Hello Good-bye: Shakespeare’s Birthday, Deathday, and Lasting Legacy

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.

Sonnet XXIX

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.


Sonnet Starvation

“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.


* https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/sonnets/sonnet_view.php?Sonnet=147

The Poetry of April

       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.





Review of Carol Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity

IMG_7216          I’ve been reading Caroline Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity* as part of my research for a paper I’m about to give on identity in the medieval poem Sir Orfeo, so I read it with double perspective: first, for its usefulness for my research (yes, I’m willing to use a book and then just set it aside), and second, for its enjoyability. M&I was a joy on both counts. Bynum’s discussions of identity and werewolves (Buffy the Vampire Slayer even gets a mention) provided me with new insights and approaches to take regarding my topic and even gave me the inspiration I needed for my title. Bynum manages a style that is both erudite and easy to read, and her scholarship is of course phenomenal.

           Over the course of the text, Bynum uses werewolf tales to show how Medieval culture perceived the issue of identity, that identity was considered to persist through changes (such as becoming a werewolf) from hybridity and metamorphosis. She calls on Dante, Ovid, Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales to illustrate her argument, and concludes that

Our concern with how we can change yet be the same thing — our fascination with the question of identity in all its varieties — is inherited from traditions. The identity we carry with us questions — and by questioning conforms — itself. In this sense, we are all Narcissus, as we are all also the werewolf, a constantly new thing that is nonetheless the same (p. 189).

         What surprized me about the book is that it comprises four lectures Bynum gave on various occasions and that those lectures are presented with no attempt to blend them into more cohesive book chapters. I’m not sure whether this omission matters, but it did recall for me an on-going discussion about expectations in the humanities about how books ought to be presented and whether the requirements for dissertations should be changed to allow collections of essays to make it more possible for students to complete their doctoral degrees.




* Carol Walker Bynum. Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2005).

A Word Dropped Careless: Emily Dickinson and Internal Editing

I was reading through some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry the other day and rediscovered her brief treatise on the necessity of editing:

A Word Dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —

(Poem 1261, c. 1873, pub. 1947)[i]

Emily Dickinson had a complex relationship — much of it posthumous — with her editors. Let us acknowledge so much and move on.

But let us also acknowledge that Dickinson understood the importance of editing (several of her poems exist in more than one version: see “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers”), of carrying within our selves an editor whose work begins even before the ink hits the page. Dickinson reminds us of the power of language — and of the dangers of a word dropped careless on a page. The overall message of the poem above is clear:[ii] we must write with care and intent, always aware that what we commit to the page may outlast us and affect — or infect — those who read our words long after (as John Donne would have it) our scattered leaves are bound-up in “that library where every book shall lie open to one another” (Meditation XVII). Dickinson’s poem is more about self-editing than it is about hiring a proofreader, but since most of us read in our own words what we mean to convey, it often takes an unfamiliar reader to notice the nuances and connotations, the physic and the affliction in our writing.

[i] Amazon.com Review of The Complete Poems of Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson (Author), Thomas H. Johnson (Editor). Back Bay Books (January 30, 1976)

“Emily Dickinson proved that brevity can be beautiful. Only now is her complete oeuvre–all 1,775 poems–available in its original form, uncorrupted by editorial revision, in one volume.”


[ii] Truth to say, though, the bit of the poem that I find the most interesting comprises the relatively obscure contortions of lines three and four. The picture of the dropped word lying on a page in a bound book or fascicle comes through well enough, but why is the word in the seam? Books are usually fashioned to avoid just that. But “seam” also means an indentation or scar and so refers back to the sense of careless marring we get in the opening line while looking forward to the “Wrinkled” in line four. The word may lie not in the seam of the volume, but in the folding mentioned three words earlier  — another possible carelessness, like dog-earing a page. And who is “The Wrinkled Maker”? The author of the poem? The printer/publisher? If we remember the New Testament verse that asserts that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, how much more does that increase our responsibility to avoid careless words? Or is God the careless Wrinkled Maker who dropped the word into perpetuity? Why is the seam perpetual? Does it run on forever or will it always exist? And “lie” isn’t a word we should treat like a sleeping dog. What or who is lying? The word lies passively on the page, but particularly because we know the speaker is concerned for the deleterious effects this word might have, the word may be untrue, false, misleading. The Wrinkled Maker may be a liar, or “Wrinkled Maker” may modify “lie,” in which case the lines hint at the uncertain nature of the Maker.