white moon –
inconstancy yet rides
beside us, all one hundred miles
white moon –
inconstancy yet rides
beside us, all one hundred miles
Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe…
This is probably my favourite snippet of Shakespeare’s writing – taken from the beginning of Act IV of Henry V, where Chorus is describing the scene on the eve of the battle of Agincourt. They are beautiful words to roll around the mind or off the tongue. I love the repeated ‘t’ sounds in the first line, and I like the way the ‘creeping murmur’ and ‘poring dark’ are so closely focused on one pair of ears and eyes but then suddenly broaden out to ‘fill the wide vessel of the universe’.
I’ve often wondered, though, what Shakespeare would have understood by the word ‘universe’. It seems an oddly modern word to appear in a play written in 1599, but in fact (so my research tells me) it was first recorded in writing at least as early as the 1580s. It originally meant simply ‘the whole world, cosmos, the totality of existing things’.*
Shakespeare was born at a time when long-held beliefs about astronomy were giving way to new. He most probably knew that the earth was not the fixed centre of the cosmos and that celestial bodies did not move in perfect circles, but he could have had no understanding of the enormous size of outer space. So when Shakespeare calls the universe a ‘wide vessel’, he seems to be thinking of a hollow container, an overarching bowl shape, which is the way an older generation than his would have imagined the widening spheres of the heavens surrounding the earth.
On the physical level, then, he’s giving a great description of a deep and echoing darkness, and asking us to enter into that darkness in our imagination (which is exactly the job of Chorus in this play – to stimulate our ‘imaginary forces’). We catch the muffled whispers that pass by our ears, and we strain our eyes to make out our hand in front of our face.
But in these words, Shakespeare also taps into an emotional reservoir that is still familiar, more than 400 years later, to anyone who has ever spent a sleepless night dreading the events that must occur when the sun rises. When we’re worrying into the small hours, the anxieties and threats that are close by – the creeping murmurs in our mind and the sense of being enclosed by the poring dark – do take on such an overwhelming aspect that they seem to expand to fill the space of our whole world.
‘Everything seems worse at night,’ my mother always told me, and usually that’s true, although I can think of things, including warfare, that could be just as bad in the daytime. But at least in the daytime we can be up and doing things, facing up to the dangers we fear instead of letting the imagination run riot.
As he does so often, here in Henry V Shakespeare captures deep, shared human emotion and distils it into a few beautiful lines of sound and meaning. Nobody does it better – however much more we might or might not know about the nature of the universe.
* Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com
Photo by Patrick McManaman, unsplash.com
haystalks, leaves in fire guise,
snowflakes – through the slideshow of the
Photo by Ethan Hoover, unsplash.com
‘That’s where we’re going – up there,’ says my husband, jabbing a finger at a rocky outcrop fit only for eagles and hang-gliders. I stand at the bottom of the hill, grumpy-faced, feeling already the ache of my unfit muscles.
But in my pocket there’s something that will make the climb a lot more fun. Once I’ve trudged, breathless, to the very top and we get to sit down on a rough bit of stone, I bring out my little bottle of children’s bubble mixture. As I raise the wand to my lips and blow gently on the circle of gauzy film, we watch the stream of fragile globes break free and drift out across the valley.
Sometimes, I admit, the experience is disappointing. I puff at the plastic circle and hear a faint ‘splat’ as the mixture fails to take shape. Once, on a damp day in the Welsh borderlands, sitting amid the ruins of an old castle, I couldn’t make the bubbles float at all. They dropped from the wand and squatted on the grass, wobbling, like alien life forms.
On the best days, though, there’s no need even to blow. I simply hold the wand aloft, twist it till it catches the direction of the wind and watch the bubbles tumble over each other in their eagerness to fly.
The glistening colours change with the light – yellow, pink, blue. Their movement changes with the breeze. On a constant air-flow, bubbles float serenely. On a gusty day, they jig about like nervous picnickers dodging insects. Energetic or languid, they take on the mood of the air currents on which they ride.
Everyone likes bubbles. They’re reminiscent of childhood; ephemeral but mesmerising – symbolic, perhaps, of wishes, hopes or prayers. We scatter them to the wind, willing them not to burst but to float far away and out of sight. Especially at the end of a long uphill walk, after an hour spent anxiously scanning the ground for slippery stones and trip hazards, they offer an invitation to look up and out.
