Will’s dying delirium in ‘Nothing Like The Sun’

Anthony Burgess’s 1964 novel Nothing Like The Sun is a literary tour-de-force, inventing not only the details of the notoriously shadowy Shakespeare’s life, but also recreating Elizabethan prose in a contemporary novel form in which to do so. It is rightfully regarded as one of Burgess’s finest novels.

However, some aspects do tend to confuse some readers. The fact that the novel is technically a nested narrative, Shakespeare’s story as told by an ever more drunken lecturer to his students in Malaysia, is often overlooked by readers, for example. Others struggle with the conclusion of the novel, in which the dying Shakespeare’s last thoughts merge with those of the lecturer, who is falling drunkenly asleep. This is effectively a very obscure list of apparently random elements, and gives the effect of a strange delirium, which was clearly intended by the author.

I once sought to elucidate meaning from this notoriously opaque passage, and managed to do so with some success. What follows below has not previously been published, though it has been of assistance to me and to a number of scholars and translators of Burgess in the past. In the hope it might continue to be of use to others, and that it might even be possible to complete the references, I offer it below:

The language of Nothing Like The Sun - The International Anthony Burgess  Foundation

The allegedly ‘aleatory’ process by which Burgess created the dying delirium of the syphilitic Shakespeare in Nothing Like The Sun is, on surface reading, quite random. Burgess’s typically obtuse choice of adjective (in this case, a musical term implying progression by chance) suggests that the phrases chosen were identified seemingly in a randomised fashion. In his autobiography, Burgess detailed how he generated it:

A magazine called Choice said that the epilogue, ‘Shakespeare’s dying delirium, is writing of the highest order.’ Not quite so, really. I had taught myself the trick of contriving a satisfying coda by what, in music, is termed aleatory means: I flicked through the dictionary and took whatever words leaped from the page. I did this again at the end of my Napoleon novel: the effect is surrealist, oceanic and easily achieved.1

There is, undeniably, an element of induced randomness in the flood of words that conclude Nothing Like The Sun. But unlike the conclusion of Napoleon Symphony, where the chosen phrases (including bellowing gnus, nematode worms and Bengal) appear to have little to do with the subject matter of the novel, there is a significant element of relevance in Burgess’s chosen list of phrases in Nothing Like The Sun. It is worth noting that for Kingdom of the Wicked, Burgess’s tale of the first century of the Christian church, he resurrected the effect but not the random element. Instead, the reader encounters an alphabetic progression of Roman names, all of whom are destined to be destroyed in Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius.

If the list in Napoleon Symphony is, as it seems, genuinely random while the list in Kingdom of the Wicked is obviously carefully constructed to an order, the list that makes up Will’s deathbed delirium lies somewhere in between. Many of the phrases chosen have resonance in the plot of the novel that precede them. It is not possible to take Burgess entirely at his word when he says that he gleaned them all simply by flicking through a dictionary. Even the most comprehensive encyclopedia is unlikely to contain all the elements Burgess includes in his conclusion. It features forgotten nautical novels of the nineteenth century, thrillers from the early twentieth century, B-movies and quotations from obscure Jacobean drama. The only encyclopedia likely to encompass such diverse and remote elements is Burgess’s own mind himself.

It is likely that he did proceed with a certain element of randomness in the choice of phrases he included. A psychoanalytical approach, which I am not qualified to attempt, might even possibly glean why he chose those and not others. However, it is clear is that many of the phrases were carefully included to reinforce the thesis of the novel as presented by its lecturer-narrator, ‘Mr Burgess’ – that Shakespeare had a child by a Malay prostitute and his lineage lived on in the East, though he paid for it by contracting syphilis. Here is the passage in full:

Oaklings, footsticks, cinques, moxibustion, the Maccabees, the Lydian mode (soft, effeminate), the snow-goose or whitebrant, rose-windows, government, the conflagration of citadel and senate-house, Bucephalus, the Antilegomena, Simnel Sunday, the torrid zone, Wapping, my lord’s top-boots, the shoeflower, prostitute boys, dittany, face-ague, cosmic cinefaction, the Antipodes, the Gate of Bab, Fidessa, Rattlin the Reefer, Taliesin, the dead head in alchemy, the bar, dungeons, skylarks, the wind, Thaumast, the dark eyes of London, the fellowship of the frog, Gesta Regum Anglorum, Myrddhin, faithful dealing, A Girle Worth Gold, viticulture, the Queen that’s dead (bee, meadow, chess, Bench, regnant), imposts of arches, pollards, sea-fox and sea-hog and sea-health, the sigmoid curve, cardinals, touchability.2

The biggest clue that Burgess carefully chose the elements that make up this section is that so many of these phrases relate to Malaysia. The shoeflower, for example, sounds suitably Elizabethan, but in fact it is not native to Europe. Also known as Chinese Hibiscus, it is however, the national symbol of Malaysia. Close examination of the rest of the list produces many similar revelations. In fact, the vast majority of the phrases used by Burgess in this passage fall into one of five categories; they either relate to Malaysia, to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan era, to love, to sailing or they are obscure British cultural products of the early twentieth century which Burgess himself (or, indeed, his lecturer avatar) might have encountered.

