23 April, 2018
Today marks the 454th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and the 402nd anniversary of his death. To mark the day and continue to celebrate Poetry Month, I was reading a few of my favourite bits and pieces from the oeuvre of the Man from Stratford, fragments that remind us how much we can learn from someone who lived and wrote over four hundred years ago and that I shall share here, with you.
Issues of friendship (usually complicated) pervade Shakespeare’s work. Hermia and Helena; Hamlet and Horatio; Rosalind and Celia; the Prince, Claudio, and Benedick; Beatrice and Hero; Anthony and Enobarbus; Hal and Falstaff; Paulina and Hermione (not Granger) — these friendships have trials and separations, misunderstandings serious and silly, but throughout his plays and poems, Shakespeare recognizes that friendship is essential to humanity. Sonnet 29 describes the way a steady and loyal friend can save us from the depths of despair and self-loathing.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
While sometimes we need to look to others for support or inspiration, Shakespeare also urges us to examine ourselves to find what qualities lie within that we can, that we mustshare with others. Our awareness of how we depend on others becomes balanced by the realization of what we owe the world:
Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike
As if we had them not.
Measure For Measure I.i.29-35
Of course, it’s all fun and games until somebody is looking to be the next king of England. In Henry IV, Part 1, Hal contemplates how his companions use him and how he intends to use them in turn to solidify his claim to the throne that his father usurped (though I will say, I think with good reason) from Henry’s cousin Richard.
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Henry IV, I. ii
We could pause here to debate whether Hal is a clever politician or a rotten blackguard, if his companions deserve such a reversal, whether Hal is reluctant to do what he knows must be done or gleefully anticipating pulling the rug out from under Poins, Bardo, and especially Falstaff (“No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”), but if anyone wants to have that discussion, let’s save it for the comments.
Back to the sonnets for a finish. In the thirty-third fourteener (that’s for any mountain climbers who might be reading), Shakespeare employs much of the same imagery he put into the mouth of Hal. The imagery works differently in the sonnet. We could, I suppose, maintain that 33 makes an argument for the benefits of recycling, but besides that important lesson, this poem also provides us with a thought-paradigm that can lead us to being forgiving of others and maybe even of ourselves.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
None of us is perfect, but all of us are connected. Shakespeare lived a long time ago, but his works remain to make us think, to question, to push ourselves to become better people with broader minds and more expansive souls.
Happy birthday, Bill, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
P.S. Because Shakespeare and Cervantes share a death-day, here’s a sonnet from Don Quixote, one that touches on many of the same themes as the passages above:
When heavenward, holy Friendship, thou didst go
Soaring to seek thy home beyond the sky,
And take thy seat among the saints on high,
It was thy will to leave on earth below
Thy semblance, and upon it to bestow
Thy veil, wherewith at times hypocrisy,
Parading in thy shape, deceives the eye,
And makes its vileness bright as virtue show.
Friendship, return to us, or force the cheat
That wears it now, thy livery to restore,
By aid whereof sincerity is slain.
If thou wilt not unmask thy counterfeit,
This earth will be the prey of strife once more,
As when primaeval discord held its reign.
“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.
“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Poetry has indeed acquired a reputation for being a conduit of romance and rhyme (moon, June, tune, spoon, loon), but it isn’t always pretty pictures and cajoling cadences. Sometimes it’s just plain nasty, and can be impressively so, as in this sonnet by William Shakespeare:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.*
Shakespeare uses sick-room imagery similar to that Drayton employs, but where Drayton maintains a playful, lightly melodramatic tone, Shakespeare’s speaker is bitter and vitriolic. Both the body and mind of the lover have been poisoned and infected, though the poem gives no indication that the beloved has done anything worse than reject the speaker. For that, the object of the speaker’s desire is reviled.
I suspect that if the person to whom this poem was addressed had any lingering affection for the speaker, this one sonnet would starve it entirely away.
April is Poetry Month and I have been reading through some of my favourite poems. April is a fine time to remember the power of poetry. (So are all the other months.) The best poems are packed with significance; they can change our perspectives, our minds, and our lives. But poetry need not be serious and portentous to convey meaning. It can make us laugh or smile in recognition of our own foibles, as does this wry sonnet by Michael Drayton:
Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part
Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part.
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies;
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes—
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover!*
The poem quickly takes us through the stages of bluff bravado in the face of rejection. There’s a bit of sour grapes (“glad with all my heart,/ That thus so cleanly I myself can free”) thrown in for good measure.
