The Eudæmonist has a wonderful entry about the use of the word choir in poems by Wilfred Owen and Shakespeare and the way the ghost of the homonymous quire lurks behind it.

In a bound book, the text-block is composed of quires. In the case of the ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it adds to the tone of the shells a second quire, a second voice of mourning: the poet’s own; but I do not think this formal parallel was conscious for Owen. For Shakespeare, though, it’s almost impossible to deny the pun. The yellow leaves lingering on the branches might just as well be the leaves of a book—pages which must be unwritten, of course, when the poet dies (just as the branches ‘where late the sweet birds sang’ become ‘bare ruin’d choirs’). The full quires containing the sonnets, however, will continue their serenade (dare I say, ‘twittering’?) despite the changing seasons, despite death, in a typical declaration of immortality…


  1. dungbeattle says

    In my salad days one bought paper by quire and folded it. There were 24[25] sheets to the quire or 20 quires [480/500/516 shts worth]to the ream.
    Of course if you sent your email {20 quires worth}, you were reaming your recipient.
    Of course the etymology becomes strange when one saxonizes the the french connection.

  2. …when one saxonizes the the french connection
    I believe that’s now illegal both here and in France.

  3. Fascinating…

  4. I also thought of a line from Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”: “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.” The choir/quire homonymy doesn’t seem as active there as it is in Shakespeare, though.
    But, come to think of it, I bet Wilfred Owen was thinking of Keats when he wrote that line about the “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.”

  5. Hmmmmmm, that’s a lovely conceit, but it doesn’t quite wash for me in the Shakespeare (I can buy that the leaves on tree = leaves of book, but bare ruin’d choirs as pages which must be unwritten? It sounds more like the pages have been ripped out, unless bare is referring to blank/unwritten, in which case “ruin’d” is the word which ruins (ha) the idea for me.
    Must admit have always thought “bare ruined choirs” refers to “choirs” as the part of the chancel in a cruciform church where the birds (i.e. the chorus) sing, with the added wordplay that “choir” can possibly refer to the birds as well (they are the chorus that is gone).

  6. I remember someone suggesting the “bare, ruined choirs” referred to the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries.

  7. the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries
    That’s what I had thought as well.
    Also, how would bare ruin’d choirs have scanned in Shakespeare’s mouth? I pronounce it as a heavy spondee and a half, which tolls appropriately, but leaves you a syllable short. Iambs would just be silly.

  8. d00d, Shakespeare probably sounded mayhap like a cross between an Australian and a Virginian. I am scared to think of how he might have scanned things.

  9. In Stephen Booth’s edition of the sonnets, there’s a comment on the spelling “rn’wd” for “ruined” in the 1609 quarto: “the word was presumably pronounced disyllabically (‘rue-ned’ or as in modern English); choirs is presumably a drawled monosyllable.” (“Drawled” — maybe Booth was thinking of Virginians too?) Which would make it a spondee and an iamb, I guess. I can’t hear bare as unstressed either.

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