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Sable see Black

Saffron Saffron, made from the dried stigmas of the crocus, has been used since

ancient times as a dye, flavoring, perfume, and medicine. It is mentioned once

in the Bible (Hebrew karkˆom) as one of the condiments and incenses of the

garden of the beloved in Song of Solomon 4:14. The related Greek word krokos

referred not only to the flower but to saffron and, more often in classical

poetry, to the yellow or orange-yellow color of the dye. It was expensive, like

Tyrian purple, and like purple it connoted majesty and rank; it also connoted

purity, and was often worn by girls in sacred rituals.

It was particularly associated with Artemis, the protectress of virgins and

hunted animals. Because Agamemnon offended her, Artemis demanded the

sacrifice of his virgin daughter Iphigenia, who wore a ‘‘saffron-dyed robe’’ at

her death (Aeschylus, Agamemnon 238). It is also sometimes the color of

Bacchus and his (usually female) followers.

In Homer and Virgil, Dawn is saffron-robed (krokopeplos in Homer) and

saffron-haired, her chariot-wheels are saffron, and so is the bed of Tithonus.

(See Dawn.)

Perhaps because brides often wore it, saffron became the color of the robe

of Hymen, god of weddings, as in Ovid, Met. 10.1. The chief association of

saffron in English poetry is with Hymen: ‘‘Hymen, the god of marriage, in a

saffron coloured robe’’ (Jonson, Hymenaei, 42--43); ‘‘There let Hymen oft

appear / In Saffron robe’’ (Milton, L’Allegro 125--26).

Salamander This small amphibian, according to Pliny, could live inside fire because it was

too cold-blooded to be burned (Natural History 10.86). A notion also arose that

the salamander could extinguish fire as well. Thus it was almost inevitable

that it would be recruited into the fire imagery of passionate love. After being

both nourished and set afire by glances at his beloveds face, Petrarch reports,

‘‘I feed on my death and live in flames, / strange food and wondrous

salamander!’’ (Rime 207.38--41). The French King Francis I adopted the

salamander surrounded by flames as his emblem, with the motto Nutrisco et

extinguo (‘‘I feed [on fire] and extinguish it’’). After citing this ‘‘royal serpent,’’

Sceve addresses his mistress: ‘‘O would that you were by your cold nature /

The Salamander dwelling in my fire! / You would find delicious pasture there /

And extinguish my burning passion’’ (‘‘Sans lesion le Serpent Royal vit’’).

Robert Browning refers to the kings ‘‘Salamander-sign-- / Flame-fed creature:

flame benign / To itself or, if malign, // Only to the meddling curious,’’ in

‘‘Cristina and Monaldeschi’’ 14--17.

Pope enjoys imagining that when fair ladies die their souls return to their

‘‘first elements’’; some become earth, some water, some air, while ‘‘The

Sprights [spirits] of fiery Termagants in Flame / Mount up, and take a

Salamanders Name’’ (Rape of the Lock 1.59--60). Keats calls one of his four

elemental fairies Salamander in ‘‘Song of Four Fairies.’’

Of the sunken ship Titanic Hardy envisages her ‘‘Steel chambers, late the

pyres / Of her salamandrine fires’’ (‘‘Convergence of the Twain’’). See Fire.

Scarlet As an expensive cloth, and a color derived from costly dyes, scarlet in the

Bible is associated with wealth and luxury. David reminds the daughters of

Israel that Saul clothed them in scarlet (2 Sam. 1.24), Jeremiah laments that

those ‘‘brought up in scarlet’’ now ‘‘embrace dunghills’’ (Lam. 4.5), and

Belshazzar announces that whoever interprets the mysterious writing ‘‘shall

be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck’’ (Dan. 5.7). So

Chaucers Wife of Baths ‘‘hosen [stockings] weren of fyn scarlet reed’’ (CT Pro.

456), and Spenser describes some ‘‘costly scarlot of great name’’ (FQ 1.12.13).

Its conspicuous brightness makes it appropriate for Isaiah to say, ‘‘though

your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’’ (Isa. 1.18), and scarlet

has become the common color of sin. Shakespeares Surrey calls Wolseys

ambition ‘‘thou scarlet sin’’ (H8 3.2.255); before Wildes Dorian Gray, ‘‘Out of

the black cave of Time, terrible and swathed in scarlet, rose the image of his

sin’’ (chap. 18).

The Isaiah passage may have seconded scarlets aura of luxury in John of

Patmoss vision of the woman on a scarlet beast, herself arrayed in purple and

scarlet, who is Mystery, Babylon, the Mother of Harlots (Rev. 17.3--5). The

‘‘scarlet whore’’ became the standard term for whatever rich and powerful

enemy a Christian wanted to denounce; in English Protestant usage it usually

meant the Roman Catholic Church. The ‘‘faithlesse Sarazin’’ (Sans Foy) of

Spenser has a woman companion ‘‘clad in scarlot red’’ (1.2.13), who turns out

to be the ‘‘scarlot whore,’’ Duessa (1.8.29). Scarlet then became associated with

real as well as allegorical whores. Hawthornes Hester Prynne is made to wear

a letter A (for ‘‘adultery’’) embroidered in scarlet on her dress (The Scarlet


Scorpion When Gilgamesh begins his journey to bring back his dead friend Enkidu (in

the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh), he encounters the terrible Scorpion People,

who live on the mountain that guards the coming and going of Shamash the

sun; they allow him to enter and follow the path of Shamash. Little symbolism

survives about these monsters beyond this connection with the sun.

Scorpions are mentioned several times in the Bible as dangerous creatures

of the wilderness (e.g., Deut. 8.15, Ezek. 2.6). The plague of locusts prophesied

in Revelation will be made worse when they are given the power of scorpions;

those men who are not sealed by God will be tormented by them for five

months (9.3--5).

Simply because its sting is in its tail, the scorpion became an emblem of

fraud or deception. Geryon, the monster that guards the circle of fraud in

Dantes Inferno, has a tail like a scorpions (17.27). Following Vincent of

Beauvais, Chaucer likens unstable Fortune to ‘‘the scorpion so deceyvable, /

That flaterest with thyn heed [head] whan thou wolt stynge; / Thy tayl is

deeth, thurgh thyn envenymynge’’ (Merchant’s Tale 2058--60) (see also Book of the

Duchess 636--41). Feeling deceived by his son Samsons defeat, Manoa asks why

God gave him a son, if the gift should ‘‘draw a Scorpions tail behind?’’

(Milton, Samson Agonistes 360).

Perhaps inspired by Macbeths cry, ‘‘O! full of scorpions is my mind, dear

wife!’’ (3.2.36), some later English poets took scorpions as emblems of remorse.

Dryden has Ventidius tell Antony he is ‘‘too conscious of your failings; / And,

like a scorpion, whipt by others first / To fury, sting yourself in mad revenge’’

(All for Love 1.313--15). ‘‘Remorse,’’ according to Cowper, ‘‘proves a raging

scorpion in his breast’’ (Progress of Error 239--42). Coleridge says ‘‘vain regret’’

has ‘‘scorpion stings’’ (sonnet: ‘‘To Rev. Bowles,’’ 1st version, 10). It seems

implicit in Shelley: ‘‘the sting / Which retributive memory implants / In the

hard bosom of the selfish man’’ (Queen Mab 1.173--75).

The legend that when surrounded by fire scorpions commit suicide by

stinging themselves is not ancient; it is first reported by Paracelsus. Shelley

makes frequent use of it: he predicts, for instance, that the truths that

virtuous people speak ‘‘Shall bind the scorpion falsehood with a wreath / Of

ever-living flame, / Until the monster sting itself to death’’ (Queen Mab 6.36--38).

E. B. Brownings heroine remembers a period in her life as ‘‘A weary, wormy

darkness, spurred ithe flank / With flame, that it should eat and end itself /

Like some tormented scorpion’’ (Aurora Leigh 1.220--22). Byron adds this idea to

the scorpion as remorse: ‘‘The Mind, that broods oer guilty woes, / Is like the

Scorpion girt by fire, / . . . / One sad and sole relief she knows, / The sting she

nourishd for her foes’’ (Giaour 422--29).

Sea We are at home on the land. The sea has always been alien and dangerous,

and those who have made it a second home have learned special skills and

habits. For that very reason the literature of the sea is ancient and vast: from

the Odyssey, the Argonautica, and the story of Jonah through Melvilles

Moby-Dick, Londons The Sea-Wolf, several novels of Conrads, Hemingways The

Old Man and the Sea, and Patrick OBrians recent Master and Commander and

its sequels. Science fiction is largely derivative of sea stories (Jules Verne

providing a link), as the word ‘‘spaceship’’ and ‘‘astronaut’’ (from Greek

nautes, ‘‘sailor’’) remind us; planets are islands in the sea of space. Among

many other things, the sea has symbolized chaos and the bridge among

orderly lands, life and death, time and timelessness, menace and lure,

boredom and the sublime. Out of this welter of contrary symbols we shall

select a few prominent ones.

In Middle Eastern mythology the sea is the primordial element. The

Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish posits the male Apsu and the female

Tiamat as the parents of the gods; they are ‘‘sweet water’’ (or fresh water) and

‘‘bitter water’’ (salt water), and their union begets the world. Later Marduk

slays Tiamat and divides her body, placing half of it in the sky. The creation in

Genesis begins with a formless earth covered with water; the ‘‘deep’’ (1.2) is

tehom in Hebrew, cognate with ‘‘Tiamat,’’ and like her it is divided by a

‘‘firmament’’ into two waters (6--8); then comes the emergence of land from

the gathering of the lower waters (9--10). The Greek creation story as Hesiod

tells it begins with Chaos but it is not water; Earth emerges first (Theogony

116--17), and later generates Sea (Pontos) by herself and Ocean (Okeanos) by lying

with Heaven (131--33). Ocean is a ‘‘perfect river’’ (242) that surrounds the

world. There are two passages in Homer, however, that suggest Ocean is the

source of all things: it is called the ‘‘begetter’’ or ‘‘origin (genesis) of the gods’’

and the ‘‘begetter of all things’’ (Iliad 14.201, 14.246). Plato quotes the former

passage twice; he takes Homer to be saying that all things are the offspring of

flux and motion (Theaetetus 152e). In the first Iliad passage Homer includes

‘‘Mother Tethys’’ in parallel to (father) Ocean; in Hesiod she mates with Ocean

to produce the rivers and water nymphs (337--70), but here she seems simply a

female equivalent of Ocean.

With Tiamat and Tethys, then, we have a ‘‘mother sea,’’ a rich mythological

element half suppressed by the biblical creation story where a male sky god

does everything. This idea also had to contend with the obvious facts that sea

water is not drinkable -- it is not ‘‘living water,’’ in the Hebrew phrase for fresh

water (Gen. 26.19; cf. John 4.10) -- and that, of course, the sea has claimed

countless lives through drowning. An epithet for sea in both Hesiod and

Homer is ‘‘sterile’’ or ‘‘barren’’ (though there is some debate about the word).

The biblical Flood destroys all life not in the ark, and there is the ‘‘Dead Sea’’

in Palestine. Salvation through Christ is often imagined as rescue from

drowning: Christ walks on water, he makes Peter a fisher of men, baptism by

immersion is a death and rebirth, and the church is the ‘‘antitype’’ of Noahs

ark; when the new heaven and earth come, there will be ‘‘no more sea’’ (Rev.

21.1). Dante, having narrowly escaped the dark wood of sin, likens his state to

that of one who ‘‘with laboring breath / has just escaped from sea to shore’’

(Inferno 1.22--23). Milton mourns Lycidas, who drowned, but ‘‘Sunk though he

be beneath the watry floor,’’ he is ‘‘mounted high, / Through the dear might

of him that walkd the waves’’ (167, 172--73). Ancient cosmologies and philosophies

and their modern descendants often posited this life as watery,

indeed as underwater; the Naasene gnostics considered this mortal world of

generation to be a sea into which the divine spark has sunk, while Blake

imagines ‘‘the sea of Time & Space,’’ beneath which fallen man is ‘‘a Human

polypus of Death’’ (Four Zoas 56.13,16).

Modern theories of the origin of life restored the sea as its source, but in

literature birth is often not far from death. Goethe stages a debate between

Thales the ‘‘Neptunist’’ and Anaxagoras the ‘‘Vulcanist’’ (Faust, II 7851ff.);

Thales wins, and the fiery Homunculus plunges into the Aegean, filled with

sea goddesses, to be reborn and evolve. Faust will go on, however, to combat

the sea, which ‘‘unfruitful itself, pours out unfruitfulness’’ in floods on the

land, by building dikes and channels (10198ff.). Swinburne announces ‘‘I will

go back to the great sweet mother, / Mother and lover of men, the sea,’’ but it

is to lose himself and forget his grief: ‘‘Save me and hide me with all thy

waves, / Find me one grave of thy thousand graves’’ (‘‘Triumph of Time’’

257--58, 269--70).

A parallel to this pattern is the water cycle: evaporation from the sea

creates clouds, which pour down rain, which collects in rivers, which flow

into the sea. The older symbolism generally had rivers rising from springs,

representing birth, through the widening and slowing course of life, into the

sea of death. (See River.)

The deadliness of the sea sometimes seems the worse for its not being a

god, for its blind heedlessness. ‘‘Alas! poor boy!’’ Shelley has a character say, ‘‘A

wreck-devoted seaman thus might pray / To the deaf sea’’ (Cenci 5.4.41--43).

Yeats has the great phrase ‘‘the murderous innocence of the sea’’ (‘‘Prayer for

my Daughter’’ 16).

Writers have nonetheless given the sea a voice, just like babbling or

murmuring rivers, usually as heard from shore. Homers epithet for the sea

can scarcely be bettered: polyphloisbos, ‘‘much-roaring,’’ (e.g., Iliad 1.34), which

Fitzgerald forgivably overtranslates as ‘‘the tumbling clamorous whispering

sea.’’ Seas can roar, rage, bellow, pound, and ‘‘chide’’ (Emerson, ‘‘Seashore’’ 1).

But even on calm days the repeating sound of waves on the shore may seem

to have a message. ‘‘Listen!’’ Arnold enjoins, ‘‘you hear the grating roar / Of

pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high

strand, / Begin, and cease, and then again begin, / With tremulous cadence

slow, and bring / The eternal note of sadness in’’ (‘‘Dover Beach’’ 9--14). When

Tennyson listens to the waves he feels akin to it in his inarticulateness:

‘‘Break, break, break, / On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! / And I would that my

tongue could utter / The thoughts that arise in me’’ (‘‘Break, Break, Break’’). In

different moods Woolfs Mrs. Ramsay finds the sea a mother and a destroyer:

‘‘the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach . . . for the most part beat a

measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to

repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old

cradle song, murmured by nature, I am guarding you -- I am your support,

but at other times . . . [it] made one think of the destruction of the island and

its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one

quick doing after another that it was all as ephemeral as a rainbow’’ (To the

Lighthouse 1.3).

As the sea has so much to say, it has sometimes stood for great poets.

Homer, likened in ancient times to a fountain and a river, was compared to

the ocean by Quintilian (Institutes 10.1.46). Dante describes Virgil as ‘‘the sea of

all sense’’ (Inferno 8.7). Byron playfully compares himself to Homer as a war

reporter, but concedes, ‘‘To vie with thee would be about as vain / As for a

brook to cope with oceans flood’’ (Don Juan 7.638--39). Keats likens his discovery

of Chapmans version of Homer to Cortezs discovery of the Pacific (‘‘On First

Looking into Chapmans Homer’’). (See Fountain, River.)

The waves are a measure of time. ‘‘Like as the waves make toward the

pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end’’ (Shakespeare, Sonnets

60). ‘‘Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years, / Ocean of time’’ (Shelley,

‘‘Time’’). Emily Bronte speaks of ‘‘Times all-severing wave’’ (‘‘Remembrance’’ 4).

‘‘Consider the seas listless chime: / Times self it is, made audible’’ (D. G.

Rossetti, ‘‘Sea-Limits’’). So are the tides; indeed ‘‘tide’’ originally meant

‘‘time.’’ ‘‘The little waves, with their soft, white hands, / Efface the footprints

in the sands, / And the tide rises, the tide falls’’ (Longfellow, ‘‘Tide Rises’’). But

the endless repetitiveness of both of them, and the sheer enormousness of the

sea, has made the sea an emblem of infinity and eternity, and as such it both

dwarfs our human doings, as Mrs. Ramsay feels, and also lures us as if to a

peaceful sleep or death. Tennyson imagines one day putting out to sea on

‘‘such a tide as moving seems asleep, / Too full for sound and foam, / When

that which drew from out the boundless deep / Turns again home’’ (‘‘Crossing

the Bar’’). Mann has Aschenbach sit on the shore gazing out to the Adriatic

sea from the Lido as he yields to an infinite longing and dies (Death in Venice).

