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Saturday, 13 June 2015

Upon an Honest Man’s Fortune by John Fletcher

Literary Analysis (Summary)

During the Jacobian era, there was an evolution of modern science. There was focus in the areas of navigation, cartography and surveying. The era commemorates the commencement of the reign of King James 1, who ruled over a unified kingdom of England, Scotland and Ireland. It was during this time that King James 1 commissioned the translation of the bible which is now famously known as King James Version (KJV). So, people were very religious. Still, they were curious to know more about their future and they strongly craved success. Consequently, they resorted to astrology. They deserted their faith in God to the study of the positions and movements of the stars and how they might influence their fortune and existence on earth. This they did through the horoscope.

Hence, John Fletcher’s poem Upon an Honest Man’s Fortune examines the decline in the Christian faith in England in the early 17th century.  The omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence of God were put in question as people sought after divination. Although it was an era of strong religious conformity, the people believed in the existence of witchcraft and supernatural beings and activities. The faith in God and trust in his providence was substituted for astrology and fortune telling. Soothsayers were rather consulted instead of the clergy and Christianity became polluted with heathen practices. So, people were swayed and conned out of their hard-earned money because they were desperate to know what the future holds for them.

John Fletcher was displeased with the English society of his time due to the religious diversion from the Christian faith and the absolute belief in God as the all-knowing God. Fletcher was irked with the high patronage of soothsayers and fortune-tellers who have assumed the role of a semi-God. The poet’s strong stance against astrology and fortune-telling in this poem is influenced by his religious and poetic upbringing.

John Fletcher was a famous dramatist of his time and the son of Dr. Richard Fletcher, the Bishop of London and the Chaplain of Queen Elizabeth. John Fletcher was born in 1579 at Rye in Sussex, where his father was an officiating minister. Young Fletcher, who was said to be rivalled in the history of English Literature by Williams Shakespeare, was a bible clerk in 1593. He was brought up by his paternal uncle, Giles Fletcher, who happened to be a poet. John Fletcher’s writing skills must have been influenced and polished by his uncle.

With this, one can vividly demystify Fletcher’s poetic and religious background as a tool in bringing to the fore the hypocrisy and double-standards of the soothsayers, who had swindled people with false predictions of the future by reading the stars.

The poem begins with the mockery of the soothsayers and their bogus claims. In this first part of the poem, the speaker addresses the soothsayers directly by challenging the veracity of their trade.  They say that they “look through Heav’n and tell the stars, observe their kind conjunctions” to determine human fate. They claim to be “God’s surveyors” because they predict terrestrial events from celestial observation, whether pleasant or unpleasant, and dish them out to unsuspecting individuals to soothe their curiosity.

The speaker continues to describe what the fortune-tellers claim they can do. They say they can forecast “how far, and when, and why the wind” blows and its directions including unravelling the mystery behind “the dreadful thunder” and other celestial elements.

Thus, the poet challenges the soothsayers to foretell what would happen to him in future through their divination: “Find out my star…observe my fate”. If it is true that every human being on earth “have this peculiar angel” that guides his way, they should honestly find his. They can as well deploy their alleged vast knowledge of heavenly elements to locate his star through any means and tell him their findings. In case they cannot foretell his future, the speaker enjoins the fortune-tellers to come out clean and change their ways: “sweep clean your houses”. Or else, they should modify their strategies and employ new methods towards a credible divination. This is, apparently, an attempt to mock soothsaying as a hoax.  The speaker further declares that if their observation of his star is unpleasant, they should say their worst.

In other to really ridicule the dubious practice, the speaker asks some series of rhetorical questions. The poet wonders why they cannot tell his future by observing his stars through their astrological signs.

“Or is it burnt out lately? Or did fall?
     Or am I poor? Not able, no full flame?
      My star, like me, unworthy of a name?
    Is it, your art can only work on those
                 That deal with dangers, dignities, and clothes?
          With love, or new opinions? You all lie!”

The poet-speaker asks if they are unable to read his star because it has probably fallen or of “no full flame”. He asks why their dishonest art only works for the rich with dignity and beautiful clothes, who are scared of losing their wealth, paranoid and often fearful of being in danger. He also asks why it works for those looking for love. The soothsayers know these set of people are more susceptible to deception. The speaker, therefore, declares “You all lie!”

Since the fortune-tellers cannot examine and reveal his fate, the poet-speaker submits that their art is a scam and totally unreliable. He adds that if “a fish-wife hath a fate, and so have I”. This implies that it is only God that can reveal one’s fate. Man’s fortune is far above the finding of soothsayers because all they do is pure speculation.

The speaker proclaims God as a cheerful giver “to all that lives” through His divine providence. “No man knows his treasure”.  So, the fortune-tellers cannot predict a man’s fortune because God is the giver.

