Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"The Good Morrow" and Tristan and Isolde

In 2006 Franchise Pictures realeased Tristan and Isolde, their last film before bankruptcy. In the course of this classical tale of doomed lovers there are several references to John Donne’s poem, “The Good Morrow”. Putting aside the fact that the film is set in a time frame that takes place before “The Good Morrow” was written, I thought it might be interesting to read the poem through the lens of Isolde (ie: why might she find it relevant to her situation) when she reads the poem to Tristan.

Verse 1
I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean'd till then ?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den ?
'Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.

When Isolde first reads the poem to Tristan it is during his recovery from a near-fatal wound. She does not tell her father that she is tending to Tristan, both because it is improper for her to keep such company with a man and also because Tristan’s life would be forfeit since he is from a country that is at odds with hers. Tristan is unaware Isolde is a princess. They  both know that they will not be able to stay together, though Isolde seems much more distracted by this idea than Tristan.  This portion of the poem alludes to the idea of love vs. the reality of love, likely Isolde’s idea of love compared to the reality after she meets Tristan. In reality the love is stronger than she anticipated, but still bittersweet because it cannot last. Her idea of love before Tristan is like a dream, but Tristan himself will be like a dream after he leaves.

Verse 2
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

The first four lines appear to advocate the idea of jumping into love despite the risks. Isolde is aware that her father will arrange her marriage, and as such Tristan may be her only chance at love. She feels it is better to at least know love, even if it cannot last, than to never experience it. Thus, when they spend time together they make “one little room an everywhere” in that the room they are in becomes their whole world. So, going into the last three lines, Isolde wants to jump right in and experience this while she still can.

Verse 3
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

The first two lines allude to the idea of love as making people mirror each other and become attached, as if they share a soul/body since they are in love. The second two lines evoke more of a sense of balance, of two people evening out and also attracting each other. Isolde is alluding to an idea that this love will, in a way, keep them together even though they have to part because they will have come to know each other so well. The last three lines continue with the idea of love providing a balance and/or an equalizer, to the point that they will be immortalized through their love for each other. Thus, Isolde feels she and Tristan are better for knowing each other, and they will be forever united in soul for having taken the opportunity to experience love.

The film returns to this idea at the end of the film, when the poem  is recited again as a backdrop to the idea of Isolde planting two willow trees over Tristan’s grave that grow entangled and then disappear. In this way the film hints that Tristan and Isolde are reunited in death because their souls are intertwined.

1 comment:

  1. That's a really interesting use of Donne's poem. It makes me wonder about the filmmakers and their familiarity with early modern literature (since, as you point out, the Tristan and Isolde story predates Donne considerably).