It was first published in 1601 as a supplement to a long poem by Robert Chester, entitled Love's Martyr. The full title of Chester's book explains the content:
The "turtle" in the title is the turtle dove, not the shelled reptile. Chester prefaced his poem with a short dedication addressed to the phoenix and turtle-dove, traditional emblems of devoted love:
Chester's main poem is a long allegory, incorporating the story of King Arthur, in which the relationship between the birds is explored, and its symbolism articulated. It is followed by a brief collection of short poems by the "least and chiefest of our moderne writers, with their names sub-scribed to their particular workes". These include, in addition to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, John Marston and the anonymous "Vatum Chorus" and "Ignoto". All use the same imagery.
Several attempts have been made to link the lovers of the poem to historical individuals:
Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, another proponent of the view that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, argued that it was intended as a memorial to the Earl of Essex and his friend Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. They were both sentenced to death on the first day of their trial for treason, on February 19th, 1601, though Southampton's sentence was later commuted.
According to these interpretations the poem is an allegory containing an imaginary Catholic requiem to the deceased couples. In Hammerschmidt-Hummel's view, other "birds" mentioned are Anthony Shirley, Francis Bacon, Robert Cecil, James of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I. Finnis and Martin argue that the "bird of loudest lay" is the composer William Byrd and that the crow is Father Henry Garnet.
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou, shrieking harbinger,
Foul pre-currer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
And thou, treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen;
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight:
Either was the other's mine.
Property was thus appall'd,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was call'd.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either-neither,
Simple were so well compounded
That it cried how true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none
If what parts can so remain.
Whereupon it made this threne
To the phoenix and the dove,
Co-supreme and stars of love;
As chorus to their tragic scene.
Beauty, truth, and rarity.
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd in cinders lie.
Death is now the phoenix' nest;
And the turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity:--
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.