 From there, the poet-speaker historically alludes to Egypt, “from whence you grew”.  Astrology could be linked historically to Egypt. Egyptian astronomy started in prehistoric times. Astrologers work in Pharaoh’s court where they carry out their astronomical and religious assignments. Going by history lane, observation of stars was important in determining the annual flooding of the Nile.

The line, “He that made Egypt blind” could also be seen as a biblical allusion. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had a bad dream that troubled his spirit. The next day, he summoned the best soothsayers and astrologers in the land to interpret his dream. None could interpret the dream because God had blinded them, until Joseph was brought out of prison to interpret the dream. Another scenario was when God blinded Pharaoh and his chariots in other to chase the Isrealites into the Red Sea where they eventually perished.

By implication, if God could blind Egypt where astrology emanated, it is therefore in tune to say that the art is mere conjecture and untrustworthy. On that note, the poet-speaker asserts, “Your calculations are as blind as ye”. The speaker accuses the soothsayers that their fiddling of the gullible people who seek after their services is merely “a knowledge how to feed”.

In subsequent lines, the poet states, “Man is his own star”. A man determines his own fate and not a soothsayer.  Our acts are our angels. When a man does “good or ill”, that action of his goes a long way in shaping his fortune. Therefore, the star has no influence in determining one’s fate. Man is the architect of his fortune or misfortune. But this notwithstanding, it is only God that can “render an honest and a perfect man/ Commands all light, all influence, all fate;/ Nothing to him falls early, or too late.

The poet also opines that “when the stars are labouring”, “it is not that they govern” human life but they actually grieve our “stubborn ignorance”. The poet-speaker, therefore, gives an illustration of the struggles of life. Everything in human life is depicted as being in conflict or “at war”.

In the second part of the poem, the speaker addresses man, the image of God. He questions why human beings are afraid when the breath of God flows in their blood. He also queries their suspicion and deep mistrust in God who controls the universe, guides their labour and gives them knowledge to even grow near him like a tree. “Must he then be distrusted?”

The speaker continues to remind man of his privileged status with God. He has made angels man’s servants “when devotions call”. Why then should man be so stupid to lose Him that has placed them on a pedestal just because they are seeking “a saving influence” from stars? He asks if those stars which God had made could protect them.

Above all, the poet-speaker reiterates his absolute faith and trust in God: “He is my star, in him all truth I find”. He reaffirms his commitment and belief in God and to also find the truth from him instead of soothsayers. Even in times of danger, he believes he “cannot fall amiss” because of “want” or the “course of man”. In addition, the speaker advises his readers to equip themselves with experience and the lessons it teaches because that is what makes us “to work ourselves into a glorious man”.

In the last part of the poem, the speaker paints love as ephemeral in nature. The message goes to those who visit soothsayers to identify their future spouse. The poet says love is “an exaltation” to the blessed eyes and not what could be predicted by studying stars. When the soothsayers’ guesswork later falls apart, the love dwindles and fizzles out. “Then the fool’s fire dies!” Love is a phenomenon or mystery that could only be unearthed by the “blest eyes”. If the poet were to be in love, he asks if “that bright star” can bring “encrease to wealth, honour, and everything”. Love “lost the game’ because it is not as “perfect good” as he has aimed or predicted by his star. So, the poet-speaker prefers to court “knowledge and fair truth” as his mistress so that he can “enjoy all beauty and all youth”. Although time may affect his new mistress, it is not prone to corruption like love.

Towards the last lines, the poet x-rays issues that can bedevil a man and make him seek help in the wrong hands of scammers who call themselves fortune-tellers. He talks of betrayal, affliction and sickness. But these challenges are meant to toughen a man. Those who “bear the hammer” of affliction, betrayal and sickness no matter how “deep” or “deeper” they bite, “will arise more image of his will”. These words of consolation aim at discouraging man from seeking succour from soothsayers when the challenges of life come in trying times. The poet sees death as “another night” that man should not be afraid of or allowed to bend his will. Challenges should be seen as a temporary setback that strengthens a man. The poem ends with a reaffirmation of “Man is his own star” and the soul that is honest “is the only perfect soul”.

God is supreme
Man needs God
The unreliability of soothsaying
The desire for knowledge and fair truth
Man is his own star
The fear of tomorrow

The poem is written in 92 lines. It is divided into two parts. The first part examines the art of soothsaying and fortune telling with focus on its unreliability. The second part focuses on man’s relationship with God and the need to come back to him and settle for Godly knowledge and fair truth.

The poem has a rhyme scheme of aabb aabb. The diction is quite complex because it is written in the English language of John Fletcher’s time which has become archaic in the present era.

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