Bright smoke (1.1.167-173)

ROMEO           Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,

                        O any thing of nothing first create!

                        O heavy lightness, serious vanity,

                        Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,

                        Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,

                        Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

                        This love feel I, that feel no love in this. (1.1.167-173)


One of the ways of reading this passage is as a checklist of Petrarchan tropes, specifically oxymoron. The sheer copiousness of Romeo’s list, its excess, as much as its paradoxes (brawling love, loving hate; cold fire, sick health, and the rest) draws attention to its unreality: this is a poetic exercise for Romeo, a regurgitation of commonplaces that might as well be taken straight from his own notebook, gathered under the heading ‘love (unrequited)’. What this isn’t – yet – is an account of lived experience, or properly felt, embodied emotion; the emotions are as second-hand as the language used to express them. Nothing here is real: Romeo missed the fray that has occasioned this outpouring; Rosaline never appears. The series of oxymora has a kind of forced energy and intensity, but it’s too conventional, too neat; it’s smoke without fire. The inbuilt tension of a sonnet, the dynamism of stichomythia, the dangerous rhythms of words which turn to blows: all of these are lacking here. Instead, there are impossible pairs neatly and symmetrically lined up; there’s no twist of chiasmus to give a line torsion (all the constructions are parallel, the lines end-stopped). Only in the last line, the repeated this might undercut it: truly Romeo feels no love in this, because this love cannot be felt – only recited, mouthed in words borrowed from others. Romeo’s words – that leaden feather, the heavy lightness, and bright smoke – are as airy as those of the feud’s origin.

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