At this point in the novel, the lecturer-narrator ‘Mr Burgess’ is falling into a drunken stupor, having apparently imbibed three bottles of indigenous rice spirit donated to him by his students at the outset of the lecture. He begins to associate himself with Shakespeare, and claims, just prior to this ‘aleatoric’ passage, to be descended from the bard. “He sent his blood out there,” says the sleepy ‘Mr Burgess’. “I am of his blood.”3

His drunken dreaming merges with Shakespeare’s dying delirium and the flood of images that results is the product of both minds. There are the references to Shakespeare’s era, such as ‘A Girle Worth Gold’, which is the subtitle to The Fair Maid of the West, a 1630 comedy in two parts by Thomas Heywood,4 and then there are the references to Burgess’s own era, such as The Fellowship of the Frog, which is a 1923 thriller in which a secret society of criminals commit robberies across London, and which was made in 1960 into a German-backed B-movie. Then there are the images which span both minds, both eras. The “conflagration of the citadel and senate-house”, for example, is a reference to the burning of Troy in the Aeneid, which would no doubt be familiar to both Shakespeare and Burgess, even in his ‘Mr Burgess’ lecturer-avatar guise. Taliesin the poet, Myrddin the mystic, the Maccabees, the Antilegomena (the books excluded from the Bible) and even Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s horse, all can be considered elements of the cultural sphere with which both Shakespeare (or Will) and Burgess (or ‘Mr Burgess’) were familiar.

Most of the remaining phrases refer either to the East, or love, or to nautical elements or else to crossovers between the five categories. Perhaps these nautical references should be understood as the passage of Shakespeare’s blood line to the East. Equally, we might think of it as the subconscious mind of ‘Mr Burgess’, who sailed to the East where he is delivering his lecture, just as the real Anthony Burgess sailed there, conflating his thesis with the seasick-type nausea of his own drunkenness.

The sailing references are the most obvious. Three terms in a row evoke the sea overtly, and the wind is also mentioned. But there is also Wapping, which is in London’s docklands and was the location where pirates and other seafaring criminals were executed in the Elizabethan era. Rattlin the Reefer is a nineteenth century nautical adventure novel written by Edward Howard and edited by his better known author friend Frederick Marryat. Skylarks are not only birds, but also practical jokes played at sea, the etymology of the term ‘larking around.’ A sea-hog is a porpoise, and sea-health likely simply means the opposite of sea-sickness.

The Shakespearean, or Elizabethan, references are also easy to acknowledge. ‘Footsticks’ were used to delineate a page in the printing industry. The ‘Lydian mode’ is a rising musical scale which slightly differed in Renaissance times. ‘Rose-windows’, then as now, are found in Gothic churches. ‘Faithful dealing’ refers to the spying of Christopher Marlowe, about whom the Privy Council wrote to Cambridge University in 1587 to praise his “faithful dealing” so that he would not be sent down for non-attendance. The ‘Queen that’s dead’ is possibly Mary of Scots or even Elizabeth I, but more likely it is a phrase gleaned from When You See Me, You Know Me, a 1605 Jacobean play by minor playwright Samuel Rowley which is thought to have been a source for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.5Prostitute boys was a derogatory but not always inaccurate term for the young male actors who played female roles in the Elizabethan theatre.

Similarly, the anachronistic Burgess-era references are relatively simple to spot because they cluster around the early twentieth century in terms of their dates. In addition to The Fellowship of the Frog, there is the ‘dark eyes of London’, which is the title of a horror B-movie starring Bela Lugosi from 1940. Another film released that same year, coincidentally the year in which Burgess was writing his undergraduate thesis on Christopher Marlowe in the shadow of the blitz, was entitled Torrid Zone 6, a phrase which is also clearly a reference to the Tropics. The sea-fox was a World War II era British floatplane used until 1943, also clearly a nautical reference.