Even on an inland hill, thoughts about eternity may summon a metaphorical

sea, as Leopardi writes: ‘‘So in this / immensity my thoughts are drowned: /

and shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea’’ (‘‘LInfinito’’).

A ‘‘sea’’ of something can mean a vast quantity of it, as when Spenser speaks

of a ‘‘sea of deadly daungers’’ (FQ 1.12.17) or Byron of a ‘‘sea of slaughter’’ (Don

Juan 7.399). When Hamlet ponders whether ‘‘to take arms against a sea of

troubles’’ (3.1.59) he is using ‘‘sea’’ in a similar sense but also evoking an

ancient metaphor. Psalm 69 begins, ‘‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come

into my soul. / I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I am come into

deep waters, where the floods overflow me.’’ A variant is the sea of stormy

passion, which goes back at least to Horace, who pities a boy in love with the

experienced Pyrrha; she will overwhelm him with ‘‘black winds’’ as she did

Horace, who now stays ashore, having ‘‘hung / My dank and dripping weeds /

To the stern God of Sea’’ (1.5., trans. John Milton). Less wise, Petrarch is aboard

ship in a storm of sighs, hopes, and desires (Rime 189). Sitting on shore,

watching the surf, Spensers Britomart, separated from her knight, complains

to the ‘‘Huge sea of sorrow, and tempestuous griefe, / Wherein my feeble bark

is tossed long, / Far from the hoped haven of relief’’ (FQ 3.4.8). (See Ship.)

Seasons ‘‘Symbols,’’ Dylan Thomas says, ‘‘are selected from the years / Slow rounding

of four seasons coasts’’ (‘‘Here in this Spring’’). Many of the meanings of the

trees and flowers, beasts and birds found in this dictionary depend on their

comings and goings at certain seasons of the year. And of course the seasons

themselves have long been applied metaphorically to human lives, as we see

in this conventional passage from James Thomsons ‘‘Winter’’: ‘‘See here thy

picturd Life; pass some few Years, / Thy flowering Spring, thy Summers ardent

Strength, / Thy sober Autumn passing into Age, / And pale concluding Winter

comes at last, / And shuts the Scene’’ (1029--33).

The ancients did not at first distinguish four seasons. There is some

evidence that the oldest Indo-European division was into two, winter and

summer, traces of which we find in the English phrases ‘‘midwinter’’ and

‘‘midsummer,’’ which refer to the winter solstice (or Christmas) and summer

solstice, and the absence of such terms for spring and autumn. We find

evidence as well in the use of ‘‘winter’’ and ‘‘summer’’ as synonyms for ‘‘year.’’

Juvenal writes of an old man, ‘‘Thus many winters and his eightieth solstice

he saw’’ (4.92--93). In the oldest English poetry ‘‘winter’’ is often used in this

way: Beowulf held the land ‘‘fifty winters’’ (Beowulf 2209); ‘‘no man may

become wise before he endure / His share of winters in the world’’ (‘‘The

Wanderer’’ 64--65). Counting by winters continues into the twentieth century;

for example, Yeats advises us ‘‘from the fortieth winter’’ to look on everything

in the light of death (‘‘Vacillation’’ 29). Seemingly absent from Old English,

but fairly common later, is ‘‘summer’’ in the same sense; so Shakespeare: ‘‘Five

summers have I spent in farthest Greece’’ (CE 1.1.132) and ‘‘Till twice five

summers have enriched our fields’’ (R2 1.3.141); and Milton: ‘‘Summers three

times eight save one / She had told’’ (‘‘Epitaph on the Marchioness of

Winchester’’ 7--8). ‘‘Spring’’ and ‘‘autumn’’ or ‘‘fall’’ are seldom so used, and

then usually in an elaboration of the figure with ‘‘winter’’ or ‘‘summer’’; e.g.,

‘‘Four lagging winters and four wanton springs’’ (R2 1.3.214; see Sonnets 104).

Ovid does have Tiresias spend ‘‘seven autumns’’ as a woman (Met. 3.326--27),

and ‘‘five autumns’’ pass before Procne visits her sister (6.439).

Homer and Hesiod generally recognize three seasons, spring, summer, and

winter. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Demeter tells her daughter

Persephone she must ‘‘go to the depths of the earth, / to dwell there a third

part of the seasons every year, / but two of them with me and the other

immortals’’ (398--400). In the Odyssey, however, Homer distinguishes ‘‘summer’’

from the latter part of it (e.g., 12.76). Alcman was the first to list the four

seasons, but the passage where he does so (quoted by Athenaeus) reflects the

older tripartite division: ‘‘and he created three seasons, summer and winter

and autumn the third, and the fourth the spring, when things grow but there

is not enough to eat.’’ Four became the norm, though three remained

common. Shelley, a good classicist, can write in Epipsychidion of ‘‘the seasons

three,’’ though it is a little surprising that he names them as spring, autumn,

and winter (364--66). Ovid names the four seasons and applies them, like

Thomson many centuries later, to the ages of human life (Met. 15.199--213).

Though the Athenian or Attic year began with summer, as the Alcman

passage suggests, the Roman year (originally) began with spring in March, a

sequence that lends itself better to the phases of human life. In England the

year officially began in March until 1753: ‘‘the month in which the world

bigan, / That highte March, whan God first maked man’’ (Chaucer, Nun’s Priest’s

Tale 3187--88).

The Greek word for season, hora, borrowed by Latin and passed through

French into English as ‘‘hour,’’ was personified in various ways. In Homer the

Horai guard the gates of the sky (e.g., Iliad 5.749--51); in Hesiod they are the

daughters of Zeus and Themis (Theogony 901); in both Hesiod and the Homeric

Hymns they are associated with the three Graces, though they are not

themselves enumerated. Hora in both Greek and Latin had a broader range of

meaning than ‘‘season’’: it could also mean a year, a day, or a time of day

(‘‘hour’’). In Attic cult two Horai were named Thallo and Karpo, not summer

and winter but spring (‘‘I bloom’’) and autumn or late summer (‘‘I bear fruit’’).

Ovid mentions the Horae but distinguishes them from the four seasons (Met.


In Hellenistic times the description of the seasons or times (ekphrasis

chronon) became a set theme in poetry and rhetoric. In ancient paintings and

in literature at least as old as Ovid we find Spring holding flowers, usually as a

young woman and often identified as Flora or Venus; Summer with a sickle

and ears or sheaf of grain, often taken as Ceres; Autumn with grapes and vine

leaves, taken as Bacchus; and Winter shivering and thickly clothed, often an

old man, sometimes Boreas or Vulcan. The most frequently personified season

is Spring; Ovid explains that the Greek maiden Chloris, raped and married by

Zephyrus (the west wind), is the same as Roman Flora (Fasti 5.197ff.). In the

Metamorphoses Ovid offers four brief personifications (2.27--30), Lucretius

describes them at slightly greater length at 5.737--47, while Horace portrays

their march through the year as a reminder that death awaits us (Odes 4.7).

Among many poetic descriptions of the seasons in English one of the best

known is Spensers, who gives a stanza each to ‘‘lusty Spring, all dight in

leaves of flowres,’’ ‘‘jolly Sommer, being dight / In a thin silken cassock

coloured greene,’’ ‘‘Autumne all in yellow clad,’’ and ‘‘Winter cloathed all in

frize’’ (FQ 7.7.28--31), and then twelve more to the months, starting with March

(32--43), one to day and night, one to the Hours, and one to Life and Death

(44--46). Thomsons The Seasons is perhaps the culmination of this descriptive

genre in English. The four seasons were an equally popular theme in painting,

sculpture, and music (e.g., Vivaldis The Seasons).

In English the terms for summer and winter have remained constant, but

those for spring and autumn have varied a good deal. Beginning with Old

English (and setting aside spelling differences), for spring we find ‘‘lencten’’ (or

‘‘lenten’’), ‘‘new time,’’ ‘‘prime time,’’ ‘‘first summer,’’ ‘‘springing time,’’ ‘‘spring

of the year,’’ ‘‘springtime,’’ and ‘‘springtide’’; for autumn or fall we find

‘‘harvest’’ and ‘‘fall of the leaf.’’

See April, Autumn, Spring, Summer, Winter.

Seed ‘‘Seed’’ (Hebrew zera) is the standard biblical term for ‘‘offspring’’ or ‘‘progeny.’’

‘‘Unto thy seed will I give this land,’’ the Lord promises Abraham (Gen. 12.7; cf.

13.15, 15.18, etc.). The phrases ‘‘seed of Abraham’’ or ‘‘Abraham and his seed’’

occur four times in the Old Testament and nine times in the New. ‘‘Fear not:

for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from

the west’’ (Isa. 43.5). On the ‘‘seed of Abraham’’ formula, Paul makes the

hair-splitting comment, ‘‘Now to Abraham and his seed [Greek sperma] were

the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And

to thy seed, which is Christ’’ (Gal. 3.16). The Authorized Version rightly does

not substitute ‘‘offspring’’ or ‘‘children’’ for the many instances of ‘‘seed,’’ for

sometimes the seed is literally semen (from Latin semen, ‘‘seed’’), as when

Onan spills his seed on the ground: ‘‘And Onan knew that the seed should not

be his [it would be his brothers, whose widow Onan was expected to marry];

and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brothers wife, that he spilled

it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother’’ (Gen. 38.9). The

concreteness of ‘‘seed’’ is never far from its other meaning, as indeed Gods

promise of ‘‘land’’ for Abrahams seed suggests; we may also have here the

reason for the rite of circumcision, the identifying mark of Abrahams seed on

the organ that produces it.

In classical literature ‘‘seed’’ could also mean ‘‘offspring’’ but it more often

had the slightly different sense of ‘‘race’’ or ‘‘lineage.’’ Oedipus says he would

like to see his seed (ancestry) (Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 1077); the chorus

asks him what seed he comes from on his fathers side (Oedipus at Colonus 214).

Agamemnons father Atreus is ‘‘he who sowed you’’ (Ajax 1293). Cicero uses the

phrase Romani generis et seminis, ‘‘of the race and seed of the Romans’’ (Philippics

4.13). Lucretius and Virgil both use ‘‘seed’’ for the ‘‘brood’’ of a lion (3.741--42,

Georgics 2.151--52). Rejected by women he desired, Villon decides ‘‘I must plant

in other fields’’ (The Legacy 31).

Spenser is fond of such phrases as ‘‘sonnes of mortall seed,’’ i.e., ordinary

mortal men (FQ 1.7.8), and ‘‘thy race and royall sead’’ (3.2.33). The term

continues into recent times, mainly in religious contexts, as in R. Brownings

line, ‘‘Adams sin made peccable his seed’’ (Ring and Book 8.1425).

In classical literature also ‘‘seed’’ could mean ‘‘germ,’’ ‘‘spark,’’ or ‘‘element.’’

The only instance of sperma in Homers epics is the ‘‘seed of fire’’ (a burning

log buried in ashes for the next day) in a simile for the way the naked

Odysseus buries himself in leaves (Odyssey 5.490); Pindar also has ‘‘seed of

flame’’ (Olymp. 7.48). Lucan has the line, ‘‘Quickly let him [Caesar] carry off the

evil seeds of cursed war’’ (3.150). Anaxagoras uses sperma for the basic

elements or ingredients of all things, and it comes to mean ‘‘element’’ in the

Epicurean system as well (e.g., Lucretius 1.501).

In his conversation with Phaedrus, Socrates plants a fruitful metaphor,

comparing the dispensing of knowledge with the planting of seeds by a

careful farmer. The unserious man will write in ink, ‘‘sowing words through

his pen,’’ but the serious man will select a soul of the right type and ‘‘plant

and sow words of knowledge’’ by conversation, words which contain a seed of

new words (Plato, Phaedrus 276b--77a). The most famous version of this

metaphor is Jesus Parable of the Sower, in which a man casts seeds on various

grounds; some seeds grow and some do not; Jesus explains that the seed is

the word of the kingdom and the grounds are different sorts of hearers (Matt.

13.3--23). A related parable is that of the Mustard Seed (Matt. 13.31--32). Partial

precedents may be found in the Old Testament, e.g., speech is like dew or rain

(Deut. 32.2), or like rain or snow that will make the earth bring forth and

‘‘give seed to the sower’’ (Isa. 55.10--11).

Augustine develops the image when he speaks dismissively of his fathers

attempt to have him ‘‘cultured,’’ ‘‘though his culture really meant a lack of

cultivation from you, God, the one true and good landlord and farmer of this

field of yours, my heart’’ (Confessions 2.3, trans. Warner). Our words ‘‘seminar’’

and ‘‘seminary’’ denote places where a students mind is implanted with seeds

of knowledge (Latin seminarium, ‘‘plantation,’’ from semen); we say knowledge is

‘‘disseminated,’’ and we ‘‘conceive’’ an idea. Novalis titles his Romantic

manifesto Bluthenstaub (‘‘Pollen’’), and in the epigraph writes, ‘‘Friends, the soil

is poor, we must richly scatter / Seeds to produce even a modest harvest’’ (trans.

OBrien). Wordsworth is grateful that ‘‘Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew

up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear’’ (1805 Prelude 1.305--06). Emerson

imagines the spring as renovating the earth, ‘‘Planting seeds of knowledge

pure, / Through earth to ripen, through heaven endure’’ (‘‘May-Day’’ 467--68).

The Greek myth of Persephone (Latin Proserpina) seems to have something

to do with seed, as Cicero among others claimed (Nature of the Gods 2.66): she

must spend a third of the year with Hades, and returns in the spring. A

modern personification of seed is Burnss ‘‘John Barleycorn,’’ which takes him

through burial, resurrection, harvest, soaking, threshing, roasting, milling,

and distilling into whiskey.

See Plow.

Serpent All cultures that know them have found serpents fascinating. Indeed serpents

are said to ‘‘fascinate’’ their prey, cast a spell on them with a look; human

cultures seem to have fallen under their sway. Snakes can be extremely

dangerous, being both venomous and ‘‘subtle’’ or sneaky; they strike without

warning from grass or coverts; they can look beautiful in their glittering

multi-colored skin; they creep on their bellies but can rear up; they shed their

skin and seem rejuvenated; they sidle or meander; and in legend at least

some can fly, some swallow their own tails, and some have a head at each

end. The symbolic possibilities are rich and often ambiguous.

The most important serpent for western literature, of course, is the one in

the garden of Eden, who persuaded Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of

good and evil and thus brought about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from

the garden and the advent of death. He was ‘‘more subtil than any beast

of the field’’ and simple Eve was no match for him (Gen. 3.1--7). St. Paul

worries that ‘‘as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty,’’ the minds of

Christians might be ‘‘corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ’’ (2 Cor.

11.3). The serpent was thus connected with knowledge or wisdom, though a

false or even fatal knowledge, and with human mortality. Behind these

connections may lie the notion that serpents are themselves immortal

because they shed their skins; their wisdom might be due to their great age

or to their intimate relation with the earth (they even look wise). In the

Sumerian/Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, a snake denies Gilgamesh the plant of

immortality by snatching it, eating it, and then shedding its skin; a

structuralist would call this a variant of the Eden story. As for wisdom, despite

the serpents evil connotations, Christ calls on his followers to be ‘‘wise as

serpents’’ (Matt. 10.16).

In the Christian scheme the serpent of Eden became ‘‘the great dragon,’’

‘‘that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole

world’’ (Rev. 12.9); ‘‘Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,’’ in Chaucers phrase

(Prioress’s Tale 1748); ‘‘The infernal Serpent’’ of Milton (PL 1.34). Goethes devil

Mephistopheles invokes ‘‘my aunt, the famous snake’’ (Faust I 335). The

‘‘dreadful Dragon’’ that Spensers Redcrosse Knight vanquishes after a terrible

battle (FQ 1.11.4--55) is the dragon of Revelation, and the Knight reenacts the

victory of Michael and the angels (Rev. 12.7).

The older belief that serpents are wise, and not just subtle or cunning, was

revived in the gnostic sects of snake-worshippers, known as the Naasenes

(from Hebrew nahas, ‘‘serpent’’) and Ophites (from Greek ophis, ‘‘serpent’’). They

seem to have believed that the serpent in the garden was trying to bring true

wisdom and divinity to Adam and Eve, who were trapped in the fallen world

by a wicked creator god; as the embodiment of gnosis or wisdom the serpent

descends again as Christ. Something of this inversion of Christian symbols

may be found in Shelley, who stages an elaborate allegorical contest between

‘‘An Eagle and a Serpent wreathed in flight’’: the Serpent, ‘‘the great Spirit of

Good did creep among / The nations of mankind, and every tongue / Cursed

and blasphemed him as he passed; for none / Knew good from evil’’ (Laon and

Cythna 193, 373--76). Keatss poem Lamia might be taken as another swerve

from orthodoxy, for the lovely serpent-woman whom Lycius loves is defeated

by a cold skeptical philosopher; the wisdom of this serpent is imagination

and love.

