‘I Might See’ [SER 2]

This is the second in a series started in my previous, labelled SER 1 (it stands for Subjective Experience of Remembering). I am trying to gather a set of interesting passages that offer insights and provocations on the topic of memory, and specifically what it feels like to remember things. As in the first, I am interested here in what makes things vivid, and also in the ways that Shakespeare depicts the special ways that fairies seem to think. So it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream again, and here it’s Oberon telling — to some extent, reminding — Puck about how the ‘love-in-idleness’ herb came to be, and where it is. On to the passage we go, you can (I hope) move your mouse (or finger, or wand) over the highlighted bits to reveal whatever it is I have to observe.

Thou rememberest
Since I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
That very time I saw, but ,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d: a aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In .
Yet I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; :
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

In the previous post I wondered whether intense memories needed to be single and specific, rather than repeating and generic. I still think they do not, but for what it’s worth, this is clearly fixed as a one-off. It’s interesting that Oberon uses Puck as some sort of vehicle here: rather than saying ‘I remember’, he passes it on.
I take it this is the imprecise use of ‘certain’, meaning ‘some or other’. However, the strangeness and enormity of the event suggests that the identity of the stars isn’t inconsequential, so ‘certain’ might suggest something sure and specific. I think maybe ‘certain’ is the kind of word that might capture something different about the ways fairies speak. Mortals have to observe a stark difference between casual and precise knowledge, but it may not be like that for the King of the Fairies.
This could be said in a number of different tones, but in general it’s clear that so far Puck remembers the occasion. Now Oberon goes on to outline aspects of the scene that Puck cannot have witnessed.
I take it this is because Oberon is a more powerful fairy, and has greater perceptual abilities. The possible importance of perspective in remembering was a feature of the previous post; here the uniqueness of that perspective is made quite clear.
As if to change our angle on the previous use of the word, now ‘certain’ means ‘sure and definite’. However, Cupid tends to be a bit casual in mythology; and the arrow misses. Perhaps again we’re in a fairy-ish world where precise and casual aren’t entire separate.
The modal verb ‘might’ is most straightforwardly an equivalent to ‘could’ here, denoting the ability to see. Perhaps it retains an element of a more uncertain sense — as if Oberon kind of could see, and kind of couldn’t. This attention to the experience of perception, rather than the thing perceived, might be part of what makes this a vivid representation of remembering.
The distracted thoughtfulness of the woman is an important aspect of the scene: perhaps her indifference to observation, and unawareness of what is at stake in the scene, bring a kind of richness to the scene. There she is, here the viewer is, the mismatch in their interaction might give the whole thing some edge.
More emphasis on the technicalities of Oberon’s perception.
This unprepossessing adjective doesn’t tell us anything very interesting about the flower, but it does tell us more about what it was like to witness the scene. Oberon’s supernatural vision can pick out a tiny object; the sense of focusing is perhaps more important than the
And… what was the function of the reminiscence? To inform Puck? There’s some exposition for the audience, which seems more necessary. I think it works quite well to think of it as a sort of spell — Oberon is preparing the magic of the flower as he describes its origins. And again, perhaps this is just how fairies talk to one another.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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