THE POWER OF POETRY
In my last post I mentioned I approached Shakespeare with a bad attitude. My exact words were:
“I noticed that they were always quoting Shakespeare, in order to look smarter than me, so I decided to go to the source. I went with a very bad attitude, quite certain “Shakespeare” was some sort of fuddy-duddy nonsense, part of the stuff I didn’t trust because it was over thirty. I opened “Hamlet” with a sneer, wrinkling my nose in distain. I was like Sonny Liston stepping into the ring to face Cassius Clay. I got my ass handed to me.”
After thinking further, I’ve decided that needs some correction. I did not really “decide” to study Shakespeare. At age sixteen, (likely due to the influence of marijuana,) I switched from a stoic attitude to an epecureanistic attitude. I gave up on lifting weights, and studying, with the idea that if a thing didn’t come easily, it likely wasn’t worth it. I used the word “mellow” a lot. I’d discovered the joy of improvising, and was amazed by what spontaneity was capable of producing. I murmured the jargon of that time, “Let it flow,” ‘Let it all hang out,” “If it feels good, do it,” “Let it be.” Then, after around nine months, I became aware being mellow might kill me, because I looked in a mirror and saw the ashy grey face of a sick thirty-year-old, and realized I had lost twenty pounds even though I was slim to begin with. So I did not remain “mellow” all that long, however while I did it I did it whole hog, and there was no way I’d accept the discipline of study during that adventure, especially the study of Shakespeare.
Looking back there were three older people who jarred my “mellowness” by suggesting to me that Shakespeare might be something other than a fuddy-duddy.
The first was an English teacher at my high-school in Massachusetts. She was definitely not big on discipline. She was very encouraging, and may have even had a crush on me. She didn’t do anything incorrect, but so obviously liked my writing that the other kids teased me. She overlooked my failures, and only underlined my spelling mistakes with the lightest line of grey pencil, foregoing the red gashes other teachers gouged into my efforts. One time, in a single one-page-poem, I had four separate spellings of “atmosphere,” the last of which was correct, and on that page she lightly exclaimed, “Got it!” next to the fourth spelling. And that was how I learned to spell “atmosphere” correctly.
Because she was so kind, any look of pain on her face had far more of an effect on me than other teachers did when they bellowed. She had that look when I called Shakespeare a fuddy-duddy.
I had actually been hugely moved by the movie, “Romeo and Juliet,” which was in theaters at that time, however I was so ignorant I didn’t connect the film with Shakespeare. At the end of the film I was embarrassed by how tear-streaked my face was, and hid in a hunch as others arose, and a girl seated nearby proudly stated, as she arose, “I didn’t cry once!” This shamed me, and prompted a maudlin poem wherein I stated, “I bruise like a peach in a gravel pit.” However, though overly sensitive in this respect, I was hardhearted and tough, when it came to dismissing Shakespeare’s entire life’s work as a fuddy-duddy nothingness.
This demonstrates the somewhat schizophrenic nature of teenaged thought, and also its amazing breadth of double standards, which teenaged thought can encompass as blithely as whistling Dixie. I pity all high school English teachers, and am amazed my teacher could make me pause, albeit briefly, to reconsider Shakespeare’s worth.
The second individual was a twenty-six year old man whose interest in me, I fear, may have involved a degree of homosexual attraction, however I was splendidly naive about such things as I graduated at age seventeen. I assumed he really liked my poetry. He would read my work exclaiming at each line, practically swooning in rapture. This seemed quite sensible and correct to me, however when he did the same thing while reading snippets of Shakespeare, I needed time to pause and reconsider.
After nearly killing myself being mellow, the summer after I graduated, I flew overseas to attend a school in Scotland. Because I graduated high school so young it was deemed wise, by my elders, to give me a sort of post-graduate or prep-school year before college, and so I landed in the sixth form of an old-fashioned English boarding school, which most definitely was not “mellow.”
(How I landed in such a remote part of Scotland still amazes me. I was shown some pretty pamphlet-pictures and brochures of a castle in Scotland, nodded, and my future was decided; I could go back to being mellow and skip the botheration of applying to colleges.) (I think my stepfather took advantage of my laziness, and I think he knew exactly what he was doing.)
Once I arrived at the school I felt like I had been tricked into enlisting in the Marines. The discipline shocked me. I couldn’t believe they made you get up if you didn’t feel like it. I was highly offended, and would have left after a week to hitchhike home, but the Atlantic Ocean was in the way, (and also I knew, deep down, that I should gain back twenty pounds and get some color in my face, before reentering the world of hippies and communes.)
It was at that school I had Shakespeare crammed down my throat, primarily by the third influential person, who was my English Master. I was not particularly thrilled at the idea of calling any teacher a “Master,” and he did not seem particularly thrilled by my poetry, but my essays intrigued him. I had the ability to bullshit, (perhaps learned from American commercials, or perhaps learned from twelve years of being forced to come up with excuses for undone homework and inattention.,) and one of my first essays at the school involved Pilgrim’s Progress.
