Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rape of Lucrece - Soul and Body, pt. 2

For me, I am the mistress of my fate,
And with my trespass never will dispense,
Till life to death acquit my forced offence.


In my last post on this poem, I looked at the relationship between the soul and the body - are they divided or united? -  in reference to Tarquin. However, there's also quite a bit of discussion about this in the poem surrounding the character of Lucrece.

We hear about both her wondrous beauty (body!) and her nobility and virtue (mind and soul!) - both of which, united, seem to fascinate Tarquin. Yet Lucrece, while acknowledging that her body is separate on some level from her spiritual and intellectual identity, in practice perceives her body and soul as irrevocably intertwined.

'My body or my soul, which was the dearer,
When the one pure, the other made divine?

Whose love of either to myself was nearer,
When both were kept for heaven and Collatine?
Ay me! the bark peel'd from the lofty pine,
His leaves will wither and his sap decay;
So must my soul, her bark being peel'd away.


This unity leads her to a rather terrible logical position: the body being defiled, all - virtuous mind, innocent soul - must go, discarded with her self-slaughtered corpse. Interestingly, this position - that the body is so linked to the mind and soul as to warrent suicide when the body is compromised against the will of the mind - is not shared by Lucrece's husband and the other men of Rome who hear of the case:
With this, they all at once began to say,
Her body's stain her mind untainted clears...

Yet, as is seen by the opening quotation, Lucrece makes an independent decision - she will keep control of the destiny of her body in her death, as she could not in her life. Lucrece's "I am the mistress of my fate" rings somewhat hollow for me, however, as this desperate assertion of control reveals how profoundly her fate has been shaped by an outsider - Tarquin has hijacked Lucrece's destiny so completely that she can only regain some agency by annihilating herself! Controlling your fate by disallowing any fate because you're dead doesn't seem like the perfect solution.

This situation, and the wording of the opening quotation, immediately called to mind for me a poem that I have always disliked, William Ernest Henley's Invictus, which famously ends with the words "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." I don't like this sentiment for the same reason I don't like Lucrece's suicide - sometimes things happen that are out of the "captain's" control. What then? We have Lucrece's answer.

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