Analysis of a line from Shakespeare's Coriolanus
January 12, 2013 4:38 AM   Subscribe

You know how sometimes when you watch (or read) a Shakespeare play, you come across a something which makes you go "Holy crap, that's one of the greatest pieces of English I've ever heard, but I'm not quite sure what it means". This happens especially often for me because I'm not a native English speaker. Well, I just watched the movie adaptation of Coriolanus a few weeks ago and I need one of the lines explained to me.

As background, the play is about a Roman general named Caius Martius who goes to war against another country called Volsci, and after conquering a city named Corioli, he returns home to a huge celebration and is given the name Coriolanus.

The part I'm wondering about occurs during the celebration, and is spoken (to no one in particular) by his mother, Volumnia. Here it is:
These are the ushers of Marcius: before him
He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears;
Death, that dark spirit, in's nervy arm doth lie;
Which, being advanc'd, declines, and then men die.
The two first rows are pretty clear, I think: the noise refers to the praise and adulation he gets (which makes sense, given that the line is spoken at a celebration for him), and the tears to all the destruction he leaves in his wake.

The third line was a little harder, but after looking up "nervy" in the Oxford English Dictionary, I found the definition "Vigorous; sinewy; full of strength", which cited this exact line as an example, it's a little bit clearer (also realizing that "in's" is probably short for "in his" helped). "In his strong arm lies death", basically.

But I can't quite make out the fourth line. My instinct tells me that "advanc'd" refers to "advancing" in the sense of "moving forward", as in "the forces are advancing" (he is a general, after all), but that doesn't quite seem to fit. Can "advance" mean "to raise"? I've never heard the word used that way, but it would make sense given that the next word is "declines". But that makes the whole construction weird, because I've always read the construction "being X, Y" as meaning roughly "because of X, then Y", as in "being an honest man, I have to tell you the truth". But that can't be right, "because his arm is raised, it is lowered" is nonsensical. I guess the only explanation is that he first raises his arm, and then subsequently lowers it. That is not at all how I would parse that sentence naturally, but I can't really come up with another explanation.

To put it in plain modern English, I therefore read the last two lines as "Death lies in his strong arm, which raises and then lowers, and that makes men die". Is that a proper reading?

Assuming it is, what does it mean? What I'm currently thinking is that the death she is talking about is a metaphor for a sword. The sword in his hand is death, and when he swings it, men die. Probably even this is metaphorical (metaphors within metaphors!), meaning something like "When Coriolanus goes to war, no man can meet him on the field of battle and survive". Am I reading that right?

I don't quite know why, but those lines really took my breath away when I heard them, and they have been bouncing around in my head ever since, so I'd really appreciate someone clarifying what they actually mean.
posted by gkhan to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're very close to it. The construction "being advanc'd" I interpret as meaning that "advanc'd" is the initial state at the start of the sequence of action. His arm is advanced [in a forward, out-thrust position], it declines [drops, is lowered], and then men die.

I think it is not by chance that Shakespeare constructs his mother's words of praise in this way. It removes agency from Coriolanus; it is almost robotic. He's like a tool of death rather than a killer. I think that is telling in terms of the relationship between him and his mother--the one person who, for all his pride and arrogance and bravado, is able to dominate him.
posted by drlith at 5:13 AM on January 12, 2013

I more or less concur with your reading, but would add:

1. I think "being advanc'd, declines" works reasonably as "is raised then brought down", or indeed "is moved forward, then brought down", and I don't think there's a particularly strong implied element of causation.

2. I don't think you need "death" to be a metaphorical sword. If he bashes you over the head, you'll die, no matter what he happens to have in his hand, so in that sense his arm does indeed contain death.

3. OED confirms that "advance" can mean "raise up" (verbal sense #12 in current online version), and cites Shakespeare among the examples ("The fringed Curtains of thine eyes aduance." from The Tempest.)

4. "Declines" for bringing a sword down turns up in Hamlet: "For lo! his sword, / Which was declining on the milky head Of reverend Priam, ..." so that seems a reasonable reading.
posted by pont at 5:17 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agree with pont.

Death lies within the very nerves of his arm, so his arm (carrying out his actions, his will, etc) metes out death. It's not necessary to imagine a sword. (Even if he is actually using a sword to kill.)

But that makes the whole construction weird, because I've always read the construction "being X, Y" as meaning roughly "because of X, then Y"

I don't think you need to read it like that. Shakespeare uses that sort of construction a lot, and I usually think of them as if there are implied words, something like "which [once] being advanc'd, [then] declines." It doesn't decline as a result of being advanced, exactly, it's just that raising your arm up and bringing it down on someone's head is a set of motions that naturally follows, if that makes sense.

I don't quite know why, but those lines really took my breath away when I heard them

Could be just the antithesis. (Before/behind, noise/tears, etc.) Here's a blog post on why it's especially dramatic.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:24 AM on January 12, 2013

I think your reading is correct. The "advance/decline" juxtaposition is also a bit of foreshadowing. Marcius has been "advanced" - raised in rank and given a new name, and the play will show his "decline" - both in the sense of his actual death but also his ultimate moral failing. So when Volumnia says that death lies in his arm, she actually also means his own death, not just that of others. Marcius is also a metonymy for Rome itself; Shakespeare wants us to associate his rise to power and subsequent fall with the overall history of the Roman Empire, so the "advance/decline" action applies in that sense as well.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:29 AM on January 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Though long out of this business, I agree with eustacescrubb on advance/decline. The back-and-forth also reminds me, indirectly, of "So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men."