Another biblical serpent is the one Moses made out of brass at Gods

command, the sight of which cured the Israelites of snakebite (Num. 21.8--9).

Much later this piece of magical homeopathy did not sit well with Hezekiah,

who destroyed it (2 Kgs 18.4). Nonetheless John cites it as a type of Christ

crucified, faith in whom cures us of all ills (John 3.14--15).

‘‘Serpent’’ comes from Latin serpens, serpent-, from a root meaning ‘‘crawl’’ or

‘‘creep.’’ A meandering river could be called ‘‘a serpent river’’ (Jonson, ‘‘To

Robert Wroth’’ 18) without evoking Satan. The river in Londons Hyde Park is

called The Serpentine, as several Greek rivers were called Ophis or Drakon.

When Milton describes the early rivers of creation ‘‘With serpent error

wandering’’ (PL 7.302), however, it is hard to rule out suggestions of the Fall. If

to sin is to wander in error (Latin errare means ‘‘wander’’), a snakes sidling,

meandering motion seconds its evil associations.

In Homer snakes are often omens. The Greeks recall a ‘‘great sign’’: a snake

(drakon) devours eight sparrow nestlings and their mother, and the seer

interprets it to mean that nine years must pass before they sack Troy (Iliad

2.301--30); it is as if the snake symbolizes time, or eternity, which swallows the

bird-years. Another omen is the appearance of the eagle with a serpent in its

talons; the serpent stings the bird, who lets it drop; the Trojan seer takes the

portent to mean they will not drive the Greeks away (12.200--29).

A similar image grips Orestes in Aeschylus Choephoroe. He sees himself and

his sister as fledglings of eagle-Agamemnon, who was killed by a deadly viper

(echidna), Clytemnestra (246--59). The imagery continues in the play: the viper

stands for underhand domestic treachery, as it does in Sophocles Antigone,

where Creon denounces Ismene as ‘‘a viper lurking in the house’’ (531). Close

to this sense of betrayal is Aesops fable of ‘‘The Snake and the Rustic’’: the

peasant rescues a frozen snake by placing it in his bosom, but when it thaws

out it bites him. ‘‘You are nourishing a viper in your bosom’’ (Petronius,

Satyricon 77) became proverbial: ‘‘O familier foo, . . . // Lyk to the naddre [adder]

in bosom sly untrewe’’ (Chaucer, Merchant’s Tale 1784--86); ‘‘O villains,

vipers, . . . // Snakes, in my heart-blood warmed, that sting my heart!’’

(Shakespeare, R2 3.2.129--31). Racines Oreste warns Pyrrhus against raising the

son of Hector in his home ‘‘lest this serpent reared in your bosom / Punish

you one day for having saved him’’ (Andromaque 1.2.167--68). Drydens Antony

accuses Cleopatra and Dolabella of being ‘‘serpents / Whom I have in my

kindly bosom warmed, / Till I am stung to death’’ (All for Love 4.1.464--66). This

snake thus becomes the emblem of ingratitude. ‘‘How sharper than a serpents

tooth it is,’’ Lear cries, ‘‘To have a thankless child’’ (1.4.288--89).

The snake in the bosom grew more internal and metaphorical until it could

represent an entirely mental pain or poison. In Envys bosom, according to

Spenser, ‘‘secretly there lay / An hatefull Snake’’ (FQ 1.4.31), while Malbecco,

followed by jealousy and scorn, was ‘‘So shamefully forlorne of womankynd, /

That, as a Snake, still lurked in his wounded mynd’’ (3.10.55). Cowper seems to

echo Milton on rivers as he begins his ‘‘Progress of Error’’ by asking the Muse

to sing how ‘‘The serpent error twines round human hearts’’ (4). ‘‘Every

mortal,’’ says Chenier, ‘‘hides in his heart, even from his own eyes, / Ambition,

the insidious serpent’’ (‘‘Le Jeu de Paume’’ st. 15).

The most common snake in the mind or heart since the Romantics, at least,

is remorse or guilt. Coleridge addresses a dissolute man who gaily laughs

during nightly orgies ‘‘while thy remembered Home / Gnaws like a viper at

thy secret heart!’’ (‘‘Religious Musings’’ 285--86); later he dismisses his own

‘‘viper thoughts’’ of remorse in ‘‘Dejection’’ (94). Wordsworth writes of a man

suffering from ‘‘the stings of viperous remorse’’ (1850 Prelude 9.576). Shelley

imagines a bloated vice-ridden king trying to sleep, but ‘‘conscience, that

undying serpent, calls / Her venomous brood to their nocturnal task’’ (Queen

Mab 3.61--62). Pushkins Eugene Onegin is ‘‘gnawed by the snake of memory

and repentance’’ (1.46); Pushkin himself, in the darkness, feels ‘‘the bite of all

the burning serpents of remorse’’ (‘‘Remembrance’’). (See Worm.)

Homer compares Paris sudden fear at the sight of Menelaus to that of a

man who comes upon a snake and suddenly steps back ‘‘and the shivers come

over his body, / and he draws back and away, cheeks seized with green pallor’’

(Iliad 3.33--35, trans. Lattimore; see Virgil, Aeneid 2.379--81). Half a line of

Virgils, ‘‘a cold snake lurks in the grass’’ (Eclogues 3.93), has led to a proverbial

phrase. Fortuna, according to Dantes Virgil (who quotes himself), shifts the

worlds goods about according to her judgment, ‘‘which is hidden like a snake

in grass’’ (Inferno 7.84). Spensers Despair comes ‘‘creeping close, as Snake in

hidden weedes’’ (1.9.28). This image merges with the biblical account of the

subtle serpent in the garden, and with the traitor cherished in ones home, to

yield the symbolism of King Hamlets murder. The Ghost tells his son ‘‘ ‘Tis

given out that, sleeping in my orchard, / A serpent stung me’’ (1.5.35--36);

young Hamlet has already felt that the world is ‘‘an unweeded garden / That

grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely’’ (1.2.135--37);

the serpent turns out to be the kings brother. (See Garden.)

The Greek word for the slough or skin of a snake, which it casts in the

spring, was geras, which also meant ‘‘old age.’’ When Pyrrhus the son of

Achilles leads the final assault on Troy, ‘‘he is like a snake that, fed on

poisonous plants / and swollen underground all winter, now / his slough cast

off, made new and bright with youth, / uncoils his slippery body to the light’’

(Aeneid 2.471--74, trans. Mandelbaum); he is his father reborn. Spenser imitates

this passage in his account of a knight who fights with newborn strength

after being wounded, ‘‘Like as a Snake, whom wearie winters teene

[affliction] / Hath worne to nought, now feeling summers might, / Casts off his

ragged skin and freshly doth him dight’’ (4.3.23). Shelley concludes Hellas with

a chorus singing of hope for a new world: ‘‘The worlds great age begins

anew, / The golden years return, / The earth doth like a snake renew / Her

winter weeds outworn’’ (1060--63). Saying ‘‘Farewell to Florida’’ as he sails for

his New England home, Stevens urges his ship on: ‘‘Go on, high ship, since

now, upon the shore, / The snake has left its skin upon the floor. // . . . and the

past is dead.’’

Stories of the foundation of a settlement or city sometimes include the

slaying of a monstrous serpent or dragon. Cadmus slays one at the site of

Thebes and sows his men with its seeds (told by Ovid, Met. 3.28--130); later he

is himself tranformed into a snake (Euripides, Bacchae 1330; Met. 4.563--614).

The cliche of the damsel in distress from a dragon rescued by a knight goes

back at least to the story of Perseus and Andromeda (Met. 4.614--803). Every

hero has to slay a dragon, it seems: Heracles (the Lernaean Hydra), St. George,

Siegfried, Beowulf, Orlando (in Ariostos Orlando Furioso), and the Redcross

Knight, to name a few.

There are other snaky creatures in classical legend, such as the Medusa, one

of the Gorgons, who had hair made of snakes. The Furies were similar ladies:

as Orestes describes the ‘‘Eumenides’’ (Furies) who come to avenge his mother,

‘‘they come like gorgons, they / wear robes of black, and they are wreathed in

a tangle / of snakes’’ (Choephoroe 1048--50, trans. Lattimore). The best-known

Fury is Allecto, whom Juno summons to start a war between the Latins and

Aeneas Trojans. She casts a serpent into Queen Amatas breast and then

inflames Turnus by throwing a torch into his (Aeneid 7.349--56, 445--57). She

becomes a stock figure of terror and vengeance, as we hear from the lips of

Shakespeares Pistol: ‘‘Rouse up revenge from ebon den with fell Alectos

snake, / For Doll is in [prison]’’ (2H4 5.5.37--38).

The infant Heracles strangled two serpents in his cradle (see Theocritus,

Idyll 24). Virgils brief reference to this tale in the Aeneid (8.288--89) is

assimilated into a larger pattern of snake pairs: the two serpents who strangle

Laocoon (representing the two Atreidae, who will sack Troy), the two snakes

who stand out on Allectos head as she incites Turnus, and Cleopatras two

asps. The French revolutionary republic adopted Hercules, the peoples hero,

as its emblem; Wordsworth recounts the defeat of the Austrian and Prussian

troops in France: ‘‘the invaders fared as they deserved: / The herculean

Commonwealth had put forth her arms, / And throttled with an infant

godheads might / The snakes about her cradle’’ (1805 Prelude 10.361--64).

Perhaps because they seem to renew themselves, serpents were sometimes

held to have the power to heal. Apollo the healer god was associated with

serpents, and so was Asclepius/Aesculapius; the staff of the latter, with a

serpent around it, is the symbol adopted by the modern medical profession.

A similar staff, with two snakes twined around it, is the caduceus of

Hermes/Mercury, with which he tames Furies and conducts the shades of the

dead to the underworld. Tennyson puts it metonymically: Persephones eyes

‘‘oft had seen the serpent-wanded power / Draw downward into Hades with

his drift / Of flickering spectres’’ (‘‘Demeter and Persephone’’ 25--27).

The amphisbaena is an interesting snake. Its first appearance comes in a

speech of Cassandras in the Agamemnon; she calls Clytemnestra an

‘‘amphisbaena’’ with perhaps only the sense of treacherous ‘‘viper’’ (1233). But

it was thought to have a head at both ends, making it duplicitous or at least

unpredictable. Lucan includes it among many other serpents as ‘‘dangerous

Amphisbaena, which moves towards both its heads’’ (9.719). The Spirit of the

Hour in Shelleys Prometheus tells how his steeds will cease from toil (time will

stop) but a sculpture will remain of his chariot and horses ‘‘Yoked to it by an

amphisbaenic snake,’’ the snake without a direction (like time), and thus a

symbol of timelessness (3.4.119).

An old symbol of eternity, apparently going back to Egypt, is the ouroboros

(or uroboros), the snake with its tail in its mouth. It appears on the coffin of

Clarissa Harlowe: ‘‘The principal device . . . is a crowned Serpent, with its tail in

its mouth, forming a ring, the emblem of Eternity’’ (Richardson, Clarissa, 3rd

edn., vol. 7 letter 82). Shelley evokes it as the ‘‘vast snake Eternity’’ (Daemon of

the World 100). Frosts character Job speaks of ‘‘The serpents tail stuck down

the serpents throat, / Which is the symbol of eternity / And also of the way all

things come round’’ (‘‘A Masque of Reason’’ 340--42). In Yeatss eternity: ‘‘There

all the serpent-tails are bit’’ (‘‘There,’’ in ‘‘Supernatural Songs’’).

Lucan gives a catalog of horrible snakes in Libya (9.700--33), which is echoed

and outdone by Dante (Inferno 24.82--90, 25.94ff.).

Seven see Number

Sewing and


‘‘The works of women are symbolical,’’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes. ‘‘We

sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, / Producing what? A pair of

slippers, sir . . . ’’ (Aurora Leigh 1.456--58). In countless works of literature, as in

life, womens distinctive labor is stitching, darning, knitting, embroidering,

etc., if it is not the more fundamental labor of spinning and weaving. Where

it rises to thematic importance, it is often seen as emblematic of the

confinement, if not the enslavement, of women to endless tedious tasks, as it

is for Aurora Leigh, who escapes it first by taking walks and then by writing

poetry. It may be used as an expression or metonym of the difference between

two female characters, as for instance Maggie Tulliver in George Eliots The Mill

on the Floss has learned only plain hemming while Lucy Deane can do pretty

embroidery. But it may turn into an inward escape from confinement or

source of self-esteem, as it does for Hawthornes Hester Prynne, whose

needlework gains her respect in town (The Scarlet Letter), or for Celie in

Walkers The Color Purple, who sews clothing and curtains for others and gains

economic independence through her skill.

Quilting may be emblematic of social integration, both because it creates a

large and often beautiful object out of many little fragments and because they

are sometimes made collectively by women at quilting bees. In Steinbecks

Grapes of Wrath the communal spirit of quilt-making contrasts with the

isolation of the individual. Aunt Mehetabel, the mouselike old maid who does

much of the drudgery of the family in Canfield Fishers story ‘‘The Bedquilt,’’

slowly grows in importance and esteem as her genius for quilting becomes

manifest and she wins first prize for her quilt at the county fair. Not only

quilting but any needlework might connote social unifying; Woolfs Mrs.

Dalloway takes a little time from her busy day planning her party to mend

her dress: she collects the folds together with needle and thread as she

gathers her friends at the party.

Any of this needlework may become a metaphor for telling stories or

writing poems, as both spinning and weaving have done. Dickinsons poem

‘‘Dont put up my Thread and Needle’’ (#617) seems to be an implicit vehicle

for the subtle craft, even perfection, of poetry. Aunt Mehetabel felt ‘‘the

supreme content of an artist who has realized his ideal.’’ The drab quilt with

two ‘‘wild’’ orange patches in Morrisons Beloved may at first symbolize life in

the household but by the end it seems to suggest the nonlinear plot of the

novel itself with its gathering of fragments. Though women writers have

recently enriched this symbolic pattern, it may be traced back to the Greek

word rhapsodos, the ‘‘rhapsode’’ or reciter of poetry, which is a compound of

rhapt- ‘‘stitch’’ and ode, ‘‘ode’’ or ‘‘song’’; a rhapsode stitches together words to

make a song. Pindar has ‘‘bards stitching words’’ (Nem. 2.2). Our word

‘‘rhapsody’’ has entirely lost its link to sewing or weaving or labor of any


See Weaving and Spinning.

Sheep For thousands of years sheep-raising was the primary industry of the hilly

regions of the Mediterranean lands, so it is not surprising that imagery of

sheep and shepherds permeates biblical and classical literature. It was only

slightly less important in several western European regions; as late as 1750

woollen goods made up half the value of all British exports. Many current

English phrases and proverbs, some of biblical or classical origin, testify to the

continuing presence of the world of sheep in our culture: we count sheep to

fall asleep, we may be fleeced of our possessions, we beware of a wolf in

sheeps clothing, someone is a black sheep in the family, babies are innocent

lambs, and so on.

‘‘Sheep’’ is the generic term in English. The male is a ram, the female a

ewe, the young a lamb. A ram, especially if castrated, may be called a wether

(as in ‘‘bell-wether’’). A new-born lamb was until recently called a yeanling or

eanling, from the verb ‘‘yean’’ or ‘‘ean,’’ which is related to ‘‘ewe’’; see

Shakespeare, MV 1.3.79, 87, for ‘‘eanling’’ and ‘‘eaning time.’’ A newly weaned

lamb is called a weanling. Sheep are herded in a flock, and sometimes kept in

a sheepfold, sheepcote, or sheeppen. To fold is to shut sheep in the fold; to

unfold is to lead them out. ‘‘And sheep unfolded with the rising sun / Heard

the swains shout and felt their freedom won,’’ writes John Clare (‘‘The Mores’’

27--28). ‘‘The Star that bids the Shepherd fold’’ (Milton, Comus 93) is the

evening star (Vesper or Hesperus), called the ‘‘folding star’’ in Collinss ‘‘Ode to

‘‘Evening’’ 21 and Wordsworths Evening Walk 280, while ‘‘thunfolding star’’

that ‘‘calls up the shepherd’’ (Shakespeare, MM 4.2.203) is the morning star

(Lucifer or Phosphorus). (See Star.)

The Old Testament is filled with sheep metaphors. ‘‘I saw all Israel scattered

upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd’’ (1 Kgs 22.17). ‘‘All we like

sheep have gone astray’’ (Isa. 53.6). ‘‘My people hath been lost sheep: their

shepherds have caused them to go astray’’ (Jer. 50.6). But the 23rd Psalm

reminds us that ‘‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. / He maketh me

to lie down in green pastures’’ (1--2), while the 80th begins, ‘‘Give ear, O

Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock.’’