The third quatrain seems to promise a turn to a more heartfelt farewell, one that will acknowledge that, despite the “Fine-I-don’t-like-you-anyway” attitude of the first eight lines, the speaker feels some regret at the breakup. The style is, especially in comparison to the opening quatrains, a little over-blown, but the poem is a snapshot of a moment when passions are running high, so we readers may be excused if we are inclined to be indulgent. Perhaps the speaker will tell us that our failed relationships make us the people we are today and will accept the parting graciously.
What we get instead in the final couplet is a sort of Hail-Mary attempt to get the beloved to change her or his mind and resume the romance. I think it a humourous and rather sweet admission of hope, of vulnerability, but one that does not really convey any expectation that the person addressed with react with more than a smile and a wave.
Much of the pleasure in reading the poem comes from the recognition that whether we existed in the sixteen-hundreds or live in 2018, whether we are inclined to make light of it or to take to our beds in despair, heartache is painful and often unavoidable. To sum up, we can quote the words of a more contemporary (contemporary for me anyway) word-smith, Neil Sedaka:
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.
Happy Valentine’s Day! I have been reading “A Modern Guide to the Love Letter” by John Biguenet, an article that appeared in The Atlantic last year. I recommend this article to everyone who is desperately trying to compose a last-minute declaration of devotion; Biguenet reminds us that “to inscribe your love upon the human heart, you must attend carefully to every detail of the letter with which you convey your affection.” His article will assist one in constructing an effective letter and prevent one, in one’s haste, from making what could be disastrous errors.
Biguenet encourages us to choose “hand-pressed, deckle-edged 100 percent cotton paper,” that may “suggest to your beloved those other cotton sheets you hope to share.” He also cautions us not to “succumb to the temptation to employ your own personal stationery imprinted with your name and address. Such handsome lettering makes identification appallingly easy for your lover’s attorney.” We must be grateful for such level-headed advice; under the influence of our primitive emotions, we are likely to overlook such nice possibilities.
Biguenet covers other vital topics with similar aplomb, though I cannot agree with his views on Ink. Here he tells us that “Henry Ford’s position on the color of the Model T should guide your choice. You can write a love letter in any color you like, so long as it is black.” Black suits some people but not everyone; to me it can indicate a lack of imagination. Woo me in Technicolor, thank you.
Elegance, “that style toward which all other styles aspire to be reduced,” gets Biguenet’s ringing endorsement. To him, “Elegance prompts wit rather than comedy, sentiment rather than sentimentality”; as he explains, “Long-winded elegance is oxymoronic. So length does matter, but in writing, less is more.”
The article covers proper Salutation before plunging into the Body. Here diction rules. Biguenet admonishes us to “Remember, it’s ‘scent,’ not odor.’ Your beloved doesn’t ‘smell’ good; her ‘fragrance’ is enchanting.” In addition, “even if you have a knack for them, no pornographic drawings” (though see Biguenet’s comments under “ink” regarding blue ink).
We get sound advice on the deployment of Metaphors. We must abstain from goofiness and the financial and use food cautiously. Flowers are safer ground, but as Biguenet cautions us, we should be aware that some flora “are associated with love in part because of their physical resemblance to a particular part of a the female anatomy.”
There are wise words on Grammar (“Make subjects agree with verbs, and pronouns, with their antecedents” and “Proofread. Then proofread again”) and the Complimentary Close (either “Be extravagant” or “Be bold. Skip it”). On the Signature, Biguenet employs the succinctness he recommends under Elegance: “If you can’t bring yourself to close without a signature, limit yourself to your first initial. And try to be illegible here. There’s no reason to make the job easier for a lawyer someday [sic].”
Biguenet waxes positively devious when it comes to Delivery. He writes, “bribe whomever you must to have the letter placed directly upon the beloved’s pillow” rather than using mundane means such as the postal service.
Biguenet finishes up with the etiquette of Accepting an Answer. This last courtesy should, our author tells us, bring the letter writer to “what ancient poets called, not without reason, the bower of happiness.” The article is thorough and witty and eminently profitable for anyone engaged upon an act of epistolary seduction.
For more on the topics of letters, see my guest post that will appear in the Month of Letters Journal on Valentine’s Day! (http://lettermo.com/category/journal/)