Smoke (well, perfume) on the water

Yesterday, I talked a little about Enobarbus and his verbal stylings in Antony and Cleopatra. But in that discussion, I purposefully and blatantly skipped one speech in particular. You know the speech.

That barge one…

In Act Two, Scene Two, when left alone with two of Octavian’s lieutenants, Enobarbus upon their entreaty describes the entrance of Cleopatra to meet with Antony. After a two-foot line (“I will tell you” [II.ii.200]), it seems Enobarbus takes a breath, then launches into the speech:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description. She did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold, of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did. …
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ th’ eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers; the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ th’ market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’ air, which but for vacancy
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too
And made a gap in nature. …
Upon her landing, Antony sent to her,
Invited her to supper. She replied
It should be better he became her guest,
Which she entreated. Our courteous Antony,
Whom ne’er the word of “No” woman heard speak,
Being barbered ten times o’er, goes to the feast,
And for his ordinary pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only.
  • II.ii.201-236

Now, that’s a speech. The first line is perfect iambic pentameter and the first two lines are alliterative (barge burnished burned). It feels almost rehearsed. But when he hits the mid-line end of the first sentence, there’s an enforced caesura:


/ ~ ~ / ~ || ~ / ~ / ~ /

Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;

For the iambic rhythm to work, there should be a stressed syllable between those two sentences. But there isn’t; it has to be a pause, which is significant. It feels like he’s decided that he didn’t start this speech right. So he pauses. And starts again, again alliteratively (poop purple perfumed / sails so lovesick). Two lines later, he ends this sentence in the middle of the poetic line, again. And again, there’s an enforced caesura


~ / ~ / ~ / ~ || ~ / ~ / ~

The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver,

Again, there should be a stress, and where’s there’s no stress, it’s a pause. He pauses twice in the first four lines of the speech. It’s not for dramatic effect. What he has seen is so outrageous, so incredible, the he’s pausing to find the right words, while still trying to be artistic (thus the alliteration). But when he continues the speech, he lets the imagery flow, tossing in only the occasional repeated sounds–and then only when the separation between the sounds is not so great or so numerous to call attention to itself (“to the tune of flutes,” “follow faster”). Now, when he hits mid-line sentence-enders (in lines 207, 208, and 211), there’s no pause; instead, he’s off on his breathless attempt to show what took Antony’s breath away.

How breathless?

Consider: in this entire speech, in which he is interrupted twice by astonished interjections from his audience, Enobarbus never lets his audience have more than a half-line before re-launching his speech (always starting up again at the next line-beginning in what feels like preemption of any continued talking by his audience). More importantly, every single line is enjambed (meaning the sentence doesn’t end at the end of the line); sure, there are a handful of “pause-y” commas and one semi-colon (before the speech gets rolling), but there is no “end stop” at the end of any line. Even when there are periods in the middle of lines, remember, the scansion shows not even a pause then:


~ / -~- / ~ / / / / / ~

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

It beggared all description. She did lie

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / / ~

The fancy outwork nature. On each side her

Enobarbus rolls though each of those sentence stops: even in the first two lines above, when Cleopatra’s appearance exhausts Enobarbus’ power of description (“beggars”), he doesn’t pause. He can’t, he can’t stop, he needs to get the words out; and to do that, he can’t stop, not even for a breath. And the breathlessness has its costs: nearly half of the lines in this portion have some variation in the meter of the line, a scattering of trochees and spondees, hiccups in the natural iambic rhythm.

When he really gets rolling, in that middle section, the rhythm steadies, with only three of the section’s 13 lines with any metrical variation. Also, the extended alliterations return (gentlewomen many mermaids made ||seeming steers silken swell flower-soft || gone to gaze … gap) and we get even more truly enjambed lines (without even a comma). Here, just as Enobarbus is finding his poetic voice, Cleopatra pulls the very air out of the scene, leaving Antony “whistling” in the vacuum (“gap”) left behind.

As Enobarbus enters the final section, he slows, with every line ending with a comma. And he finally gets a chance to catch his breath before he begins his last sentence, with another mid-line caesura:


~ / ~ / ~ ||~ / -~- / ~ /

Which she entreated. Our courteous Antony,

When that next sentence ends four lines later, his description of the barge is over.

Antony’s eyes may have eaten that night, but tonight Enobarbus has fed his listeners’ ears…

One thought on “Smoke (well, perfume) on the water”

  1. I enjoy these close readings so much–and particularly your analysis of how the lines’ rhythms help to create their meanings or feelings!

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