The New Testament makes Jesus Christ the shepherd of Israel. ‘‘I am the

good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep,’’ unlike the

‘‘hireling’’ who flees at the sight of a wolf (John 10.11--16); ‘‘My sheep hear my

voice, and I know them, and they follow me’’ (10.27). Christ is particularly sent

‘‘unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel’’ (Matt. 15.24), and tells a parable of

the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to find the one in a hundred

that is lost (Luke 15.4--7). In one of his appearances after the resurrection,

Jesus tells his disciples to ‘‘Feed my sheep’’ (John 21.15--17): they are to become

the shepherds of the endangered flock of Christians.

This metaphor remains in Christian churches today. Christians are a flock

or congregation (from Latin grex, ‘‘flock’’ or ‘‘herd’’), their minister may be

called a pastor (Latin for ‘‘shepherd’’; cf. English ‘‘pasture’’), and if they have a

bishop he may carry a shepherds crook or crosier. ‘‘Perhaps the use of this

particular convention,’’ Northrop Frye writes (Anatomy of Criticism 143), ‘‘is due

to the fact that, being stupid, affectionate, gregarious, and easily stampeded,

the societies formed by sheep are most like human ones.’’ But Dante has a

profounder meditation on the sheeplike character of the true Christian in a

wonderful simile: ‘‘Even as sheep that move, first one, then two, / then three,

out of the fold -- the others also / stand, eyes and muzzles lowered, timidly; /

and what the first sheep does, the others do, / and if it halts, they huddle

close behind, / simple and quiet and not knowing why: / so, then, I saw those

spirits in the front / of that flock favored by good fortune move -- / their looks

were modest; seemly, slow, their walk’’ (Purgatorio 3.79--87, trans. Mandelbaum).

He calls both the Baptistry of San Giovanni (St. John) and the city of Florence

a ‘‘sheepfold’’ (ovile) (Paradiso 16.25, 25.5--6).

Christs denunciation of ‘‘hireling’’ shepherds also continues in Dante: he

calls Clement V a ‘‘lawless shepherd’’ (Inferno 19.83), for example, and in a

variant of the wolf in sheeps clothing he denounces ‘‘rapacious wolves /

clothed in the cloaks of shepherds’’ (Paradiso 27.55--56; cf. 9.132). Milton in

Lycidas has St. Peter denounce the false shepherds that ‘‘for their bellies sake, /

Creep and intrude and climb into the fold’’; they are ‘‘Blind mouths! that

scarce themselves know how to hold / A Sheep-hook,’’ and they leave their

sheep hungry, infected by disease, and prey to the wolf (113--29).

Kings have been called ‘‘shepherd of the people’’ in many cultures since

ancient Egypt. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh the king is the

‘‘Shepherd of Uruk.’’ ‘‘Shepherd of the people’’ is a frequent epithet of

Agamemnon in Homers Iliad. Also in the Iliad is a strangely effective simile

that likens the Trojan army clamoring for battle to a flock of milk-swollen

ewes bleating incessantly when they hear their lambs (4.333--35). In Beowulf

the word hyrde (‘‘herd,’’ i.e., ‘‘shepherd’’) is a synonym for cyning (‘‘king’’).

The classical tradition of pastoral poetry, hinted at in Homer but generally

taken to date from Theocritus in the third century bc, is based on an

idealized and simplified version of the life of shepherds and goatherds.

Pastoral literature is no longer popular, but for over two thousand years the

greatest poets, playwrights, and even novelists used the pastoral mode for

elegy, comedy, tragedy, romance, and satire. Two of Shakespeares plays, for

example, are pastoral: As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. This classical

tradition could combine with the Christian, as it does in the passage just

quoted from Lycidas, Miltons pastoral elegy.

Another metaphor in the New Testament combines uneasily with that of

the shepherd: Jesus as the Lamb. In Exodus 12 God institutes the ceremony of

Passover (Hebrew pesach), which requires each household to sacrifice a lamb:

‘‘your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year’’ (5). The Last

Supper was the meal (seder) of the first night of Passover, and the Crucifixion

then seemed a sacrifice of a human lamb for the salvation of his household.

John the Baptist anticipates the events of Easter when he greets Jesus by

saying, ‘‘Behold the Lamb of God [Greek ho amnos tou theou, Latin agnus dei],

which taketh away the sin of the world’’ (John 1.29). John of Patmos constantly

calls Christ the Lamb (Greek to arnion) in his vision of the Second Coming. The

faithful ‘‘have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the

Lamb’’ (Rev. 7.14) and they are invited to ‘‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’’

(19.9). ‘‘Lamb’’ in Revelation becomes a name or title that loses its connection

to real lambs: John even speaks, absurdly, of ‘‘the wrath of the Lamb’’ (6.16).

Sheep were regularly sacrificed in Greek and Latin culture as well. The ram

was particularly offered to Aphrodite. Lambs are sacrificed several times in

Homers two epics.

The traditional enemy of sheep, and especially lambs, is the wolf. ‘‘Till the

wolf and the lamb be united’’ seems to have been a Greek equivalent to

‘‘never’’ (Aristophanes, Peace 1076). But Isaiah memorably imagines a time

when the land is restored to the Lords favor: ‘‘The wolf shall also dwell with

the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the

young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them’’ (11.6).

To leave someone behind ‘‘as a sheep among wolves’’ was also proverbial in

Greek (e.g., Herodotus 4.149). ‘‘Baneful to folds is the wolf,’’ is Virgils succinct

if obvious comment (Eclogues 3.80). Shakespeares Cassius comments on Julius

Caesars tyranny: ‘‘I know he would not be a wolf / But that he sees the

Romans are but sheep’’ (1.3.104--05). Jesus use of the metaphor to his disciples,

‘‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves’’ (Matt. 10.16), has

had a long influence, notably in Silones novel Bread and Wine. (See Wolf.) So

also has Jesus prophecy of Judgment Day, when the Son of Man shall separate

the nations ‘‘as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: / And he shall

set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left’’; the sheep shall be

saved and the goats damned (Matt. 25.32--33).

In English poetry adjectives such as ‘‘harmless,’’ ‘‘humble,’’ and ‘‘simple’’ got

attached to ‘‘sheep’’ and ‘‘lambs’’ -- e.g., ‘‘harmless sheep’’ in Shakespeares 3H6

5.6.8 and ‘‘harmless Race’’ in Thomsons ‘‘Summer’’ 388 -- but one adjective

whose meaning has since changed was once the distinctive epithet: ‘‘silly.’’

Sometimes found in the form ‘‘seely,’’ its oldest sense is ‘‘blissful’’ and

‘‘blessed’’ (cf. modern German selig, ‘‘blessed’’) and by extension ‘‘innocent,’’

‘‘harmless,’’ and ‘‘simple,’’ then ‘‘pitiable’’ and ‘‘helpless.’’ It is the perfect

epithet of Christians, and hence of sheep. Spenser has ‘‘silly/seely sheep/lamb’’

about ten times, and ‘‘silly/seely shepherd’’ twice. In Shakespeare we hear of

‘‘shepherds looking on their silly sheep’’ (3H6 2.5.43) and ‘‘silly lamb(s)’’ (Venus

1098, Lucrece 167). The phrase was so well established by Shakespeares day that

his comic characters can play on it in their badinage: ‘‘A silly answer, and

fitting well a sheep’’ 2GV 1.1.81). Milton imagines the unsuspecting shepherds

on the first Christmas: ‘‘Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep, / Was all that

did their silly thoughts so busy keep’’ (‘‘Nativity’’ 91--92). The term remained in

use through the nineteenth century, though with an archaic ring, as in

Matthew Arnolds pastoral elegy ‘‘Thyrsis’’ (45).

Shell see Harp

Shield see Armor

Ship A fragment of the early Greek lyric poet Alcaeus describes a ship struggling

through a fierce storm at sea: ‘‘one wave rolls in from this side, another from

that . . . bilge-water covers the mast-hold; all the sail lets the light through

now . . . ’’ (frag. 208, trans. Campbell). There is nothing in what survives to

suggest that this is anything other than what it seems, but Heraclitus of

Helicarnassus tells us that it is an allegory for political strife; Archilochus, he

says, another poet, used the same symbolism (Homeric Allegories). If Heraclitus

is right, these are the earliest examples of the ship-of-state metaphor, whereby

the king or tyrant is the captain or helmsman, the citizens are the crew, the

weather is all political, and the goal is safe harbor. It is found in a poem

attributed to Theognis, where he complains of a mutinous crew that has

deposed the pilot and refused to bail (667 -- 82). It is found throughout

Aeschylus Seven Against Thebes (1--3, 62--64, 208--10, 652), and in Sophocles

Antigone (163, 189); in both cases it is Thebes that is rocked by waves or set

straight again. It is explicitly developed in Platos Republic 488a--89b.

The Alcaeus poem probably inspired a similar allegory by Horace (Odes 1.14).

It begins: ‘‘Oh Ship! New billows sweep thee out / Seaward. What wilt thou?

Hold the port, be stout’’; this translation is by W. E. Gladstone, who captained

the British ship of state for many years. Dante denounces Florence as ‘‘a ship

without a helmsman in a great storm’’ (Purgatorio 6.77). The metaphor is

concealed in the words ‘‘govern’’ and ‘‘government,’’ which descend from Latin

guberno, from Greek kuberno, ‘‘steer (a ship).’’ It has informed many modern

literary works, more or less by implication in Shakespeares Tempest and

Melvilles Moby-Dick, and explicitly in the anonymous fifteenth-century poem

‘‘The Ship of State’’ (where the mast is Prince Edward, the stern is the Duke of

Somerset, etc.); Longfellows ‘‘The Building of the Ship’’; Whitmans lament for

Lincoln, ‘‘O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done’’; and Audens ‘‘The

Ship.’’ The whole of humankind might be thought of as launched upon a sea,

an idea encapsulated in the recent catch-phrase ‘‘Spaceship Earth.’’

A partly parallel symbolism lies in the identification of the Christian

church as a ship, which derives largely from the typological mode of reading

the Old Testament. Noahs ark is the ‘‘type’’ of the church, outside of which

there is no salvation. So the long central room of a Gothic church is called

the nave, from Latin navis, ‘‘ship.’’ The mast is inevitably likened to the cross.

Thousands of literary works, of course, including many central to the

western tradition, are based on voyages across perilous seas, through narrow

straits, past whirlpools and sea-monsters, against divine or magical forces,

with stops at islands friendly or hostile, and so on; Homers Odyssey,

Apollonius Argonautica, Virgils Aeneid, Camoens The Lusiads, Coleridges Rime of

the Ancient Mariner, and Melvilles Moby-Dick are a few examples. W. H. Auden

has observed (in The Enchafed Flood) that for most of human history no one

went to sea unless one had to, in literature as in life, whereas in the Romantic

era a shift took place: now the sea beckoned for its own sake, and life ashore

seemed tame and unworthy. So Byron: ‘‘Once more upon the waters! yet once

more! / And the waves bound beneath me as a steed / That knows its rider.

Welcome to their roar! / Swift be their guidance, wheresoeer it lead!’’ (Childe

Harold’s Pilgrimage 3.10--13); Baudelaire: ‘‘But true travellers are those, and

those alone, who set out / Just to set out; light hearts, like balloons, / They

never swerve from their destiny, / And, without knowing why, always say:

Onward!’’ (‘‘Le Voyage’’ 17--20); or John Masefields ‘‘Sea Fever.’’ Sometimes the

voyage stands for ones progress through ‘‘the sea of life,’’ as Arnold calls it in

‘‘Human Life’’ (27). (See Path.)

In classical myth a small boat piloted by Charon takes the dead to Hades, as

if to show that death is on ‘‘the other shore’’ (as we still sometimes say)

opposite this life. This boat is itself symbolized, for example, by the Venetian

gondola, painted ‘‘coffin-black,’’ that ferries Gustav Aschenbach to his

destination in Manns Death in Venice.

Pindar likens the composition of a work to a nautical voyage (Nem. 3.27) and

asks the Muse to send the ‘‘wind of song’’ (Pyth. 4.3) or ‘‘wind of words’’ (Nem.

6.28). In his poem about farming Virgil invites his patron Maecenas to ‘‘Set

sail with me on this my enterprise,’’ while later in the same work he furls his

sail and points prow to land (Georgics 2.41, 4.117). The final ode of Horaces four

books begins, ‘‘For wishing to speak of battles and conquered cities Phoebus

rebukes me with his lyre, lest I set my little sail on the great Tyrrhenian Sea’’

(4.15.1--4). Propertius elaborates this conceit in the same context: Apollo warns

him away from writing epics, for ‘‘Your talents skiff is not to be overladen. /

Let one oar scour the water, the other sand, / And youll be safe: at sea, the

tumults vast’’ (3.3.22--24, trans. Shepherd). Dantes Purgatorio begins with the

same trope: ‘‘To course across more kindly waters now / my talents little

vessel lifts her sails, / leaving behind herself a sea so cruel’’ (1.1--3, trans.

Mandelbaum); a greatly elaborated version comes early in the Paradiso (2.1--15).

Chaucer imitates: ‘‘Owt of thise blake wawes [waves] for to saylle, / O wynd, o

wynd, the weder gynneth clere; / For in this see the boot hath swych

travaylle, / Of my connyng [skill], that unneth [hardly] I it steere’’ (Troilus 2.1--4).

Camoens makes the same comparison, and adds that he is on a real voyage

even as he writes (Lusiads 7.78). As Spenser launches the final canto of book 1

of The Faerie Queene (1.12.1) he calls his poem ‘‘my feeble barke’’; he concludes

the canto by declaring the poem must land some passengers and repair her

tackles before setting out again (1.12.42; see 6.12.1). After saying he has left

out a long tale of two tragic lovers, Wordsworth adds, ‘‘But our little

bark / On a strong river boldly hath been launched; / And from the driving

current should we turn / To loiter wilfully within creek, / Howeer attractive,

Fellow voyager! / Wouldst thou not chide?’’ (1850 Prelude 9.559--64). Keats

promises to ‘‘steer / My little boat, for many quiet hours, / With streams that

deepen freshly into bowers’’ (Endymion 1.46--48). After five cantos of Don Juan,

Byron takes stock: ‘‘Thus far our chronicle, and now we pause, / Though not

for want of matter; but tis time, / According to the ancient epic laws, / To

slacken sail and anchor with our rhyme’’ (5.1265--68; see 10.23--32). As

Pushkin nears the end of Eugene Onegin he turns to his reader for the last

time: ‘‘Let us congratulate / each other on attaining land’’ (8.48.12--13, trans.


Siege The main metaphorical use of a military siege of a city or fortress is the

wooing or seduction of a woman, especially a maiden. This metaphor is

probably prehistoric, for many ancient citadels were identified with a virgin

goddess, notably Athena, protectress of the Acropolis of Athens and several

other Greek cities. Only after Odysseus and Diomedes stole Troys sacred

statue of Athena, the Palladion, did the city fall to its besiegers. Possibly in

two passages of Homer the city is likened to a woman pursued: Achilles

wishes that he and Patroclus could alone ‘‘loosen Troys sacred girdle,’’ though

kredemna might mean ‘‘veil’’ or ‘‘head-bindings’’ (Iliad 16.100; cf. Odyssey 13.388).

More important, the two epics that inaugurate western literature, however

much they differ, begin in a curiously similar situation. In the Iliad Greeks

besiege a city in order to rescue a woman who has been abducted from

another citadel, while in the Odyssey a woman is the object of a host of

unwelcome suitors. The rescuer of Penelope is the same who devised the sack

of Troy for Helens sake, in both cases by devious means; in both epics he is

the favorite of Athena.

In English an unconquered city is a ‘‘maiden’’ city. Venice, writes

Wordsworth, ‘‘was a maiden City, bright and free; / No guile seduced, no force

could violate’’ (‘‘On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic’’). We say a fortress

is ‘‘impregnable,’’ as if to say it cannot be raped, though that word respells a

different root from the one in ‘‘pregnant.’’

Perhaps the greatest elaboration of this metaphor is found in de Lorris and

de Meuns Romance of the Rose, where a woman is a besieged tower, defended by

Rebuff, Evil Tongue, Jealousy, and the like, coaxed open by Fair Welcome,

assaulted by an army of Love, and so on. When Sidneys Stella is asleep

Astrophel decides, ‘‘Now will I invade the fort’’ to steal a kiss, but he retreats

(‘‘Stella Sleeping’’). Spensers Sansloy first tries to seduce Una with words --

‘‘her to persuade that stubborne fort to yilde [yield]’’ -- and then, when his

flattery fails, ‘‘with greedy force he gan the fort assayle, / . . . / And win rich

spoils of ransackt chastitee’’ (FQ 1.6.3,5; see 1.2.25). Tennyson combines literal

with figurative in his account of fair Lyonors, in her castle, and a knight who

‘‘so besieges her / To break her will, and make her wed with him’’ (‘‘Gareth

and Lynette’’ 601--02).