Then the aching muscles are not so troublesome after all, and the eagles and hang-gliders seem to have the right idea.
If rowers row and sowers sow, do flowers flow?
The prosaic answer is, no – ‘flow’ and ‘flower’ are two unrelated words. But in D.H. Lawrence’s poetic world, everything in the natural world – whether flowers or gemstones – is ‘flowing away’. Flowers, he says, ‘are just a motion, a swift motion, a coloured gesture; that is their loveliness’, and gems only seem to last for ever: ‘The wonderful slow flowing of the sapphire!’ *
He was right. Everything we see and feel around us is subtly changing, continually. We may think we enter the same living-room every morning, because everything in it – each piece of furniture and fabric – is still in the same place. Nothing has moved. But there are changes. Dust has settled. The curtains have faded a little in the sunlight. Paint has darkened: we notice it only when we take pictures off the wall and see the difference in the colour underneath.
Beyond our everyday experience, sand dunes shift, rocks are eroded and stars burn themselves out – all of them ‘flowing away’.
Sometimes, though, things don’t flow; they get suddenly chopped.
A couple of days ago, I visited my favourite garden, Buscot Park in Oxfordshire, for the first time since last September. As usual, like a cat or dog checking out its territory, I took a quick tour of the familiar places. The walled garden with its fountain was still there. So was the holly circle where I sit on the grass and watch other people drifting in and out, gazing and wondering at the obelisk sundial in the centre. The white garden still had its four swinging benches round the edges, and I could still walk through the avenues of poplar trees that rustle like tin foil in the breeze.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed the enormous cedar tree just to the east of the 18th-century house – except that the massive trunk was stretched out on the ground, shorn of its upper branches, next to its equally impressive, fresh, unweathered stump. There was no foliage to tell me what variety of tree it was, but I recognised the distinctive smell – similar to, though a bit sweeter than, the balls of wood, saturated with cedar oil, that I use to keep the moths out of my winter woollies.
I counted the rings – at least 180 – some wide, some very narrow, giving clues to the weather conditions during each passing decade. For 180 years this tree had been growing taller and wider while generations of human beings argued and fought, made amazing discoveries, and shrank the world with cars, aeroplanes and satellite communications.
It’s always sad to see a majestic tree brought down to the ground. This cedar was toward the ‘flower’ end of Lawrence’s spectrum, yet closer to the sapphire than we are. Its life may have come to an abrupt end, but its ‘flow’ continues in its sweet, pungent scent and in whatever beautiful and practical use is found for its wood.
* ‘Fidelity’, from Pansies (1929). See ‘Flowers they fade…’
facing the dawn;
the swelling song of rooks
and pigeons, as this glass picture
Every year, I resist the approach of winter.
There is always a morning, early in September, when I step outside the back door to find a delicate web stretched between the stems of dying plants in the garden, with a small black-and-brown resident lurking at the centre – the first autumn garden spider. With it comes a definite chill in the air – and from that shivery moment on, I am trying to hold back the encroaching darkness simply by force of wishing it may not be so.
Sadly, my wishful thinking is not powerful enough to halt the carousel ride of the earth around the sun. Like every other helpless human, I’m just holding on tight while the great wheel keeps turning. As I watch the light fail earlier each evening, and pull ever thicker clothes from the back of the cupboard, the link with summer months gets more and more tenuous.
Compensation comes in the form of autumn colours, of course. The beauty of this season easily rivals that of spring. But there’s no escaping the fact that the golden leaves are dying leaves, a last flash of glory before bare branches are exposed to the frost.
It’s all very depressing – that is, until 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night. This time when the annual extravaganza of firework displays takes place is always the moment when, finally, I agree to face winter head-on.
Red, green, gold, silver and, best of all, purple flashes defy the dark skies. A blazing bonfire defies the cold wind. Every fizz, boom and whistle gives a two-fingered salute to gloom.
Even better, Guy Fawkes Night gives permission to think ahead to sparkling fairy lights, scented candles and hot mulled wine – all the warm, comforting accompaniments to Christmas. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
This year, I’ve bought a bright red winter coat. I shall wear it for the first time to our local fireworks display, and stop wishing for summer.