I can't look it up right now, but I don't think decline is ever transitive(?). Or else I would say that death is the subject of the last line and Death is making people decline (and die).
posted by skbw at 6:34 AM on January 12, 2013

The general raises his arm to ready his armies. He drops it and battle commences. Extrapolate from that as you will.
posted by uncaken at 6:59 AM on January 12, 2013

I read it as a foreshadow: he's reached the height of his power. Only advancing years, declining power, and death are in his near future. But I've never read the play, so this may not fit at all.
posted by tllaya at 7:19 AM on January 12, 2013

skbw: decline can be transitive - one can decline an offer, one can decline a noun, and to your reading, one can cause something to slope or incline downward.

The back and forth motion is also, btw, present in the meter of the verse lines. Note that every time a two-syllable word appears, it's bisected by the meter - the end of the iamb is its first syllable, and the beginning of the next iamb is its second. This creates a feeling of syncopation, like the natural way to read the lines is working against the way one ought to read the iambic pentameter. That reminds me of the following, from Sonnet 116:
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come
Note Shakespeare uses the same trick (with the exception of "Within") and he's describing a similar motion - the slashing motion of Death's sickle. I can't help but think Shakespeare wants us to think of the Grim Reaper in Voluminia's aside, and to imagine, as drlith suggested above, Death doing its normal work, using Marcius as his sickle.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:26 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: eustacecrubb: Since you brought it up, can I ask you something about the meter of this particular excerpt? It has admittedly been quite a long time since I've studied these things, but it seems to me that the very last part, "and then men die", is not iambic. The other three lines seem like standard iambic pentameter, but isn't "then", "men" and "die" all stressed syllables?

Is this something Shakespeare did often, suddenly changing the meter for dramatic effect?
posted by gkhan at 7:45 AM on January 12, 2013

"die" is an extra syllable (the line has 11 instead of 10) so you're correct, and my suspicion is that "die" sticking out on the end there to make the music of the verse line a little ugly and jarring - to really emphasize "die" - like thrusting a blade into somebody's chest.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:04 AM on January 12, 2013

Yes. Shakespeare plays within the iambic rhythm all the time. In that particular line, "being advanced" is where the extra syllable is; "being" is often elided into a single syllable in Shakespeare's verse.

"Decline" is commonly used transitively in Shakespeare. An example:

"Decline your head. This kiss, if it durst speak,
Would stretch thy spirits up into the air."

(Goneril to Edmund, Lear IV, ii)

There is also this telling use in Troilus and Cressida, IV,v:
I have, thou gallant Trojan, seen thee oft
Labouring for destiny make cruel way
Through ranks of Greekish youth, and I have seen thee,
As hot as Perseus, spur thy Phrygian steed,
Despising many forfeits and subduements,
When thou hast hung thy advanced sword i' the air,
Not letting it decline on the declined,
That I have said to some my standers-by
'Lo, Jupiter is yonder, dealing life!'
(Nestor to Hector, on his habit of showing mercy to the defeated)

Here is "decline" used of the downward cut of a sword and sword-arm, and subsequently "the declined" used to mean "those bent down; lowered."

All the sword-related uses of "decline" in Shakespeare seem to be related to Classical battle scenes. I wouldn't be surprised if he got the usage from a translation of Homer or Virgil that he was using as a source.

Other posters are right to point to the foreshadowing in the last line of the Coriolanus excerpt. Marcius will be swiftly advanced to the Senate; his consequent decline into exile will be equally immediate; he will then lead the Volscian assault on Rome, causing the death of many including himself.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:31 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Good grief you guys, this is a very elaborated and symbolic way of saying he raises his arm with a sword in his hand, and then brings it down and kills men with the sword.
posted by jamjam at 9:57 AM on January 12, 2013

Other users have gotten the declined/advanced question better than I could have. Here's a look at the scansion of each line, though.

These are the ushers of Marcius: before him

(More powerfully dactylic than iambic; only four stresses; syllable at the end is either missing one right after it or is itself extrametrical)

He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears;

(Definitely iambic, but with an extra syllable in that "and." Some writers admit an extra syllable after a cesura. Note that "-hind him" isn't as stressed as "leaves tears." Like the trochaic substitution, this variation doesn't spoil the line's rhythm. It reappears in the last line of this excerpt.)

Death, that dark spirit, in's nervy arm doth lie;

(Shakespeare often contracts "spirit" to one syllable, which here leaves an iambic line with a trochaic substitution at its head)

Which, being advanc'd, declines, and then men die.

(And Pallas Athena is right about the elision in "being")
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:59 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just as a note, if we read the first line as an instance of dactylic tetrameter, a missing syllable at the end is a perfectly acceptable variation, particularly as it leads back to the predominantly iambic rhythm of the play.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:15 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should have added 'just as gkhan has already figured out' to my comment.

I think the underlying reason for the indirection of this passage is Shakespeare's ironic intent to identify Coriolanus' progress through the celebration with his progress through the original battle, emphasizing the noise common to both, the silence and tears he leaves in his wake in both, and also the raising and lowering of his arm acknowledging the adulation of the crowd with the strokes of his sword as he killed his enemies.
posted by jamjam at 11:08 AM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also notice the double meaning of "arm": both the limb itself, and the weapon it holds.
posted by zeri at 5:20 PM on January 12, 2013

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