The other boys had read Pilgrim’s Progress the year before, but I had never read it. I think I knew three inconsequential things about the tale, which I had picked up during a brief classroom discussion before the test. I believe having a test on the first day of class was the teacher’s way of seeing if any of the boys retained what they’d learned the year before. Or perhaps it was merely to jar their brains back into scholar-mode. In any case, I found myself sitting, facing a test about something I had never studied.
Of course, this was a situation I felt quite at home with. It was the ordinary state of affairs for me to be facing a test I hadn’t studied for, and therefore I buckled down to do my duty, which was to avoid flunking. (I wasn’t greedy; I didn’t want a high grade; a “D-” would do, as long as I didn’t have to take the boring course all over again, which is what an “F” often earned you.)
I used the three inconsequential points I knew about Pilgrim’s Progress as a springboard into a three-page-discussion about the ethics of something or another; Lord knows what it was, but the teacher found my essay much more interesting than most of the essays he graded.
It was a mistake on my part, because he recognized some sort of vague potential in me, and shifted me to a higher level of scholarship, which meant the workload tripled and involved piles of Shakespeare.
My immediate response was to feel that, as a member of the counter-culture, I should resist any and all old-culture, which I called “brainwashing.” Because the teacher was forcing me to write between two and ten essays a day, I decided the way to fight back was to produce a series of essays debunking the greatness of Shakespeare. And that was when it happened. I became completely and forever brainwashed.
I truly began an essay meaning to show Shakespeare was just kissing the Queen’s butt, cranking out propaganda for her. Halfway through, while quoting a line from Hamlet to show how stupid such la-di-dah speechifying was, I was struck by how beautiful the language was. I searched for a different quote, but nothing seemed stupid. Not only was the language beautiful, but also the ideas were exquisite. The line of my essay’s logic floundered even as I wrote, wading into self-created quicksand and then thrashing for escape. Lord only knows what I handed in. It must have been one strange essay, that’s all I can say.
For a time after my conversion I displayed some odd behavior. I would raise my index finger and exclaim, “Forsooth!” I also ended lots of words with “th.” Where I formerly had snuck off for an illegal cigarette saying, in the school’s slang, “I’m gaspin’ for a fag,” I now was more noble, and swung a palm outwards, uttering, “Forsooth! I gaspeth for nicotine! Perchance if I sneaketh, I shalt findeth relief!”
There were some other boys who joined me in these antics, however to describe all the ways we boys kept ourselves entertained midst the discipline of that school would take a whole book. In this essay my main point is that I truly felt exalted, even though I made a joke of how uplifted I felt, with the other boys.
The uplifted feeling was something I could clearly notice, considering I was in withdrawal from all the druggie habits of my senior summer. I simply went cold-turkey the day I arrived at that school, without anyone knowing why I was a bit shaky. Soon I was craving the “high” I missed, and I would have certainly fallen off the wagon had any temptation been available, however no drugs were to be found at that school, (unless you count caffeine and nicotine.). Therefore any other sort of “natural high” was very noticeable, and as quenching as water in a desert. Interests in sports and study, which I’d lost when I became “mellow”, awoke from their coma, and studying Shakespeare provided one of the better “highs.”
It is humorous to me how completely my attitude could change, when I was young, without my feeling all that hypocritical. I could swing wildly from adamantly promoting one view to trashing that same view, hardly batting an eye. At times I confess it’s embarrassing to read the zeal with which I “proved” things were righteous. I went from anti-marijuana to pro-marijuana, and then back to anti-marijuana, without looking back much at all.
In some ways I suppose I was in good company: On the Road to Damascus Saint Paul had his epiphany, switching from a man who murdered Christians and wanted to wipe out the religion, to a man who did everything in his power to spread Christ’s teachings. However in other ways I was merely young and prone to being wildly enthusiastic about whatever captured my attention.
For a time I was so enthusiastic about Shakespeare that I set about proving he was the reason England went from being a backwater nation on the very fringe of Europe to a great empire, and went from having a mere collection of seafaring traders and pirates to being the world’s greatest navy. The dividing line seemed to be the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when Shakespeare was alive, and I could even imagine I could hear his words and imagine he was Queen Elizabeth’s speech-writer, when she spoke under the looming threat of Spanish invation. (I quote the entire speech in my prior post.) When I read the lines,
“I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm…”
To me that was pure Shakespeare. Nothing could be so grand, if it wasn’t Shakespeare. Just as Shakespeare lifted my spirits, and had me walking about saying, “Forsooth,” at odd moments of the day, he could uplift an entire nation of rascals and bandits to a people who, for a time, felt called to uplift the entire Earth like Atlas.
