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Shakespeare’s universe

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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

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Blowing bubbles

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‘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.

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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.

Cinquain 17

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Window
facing the dawn;
the swelling song of rooks
and pigeons, as this glass picture
brightens

Fireworks – gateway to winter

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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.

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Photos from https://unsplash.com/@jammypodger7470 and https://unsplash.com/@kazuend

Wordsworth – puzzling poet

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Ullswater, Lake District

William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? I first started asking myself that question when I read a small selection of his poems for my O Level English exam, and then a few more for A Level. A recent visit to his home, Dove Cottage in Grasmere, central to the beautiful Cumbrian Lake District, got me thinking again.

I remember being both enchanted and suitably scared by the part of ‘The Prelude’ where he describes the Gothic horror of seeing a huge cliff-face rising before his eyes as he rows a stolen boat across a lake. The simple, poignant Lucy poems, about a young woman who lives and dies unnoticed by most of the world, were just as emotionally confusing. To read this stuff was like opening doors in a fascinating but creepy old house. Being a slightly depressive child and teenager, there was something I recognised in this melancholy beauty. I identified with it and felt its pull – but wished not to.

When I read now, as a happier adult, I can see that his constant focus on solitude is what makes me inwardly shiver. I think of poor dead Lucy, who ‘dwelt among the untrodden ways’. In the aftermath of the boat-stealing, his mind is overcast by ‘a darkness, call it solitude / Or blank desertion’. And to top it all, we have ‘The Solitary Reaper’, singing her songs of ‘old, unhappy, far-off things’ alone in an echoing valley.

Wordsworth insists on painting a picture of solitude even when, in fact, it wasn’t so. I learnt from the Dove Cottage tour guide that although, in his most famous poem, he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, the inspiration for those words actually came from a lakeside walk accompanied by his sister Dorothy. He was no hermit: he shared that small home with his wife, his sister and his sister-in-law. Their many visitors included Walter Scott, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He had five children. He seems to have been quite a gregarious fellow, fully involved in life, and yet his poetry tells a different story.

Setting these gripes aside, though, there are things I admire him for. He wrote mostly about ordinary everyday life, not old myths or abstract intellectual ideas. He was a keen observer of the natural world on his doorstep and of the way it made him feel. He was mindful, living in the moment, in touch with his emotional responses to people and places and objects; and his skill in painting word-pictures that pierce straight through into a reader’s heart and mind was unsurpassed. All of these qualities I can appreciate, being a haiku poet myself.

What’s more, I have to admit that, for a poet I ‘don’t like’, his words are as memorable as those of Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence or Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of whom I do like. Whenever I stand on a bridge overlooking the River Thames in London, the words from his sonnet, ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, are right there at the front of my mind. The daffodils poem is one of the very few that I can recite from memory in its entirety (that is, as long as I say it in the rhythm of the song I learnt at school), and I always think of it in spring-time. Somewhere inside me, the melancholy teenager can still recognise a sympathetic mind.

So, William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? The answer’s yes – and no.

 

 

 

 

 

Framed

When we first viewed the house whLizard room window viewere we now live, it felt right as soon as we stepped in at the front door. After checking out the living-room and kitchen, we climbed a flight of stairs to the middle floor and another to the top, where two bedrooms were built into the roof space. As I looked out of one of the narrow windows next to the sloping ceiling, across the neighbours’ back gardens to the green and blue stripes of fields and sky beyond and above, I suddenly felt tears prickling the back of my eyes. That’s when I knew for sure that this was the house I wanted us to buy.

Since then, a line of five wind turbines has been planted in one of those fields, right on the horizon. Luckily for me, I’m one of the few people who think they’re beautiful, not an eyesore. Perfectly framed in the top floor window, they catch the light each morning, glowing white against the sky.

Through the same high window, I can often spy on a pigeon or crow perched shakily at the end of the neighbour’s rooftop TV aerial, flapping its tail feathers to keep its balance. Each month, on a cloudless night, the full moon shines through, and every other month the window offers a perfect view of the International Space Station gliding across the sky at the end of its journey from west to east.

I do like windows. I even like paintings with windows in them – a frame within a frame. Especially from high up, looking out and across, there’s a sense of having an expansive view of the world outside.  And yet… as I stand in front of our top-floor window, I’m aware that the sounds outside – the rumble of passing traffic, the barking of a small dog, the squawks from the car park rookery – are muffled. I notice the hedges and tree-tops shivering in the breeze but I don’t feel the wind on my face. I see grey-bottomed clouds but I can’t smell the rain in the air.

The pane of glass that gives me access to the world outside also detaches me from it.

I’m sure it does you good to escape to the top floor sometimes and spend a few minutes staring out of a window. It clears your head and helps you to chill out in the middle of a busy day. But it’s also great to be involved in the world at ground level – and for that, a window isn’t good enough. You have to get out of the door.

The Force Awakens, or, Another New Hope

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Warning: minor spoilers ahead…

 

It took a bit of cajoling to get my 14-year-old niece to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. A whole generation ago, I queued up, also aged 14, to see the very first film, Episode IV: A New Hope, with its groundbreaking special effects and full orchestral soundtrack.

For those of us who were teenagers or children when Star Wars first began, this new film was bound to be partly a nostalgia trip, with the three leading actors returning 40 years older. But would it also succeed in taking the story on into a future that we were interested enough to enter?

Many critics have commented on the plot similarities between Episodes VII and IV. The droid escaping with vital information, then rescued from scrap dealers, is both R2-D2 and BB-8. The talented young pilot tied to an unfulfilling job on a desert planet is both Luke and Rey. The secondary hero who abandons the rebel cause, only to return when he realises how much he’s needed, is both Solo and Finn. Starkiller Base is just another Death Star, destroyed this time almost with a flick of the wrist by the same little old X-wings.

So the film seems heavily weighted on the side of the past. The grief of the decades since the defeat of the Empire certainly burdens Han Solo, Leia Organa and (so we’re told) Luke Skywalker. Han has lost his youthful cockiness, replacing it with looks and gestures that say clearly ‘I’m past caring.’ The new characters struggle just as hard to leave old identities behind: Rey is held on Jakku by the empty hope that her family will return, and Finn is haunted by his stormtrooper upbringing. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren resists the call of the light by praying to a relic – Darth Vader’s melted helmet.

Even the film’s central non-living ‘character’, the Millennium Falcon, is heavy and cumbersome on her first outing, barely able to get off the ground. For me, though, the Falcon is the fulcrum on which the scales turn. This neglected piece of ‘garbage’ is an emblem of a mythical past, but, once unveiled, unshackled and soaring into space again, she remains the most beautiful starship in the galaxy, with the potential to carry forward an exciting reawakened hope.

My favourite new character, the wise seer Maz Kanata, is the one who voices the change of focus from past to future, telling Rey, ‘The belonging you seek is not behind you; it is ahead.’ The word ‘nostalgia’ means literally ‘home-sickness’. It’s tempting always to hark back to the well-loved homes of years gone by, but if the new trilogy is to capture our hearts in the long term, it needs to lead us to unfamiliar places that we can also call home.