Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Falcon

A Play by Alfred Lord Tennyson,
originally performed in 1879

[Note: I am describing the whole plot, so beware of spoilers.] 
[Stylistically revised November 4th, 2013.]

Jagdwesen & Jagd & Greifvögel (1695)
Wolf Helmhardt von Hohberg [via Wikimedia Commons]


THE Falcon's hero is Count Federigo Degli Alberighi, a poor Italian nobleman whose family has been unoriginally feuding with a neighbouring family. Fisticuffs in Florence between the present generation's grandfathers had begun the entire hullabaloo, confirming the adage that violence isn't the solution. He has long begun to find the feud untoward, logistically; he is in love with Lady Giovanna, the sister of the Ghibellines'* leader, now widowed and the mother of a little son.

(* They are not, in fact, the Ghibelline family; but Tennyson does not give them a name in the play, so "Ghibellines" will have to do.)

Count Federigo's nurse and foster-brother Filippo are the customary, domestic voices of reason; they are not much impressed with the state of affairs. Impoverished by purchasing a diamond necklace which the Count anonymously sent to Lady Giovanna, they live in a cottage near the castle in which his beloved resides. There is nothing left to eat now except scraps of milk, cheese, bread and bird (the egg is "addled" so hopefully was not eaten), and famishedness breeds discomfort. The Count relinquishes the scraps to his nurse, noblesse obliged; with regard to Filippo he observes, in a line-and-a-half that deserves to be farfamed:
As for him and me,
There sprouts a salad in the garden still.

At this impecunious interlude, Lady Giovanna first sets foot in the Count's cottage. Her son Florio (a Fauntleroyesque touch) is gravely ill. He has become obsessed with the Count's falcon. The falcon is the Count's last symbol of nobility, his companion, and lately the huntsman who fills his larder with small fowl and so the Lady is very unwilling to ask for it. She knows Count Federigo is her secret admirer; but because of the feud she wishes not to let him even know that his admiration is shared.

The Count is pleased at her visit, and bids her enter.
My palace wanting you was but a cottage;
My cottage, while you grace it, is a palace.
As the courtesies conclude, he labyrinthinely asks of her child:
Ay, how is he,
That bright inheritor of your eyes—your boy?
Lady Giovanna hesitates; she mentions an old wreath that is hanging on the wall as a distraction. The Count says that it is one of his favourite possessions, and it unfurls a series of memories.

It transpires that he constructed the wreath for Lady Giovanna when she was only fifteen; he asked her for a ribbon, tied up the wreath and gave it to her as a sign of affection. But their interaction was interrupted; he came by again later only to see that the wreath was lying forsaken on the earth; he rode away in despair and went to the wars; and in a year she had married.

Lady Giovanna delicately tells him that 'one' had heard that Count Federigo had been killed and that 'one' had wept, and Count Federigo straightforwardly says that he had been wounded and taken prisoner. The lady explains, too, that the wreath might have fallen down by accident and that 'one' might have been too shy to look for it.

There is a scroll with the wreath, and it turns out to bear (emo) lyrics written by the Count:
Dead mountain flowers, dead mountain-meadow flowers,
Dearer than when you made your mountain gay,
Sweeter than any violet of to-day,
Richer than all the wide world-wealth of May,
To me, tho' all your bloom has died away,
You bloom again, dead mountain-meadow flowers.

(Which is kind of touching, but from a literary standpoint (I think) kind of bad.) To heap on clichés, the writing is scraggly because his leading hand was injured, and the Count tries to sing the song to the accompaniment of his guitar.

Then the servants enter, proffering a salad, a bird, and a plate of prunes. Tennyson means plums, I think, though the alternative is hilarious ('shrivelled plums for th' lady!'). Though the Count refuses to eat, too, he does drink wine from his microscopic vineyard. His guest tactfully offers wine from her own stores, which she says is a healthful wine, ideal for persons recuperating from battle injuries.

Filippo and the nurse describe the Count's war experiences, devotion, etc., in vivid colour, and reveal that the Count was carrying the wreath on the battlefield and that the leaves that were darkly speckled are speckled with his blood. Lady Giovanna, highly distraught, wishes to leave and claims that she had not been hungry in any case. The servants leave the room. Then she hands the diamond necklace back to her admirer, reveals that her son is sick, and asks for only one thing: namely, the falcon.

The Count says that he can't give it. Lady Giovanna is on her way out in despair. But the Count stops her to explain that there is a sound reason why she cannot have the fowl; since there was naught else to give her for her supper, the hapless falcon perforce kicked it.

Overcome by this magnificence she cries, although in the Tennyson phraseology, "That's it!"

The Count misunderstands her, believing that she will hate him forever.

But Lady Giovanna explains that it's her stubborn brother whose goose is cooked. Indeed, she loves Count Federigo in "spite of ten thousand brothers!"

The Count is overjoyed and vows that, even without the falcon, together they will find a cure for the little Ghibelline's ailment.

So the play was "The Gift of the Magi" all along. The last two lines are, unfortunately, terribly unoriginal:
COUNT: [. . .] I am happy!

LADY GIOVANNA: And I too, Federigo.

In A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary**, Corinne Saunders points out that the tale is taken from Boccaccio's Decameron, 5th day and 10th novel, in which the story ends more morbidly because the Ghibelline child dies after all. I've skimmed through the tale; it has a funny scene where the Count fetches out the feathers, feet and beak (which well-nigh covers half the verses of the French song "Alouette") of the falcon (which is eaten up) as evidence for his lady.

Besides, she mentions, the drama was performed and liked in Tennyson's time. From the critics' point of view, the legendary actress Fanny Kemble said that it is "an exquisite little poem in action."*** Whether this was praise, puff, or condescension, who knows.

What I like so much about the play is, I suppose, the nice growth of understanding between the hero and heroine, the simplicity, and the noble spirit of its heroes. Mostly it's the treatment of the falcon that detracts from my admiration of the latter. Ordering the execution of a domestic animal as if it were an inanimate belonging — which is to say sans regard for its right to life and its feelings and its individuality — is not at all nice or soulful. Our treatment of weaker beings, or beings in our power, is probably a test of our morality all on its own.

** P. 330, at Google Books.
*** Andrew Lang,
Tennyson (p. 95), at Google Books


Becket and Other Plays, by Alfred Lord Tennyson [Project Gutenberg]
The Decameron of Boccaccio, Trans. by J.M Rigg [Ibid.]

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