Of course, there were a few piffling details in the way of my theory. For example, Queen Elisabeth made her speech in 1588, and the whereabouts of Shakespeare are unknown, at that time. He first appears, in old papers, in 1592, as the butt of some humor on the part of Robert Greene, who, writing from his deathbed, suggests mere actors have no business pretending to be university-trained playwrights, and indirectly quotes Shakespeare’s “King Henry VI, Part 3,” which suggests Shakespeare was acting and writing in London before this date. However how long before?
To an imagination like mine, I could imagine Shakespeare traveling to and fro between London and his wife in Stratford-upon-Avon even before his twins were born in 1585. One legend dating back to the 1600’s states he got his start holding the horses for people attending the theater, and wormed his way in from there, rising from Stable Hand to Stage Hand to Actor to Writer to part owner of the Company and the Globe Theater.
However I was not so interested in his success and fame, as I was in what he was up to at age seventeen and age eighteen, as I passed through those ages. I learned he married a woman aged 26 when he was 18, and she had a child six months later, and I could add things up on my fingers and conclude it was likely a shotgun wedding, however the next decade, until he is mentioned by Robert Greene, were more or less a historical blank, for me to fill in as I saw fit.
Therefore I created my own story. I’m not sure what it would be called in terms of History, but if it was Science it would be called Science Fiction. I simply imagined him coming to London and, through the power of his luminous personality and lucid poetry, uplifting the city, the royalty, and the entire nation. It gave me a wonderful sense of power, to look at the tip of my own ball point pen, and imagine it too might be more mighty than the Marines.
However the piffling details kept niggling away at the back of my mind. Perhaps I was merely lonely for female companionship, at an all-boy-school, but I began to consider that it was Good Queen Bess, and not Shakespeare, who was the source of the national revival. After all, Shakespeare likely could not have flourished under other rulers of that time. Phillip in Spain took a dim view of bawdy elements of society, and likely would have vetoed Shakespeare’s Falstaff, as a character, and in essence would have castrated Shakespeare’s artistic balls. And who knows what Ivan the Terrible, in Russia, would have done to such an upstart?
I think I began to give Queen Elizabeth more credit when I started to read about all the interesting Elizabethan Characters she had at her court. She had all sorts of advisors, and also a way of mulling things over in a indecisive manner that frustrated Sir Walter Raleigh, who wanted decisive and drastic actions, and she irked others as well. However that same indecisiveness kept situations that were ready to explode from exploding. For example there was a civil war simmering, rooted in differences between Catholics and Protestants, but simply by forever hithering and dithering, and shoving pressing issues onto back burners, she kept the executions, (and the likely retaliations,) at a minimum, despite the fact there were plots against her life, (among some Puritans, as well as most Catholics,) as long as she lived. By delaying, delaying, delaying, she kept some ugly things from ever happening, and when there is less oppression there is more Freedom.
One thing she seemed good at was appealing to the heart. As a young poet, I found this very attractive, and much different from the male idea of politics, with all its plotting and strategy, and its miser-like emphasis on facts and figures, imports and exports, alliances and double-dealing. Good Queen Bess seemed to cut through all that malarkey.
To me it explained why so many good men were attracted to her service. Between the greater freedom she allowed, and the way she inspired men to be manly, quite a cast of characters came and went through her court, irregardless of Shakespeare’s stage at the Globe Theater, and the characters he devised.
One real-life character that really caught my fancy was Sir Francis Drake. The voyage of the Golden Hind between 1577 and 1580 is one of the best tales sailors can tell, and the simple fact Drake returned so loaded with loot that each investor got a return of roughly 25 times what they invested makes a pleasing ending.
The simple fact that epic voyage ended when Shakespeare was only sixteen makes it very hard to give Shakespeare credit for a voyage that was beyond doubt grand and poetic, and in some ways very English.
Even the Spanish were in awe of Drake, who they dubbed “The Dragon.” One of Spain’s greater mistake was to deem such a man as a person not worth dealing with, and instead worth inhibiting, when he was young. However he did not play by their rules, and they figured they had the power, and he could be removed from the picture. They had no idea who they were antagonizing.
The simple fact Queen Elizabeth didn’t try to control and chain men like Drake, allowed such men not merely the freedom to break Spanish Law and be pirates, but also the freedom to innovate better ship building and faster ships, while the Spanish were stuck in their rules and traditions. Just as Shakespeare hugely changed drama, Drake hugely changed the navy.
The interesting conclusion from all this is that the renaissance of poetry, thought and power that uplifted England was not so much due to what Queen Elizabeth did, but what she didn’t do. This is one thing people in power seem to forget, over and over and over again. For it is not Shakespeare, nor Drake, nor Good Queen Bess, that can claim credit for the power of poetry, and the power that can raise a backwater nation to the heights of glory.
It is an intangible thing, greater than any single person, which we but vaguely trace a fleeting outline of, when we use a word like, “Freedom.”