It is not only a woman or a womans honor that may be thought of as a

fortress under attack. ‘‘What warre so cruel, or what siege so sore,’’ Spenser

asks, ‘‘As that which strong affections doe apply / Against the forte of

reason . . . ?’’ He goes on to paint an elaborate allegorical scene of the siege,

where enemy batteries, for example, assail five bulwarks representing the five

senses. A ‘‘noble Virgin,’’ of course, is the ‘‘Ladie of the Place,’’ Alma, the soul

(FQ 2.11.1--16). Sidney reverses the standard trope and portrays his heart as

conquered by Stella and ‘‘Whole armies of thy beauties entered in’’ (‘‘Astrophel

and Stella’’ 36). Hamlet tells how ones innate vice might grow, ‘‘Oft breaking

down the pales and forts of reason’’ (1.4.28), a metaphor with large resonance

in a play set in a fort under threat by an external enemy but already taken by

internal subterfuge.

Silver Silver is ‘‘the second metal,’’ in Saint-Amants phrase (‘‘Winter in the Alps’’),

following gold. ‘‘Gold and silver’’ or ‘‘silver and gold’’ are commonplaces in

classical literature, and they occur in the same or successive verses scores of

times in the Bible; often there is no distinction in meaning. Both ‘‘gold’’ and

‘‘silver’’ are synonyms for money in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and many modern

languages (cf. French argent). But wherever there is a ranking, silver comes

second, as the monetary value of the metal is always less than that of gold.

The silver race was the second of the five races described by Hesiod, and it

was much inferior to the golden (see Metal); ‘‘It was the silver age that saw the

first adulterers,’’ according to Juvenal (6.24). In literary history the distinction

between a golden and silver age of Roman literature has been current since

the seventeenth century. ‘‘With Ovid,’’ Dryden says, ‘‘ended the golden age

of the Roman tongue’’ (‘‘Preface’’ to the Fables); the silver age was the period

from the death of Augustus to that of Hadrian. A witty essay by Peacock called

‘‘The Four Ages of Poetry’’ traces two cycles from iron through gold and silver

to brass, the second brass age being the contemporary one; it was this

scornful survey that prompted Shelleys ‘‘A Defence of Poetry.’’ A well-known

anthology by Gerald Bullet, Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century (London, 1947),

defines a set of ‘‘minor’’ English poets (Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Raleigh, Davies),

while C. S Lewis defines a ‘‘Golden Age’’ of English poetry, that of the

Elizabethans (Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe), as ‘‘innocent or ingenuous’’ (English

Literature in the Sixteenth Century [London, 1954] 64).

As a bright, precious metal silver belongs to the classical gods only less

insistently than gold. Apollo is particularly associated with a silver bow;

‘‘silverbow’’ is a title of his in the Iliad (1.37); Pindar refers to ‘‘the silver bow

of Phoebus’’ (Olymp. 9.32--33). The Homeric Hymn to Artemis gives Apollos sister

a golden bow (5), as does Ovid (Met. 1.697), but later Artemis (or Diana) seems

to have acquired a silver one, probably to align her better with the moon, of

which she is regent. So ‘‘the moon, like to a silver bow / New bent in heaven,’’

suggests the reign of Diana the huntress in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(1.1.9--10); Pericles refers to Dianas ‘‘silver livery’’ (Per 5.3.7); while in Miltons

Comus Diana is the ‘‘Fair silver-shafted Queen forever chaste’’ (442). For the

moon is always silver. ‘‘Silver moon’’ and various more decorative phrases such

as ‘‘faire Phebe with her silver face’’ recur in Spenser (FQ 2.2.44), Shakespeare,

Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and many other poets. The sun, however, is always

golden. In parallel couplets Spenser has ‘‘Phoebus golden face’’ and ‘‘silver

Cynthia’’ (1.7.34), and after centuries of this pairing Stevens states as a dull

fact ‘‘The sun is gold, the moon is silver’’ (‘‘Mandolin and Liqueurs’’). (For more

examples, see Gold.)

‘‘Silver-eddying’’ is an epithet of rivers in Homer, and it has been attached to

rivers and other forms of water ever since. In a persistent display of the power

of poetry over fact, the Thames has been silver for centuries: ‘‘the christall

Thamis wont to slide / In silver channell’’ (Spenser, ‘‘Ruins of time’’ 134--35);

‘‘silver Thames’’ (Jonson, Forest 6.15); ‘‘silver Thames’’ (twice in Wordsworth);

but in a novel, a more realistic touch: ‘‘A lodging . . . which looked out upon

the silver Thames (for the Thames was silver then)’’ (Kingsley, Westward Ho! 12).

A beautiful voice or other sound is frequently silver. When Spensers

Belphoebe speaks one hears ‘‘A silver sound, that heavenly musicke seemd to

make’’ (FQ 2.3.24); hearing Juliet say his name, Romeo notes ‘‘How silver-sweet

sound lovers tongues by night’’ (2.2.166); evoking silver rivers as well as music

Shelleys Asia feels ‘‘My soul is an enchanted Boat / Which, like a sleeping

swan, doth float / Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing’’ (PU 2.5.72--74);

Keats imagines Spenser blowing a ‘‘silver trumpet’’ (‘‘Ode to Apollo’’ 30);

Emerson mourns the loss of his boy with his ‘‘silver warble wild’’ (‘‘Threnody’’

12). It was already such a cliche by Shakespeares day that a servant in Romeo

and Juliet can ask why a song has the phrase ‘‘music with her silver sound’’;

none of the musicians knows the answer, so they resort to quips: ‘‘I say silver

sound because musicians sound for silver’’ (4.5.128--41).

See Metal, Moon.

Sirius see Dog star, under Star

Skylark see Lark

Sleep see Dream, Night

Snake see Serpent

Sowing see Seed

Sparrow Sparrows occur once in Homer as the helpless birds swallowed by a snake in

an omen forecasting the length of the war (Iliad 2.308--30); the eight fledglings

and their mother stand for the nine years already devoured by time.

There are three more distinctive ancient associations of sparrows. It is one

of the birds of Aphrodite, for it is sparrows not doves that pull her chariot in

Sapphos ‘‘Ode to Aphrodite,’’ probably because they seemed the most lustful

of common birds. An ancient commentator on the Iliad passage states the

sparrow is sacred to the goddess. Sparrows escort Venus dove-driven chariot in

Apuleius (Met. 6.6). Strouthos (‘‘sparrow’’) in Greek could mean a ‘‘lewd fellow’’

or ‘‘lecher,’’ as did passer in Latin (Juvenal 9.54); the latter could also be a term

of endearment between lovers. Chaucers Summoner was ‘‘As hoot . . . and

lecherous as a sparwe’’ (CT Gen. Pro. 626). In his list of distinctive bird features

Sidney has ‘‘Sparrows letchery’’ (First Eclogues 10.79). Shakespeares Lucio

complains of the puritanical Angelo that ‘‘Sparrows must not build in his

house-eaves because they are lecherous’’ (MM 3.2.175--76). There are no Latin

examples of the sparrows of Venus, but in his bird catalog Chaucer lists ‘‘The

sparwe, Venus sone’’ (Parliament of Fowls 351), Sidney sees ‘‘a chariot faire by

doves and sparrowes guided’’ that carries Venus and Diana (Fourth Eclogues

73.59), and Marlowes Hero tells Leander that ‘‘I play / With Venus swans and

sparrows all the day’’ (351--52). Robert Browning writes ‘‘spring bade the

sparrows pair’’ (‘‘Youth and Art’’ 33).

The most famous individual sparrow is Lesbias pet, celebrated in two

poems by Catullus (2 and 3). The first is addressed to the bird and describes

the way his girl plays with it, the second is a lament over its death. So well

known were these poems that Martial refers to the bird half a dozen times,

once claiming that his Stellas pet dove surpasses Catullus sparrow (1.7.1--3);

see also Juvenal 6.8. (There is some question whether the bird, passer, is really

a sparrow and not a thrush or goldfinch.) Skeltons long poem Phyllyp Sparowe,

an elegy for a womans pet bird killed by a cat, seems inspired by Catullus.

Byron translated Catullus lament into English.

The third ancient use of the sparrow is Jesus example of Gods providence:

‘‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on

the ground without your Father’’; ‘‘Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value

than many sparrows’’ (Matt. 10.29,31). It marks the final turn in Hamlets

readiness that he cites Matthew: ‘‘We defy augury. There is a special

providence in the fall of a sparrow’’ (5.2.215--16). According to Pope, God sees

‘‘with equal eye . . . / A hero perish, or a sparrow fall’’ (Essay on Man 1.87--88).

A charming poem that tries to see sparrows with fresh eyes, without

literary connotations, is W. C. Williamss ‘‘The Sparrow.’’

Spider Most of the spiders literary appearances have to do with spinning and

weaving. The Greek tale of the girl Arachne (Greek for ‘‘spider’’) and her

weaving contest with Athena is memorably told by Ovid (Met. 6.1--145). The

word ‘‘spider,’’ from Old English spithra, is from the same root as ‘‘spin’’; the

German word for ‘‘spider’’ is Spinne. (The source of Greek arachne and Latin

araneus is unknown.)

Spider webs are of course a sign of neglect or decay (as in Catullus 68.49),

but an interesting use of them in Homer with that sense -- where Telemachus

wonders whether his mother has remarried and the bed of Odysseus lies

empty ‘‘holding evil spider webs’’ (Odyssey 16.35) -- resonates with the only

other appearance of the word, in a simile for the net Hephaestus contrives to

catch his unfaithful wife Aphrodite in bed with Ares (8.280). With a similar

set of associations, the image is used by the chorus of Aeschylus Agamemnon,

who bewail the dead Agamemnon, ‘‘lying in this web of the spider,’’ his

faithless wife Clytemnestra (1492). We are reminded that spiders weave webs

to catch unwary insects.

Spider webs are used as examples of fineness or delicacy, as in Hephaestus

skillful net or the hair of a girl Ovid describes (Amores 1.14.7--8). Spenser has

Clotho the Fate show ‘‘thrids so thin as spiders frame’’ (FQ 4.2.50).

The fact that spiders produce their threads out of their own abdomen, to

weave what Shakespeare calls a ‘‘self-drawing web’’ (H8 1.1.63), has suggested a

symbolic contrast to the bee, which gathers its materials from many sources.

Swifts Battle of the Books centers on a debate between the ‘‘modern’’ spider,

who spins books out of his own entrails (‘‘the guts of modern brains’’), and

the ‘‘ancient’’ bee, who ranges over nature and collects knowledge with great

labor; the one produces dirt and poison, the other honey and wax. (See Bee.)

The modern Walt Whitman, by contrast, compares the human soul to ‘‘A

noiseless patient spider’’ (the title of a poem); the spider launches forth

filaments into the vast space around it, as the soul must, ‘‘Till the gossamer

thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.’’

Jonathan Edwards famously adduces a spider dangling over a fire as a type

or symbol of the human sinner (‘‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’’).

Robert Frost finds a white spider on a white flower holding a dead white moth

as something like another type, perhaps an instance of the ‘‘design of

darkness to appall’’ (‘‘Design’’).

After Emma Bovarys marriage, ‘‘boredom, like a silent spider, was weaving

its web in the shadows, in every corner of her heart’’ (Flaubert, Madame Bovary,

chap. 7).

Spleen see Bile

Spring Spring is the most celebrated of seasons. Poets since antiquity have delighted

in springs return and relished its many distinctive features. Certain

conventions were established early that have influenced poetry up to the


The Greeks and Romans considered spring the beginning of the year,

whence the Latin phrase primum tempus, ‘‘first season,’’ which yields French

printemps and the Middle English translation ‘‘prymetyme.’’ In English

‘‘prime’’ by itself could mean ‘‘spring’’ as well as the first hour of the day; so

Shakespeare: ‘‘The lovely April of her prime’’ and ‘‘The teeming autumn, big

with rich increase, / Bearing the wanton burden of the prime’’ (Sonnets 3.10,

97.6--7). The main Latin word for spring, ver (whence English ‘‘vernal’’), was

combined with prima to give the Italian and Spanish primavera. Latin ver is

cognate with Greek ear; the season of spring (hore earos) is one of the three

seasons (horai) distinguished by Hesiod. In Homer hore alone occasionally

means ‘‘spring,’’ as if it were the season.

The Old English word for ‘‘spring’’ was ‘‘lencten’’ or ‘‘lenten’’ (probably akin

to ‘‘length,’’ for it is the time when days noticeably lengthen), shortened to

‘‘lent’’ and now restricted to the church season before Easter; German Lenz

preserves the original meaning. A Middle English lyric begins: ‘‘Lenten ys

come with love to toune.’’ The word ‘‘spring,’’ as its other meanings today

imply, meant a rise or leap of something, hence a first onset; the phrase

‘‘springing time’’ was used in the fourteenth century, and ‘‘spring of the year’’

and ‘‘spring of the leaf’’ were once common. As a verb it was often found in

poems: ‘‘When the nightingale sings the woods waxen green, / Leaf and grass

and blossom springs in April’’ (MS Harley 2253). Shakespeare has ‘‘springing

things’’ (young growths) and ‘‘tender spring’’ (young shoot or bud) (Venus 417,

656). The King James Bible has ‘‘spring of the day’’ (1 Sam. 9.26) and

‘‘dayspring’’ (Job 38.12, Luke 1.78) for dawn. ‘‘Springtide’’ adds ‘‘tide,’’ meaning

‘‘time.’’ Shakespeare also has ‘‘spring of time’’ (R2 5.2.50), and, most striking,

‘‘middle summers spring’’ (MND 2.1.82). German Fruhling and (less common)

Fruhjahr are from fruh, ‘‘early.’’

Latin poetry has several descriptions of spring that set the conventions:

winter thaws and relaxes its grip, Venus or love pervades the land, the Graces

and Nymphs dance, swallows or cuckoos and then nightingales sing, birds and

then beasts seek their mates, showers descend as heaven impregnates the

earth, the west wind (Zephyrus or Favonius) gently blows, the land turns

green and then bright or purple with buds and blossoms, Flora strews flowers,

dew falls on them, boys and girls seek each other, and so on. See Lucretius

1.10--20, 250--61, 2.991--98, 5.737--47; Horace, Odes 1.4, 4.7, 4.12; Virgil, Georgics

2.323--35. These conventions were crystallized in medieval Latin poetry, such

as the Carmina Burana, and in Provencal and Old French songs; a common

type of dance song in Old French, for example, was the reverdie or

‘‘regreening.’’ The best-known brief description of spring in Middle English is

the opening of Chaucers Canterbury Tales. (See West wind.)

A common theme in medieval poetry was the ‘‘debate’’ or conflictus between

Winter and Spring. The Owl and the Nightingale (c. 1200) is such a poem, where

the owl represents winter and the nightingale, of course, spring. An echo of

this theme is found in the concluding song of Shakespeares Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Another great influence on post-classical poetry of spring is this passage

from the Song of Solomon: ‘‘For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and

gone; / The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is

come, and the voice of the turtle [dove] is heard in our land; / The fig tree

putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good

smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away’’ (2.11--13).

Spring is the season of love, ‘‘For love is crowned with the prime, / In

spring-time’’ (Shakespeare, AYLI 5.3.32--33). A nearly formulaic epithet for

spring in medieval and Renaissance poetry is ‘‘lusty.’’ The most often quoted

English line on the subject is probably Tennysons: ‘‘In the spring a young

mans fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’’ (‘‘Locksley Hall’’ 20).

The biblical Paradise and the classical Golden Age (as found in Ovid,

Metamorphoses 1.107--10) were thought of as places of perpetual spring. The

orchard of Alcinous in Homers Odyssey is the classical prototype: it always has

some trees with ripe fruit, for ‘‘always Zephyrus blowing on the fruits brings

some to ripeness while he starts others’’ (7.112--21). Virgil speculates in the

Georgics that spring was the season at the dawn of the infant world (2.337--43).

Genesis 1.11 was read as suggesting that seed and fruit were once

simultaneous, but the classical sources were sufficient to prompt descriptions

of the Garden of Eden as the site of ‘‘Eternal Spring’’ where there are

‘‘goodliest Trees loaden with fairest Fruit, / Blossoms and Fruits at once,’’ as

Milton puts it (PL 4.268, 147--48); ‘‘spring and autumn here / Danced hand in

hand’’ (5.394--95). Spensers account of the Garden of Adonis elaborates the

tradition: ‘‘There is continuall Spring, and harvest there / Continuall, both

meeting at one tyme; / For both the boughes doe laughing blossoms beare, /

And with fresh colours decke the wanton Pryme, / And eke attonce the heavy

trees they clyme, / Which seeme to labour under their fruites lode’’ (FQ 3.6.42).

In the masque of The Tempest, Ceres blesses the lovers with the wish that

‘‘Spring come to you at the farthest / In the very end of harvest’’ (4.1.114--15).

