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