R: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
J: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
R: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
J: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
R: O! then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
J: Saints do not move, thou grant for prayer’s sake.
R: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Welcome to the weekly literary nerd edition of “Retired, Not Dead”!
Most of you will recognize this as the very first words exchanged between Shakespeare’s “star-crossed” lovers from maybe his most well-known tragedy, “Juliet.”
OK, it’s actually known as “Romeo and Juliet” but if you’ve read the play, you know that this is really Juliet’s story. Romeo is pretty much an accessory. Juliet gets the great speeches, the deepest conflict, and the most achingly perfect death.
However, in the passage above, Romeo does have his moments. It took my faithful poetry anthology Sound and Sense (Arp–9th edition) to point out to me that this lovely exchange, when lifted from the play, is actually a sonnet written as dialogue.
Romeo has been struck with the lightning bolt of love when he sees Juliet for the first time, as I was when I first saw Olivia Hussey playing Juliet in the 1968 film. I thought it was cruel for Franco Zeffirelli to unleash this 15-year-old beauty on my 15-year-old self when I first saw the film.
OK, the dialogue. The beauty of Romeo’s appeal to Juliet for a kiss is that he frames himself (his lips, rather) as “pilgrims” approaching a “shrine” and then continues to work the worshipful metaphor with references to “saints,” “devotion, and “prayer.” Juliet plays along as she tries to chastely and gently deflect his desire for a kiss.
Thankfully for Romeo, her resistance only lasts for fourteen lines of poetry before she allows his reverent kiss.
Ah, young love in iambic pentameter. It doesn’t get any better than that! Happy Sunday, everyone!