Terms relating to Malaysia and the East abound. Moxibustion, for example, is a Chinese medical remedy involving burning mugwort on the skin, which is common among Chinese communities in South-East Asia. Cardinals are obviously senior Catholic clerics, but they may also be birds, specifically a type of bunting found in the Tropics, or, to take a nautical meaning, points of the compass. There are many famous Gates of Bab (meaning door in Arabic) scattered throughout the Muslim world, from Cairo and Morocco to Syria and Yemen. There is likely at least one in Muslim Malaysia too. In the sense that the entrance to any mosque is a gate of bab, there are many, then and now. The Antipodes are the furthest point on Earth away from one’s present position; in Shakespeare’s time, with Australasia yet to be discovered by James Cook, that meant the East Indies, which had, from 1605, been occupied by the Dutch. Fidessa, an old-fashioned Dutch name meaning loyalty, may also be a reference to this period as well as an invocation of fidelity.

The phrases relating to love and lust are the most obscure. Dittany of Crete is a hermaphroditic plant which historically symbolised love, and young men would risk their lives climbing cliffs to harvest it. The plant was believed to be an aphrodisiac, but was also used to heal wounds and to induce menstruation. Snow geese are permanently monogamous, meaning that they mate for life. Face-ague is a somewhat antiquated term for a form of neuralgia which causes convulsive twitching of the face muscles, a known and occasional symptom of syphilis in any of its three stages. Touchability is, simply, the ability to touch, something denied to a syphilitic.

Some of the remaining phrases Burgess used do not fall into any of the categories I have identified, but nevertheless they clearly refer to the plot of the novel that precedes them. Thaumast is an English ‘learned man’ defeated in a challenge by Panurge after they dispute “in signs” over “insoluble problems, both in magic, alchymy, the cabala, geomancy, astrology and philosophy”7 in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, which though written before Shakespeare’s birth was not translated into English until Thomas Urquhart’s version a century later. Taliesin is the early Welsh poet who sang as bard to three kings in the sixth century. Likewise, Gesta Regum Anglorum (the deeds of the kings of England) is the title of William of Malmesbury’s history of the Dark Ages. All of these might be taken as oblique references to Shakespeare or his works, or again as part of the common cultural heritage shared by Will and Mr Burgess.

It is likely that the remaining phrases are similarly allusive. It is possible, though improbable, that they are as random as the list which concludes Napoleon Symphony. While music is present in Nothing Like The Sun, it was not written, as Napoleon Symphony was, to prioritise the musical structure. Burgess was at liberty to subvert literary meaning for integrity to his musical structure in the later novel. In Nothing Like The Sun, he did not permit himself the same freedom to evade meaning in favour of form.

There is sufficient cohesive patterning in the terms of this literary delirium to prove Burgess’s point, made in M/F, that even a denial of structure transpires to be simply a different form of taxonomic structure. Despite his claims to the contrary, there is little randomness (or aleatoricism) in the phrases Burgess used for Will’s dying delirium. Even if we take Burgess at his word in relation to his method for creating this passage, it must be assumed that he was subconsciously drawn to phrases which evoked elements of his novel. However, the sheer unlikelihood of any dictionary or encyclopedia containing all these varied references tends to suggest that, in fact, the majority if not the whole were carefully chosen.

The list evokes not only the Shakespearean era but also the Burgessian one, and furthermore, it hints at the very thesis of the novel; that Will’s lust for a Dark Lady from the East infected him with syphilis but his love for her also bore him a son who sailed back to the Antipodes to sustain the Shakespearean bloodline there.

1 You’ve Had Your Time, Anthony Burgess, Heinemann, London, 1990, p. 80.

2 Nothing Like The Sun, Anthony Burgess, Heinemann, London, 1964, p. 234.

3 Nothing Like The Sun, Anthony Burgess, Heinemann, London, 1964, p. 234.

4 The play features a heroine, Bess, who rises from lowly origins as a barmaid in Plymouth to pirate upon the Spanish and engage in a series of picaresque adventures in Morocco and Italy. The first part is considered representative of Elizabethan era drama, but the second, in which the feisty heroine becomes much more passive and the actors engage in verbal battles of honour, looks forward to the mannered dramas of the Caroline age. In this aspect, it is often considered as an example of the transition from the drama of Shakespeare’s era and the stylised comedies that followed later.

5 In the section of the play where this line occurs, Lord Brandon is briefing Cardinal Wolsley on the mental state of the King. The full quotation runs: “His grace hath taken such an inward grief / With sad remembrance of the queen that’s dead, / That much his highness wrongs his state and person.”

6 The movie was a James Cagney vehicle, in which he is hired by his former enemy as an enforcer to put down revolutionaries who threaten his banana crop in Honduras.

7 The Works of Francis Rabelais translated from the French in Four Volumes, François Rabelais, London, 1807, Vol. II, p. 147.