‘‘Great Spring, before [the Deluge], / Greend all the Year,’’ according to

Thomson (‘‘Spring’’ 320). And Shelleys vision of the renovated world in Queen

Mab is a garden with ‘‘ever verdant trees’’ where ‘‘fruits are ever ripe, flowers

ever fair, / And autumn proudly bears her matron grace, / Kindling a flush on

the fair cheek of spring’’ (8.118--21).

Spring, of course, is metaphorical of youth. The ‘‘prime of youth’’ used to

refer to ones twenties, and phrases such as ‘‘springtime of life’’ are

commonplaces (French printemps de la vie, German Lenz des Lebens).

See Autumn, Seasons, Summer, Winter.

Spring (Wellspring) see Fountain

Staff see Bread

Stage see Theatre

Star Among their many meanings, stars have stood for numerousness, glory,

prophecy, times of night or year, and fate or ‘‘influence’’; many particular

stars, of course, have had particular senses.

In biblical and classical literature ‘‘star’’ can refer to any of the heavenly

bodies, including (occasionally) to the sun and the moon. What we call a

planet was a ‘‘wandering star’’ (Greek aster planetes), what we call a comet was

a ‘‘hairy star’’ (aster kometes); today we still call a meteor a ‘‘shooting star’’ or

‘‘falling star,’’ though we know it is not a star in the strict sense. Ovid once

uses sidus (‘‘star’’) for the sun (Met. 1.424); Virgil likens an advancing army to a

storm-cloud ‘‘cutting off the star’’ (abrupto sidere), where the star must be the

sun (Aeneid 12.451). Seneca calls the moon the ‘‘star of the night’’ (Medea 750).

After their awe-inspiring beauty and distance, perhaps the most striking

fact about stars is the sheer number of them, indeed a numberless number.

Stars in the Bible are a commonplace for numerousness or innumerability.

The Lord promises Abram: ‘‘Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if

thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, so shall thy seed be’’

(Gen. 15.5; see 26.4). Stars are sometimes coupled with sand for the same

purpose: ‘‘I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand

which is upon the sea shore’’ (22.17; see Hebr. 11.12). Thus a dramatic way of

expressing the mightiness of God is to say ‘‘He telleth the number of the

stars; he calleth them all by their names’’ (Ps. 147.4).

In the Iliad there is a striking simile that, in typical Homeric fashion,

elaborates a scene beyond its point, which is simply numerousness: ‘‘As when

in the sky the stars about the moons shining / are seen in all their glory,

when the air has fallen to stillness, / And all the high places of the hills are

clear, and the shoulders out-jutting, / and the deep ravines, as endless bright

air spills from the heavens / and all the stars are seen, to make glad the heart

of the shepherd; / such in their numbers blazed the watchfires the Trojans

were burning ‘‘ (8.555--60, trans. Lattimore).

Catullus tells Lesbia he wants as many kisses as the sand in Libya and the

stars at night (7.3--7). After a long list of Nereids, Spenser relies on that

commonplace to express their countlessness: it would be easier ‘‘To tell the

sands, or count the starres on hye’’ (FQ 4.11.53). Miltons Satan leads ‘‘an host, /

Innumerable as the stars of night, / Or stars of morning’’ (PL 5.744--46). ‘‘But

who can count the Stars of Heaven?’’ Thomson asks (‘‘Winter’’ 528), forgetting,

perhaps, that the Psalmist had already answered that question.

Stars in the Bible sometimes stand for glory, human or otherwise. Daniel

concludes his prophecy by claiming ‘‘they that be wise shall shine as the

brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the

stars for ever and ever’’ (12.3). At the resurrection, Paul writes, we shall have

incorruptible heavenly bodies with a ‘‘glory’’ (Greek doxa) like those of the

sun, moon, and stars (1 Cor. 15.41).

Several times in Homer the fame (kleos) of a person or thing ‘‘goes up to

heaven’’ (e.g., Iliad 10.212, Odyssey 9.20). Homer does not make the next step

explicit by likening the famous to stars, though he does compare the

appearance of Achilles in armor to a star. He also names a few constellations --

the Bear (or Wagon), the Pleiades, Orion, Bootes -- behind some of which lie

stories about the translation of heroes or objects from earth to heaven.

Euripides takes the next step when he has a chorus call Hippolytus ‘‘the

brightest star of Athens’’ (Hippolytus 1121). Virgil has Aeneas boast that his

fame goes above the sky (Aeneid 1.378--89), Dido hope her former fame was

going up to the stars (4.322), and a voice tell Latinus that strangers blood

‘‘will carry our name to the stars’’ (7.99); but Virgil like most Hellenistic and

Roman poets reserves the stars themselves for deified heroes and emperors. He

imagines the zodiac, for instance, making room for the new star of Octavian,

not yet dead (Georgics 1.32). Chaucer alludes to this process of ‘‘catasterism’’ or

transformation into a star in, appropriately, The House of Fame 599.

Shakespeares Bedford invokes the ghost of Henry V, asking it to ‘‘Combat with

adverse planets in the heavens! / A far more glorious star thy soul will make /

Than Julius Caesar’’ (1H6 1.1.54--56). Shelley hopes his fame will become ‘‘A star

among the stars of mortal night’’ (Revolt of Islam 6). In this ancient and

traditional use we have the origin of ‘‘movie star’’ and ‘‘superstar,’’ the

metaphorical force of which is now spent.

Because he or she stands out among all others, ones beloved is often called

a star. Since Platos epigrams to a young man whom he calls Aster, ‘‘star’’ has

become a conventional name: Martial writes of Stella, Sidney (who dubs

himself ‘‘Astrophil’’ or ‘‘Star-Lover’’) has a Stella, Swift also has a Stella, and

Dickenss Pip loves Estella in Great Expectations.

Several stars in the Bible are prophetic or symbolic. Balaam prophesies,

‘‘there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel,’’

who shall smite the enemy (Num. 24.17); Christians have taken this as

referring to Christ. At Jesus birth there was the star of the Magi, or star of

Bethlehem, that appeared in the east (Matt. 2.2ff.); the Magi were astrologers,

so they particularly recognized the significance of this stella nova or new star

as the sign of a new reign, and new kind of reign, on earth. Milton insists on

its newness whenever he mentions it: ‘‘A Star, not seen before in Heaven

appearing / . . . thy Star new-gravn in Heaven’’ (PR 1.249--53; see PL 12.360). That,

surely, is the main point, a point completely effaced by well-meaning modern

attempts to ‘‘explain’’ the star by finding a conjunction of planets at about

4 bc, the sort of thing astrologers would not find unusual in the least.

In a nice example of the internalization of Jewish and pagan symbols, Peter

refers to ‘‘a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take

heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the

day star arise in your hearts’’ (2 Pet. 1.19); the ‘‘day star’’ in the Authorized

Version is phosphoros, the morning star, Venus. When Jesus in the Book of

Revelation says, ‘‘I will give him [the faithful] the morning star’’ (2.28) he

seems to be promising salvation, the entrance into a new day in heaven, but

near the end of the book he announces that he himself is ‘‘the bright and

morning star’’ (22.16). The morning star has been taken as prophetic generally

ever since; to give one modern example, Hugos ‘‘Stella’’ is a dream vision in

which the morning star announces ‘‘I am fiery Poetry’’ sent ahead as herald by

Liberty and Light.

The acknowledgment by the Wise Men that Jesus is the new king may be

taken as the defeat of Magian star-worship. Though Joseph dreamt of symbolic

stars and Daniel was a star-reader, there are a number of passages of the Bible

that denounce the star cults widespread in the Middle East. Moses warns his

followers ‘‘lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the

sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be

driven to worship them, and serve them’’ (Deut. 4.19). Isaiah sarcastically

offers: ‘‘Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators,

stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee. / Behold,

they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them’’ (47.13--14). In other passages,

however, astrology of some sort seems to be assumed. In Judges we are told

that ‘‘the stars in their courses fought against Sisera’’ (5.20), and Jesus himself

tells us that during the time when ‘‘Nation shall rise against nation,’’ ‘‘there

shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars’’ (Luke 21.10, 25).

Early interpreters of the Bible, if not its authors, took stars sometimes to

mean angels. A chief passage justifying that meaning is from Job: ‘‘When the

morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy’’ on the

day the foundations of the earth were laid (38.7). Isaiahs cryptic verse (in

the AV), ‘‘How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!’’

(14.12), refers to two star-deities in Hebrew, Helel and Shahar, but in various

translations the passage has been enormously influential on later stories of

fallen angels. The ‘‘great star’’ that falls from heaven and is given a key to the

bottomless pit (Rev. 9.1) must be an angel of some kind, and perhaps the

‘‘Lucifer’’ of Isaiah. John of Patmos makes explicit that the seven stars in the

right hand of Christ (Rev. 1.16) are the angels of the seven churches he

addresses (1.20). The dragons tail ‘‘drew the third part of the stars of heaven,

and did cast them to the earth’’ (12.4). Milton compares Lucifer to ‘‘the

morning star that guides / The starry flock, allured them, and with lies/ Drew

after him the third part of heavens host’’ (PL 5.708--10). To take stars as angels

may help clarify many mysterious passages in William Blake, such as the one

about the stars throwing down their spears in ‘‘The Tyger.’’

Stars of course tell direction and time of year. Hesiods Works and Days and

Virgils Georgics are filled with precise information about risings and settings

of various stars. Navigating by stars must have been widely practiced for

centuries, though only one instance of it is found in Homer (Odyssey 5.272ff.).

Certain constellations show up frequently in literature. On Achilles shield

Hephaestus puts the sun and moon and ‘‘all the constellations that festoon

the heavens, / the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orion / and the

Bear, whom men give also the name of the Wagon, / who turns about in a

fixed place and looks at Orion / and she alone is never plunged in the wash of

the Ocean’’ (Iliad 18.485--89, trans. Lattimore; repeated with Bootes for Hyades

at Odyssey 5.272--75). Pleiades, Hyades, and Bear are together in Georgics 1.138,

Bootes and Pleiades in Propertius 3.5.35, Orion and Bear in Ovids Art of Love

2.53. ‘‘The Bear,’’ Greek Arktos, is the Great Bear, Ursa Major; the Greek word

gives us ‘‘arctic’’ and ‘‘antarctic.’’ Today it is often called the Big Dipper, but

the older term is still used, the Wain (wagon) or Charles Wain. It is the most

prominent of the north circumpolar constellations, and in ancient times, at

Greek latitudes, it never set, never bathed in Oceans stream (no longer true,

thanks to the precession of the equinoxes). The heliacal rising of the Pleiades

marked the beginning of summer (mid-May), that of Arcturus, the brightest

star of Bootes, the beginning of winter (mid-September), and so on.

The twelve signs or constellations of the zodiac, the band of the sky

through which the sun, moon, and planets pass, have been widely cited in

literature at least since Statius as ways of indicating the season. The most

famous English example comes in the ‘‘General Prologue’’ of Chaucers

Canterbury Tales: it is April, when ‘‘the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halve

cours yronne’’ (7--8); the sun is young because it is early in the year, which

began in March, and it is now emerging from the constellation Aries, the

Ram, the first sign of the zodiac.

Despite the strictures against it in the Bible and some of the church

fathers, astrology remained a rich source of literary imagery. The common

meanings of ‘‘influence’’ today have their origin in the belief that the stars

sent an etherial fluid down to earth. A ‘‘sphere of influence’’ in the

geopolitical sense draws twice from celestial notions, for the pre-Copernican

model of the heavens posited solid transparent spheres surrounding the earth.

A ‘‘disaster’’ is etymologically a ‘‘bad star’’ or unfavorable aspect of a star or

planet; Shakespeares Horatio speaks of ‘‘disasters in the sun’’ (Hamlet 1.1.118).

To ‘‘consider’’ was originally to consult the stars (Latin sidera).

Many people read the horoscope today for amusement, but many others

still believe in ‘‘natal stars’’ or planets that were dominant or prominent at

the time of their birth or at other crucial moments. Chaucer likens the

heavens to a large book written with stars; at ones birth one can determine

ones death, ‘‘For in the sterres, clerer than is glas, / Is writen, God woot

[knows], whoso koude it rede, / The deeth of every man, withouten drede

[doubt]’’ (Man of Law’s Tale 194--96). A lady in Spenser asks her lord, ‘‘what evill

starre / On you hath frownd, and poord his influence bad’’ (FQ 1.8.42), while

another hails a knight as ‘‘borne under happie starre’’ (1.1.27); in Spenser stars

can also be ‘‘cruel,’’ ‘‘unhappy,’’ or ‘‘luckless.’’ Many characters in Shakespeare

feel predetermined by ‘‘favourable,’’ ‘‘auspicious,’’ ‘‘inauspicious,’’ ‘‘thwarting,’’

‘‘angry,’’ or ‘‘malignant and ill-boding’’ stars; Romeo and Juliet are ‘‘A pair of

star-crossed lovers’’ (Prologue 6); Malvolio thanks his stars he is happy (12N

2.5.170--71); and so on. But the contrary view is also frequent. Cassius argues

that ‘‘Men at some time are masters of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is

not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings’’ (JC 1.2.139--41),

though heavenly portents at Caesars murder suggest Cassius is wrong. The

wicked Edmund dismisses his fathers belief in ‘‘heavenly compulsion,’’

‘‘spherical predominance,’’ and ‘‘planetary influence’’ as fopperies (King Lear

1.2.118--33). More convincing is Helena in All’s Well: she grants she is born

under ‘‘baser stars’’ or ‘‘homely stars’’ (1.1.183, 2.5.75), that is, of humble

parents, but she acts on the knowledge that ‘‘the fatal sky / Gives us free

scope’’ (1.1.216--18); by contrast Polonius tells Ophelia that ‘‘Lord Hamlet is a

prince out of thy star’’ or sphere (Hamlet 2.2.141). Helenas view is expressed by

Basilio in Calderons Life is a Dream, where he states that ‘‘the most impious

planet’’ can ‘‘only incline the free will, not force it’’ (1.6.789--91); events bear

him out. Or, as Southey states it, ‘‘for though all other things / Were subject

to the starry influencings, / . . . / The virtuous heart and resolute mind are

free’’ (Curse of Kehama 18.10.129--32).

Particular stars are not uncommonly recruited for symbolic meanings.

Melvilles Billy Budd, for instance, always aloft in the foretop of the ship, is

associated with the constellation Taurus and its brightest star Aldebaran,

which are high above the celestial equator, while Claggart is likened to

Scorpio, which lies far below it.

The ‘‘day star’’ has sometimes meant the morning star, but in poetry it is

usually the sun. In Miltons Lycidas the ‘‘day-star’’ is almost certainly the sun,

for it sinks in the ocean and yet soon ‘‘Flames in the forehead of the morning

sky’’ (168--71), whereas Venus cannot be both evening and morning star in the

same season. It is the ‘‘diurnal star’’ of PL 10.1069, and the ‘‘star of noon’’ of

Youngs Night Thoughts 9.1683. Wordsworth sees the day-star sinking in the

west in his Evening Walk 190--91. Carew calls the sun ‘‘the Planet of the day’’

(‘‘Boldness in Love’’ 5).

The ‘‘dog star’’ (Latin Canicula, ‘‘little dog’’) is Sirius, the brightest fixed star

in the sky, found in the constellation Canis Major, the ‘‘Great Dog,’’ which

Homer calls Orions Dog (Iliad 22.29). Sirius rises just before the sun (its

‘‘heliacal rising’’) in mid-July, or rather it did so in ancient times; hence it is a

sign of the dangerous heat of high summer. Sirius ‘‘parches head and knees,’’

as Hesiod puts it (Works and Days 587), as if it is the star itself that sends the

feverish heat. The name ‘‘Sirius’’ seems to be an adjective, Greek seirios,

meaning ‘‘burning’’ or ‘‘sparkling’’: Hesiod once has seirios aster, which might

be translated either ‘‘blazing star’’ or ‘‘Sirian star’’ (Works 417), and Aeschylus

writes of foliage providing shade against the seiriou kunos or ‘‘Sirian dog’’

 (Agamemnon 966--67). Ibycus once uses it in the plural for stars generally


It appears twice in similes in the Iliad, first for the shining of Diomedes

shield (5.5--6), and then, in an elaboration that rests not only on its brightness

but on its balefulness, for Achilles himself, who looks ‘‘like that star / which

comes on the autumn and whose conspicuous brightness / far outshines the

stars that are numbered in the nights darkening, / the star they give the name

of Orions Dog, which is brightest / among the stars, and yet is wrought as a

sign of evil / and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals’’ (22.26--31;

trans. Lattimore). Apollonius tells the story behind the sacrifices to Sirius by

the priests of Keos -- to keep it from ever again burning the islands with its

fire from heaven (2.516--27); he also likens Jasons impression on Medea to that

of Sirius, for he is both brilliant and the bringer of the hot disease of love

(3.956--61). In the Aeneid ‘‘Sirius burns the sterile fields’’ while men die of

pestilence (3.141); it also appears in a simile for the shining helmet of Aeneas

(10.273--75), a reworking of the Iliad similes. In the Georgics Virgil calls Sirius

canis aestifer, ‘‘dog the summer-bearer’’ (2.353). The Greeks and Romans

designated the hottest weeks of summer the ‘‘dog days’’ (hemerai kunades, dies

caniculares), a phrase still used in English. Spenser imagines the July sun

hunting the lion (the constellation Leo) ‘‘with Dogge of noysome breath, /

Whose balefull barking bringes in hast / pyne, plagues, and dreery death’’

(SC ‘‘July’’ 22--24); like Aeschylus he calls it ‘‘the hot Syrian Dog’’ (Mother

Hubberd 5).

