greek) being the demonic figure representing destruction or doom is a destroying angel of the abyss. Hastening the end of Christian creation.

Apollyon battling Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Public domain.

Well, okay. Maybe. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If we wind it back just a bit, maybe Juliet is merely talking about the sun–only really thinking about hurrying the day to finish so that she gets to see her love. Fine. But the ghost isn’t the only one who sees apocalyptic tones mixed into these lines. The end of one day symbolizes the end of them all.

Consider West Side Story, the musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet conceived by Jerome Robbins with the famous score by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. When we look at the film versions from 1961 and 2021 respectively, we can see where the film directors take the quintet version of the song “Tonight”. The song integrates what has initially been introduced as a musical love theme with darker choruses which reflect Anita’s more mature sexual expectations and the underlying currents of violence anticipating the coming fight between the Sharks and the Jets.

The 1961 film, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, opens the song with the striking red sky underscoring the longstanding rage and resentment between the gangs in preparation for the coming war:

West Side Story. United Artists, 1961. Dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise.

In contrast, the 2021 film version’s opening palette remains cooler, reflecting the combatants’ more general emotional disconnect. The matter of fact way in which the two groups select their arsenals emphasizes chilling calculation over fiery emotion.

West Side Story. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2021. Dir. Stephen Spielberg.

In each case, we know where this is going, just as we know where it goes in the play. And, in a bigger sense, each moment, the scenes from the musical and the soliloquy in the play, reflects a lifelike progression. For when we think about it, life has its own apocalypse in the mix as well–right there in the recipe, blended into the batter before it’s poured into the pan to bake.

It’s there in Juliet’s language. Speaking of losing her virginity, she talks about losing a winning match. One wins by losing. Love itself includes loss. Initially, love brings the loss of innocence, of self, of childhood, of inexperience–for by joining with and exploring another, we lose part of our inviolable individuality.

In the long run, of course, one lover invariably loses the other. Whether the loss be to infirmity or death, or to love’s dissolution, we have come to expect life to be like this. In part, human growth is learning forgiveness, learning to walk on after loss.

Here’s “Antilamentation by Dorianne Laux:

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering any of it.
Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

Laux, Dorianne. The Book of Men: Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.

Saturday night may be full of expectation from the perspective of a Saturday afternoon, but it also ends.

We have the advantage over Juliet because we know the play. We know that she is at the beginning of what is to be a brief love–a ‘doomed’ love. We know that because of the blood enmity embedded in her family and the social structure of that feud within her home in fair Verona, she will not win this match. Life is already far too weighted against her. In this sense, our alpha is our omega as well–even as the play begins, we know how it ends.

Still, in this moment Juliet is the child with the new gown she cannot yet wear. She waits for night. She awaits a bus, a taxi, a conveyance, without knowing where it might ultimately take her.

The night which she awaits may bring her peace. She hopes for the peace of connection with her Romeo. Night may bring sleep–perhaps sweet sleep in a lover’s arms. But Hamlet’s pause about death swims up in our minds peripheries. In that sleep what dreams may come?

Mercutio gives us a fair idea about what we might expect. Queen Mab runs her tiny carriage about in the night as a kind of inversion of the sun chariot, of Phoebus’ car, and she brings dreams to those whom she encounters. As Mercutio tells Romeo:

O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spider web,
Her collars of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small gray-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid.
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
On courtiers’ knees, that dream on cur’sies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit.
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail,
Tickling a parson’s nose as he lies asleep;
Then he dreams of another benefice.
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep, and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes
And, being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she—

ROMEO Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace.
Thou talk’st of nothing.

Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.58-102

According to Mercutio, Mab begins with lovers’ brains and dreams of love, but this quickly shifts to dreams of greed and dreams of cutting foreign throats. The alpha of love seems to give birth to other states of being in the speech which moves nimbly from dreamer to dreamer. The process of dreaming carries one across the stream and lands us on the far shore, or perhaps the scorpion nature stings us halfway across.

Perhaps it behooves us to remember that the angel of death is an angel, a minister of endings and not a punisher. Just as the Valkyries arrive to escort fallen warriors to Valhalla, so the angel of death appears to minister to the Christian soul at the moment of its demise. Yet, as Tony Kushner reminds us, the kiss of the angel of death is often red–back to the fiery, but in this case deeper. It can be wine dark, and sometimes one ending seems to lead on to another:

Andrew Scott and Dominic Cooper in Angels in America. One scene performed for the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Borne back ceaselessly into the past? Even as we meet another, we meet their end or else our own. Love–that piece of ourselves we give to any other encompasses a kind of death, a vision of an ending certain to arrive eventually in one form or another. The angel of death will not be stayed, whether it comes for another or for ourselves.

James Joyce knew it, and John Huston’s 1987 film of Joyce’s short story The Dead recognizes it and highlights it in closing. The ephemera we are. The flotsam and jetsam of previous endings drifting inexorably towards our own. Towards all endings. Even as you meet her, or him, or them, the ending is already there. Present, even if unformed, as yet unshaped. Still, it is there.

John Huston’s The Dead. John Huston, dir. Vestron Pictures, 1987.

Fiery-footed steeds rolled into a falling snow. The things we carry with us until we no longer can do so. Love. Demons. Dreams. Angels. And our connections. Guilt and affection. All carried like packs on our backs trudging through the snow.

Even when we set others aside, or they set us aside, as sometimes it must be, we carry them on. That old heart and memory refrain. We carry them at sea and on land, flying and trudging, season upon season until our own dark snow begins to fall general over Ireland. Then we finally set them down.

3 Replies to “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds”

  1. Well, first, I think horses’ hoofs striking a hard substance will spark, a kind of fire. Now she imagines Apollo’s horses, of course, hurrying across the heavens, but the image is not necessarily apocalyptic. Just hoofs on stone would do it.
    Just an immediate thought; more anon. Cheers!

  2. Probably your most powerful, yet. My words are drowning in the tsunami of emotions this post has stirred up. Thank you for sharing this deep world. And thank you for introducing me to the poetry of Dorianne Laux – I’d never heard about her, before. x

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