Tag Archives: poetry

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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Flowers they fade

Oriental poppyThree years ago, a packet of Californian poppy seeds, tipped nonchalantly into my flowerbed, yielded a passable crop of quite ordinary (dare I say, boring) plain cream and yellow flowers.

However, it turned out that the packet had included a flamboyant intruder – an Oriental, its deep purple heart surrounded by scarlet petals with frilly edges. There was just one bloom, and when it died I shook out the seeds from the pod, kept them in a brown envelope over the winter and sowed them the following year. Nothing happened. By the year after, I’d forgotten them, thinking they were dead.

This year – surprise! One oriental poppy sprang up from the earth. It flowered, again and again, each bloom staying no more than two days before the petals fell. It seemed a waste of such beauty, to last so short a time.

But it made me think of a poem by D.H. Lawrence, called ‘Fidelity’, contrasting flowers and gemstones. Of flowers he says:

O flowers they fade because they are moving swiftly;
a little torrent of life
leaps up to the summit of the stem, gleams,
turns over round the bend
of the parabola of curved flight,
sinks, and is gone, like a comet curving into the invisible.

O flowers, they are all the time travelling
like comets, and they come into our ken
for a day, for two days, and withdraw, slowly vanish again.

And we, we must take them on the wing, and let them go.

He might easily have been talking about my Oriental poppies. There really is a parabolic curve in the stem, where it bends over and ends in a hanging bud. Then the ‘torrent of life’ bursts into a spectacular flash of red. 36 hours later it’s just a naked seed pod, looking embarrassed to be on show, while the frilly-edged petals lie on the ground like feathers from a firebird.

I was lucky enough to catch sight of a shooting star in the Perseid meteor shower earlier this month. It had zigzagged across the eastern sky and disappeared in a split second. A comet, of the sort that D.H. Lawrence mentions, might be visible in the sky for a few weeks, even though it is actually travelling at great speed.

He’s right, though – we can’t hold on to a flower for ever. Its fleeting nature is part of its beauty, its essence as a flower. A photo can’t match the reality, and when winter comes and the flowerbed is bare, its brilliance will be almost unimaginable.

For this year, I must ‘take it on the wing, and let it go’. But you can be sure I’ll have kept plenty of seeds in a brown paper envelope.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Cinquain 13

These days
between seasons –
crows circle their old nests,
wings braced against the buffeting
windstorm

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Name that colour

history of green

Can you imagine having names for only three colours? In this book about the history of the colour green,* I read that the ancient Greek language had simple names for only black, white and red. Other colour words were available but they tended to describe the quality of a colour (such as ‘dark’ or ‘pale’), or the kind of emotion it evoked, rather than naming plain green, blue and yellow.

My first thought, reading this, was to feel sorry for the poor old ancient Greeks, that their language was so impoverished. Fancy not being able to say that the sky is blue or the sun is yellow!

On second thoughts, though, I wonder what is the real point of any of these words? They’re useful when a quick identification is needed – when a witness says that the suspect was wearing a blue shirt and drove off in a yellow car. But the categories are too broad to do justice to the thousands of different shades that an artist might want to name, so we subdivide ‘blue’ into navy, cobalt and ultramarine, to name just a few.

Image: Bob Embleton

Image: Bob Embleton

The grass is green, right? Sometimes, on a country walk, I pick one stalk of every different type of grass I can find along the path. There are usually about a dozen varieties, and the range of colours they represent is astonishing – from brown, through purple and green, to creamy yellow. I call them ‘green’ only because I’m not looking closely enough. I’m just being lazy.

There’s something else, though. Very often, when we talk about colour, we’re really talking about its cultural or emotional meaning – what it signifies to us rather than just which part of the light spectrum is being reflected from the surface we’re seeing. Even when we remark on how blue the sky is today, often what we mean is that it’s making us feel cheerful.

Lots of our colour-talk is about symbolism or deeper meaning: we think of autumn colours, Christmas colours, nautical colours, tropical colours. Red stands for danger, purple for majesty, green for renewal.

When I’m trying to write short forms of poetry (cinquains and haiku), I usually feel that a colour-word is a waste of a syllable unless it ‘means’ something else – for example, if it’s used synaesthetically, like this:

grass cutting
all along the roadside spills
the scent of green

Yet I’ve noticed for the first time that D.H. Lawrence is remarkably bold in his use of simple colour words like green, blue, yellow, black and white. Far from avoiding them because they’re clichéd, he repeats them – creating intensity, layer upon layer. So, describing fresh snow, he says it is:

… white and white and only white
with a lovely bloom of whiteness upon white
in which the soul delights and the senses
have an experience of bliss.

This is not just a description of a white landscape, but of whiteness. It’s an experience, not a colour.

The ancient Greeks were on to something, you know. However many colour-words we have, three or three thousand, it’s the inner quality that matters, not the surface reflection – what we feel, not just what we see.


* Green: The history of a color by Michel Pastoureau, trans. Jody Gladding (Princeton University Press, 2014)

Cinquain 9

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White star
opens, glowing
at the close of the day –
close to the earth but heavenly
scented

Cinquain 8

Beech tree

Crackle –
under my boots
the prickly beech nut husks;
lime-green layered leaves above me
ripple