Milton calls Sirius the ‘‘swart Star’’ in Lycidas 138, ‘‘swart’’ meaning ‘‘black’’

or ‘‘dark.’’ Unusually for Milton no classical precedent for this epithet has

turned up: it may mean ‘‘evil,’’ or perhaps it is a transference from the

vegetation scorched black by the star.

The ‘‘evening star,’’ called hesperos in Greek and vesper in Latin, both

meaning ‘‘evening’’ (and cognate with ‘‘west’’), is the planet Venus, which is

never far from the sun, sometimes rising before it (‘‘morning star’’) and

sometimes setting after it (‘‘evening star’’). It is named once in Homer: ‘‘as a

star moves among stars in the nights darkening, / Hesper, who is the fairest

star who stands in the sky, such / was the shining from the pointed spear

Achilleus was shaking / in his right hand’’ (Iliad 22.317--20, trans. Lattimore). In

the tradition of the epithalamium or wedding song, the appearance of the

evening star, with its link to the goddess of love, is the signal to light the

bridal lamp and lead the bride to the bridegroom. Catullus epithalamium (62)

begins by announcing, ‘‘Vesper is here, young men, stand up.’’ Milton evokes

this tradition when Adam describes his nuptial evening with Eve (PL 8.519).

The ‘‘morning star,’’ called phosphoros in Greek and lucifer in Latin, both

meaning ‘‘light-bringer,’’ is also the planet Venus. In Homer once it is called

Heosphoros, ‘‘Dawn-bringer’’ (Iliad 23), and once it is described as ‘‘that brightest

star, which beyond others / comes with announcement of the light of the

young Dawn goddess’’ (Odyssey 13.93--94, trans. Lattimore). The epigram of

Platos mentioned earlier reads: ‘‘Aster, once you shone as the Dawn Star

among the living; now you shine as the Evening Star among the dead.’’

Shelley uses this as an epigraph to his elegy on the death of Keats, Adonais,

which is filled with star imagery. Milton relies on the traditional name of the

unfallen Satan, Lucifer, in likening him to the morning star.

The ‘‘pole star’’ or ‘‘polar star’’ is Polaris, the North Star, the brightest star in

Ursa Minor, the Lesser Bear or Wain (or Little Dipper), and in recent centuries

very near the north celestial pole. It is ‘‘the stedfast starre’’ (Spenser, FQ 1.2.1)

around which all the other stars revolve. In a circumlocution for ‘‘night’’

Tennyson describes the time ‘‘when the lesser wain / Is twisting round the

polar star’’ (In Memoriam 101.11--12).

The ‘‘fixed stars’’ are what we call stars today. They do not move relative to

each other, but revolve together once a day around the pole. According to the

Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system they are affixed to the eighth sphere from the


The ‘‘wandering stars’’ are the planets (Greek aster planetes, ‘‘wandering

star’’); Chaucer calls them the ‘‘erratik sterres’’ (TC 5.1812). They move relative

to the fixed stars in complex patterns, moving at varying rates through the

zodiac night after night, some of them even retreating for a time before

resuming their progress. There were seven of them: the moon, Mercury,

Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, in order of distance from the earth,

each affixed to its own sphere, which rotated according to its own rules.

Dantes ‘‘planet that leads men straight on every road’’ is the sun (Inferno

1.17--18). (See Planet.)

The ‘‘star of the sea’’ (Latin stella maris) is a title given to the Virgin Mary in

the Middle Ages, apparently in the belief that ‘‘Mary’’ (or Hebrew ‘‘Miriam’’)

was the same as the Latin word for ‘‘sea.’’ She is the Hope of Sailors, or as

Joyce puts it, ‘‘a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of

the sea’’ (Ulysses, ‘‘Nausicaa’’ para. 1).

The ‘‘watery star’’ is the moon. ‘‘Nine changes of the watery star’’

(Shakespeare, WT 1.2.1) means nine months. It is associated with water

because it is ‘‘the governess of floods’’ or tides (MND 2.1.103). Shakespeare also

calls it ‘‘the moist star, / Upon whose influence Neptunes empire stands’’

(Hamlet 1.1.121--22).

The ‘‘lode star’’ or ‘‘load star’’ is the guiding star (‘‘load’’ is related to ‘‘lead’’),

that is, the north star.

For the ‘‘folding star’’ and ‘‘unfolding star,’’ see under Sheep.

Stork The stork is mentioned occasionally in the Bible with no particular symbolic

meaning, but the Hebrew word for it, hasidah, means ‘‘pious.’’ That suggests

that the Hebrews shared the Greek view that the stork (pelargos) is notable for

its parental and especially filial piety. In Aristophanes The Birds a character

cites an ancient law in the tablets of the storks: ‘‘When the old stork has

brought his storklings up, / And all are fully fledged for flight, then they /

Must in their turn maintain the stork their father’’ (1355--57, trans. Rogers).

(Aristophanes also wrote a play called The Storks, but it is lost.) Sophocles may

be referring to storks in Electra 1058ff.: ‘‘We see above our heads the birds, /

true in their wisdom, / caring for the livelihood / of those that gave them life

and sustenance’’ (trans. Grene). Socrates alludes to storkling piety at the end of

his first dialogue with Alcibiades: ‘‘So my love will be just like a stork; for

after hatching a winged love in you it is to be cherished in return by its

nestling’’ (Plato, Alcibiades 1.135e).

Pliny believes that storks nourish their parents in old age (Natural History

10.31). Dryden expands on a hint in Juvenals first Satire: ‘‘the Stork on

high / Seems to salute her Infant Progeny: / Presaging Pious Love with her

Auspicious Cry’’ (173--75). Drayton describes the ‘‘carefull Storke’’ who ‘‘his agd

Parents naturally doth feed, / In filiall duty’’ (Noahs Flood 1395--98). Dante

makes use of this tradition in a simile for his relation to the image of the

Eagle of Justice in Heaven: ‘‘Just as, above the nest, the stork (cicogna) will

circle / When she has fed her fledglings, and as he / whom she has fed looks

up at her, so did / the blessed image do, and so did I, / The fledgling, while the

Eagle moved its wings’’ (Paradiso 19.91--95, trans. Mandelbaum).

The ancients seem to have extended the notion of filial and parental

devotion to constancy in marriage. Aelian, for example, tells a story of a stork

that struck out the eyes of a servant who committed adultery with his

masters wife (De Natura Animalium 8.20), and it was believed that the male

stork destroys or abandons a female he finds unfaithful. That idea must lie

behind Chaucers sole reference to the stork as ‘‘the wrekere of avouterye’’

(‘‘the avenger of adultery’’) (Parliament of Fowls 361), and this by Skelton: ‘‘The

storke also, / That maketh his nest / In chymneyes to rest; / Within these

walles / No broken galles [open sores?] / May there abyde / Of cokoldry syde’’

(Phyllyp Sparowe 469--75). ‘‘Constancy is like unto the stork,’’ Lyly writes,

‘‘who wheresoever she fly cometh into no nest but her own’’ (Euphues and his


Occasionally the stork has a negative meaning, as in Spensers

Epithalamion 345--52, where he wishes that the screech owl, the stork, the

raven, ghosts, vultures, and frogs all kept silent during the night; some of

these creatures are listed together in Deuteronomy 14.12--19 as unclean (not to

be eaten).

Storm see Wind

Summer Summer and winter were once probably the only seasons distinctly named,

and both have long been used to indicate a year, especially when several of

them are counted. Dido calls on Aeneas to tell his tale, for ‘‘now the seventh

summer carries thee / a wanderer over every land and sea’’ (Virgil, Aeneid

1.755--56). Shakespeares Egeon has spent ‘‘five summers’’ in Greece (CE 1.1.132).

Wordsworth begins ‘‘Tintern Abbey’’ by counting the years: ‘‘Five years have

passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!’’ On other

occasions Wordsworth remembers ‘‘twice five summers’’ (1850 Prelude

1.560) and ‘‘two-and-twenty summers’’ (8.349). (For more examples, see


Summer is the most pleasant season, at least in the temperate zone, not

only for its warmth but its long days. ‘‘As fressh as is the brighte someres day’’

(Chaucer, Merchant’s Tale 1896) became something of a commonplace.

Shakespeare can evoke it, if only to find fault with it (it can be too hot or too

windy), in comparison with his beloved (Sonnets 18). Spenser calls him ‘‘jolly

Sommer’’ and describes him clothed in green, and sweating (FQ 7.7.29).

If ones life is figured as a year, summer is maturity, the full flowering of a

mans powers, ‘‘Summers ardent strength,’’ in Thomsons phrase (‘‘Winter’’

1030). Wordsworth imagines Coleridge ‘‘with the soul / Which Nature gives to

poets, now by thought / Matured, and in the summer of its strength’’ (1805

Prelude 10.998--1000). With women, however, summer is already a bit late; as

Byron puts it, ‘‘Some said her years were getting nigh their summer’’ (Don Juan


See Autumn, Seasons, Spring, Winter.

Sun The sun is so overwhelming a phenomenon and so fundamental to earthly life

that its meanings in mythology and literature are too numerous to count. The

sun is not only the most striking thing to be seen but the very condition of

sight; light and seeing, some have argued, lie at the root of all symbolism.

What follows, then, must be a highly selective discussion.

For the Greeks, to be alive was to see the sun. When a child was born he

was brought ‘‘into the light, and he saw the suns rays,’’ according to Homer,

while during ones life one sees the light and when one dies one ‘‘must leave

the light of the sun’’ (Iliad 16.188, 18.61, 18.11). The realm of Hades is never

illuminated by the sun (Odyssey 11.15--19); it is located in the far west, where

the sun sets. Wordsworth succinctly states the Greek view when he laments

that so many friends have passed ‘‘From sunshine to the sunless land’’

(‘‘Extempore Effusion’’ 24). Leopardi borrows the ancient idea in his phrase

‘‘give to the sun’’ (dare al sole) for ‘‘give birth’’ (‘‘Canto notturno’’ 52).

Plutarch wrote that ‘‘sunlight is the symbol of birth’’ (Aetia Romana 2).

Shelley was to echo this idea frequently, as in his phrase ‘‘births orient

portal’’ (Hellas 202). To live on earth is to live ‘‘under the sun and starry sky’’

(Iliad 4.44). A similar idea is found in Hebrew thought. ‘‘Under the sun’’ is the

formulaic expression of Ecclesiastes for ‘‘in this life’’: ‘‘there is no new thing

under the sun’’ (1.9), and ‘‘I saw vanity under the sun’’ (4.7). In Latin literature,

lux (‘‘light’’) can mean ‘‘life’’: Virgil has invisam . . . lucem (‘‘hateful life’’; Aeneid

4.631). Similarly ‘‘day’’ can mean ‘‘life’’ in several languages. Death ‘‘shuts up

the day of life’’ (Shakespeare, RJ 4.1.101). When one dies, as Gray puts it, one

leaves ‘‘the warm precincts of the cheerful day’’ (‘‘Elegy’’ 87). At the end of it,

our life can seem no longer than a day; we are ‘‘ephemeral’’ beings (from

Greek epi ‘‘on’’ and hemera ‘‘day’’). The comparison of human life in its brevity

to a day is indeed ancient. Mimnermus says ones youth is ‘‘short as the

sunlight spreads on the earth’’ (2.8). Catullus urges his Lesbia to give

thousands of kisses, for time is short: ‘‘suns can set and rise again; / For us,

once our brief light has set, / Theres one unending night for sleeping’’ (5.4--6,

trans. Lee). It became a commonplace, but variously evoked. After urging his

‘‘Coy Mistress’’ to hold out no longer but ‘‘sport us while we may,’’ Marvell

concludes, ‘‘Thus, though we cannot make our sun / Stand still, yet we will

make him run’’ (45--46). Hopkins concludes a sonnet, ‘‘all / Life death does end

and each day dies with sleep’’ (‘‘No worst, there is none’’).

Sophocles wrote that ‘‘everyone worships the turning wheel of the sun’’

(frag. 672). In Homer Helios the sun is invoked as a god who sees everything

and hears everything (Iliad 3.277, Odyssey 11.109, etc.); for that reason he is the

god of oaths (like the Mesopotamian sun-god Shamash), the ever-present

witness. Aeschylus Prometheus calls on the ‘‘all-seeing circle of the sun’’ to

witness his sufferings (Prometheus 91). (The phrase ‘‘circle of the sun’’ or ‘‘wheel

of the sun’’ is a common Indo-European expression: cognate forms are found

in Sanskrit and Old English poetry.) Sol sees all things in Ovid, Metamorphoses

2.32, 4.227--28, and 14.375. In Shakespeare, the ‘‘all-seeing sun’’ (RJ 1.2.92) has a

‘‘burning eye’’ (RJ 2.3.5), a ‘‘precious eye’’ (KJ 3.1.79), a ‘‘sovereign eye’’ (Sonnets

33.2); ‘‘The sun with one eye vieweth all the world’’ (1H6 1.4.84). If to be alive is

to see the sun, it is also to be seen by it, as in Bryants ‘‘Thanatopsis’’: ‘‘Yet a

few days, and thee / The all-beholding sun shall see no more / In all his

course’’ (17--19).

Rather than have an eye, the sun may be an eye itself. It is the ‘‘eye of day’’

in Sophocles Antigone 104. The Hebrew phrase translated in the Authorized

Version as ‘‘the dawning of the day’’ (Job 3.9) probably means ‘‘the eyelids of

the morning’’ (as in the NEB). Ovid calls the sun the mundi oculus or ‘‘eye of

the world’’ (Met. 4.228), Ronsard ‘‘the eye of the gods’’ and ‘‘the eye of God’’

(Odes 3.10.60, Stances 4.137), Spenser ‘‘the great eye of heaven’’ (FQ 1.3.4),

Shakespeare ‘‘the eye of heaven’’ (Sonnets 18.5), Byron ‘‘the bright eye of the

universe’’ (Manfred 1.2.10). Cicero, Pliny, and other Latin writers call the sun

the mind or soul of the world. Milton combines these metaphors: ‘‘Thou sun,

of this great world both eye and soul’’ (PL 5.171); Shelley in his Hymn of Apollo

has Apollo call himself ‘‘the eye with which the universe / Beholds itself and

knows itself divine.’’

The conventional attributes of Helios or Sol are well known. Brother of the

Moon and Dawn, he drives his chariot of four (or seven) horses up from the

eastern sea, across the sky, and down into the western sea, whereupon he

somehow travels under or around the world, usually in a golden boat or cup

on the river Ocean, back to the east. The Homeric Hymn to Helios and second

Hymn to Athena mention the horses and chariot; Euripides describes sunset

thus: ‘‘Helios drove his horses / Toward his final flame’’ (Ion 1148--49); it is these

that Phaethon borrows in the disastrous tale told by Ovid in Metamorphoses 2.

Homer sometimes calls the sun Hyperion, while Hesiod makes Hyperion his

father; his mother is Theia. Later Apollo became associated with the sun, or

with its brightness or clarity.

The suns celestial team became a commonplace in Medieval and

Renaissance poetry. Spenser, for example, has ‘‘Phoebus fiery carre’’ (FQ 1.2.1);

Shakespeare speaks of ‘‘The hour before the heavenly-harnessd team / Begins

his golden progress in the east’’ (1H4 3.1.214--15); and Milton describes the

same hour as ‘‘Now while the Heavn by the Suns team untrod, / Hath took no

print of the approaching light’’ (‘‘Nativity’’ 19--20).

It became a persistent image that the suns horses breathed fire. Pindar

sings of ‘‘the lord [sun] of fire-breathing horses’’ (Olymp. 7.71. Virgil, in Drydens

expansive translation, has ‘‘Thethereal coursers, bounding from the sea, /

From out their flaming nostrils breathd the day’’ (Aeneid 12.115; see Georgics

1.250). Marlowe writes, ‘‘The horse that guide the golden eye of heaven, / And

blow the morning from their nostrils’’ (2 Tamburlaine 4.4.7--8). In discussing

Phaethon Spenser twice mentions the ‘‘flaming mouthes of steedes’’ (FQ 1.4.9)

or ‘‘the firie-mouthed steedes’’ (5.8.40). Horses need not be divine to breathe

fire, according to Lucretius, who refers to ‘‘the fire-snorting horses of

Thracian Diomedes’’ (5.30 trans. Esolen); Virgil describes a thoroughbred

whose ‘‘nostrils churn the pent-up fire within’’ (Georgics 3.85, trans.

