Haunted History and the Birth of the Republic in Middleton's Ghost of Lucrece
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Haunted History and the Birth of the Republic in Middleton's Ghost of Lucrece

In the Latin invocation that introduces Thomas Middleton's The Ghost of Lucrece (1600), the poet summons Lucrece from the dead:

Castissimo, purissimoque Lucretiae Spiritui: Thomas Medius    et Gravis Tonus primum Surge vociferat    Tu castitatis imago,Surgito! Tarquinium Phelgetontis imagine notum,Noscito! Tu coeptis—nam te mutavit et illum—Adspirato meis! Postremo tempore mundi,Ad sua perpetuum deducito crimina carmen.    Castissimo Spiritui tuo addictissimus, T.M.

(20-28)

[To the most chaste and pure Ghost of Lucrece: Thomas, in a moderate and weighty voice, cries out the first "Arise." O thou, the image of chastity, arise! Acknowledge Tarquin, branded with the mark of Phlegethon! Favour these my beginnings (which have transformed both you and him)! In this the world's worst age, launch my tireless poetry against his crime. Totally devoted to your most chaste ghost, T.M. 1 ]

"Thomas Medius" plays on the "middle" of "Middleton," associating the name of the author with the poet's "moderate and weighty voice" (Medius et Gravis Tonus). Having thus named himself, the poet hails Lucrece by the name of chaste and closes his invocation with the compliment "totally devoted to your most chaste ghost" (Castissimo Spiritui tuo addictissimus). He calls Lucrece from the Roman past into the Elizabethan present, the postremo tempore mundi, "the world's worst age" (25). At the beginning of the poem proper, Lucrece responds. She rises from the dead, asking, [End Page 53]

    What wind, what stormBlew my dissevered limbs into this form,And from the virgin paradise of deathConjures my ghost with poetizing breath?

(62-65)

In a kind of reverse blazon, Lucrece is pieced back together by the poet's Orphic breath. The Ghost of Lucrece stages a haunting that will be concerned, as these passages intimate, with the power of poetry to perform two kinds of conjurations: that of Lucrece's speech into (and by virtue of) the poet's breath and voice, and that of the past into the present.

Reassembled by means of "poetizing breath" and addressing the one who conjured her, Lucrece's attention turns quickly to Tarquin; we soon discover that Lucrece views herself as inextricably coupled with her rapist in the afterlife. In an early metaphor, the two are an eternal lamp, which Lucrece claims uses her "blood for oil, his lust for fire" (79). After much lamenting over this condition—which, for Lucrece, functions "to seal [her] soul with rape and murder's stamp"—she follows the poet's suit, summoning Tarquin's ghost: "Come, spirit of fire . . . I conjure thee" (86, 115-21). The poem gives us no indication that Tarquin's ghost hears her: neither the shade nor the voice of the rapist makes an appearance. Nevertheless, Lucrece spends a good deal of the poem apostrophizing him by means of hurled accusations while she relives the rape. Other targets for Lucrece's lamenting apostrophe include Collatine, Iniquity, Lust, and Chastity itself. Near the end of her diatribe, she takes over the position of the poem's author, imagining that the poem itself is a letter she has written to Tarquin: "To thee I consecrate this little-most / Writ by the bloody fingers of my ghost" (568-69). Then she falls back into hell to spend eternity with Tarquin. The poem ends with an elegiac epilogue in which the poet laments Lucrece's death, the passing of her body and breath. "O her breath," the poet cries,

That pension of her life, from life to death.How ill was this bestowed on death, that elfWhich robs all others, yet still poor itself.

(635-40) [End Page 54]

The paradox of death's acquisitive impoverishment leads to a final couplet that underscores once again the fluid border between life and death with which the poem is everywhere concerned:

First Tarquin-life clad her in death's array.Now Tarquin-death hath stol'n her life away.

(653-54)

The couplet features a crossing and reversal of order, a chiasmus of "life" and "death," that is also a synoeciosis, a coupling of opposites expressing the oxymoronic or paradoxical. 2 In...