A prayer in the dog pound

Over the course of the next few days, I want to take a closer look, a deeper dive, into a couple of related speeches in Timon of Athens.

Both are prayers of a sort.

Let us begin with our cynic, Apemantus…

In Act One, Scene Two, Timon’s guests gather for their feast (the fun one). Apemantus surveys the crowd and, as the food is brought out, begins:

“Flow this way”? A brave fellow. He keeps his tides well. Those healths will make thee and thy state look ill, Timon.
Here’s that which is too weak to be a sinner,
Honest water, which ne’er left man i’ th’ mire.
This and my food are equals. There’s no odds.
Feasts are too proud to give thanks to the gods.

Apemantus’ grace.

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond
To trust man on his oath or bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends if I should need ’em.
Amen. So fall to ’t.
Rich men sin, and I eat root.

Much good dich thy good heart, Apemantus!
  • I.ii.53-70

It’s an interesting sequence, a little something for every taste.

It begins with a few prose lines, a seeming commentary about the second lord who has just called for more drink (“Flow this way”), followed by a more pointed statement to Timon: all these drinks and toasts will make you sick. Of course, there’s a second way to take it. The “tides” could refer not so much to water tides, but seasonal tides, the tides of time…which will make Timon and his state, his status, look worse than it does today. Nothing like a little foreshadowing, no?

We then get two lines of metrically challenged blank verse, followed by an only slightly more regular rhymed couplet:


/ / / ~ / / ~ / ~ / ~

Here’s that which is too weak to be a sinner,
/ ~ / ~ ~ / / / ~ /

Honest water, which ne’er left man i’ th’ mire.
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

This and my food are equals. There’s no odds.
/ ~ / / ~ / / ~ ~ /

Feasts are too proud to give thanks to the gods.

Apemantus decides to drink (and drink to) “honest” water instead because it doesn’t lead to drunkenness, and it is equal to his food (another bit of subtle foreshadowing…to the next feast). And in that final line of this introduction, “feasts” refers to the guests not the food, as he complains that those in attendance are too haughty to say a grace.

So he does.

We then get five rhyming couplets. The first two are iambic tetrameter, four-foot rather than five-foot lines (though the first line of the second couplet does kick off with a spondee. Then we get two couplets of trochaic tetrameter (trochees–as you might remember–being the opposite of iambs, a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable), both completely regular (though the first line of the second [fourth] couplet ends with a spondee)–in seeming opposition to the first two couplets; this makes these two couplets even more out of place, metrically speaking, from our usual expected blank verse. And then we get the final couplet. You’d figure that Shakespeare would do his damnedest to give us a solidly metrical–whatever the meter–last couplet to ‘stick the landing,’ as it were. He might, but remember, this is one of the scenes attributed to Middleton. And what we get is a bloody mess. A totally awkward tetrameter line–trochee, caesura, solo stressed syllable, caesura, spondee–with not an iamb to be found, followed by–whiskey tango foxtrot– either a cretic (stressed/unstressed/stressed three-syllable foot) followed by a caesura and two iambs… OR a line of acephalous iambic tetrameter (i.e., missing that first unstressed syllable… think the witches in Macbeth):


~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

I pray for no man but myself.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Grant I may never prove so fond
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

To trust man on his oath or bond,
/ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Or a harlot for her weeping,
/ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,
/ ~ / ~ / / /

Or a keeper with my freedom,
/ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Or my friends if I should need ’em.
/ ~ || /||/ /

Amen. So fall to ’t.
/ ~ / ~ / ~ /

Rich men sin, and I eat root.

Metrically a mess. And from a content perspective, completely cynical:

God, I crave no ill-gotten gains;
I pray only for myself;
Make it so that I am never so foolish
To trust a man for his oath
Or a whore (woman?) for her crying
Or a dog that seems to sleep
Or a jailer with my freedom
Or my friends if I ever need them.
Amen. So. Eat.
These rich men sin while I eat food that grows underground.

The first and last lines there are what interest me here…

“Pelf” could refer to “stolen goods; booty, spoil,” or “property, material possessions,” or “money, riches (esp. viewed as a corrupting influence); lucre,” or “a worthless person,” or “junk, trash, rubbish” (“pelf, n.; 1, 2, 3, 4.a, and 4.b. respectively” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016).If the meaning is stolen goods or booty, how did Timon get his wealth? Militarily? Crime? If it’s property or money, then the line could be seen as self-righteous statement (as could 4.b.’s “junk” meaning). What I like, though, is that 4.a. meaning: “worthless people”…is this social commentary? Does Apemantus see himself surrounded by untrustworthy men, whores, jailers, so-called friends…and dogs? It’s a tantalizing option.

The last line of the prayer is another neat little bit of foreshadowing (as roots are what Timon digs to eat in the fourth act).

Then the cynic ends his speech with one last prose line (returning to his original rhetorical avenue), with a simple self-satisfied statement that that all this, this grace, this prayer, may do (“dich, n.” OED Online) much good to his own heart.

It’s a great speech, but it’s delivered in the most uninspired way possible: ten lines of doggerel.

Doggerel for dogs, from the master dog himself.

Comment?