Wilkinson). In Blakes Book of Thel, the lilys perfume ‘‘tames the fire-breathing

steed’’ (2.10).

Milton alludes to the myth that the sun is ‘‘the lusty Paramour’’ or lover of

the Earth (‘‘Nativity’’ 36). It goes back at least to Lucretius, who explains the

fertility of Mother Earth as due to the casting of rain in her lap by Father Sky

 (1.250--51); Virgil writes of the sexual intercourse between her and Father

Aether (= Heaven) (Georgics 2.325--27). Sidneys New Arcadia begins: ‘‘It was in

the time that the earth begins to put on her new apparel against the

approach of her lover.’’ (See Rain.)

Sun worship in Hellenistic and Roman times left its mark on Christianity.

Christ was crucified on the 14th day of Nisan (on the full moon of the first

month) in the Jewish lunar calendar, on the eve of the Sabbath, and rose from

the dead two days later, which happened to be dies Solis or ‘‘Sunday’’ in the

Greco-Roman solar calendar. At Jesus death, according to Luke 23.45, ‘‘the sun

was darkened.’’ The last chapter of the Hebrew Bible seemed to prophesy a

‘‘Sun of righteousness’’ (Malachi 4.2). All this and the doctrine of the Logos as

light in the Gospel of John made the equation inevitable: Christ is the new

and greater sun. ‘‘As the sun returns from the west to the east,’’ Athanasius

wrote, ‘‘so the Lord arose out of the depths of Hades to the Heaven of

Heavens’’ (Expositio in Psalmen 67.34).

After much debate, the church in the west adopted the Roman calendar

and set Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal

equinox: the time of ascendancy of both sunlight and moonlight. Christmas

was eventually set at the winter solstice, the ‘‘birth’’ of the sun out of

darkness. To quote Miltons ‘‘Nativity’’ ode once more, on the morning of

Christs nativity ‘‘The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed, / And hid his

head for shame, / As his inferior flame, / The new-enlightnd world no more

should need; / He saw a greater Sun appear / Than his bright Throne, or

burning Axletree could bear’’ (79--84).

The sun rises in the east -- due east on the two equinoxes, north of east

during spring and summer, south of east during fall and winter -- moves

upward and southward until noon, and moves downward and northward

until it sets in the west. In Europe and all areas north of the Tropic of Cancer

its highest point or meridian is south of the zenith. The south was often

considered the quarter of the sun; the word ‘‘south,’’ in fact, is derived from


The day and the year are natural units of time determined by the sun, as

the month is determined originally by the moon. Seasons are more arbitrary

divisions, and not all cultures have four.

The annual movement north and south of the suns daily track, which

causes the changing seasons, is due to the tilt of the earths axis, but from an

earthly viewpoint it appears that the annual path of the sun against the sky

(the ecliptic) is tilted at an angle of 23 to the path of the midpoint between

the celestial poles (the celestial equator). The moon and planets also follow

paths along the ecliptic, which Dante calls ‘‘the oblique circle that carries the

planets’’ (Paradiso 10.14), though two planets, Mercury and Venus, are never

very far from the sun.

A belt along this path, called the zodiac, contains a great many

constellations, twelve of which were singled out in ancient times to mark

twelve ‘‘houses’’ or stations in the yearly migration of the sun through them.

This migration we know is due to the annual revolution of the earth around

the sun, the sun appearing against a constantly changing backdrop of fixed

stars, but it looks as if the sun is wandering through them. Hence the sun

was considered in the Ptolemaic system (and earlier) as a planet (from Greek

planetes, ‘‘wanderer’’), the fourth in distance from the earth; it is in Dantes

words ‘‘the planet / which leads men straight through all paths’’ (Inferno

1.17--18), and the ‘‘fayrest Planet,’’ according to Spenser (Epithalamion 282). The

twelve constellations form the basis for astrology and the daily horoscope in

newspapers today. (See Planet, Star.)

The sun is no longer in Aries (the Ram) during the first month of spring,

however, as it was when the Babylonians established the system about four

thousand years ago. When Chaucer says in the opening of his Canterbury Tales

that ‘‘the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne’’ he is

specifying April but he using the conventional and badly out-of-date sign for

it. Because of the precession of the equinoxes or backward slippage of the

ecliptic--equator intersection points (precession is a phenomenon of rotating

bodies), spring began in Pisces (the Fish) around the time of Christ and is now

entering Aquarius. In one lifetime the slippage is about one degree, and the

entire cycle takes about 26,000 years to return to the starting point, an

interval known to the ancients as the magnus annus or ‘‘great year’’ (or

‘‘Platonic Year’’). It may underlie the symbolism of Virgils ‘‘Fourth Eclogue,’’

an enormously influential poem because it seemed to prophesy the coming of

Christ; a phrase from this eclogue has been altered to novus ordo seclorum

(‘‘new order of the ages’’) and adopted for the great seal of the United States

(found on the back of the one-dollar bill). See also the first of Yeatss ‘‘Two

Songs from a Play’’: ‘‘And then did all the Muses sing / Of Magnus Annus at

the spring, / As though Gods death were but a play.’’

Another cycle that the Greeks understood is the nineteen-year Metonic

cycle, the period when the phases of the moon begin on the same date of the

year. This cycle may be the basis for the pervasive solar symbolism of the

Odyssey, the hero of which returns home after nineteen years.

See Black sun, East and west, Gold, Moon.

Sunflower Ovid tells the tale of a nymph, Clytie, who pined away for the love of Helios,

the Sun, until she was transformed into a flower whose face always turns to

follow her love through the sky (Met. 4.256--70). This heliotrope was probably

not what we call the sunflower, which is named for its appearance rather

than its behavior, but the sunflower has long been linked to the unrequited

devotion of a lover, or to the longing of the earthbound soul for its heavenly


A sonnet attributed to Dante laments the disdain of his mistress: ‘‘Nor did

she who turns to see the sun / and changed, preserves her unchanged love, /

ever have as bitter fate as I’’ (‘‘Nulla mi parve,’’ trans. Galassi). Blakes evocative

little poem ‘‘Ah! Sun-flower’’ takes the flower, ‘‘weary of time, / Who countest

the steps of the Sun,’’ as an emblem of ‘‘the Youth pined away with desire’’

and ‘‘the pale Virgin shrouded with snow,’’ who arise from their graves. Blake

may have been prompted by an account of the neo-Platonic philosopher

Proclus, who cites the heliotrope as a symbol of souls who long for spiritual

illumination. The same source seems to have led Bronson Alcott to choose the

name The Dial (i.e., sundial) for the journal of the Transcendentalists.

Byrons Julia, confined to a nunnery after her affair with the young Don

Juan, writes her lover one last letter on gilt-edged paper, ‘‘The seal a

sunflower; Elle vous suit partout [‘‘She follows you everywhere’’], / The motto’’

 (Don Juan 1.198). Robert Brownings Rudel tells his lady that he will ‘‘choose for

my device / A sunflower outspread like a sacrifice / Before its idol’’ (‘‘Rudel to

the Lady of Tripoli’’ 24--26). Carolina Coronado addresses a sunflower as a

kindred spirit who has suffered the neglect of ‘‘the beautiful sun you adored,’’

whose ‘‘eyes wont even stop to see / that you were consumed by the love of

his fire’’ (‘‘Sunflower 48--52,’’ __________trans. Myles). Montale demands, ‘‘Bring me the

sunflower crazed with light’’ in an early poem (‘‘Portami il girasole’’), and the

flower remains a symbol throughout his poetry, sometimes associated with a

woman named Clizia (Clytie).

Swallow In ancient Greece as in modern times the return of the swallow was a sign

that spring has returned as well. The Greeks held ceremonies at the beginning

of the season in which children would dress as swallows and go from house to

house begging for treats. A song from Rhodes sung on such occasions, the

Chelidonismos (from Greek chelidon, ‘‘swallow’’), begins, ‘‘The swallow has come,

bringing lovely seasons and lovely years.’’ In Works and Days Hesiod tells us that

sixty days after the winter solstice ‘‘the swallow appears to men when spring

is just beginning’’ (564--69). This is the common understanding behind the

cautionary proverb quoted by Aristotle, ‘‘A single swallow doesnt make a


The bird is often linked in poetry to the spring zephyr, the west wind

(Virgil, Georgics 4.304--07; Horace, Epistles, 1.7.13). The Greeks sometimes called

the spring west wind chelidonias because it brought the swallows.

It is also associated with the sun, whose warmth and light revive with the

spring. In ‘‘The Spring,’’ Carew writes, the warm sun ‘‘gives a sacred birth / To

the dead Swallow.’’ That passage may allude to the belief that swallows do not

migrate but nest throughout the winter; in March, according to Spenser, ‘‘The

Swallow peepes out of her nest’’ (SC ‘‘March’’ 11).

It was considered a good omen if a swallow nested under the eaves of ones

house. In the midst of Odysseus slaughter of the suitors in the Odyssey

(22.240), his protectress Athena turns into a swallow and perches on a beam.

(In Macbeth 1.6.3--10, the ‘‘temple-haunting martlet’’ seems to be the martin, a

kind of swallow.)

The final line of Keatss ‘‘To Autumn’’ -- ‘‘And gathering swallows twitter in

the skies’’ -- poignantly evokes their association with a spring that now seems

long past. At the end of The Waste Land T. S. Eliot invokes the swallow in two

quotations as a possible harbinger of spring and redemption from the ‘‘arid

plain.’’ The first is from a late Latin poem, The Vigil of Venus: ‘‘When is my

spring coming? When shall I be as the swallow, that I may cease to be

voiceless?’’ The second is from a love song about a migrating swallow in

Tennysons The Princess (4.75--98).

The tuneless, chattering sound of the swallow, also noted in the Bible (Isa.

38.14), may have prompted the tale of Philomela and Procne (told in full by

Ovid in the Metamorphoses but without naming the birds), where Philomela,

with her tongue cut out, is transformed into a swallow. So Dante has a

swallow (rondinella) singing sad songs near dawn (Purgatorio 9.14). (In other

versions of the myth Procne becomes the swallow and Philomela the

nightingale.) Swinburnes ‘‘Itylus’’ is a song sung by the nightingale to her

sister the swallow. (See Nightingale.)

Swallows are proverbially swift in flight. In Spenser a speedy ship glides

‘‘More swift then swallow sheres the liquid skye’’ (FQ 2.6.5). ‘‘True hope is swift

and flies with swallows wings’’ (Shakespeare, R3 5.2.23). Perhaps for this

reason they were sometimes identified with swifts in ancient times. Blake has

a rather awkward simile, ‘‘swift as the swallow or swift’’ (Milton 15.48).

Swan The swan (Greek kyknos, Latin cycnus or cygnus, or olor) has long been one of

the most popular birds in poetry, not least because of the association of swans

with poets themselves. The trumpet-like call of some swans apparently

sounded beautiful to ancient ears; Virgil in Eclogues 9.29 refers to the famous

singing swans of his city, Mantua, and Lucretius compares the song of the

swan with the art of the lyre (2.503). We learn in Aristophanes Birds that the

swan is the bird of Apollo, god of poetry (869); see Martial 13.77. In Latin

poetry it is also sometimes the bird of Venus, who is borne by a chariot of

swans in Ovid (Met. 10.717) and Horace (3.28.13--15).

It became a commonplace of modesty to contrast ones own song (or poem)

to another poets as a gooses (or swallows) song beside a swans: see Eclogues

8.55, 9.36, Lucretius 3.6--7; Shelley playfully repeats the gesture by comparing

his poem to an ephemeral fly that cannot climb to the heights where the

swan sings (Witch of Atlas 9--12). Theocritus, in Idyll 5.136, has a goatherd boast

of his singing prowess by using the comparison in reverse. Horace elaborates a

conceit in which he is transmogrified into a swan and flies over many nations,

that is, he shall gain great fame as a poet (Odes 2.20). Pope, in ‘‘On the

Candidates for the Laurel,’’ deploys the comparison with his usual wit. Unable

to endorse any of the candidates for the office of poet laureate, he seizes on

Stephen Duck, a poet of very minor talent: ‘‘Lets rather wait one year for

better luck; / One year may make a singing swan of Duck.’’

In describing Pindar as the ‘‘swan of Dirce’’ (one of the rivers of Thebes),

Horace (4.2.25--27) began a tradition that continued into modern times, e.g.,

Homer is the Swan of Meander, Shakespeare is the ‘‘Sweet Swan of Avon’’

(from Jonsons memorial poem), Vaughan is the Swan of Usk, and so on. This

convention depends, of course, on the fact that, as Ovid puts it, ‘‘swans love

the streams’’ (Metamorphoses 2.539). (See River.) Or the poets city is named, as

when Cowper calls Virgil ‘‘the Mantuan swan’’ (Table Talk 557), or the nation,

as when Garnier addresses Ronsard ‘‘O Swan of the French’’ (‘‘Elegy on the

Death of Ronsard’’ 50).

As swans are migratory, and are frequently seen alone, they can be

imagined as exiles from their homelands. So Shelley, referring to Byrons

emigration to Italy, writes, ‘‘a tempest-cleaving Swan / Of the songs of Albion, /

Driven from his ancestral streams / By the might of evil dreams, / Found a

nest in thee [Venice]’’ (‘‘Euganean Hills’’ 174--78). Baudelaire in ‘‘Le Cygne’’

describes a swan escaped from a menagerie, crying for water and dreaming of

his native lake. Mallarmes best-known sonnet, Le vierge, le vivace et le bel

aujourd’hui, likens the new ‘‘today’’ to a swan caught in the ice of a lake of past

failures to fly: it might tear itself free but it remains fast in useless exile. See

also Edmund Gosses ‘‘The Swan.’’ Yeats in ‘‘1919’’ writes, ‘‘Some moralist or

mythological poet / Compares the solitary soul to a swan’’; he is probably

alluding to Shelleys Alastor 275--90, where the wandering poet contrasts his

own homelessness with the flight of a swan to his nest and mate.

It was also thought that swans sang at their deaths. Clytemnestra in

Aeschylus Agamemnon 1444--45 gloats that Cassandra cried out at her death

like a swan. Plato has Socrates disparage this belief as a human projection

(Phaedo 85a), but Socrates opinion did not much affect the poets. It was so

commonplace a belief that Seneca can allude to the sweetness of a swans last

song (Phaedra 301). Chaucer names ‘‘The jelous swan, ayens his deth that

syngeth’’ (PF 342). When Ronsard declares he is weary of life, he sings his passing

‘‘the way a swan does, / Who sings its death on the banks of the Meander’’

(sonnet: ‘‘Il faut laisser maisons’’). Shakespeare has: ‘‘And now this pale swan

in her watry nest / Begins the sad dirge of her certain ending’’ (Lucrece

1611--12). The phrase ‘‘swan song’’ often refers to the last work of a poet or

musician. Ovid declares the final book of his Tristia to be the sorrowful song

of a swan (5.1.11--14), probably the passage Darıo invokes when he writes, ‘‘I

salute you [swans] now as in Latin verses / Publius Ovidius Naso once saluted

you’’ (‘‘Los Cisnes’’ 5--6). Yeats in ‘‘The Tower’’ beautifully describes ‘‘the hour /

When the swan must fix his eye / Upon a fading gleam, / Float out upon a

long / Last reach of glittering stream / And there sing his last song.’’ The image

is implicit in Tennysons ‘‘The Lady of Shalott, where the Lady, whose magic

web and mirror are destroyed when she looks down to Camelot, lies down,

‘‘robed in snowy white (136), in a boat and sings her last song as she floats


An ancient myth tells how Zeus in the form of a swan raped Leda, who

then gave birth to Helen and Clytemnestra from one egg and Castor and

Pollux from another. It was a popular subject in ancient art, and several of

the Renaissance masters painted it (e.g., Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael).

See also Darıos ‘‘Leda’’ and Yeatss ‘‘Leda and the Swan.’’

Tennyson knew some of the legends about swan-maidens and swan-princes

that were common in the Middle Ages; the best-known of these is the tale of

Lohengrin. After Wagners opera Lohengrin mysterious swans swim through

Symbolist poems, notably in many by Darıo, who celebrates a new ‘‘Wagnerian

swan, which will grasp beauty (Leda) and/or conceive a greater ideal beauty

(Helen) (‘‘The Swan); it is ‘‘the poet of perfect verses (‘‘Blazon).

Swine see Pig

Sword see Armor