Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

“The Stone Guest” by Alexander Pushkin

[All excerpts below taken from the translation by Nancy K. Anderson, published by Yale University Press, 2000.]

Pushkin seemed to have had Mozart on his mind around 1830, when he wrote those four miniature plays, usually known in English as the “Little Tragedies”. In one of these plays, Mozart and Salieri – a dramatic treatment of the myth that Salieri had poisoned Mozart, and written long before Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus –  Mozart himself is one of the protagonists. Another deals with a myth that, by then, was very much associated with Mozart – the myth of Don Juan. But, as with everyone else who had tackled this myth (including its originator, Tirso de Molina), Pushkin had his own individual view of the myth. And, partly because the form of Pushkin’s work – a miniature play in which, given its brevity, much is necessarily left unsaid – it is Pushkin’s view that I find the most enigmatic and elusive of those I have so far encountered.

Tirso de Molina had not made too much of the master-servant relationship. Molière, and, following him, Mozart and da Ponte, had, bringing this relationship to the front of the stage. Pushkin also brings the master and the servant (the servant here called Leporello, as in Mozart’s opera) to the forefront: the drama begins with the two of them entering Madrid, even though Don Juan has previously been banished from the city. The conversation between the two is partly expository – telling us what we need to know for the drama to make sense; but it is not entirely expository. Just minutes into the play, for instance, we get this:

DON JUAN (pensively): …    Poor Inez!
She’s gone now! How I loved her!

LEPORELLO: Inez! The black-eyed one … Now I remember,
For three months you were paying court
To her; it was all the devil could do to help.

DON JUAN: July it was … at night. I found strange pleasure
In gazing at her sorrowful eyes
And death-pale lips. It’s strange,
You apparently didn’t think she was
A beauty. And in fact, there wasn’t
Much beautiful about her. Her eyes,
Just her eyes. And her glance … I’ve never seen
Another glance like that. And her voice
Was quiet, feeble – like a sick woman’s –
Her husband was a worthless wretch, and stern –
I found that out too late – Poor Inez!…

With all its various ellipses and aposiopeses, the effect of this passage is sketchy – an adumbration rather than a depiction. Inez was no beauty in any conventional sense, and her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”, and her voice that was “quiet, feeble”, suggest something sickly, other-worldly, and haunted by death. She is not, in short, the type of woman we would expect Don Juan to be attracted to; and, indeed, Don Juan himself is not sure why he had been attracted to her. In Mozart’s opera, Don Juan (or Don Giovanni) would seduce (or rape, if needs be) all kinds of women, simply to add them to his list, but what we see here is something new, something very alien to the incarnations of Don Juan as imagined by either de Molina, or by Molière, or by Mozart: we see here a Don Juan capable of genuine tenderness and affection. True, the other Don Juans could express tenderness and affection for the woman they are wooing at the time, but never for a past conquest; and it is left to us to determine how sincere their protestations of tenderness and affections are, and, indeed, whether such feelings can be said to exist at all when they are, at best, merely transient. But Pushkin leaves us in no doubt: this Don Juan is indeed capable of feeling these emotions, even for a woman who is now, presumably, dead.

And neither was Don Juan attracted to Inez because of her beauty. Leporello did not think her beautiful, and Don Juan agrees. Whatever attracted him, it was not her physical charms. And what he chooses to remember about her are those death-haunted qualities – her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”. All of this suggests a rich inner world that previous Don Juans did not have. But then, almost immediately, Pushkin pulls us up short: the last two lines of the passage quoted suggest – only suggest, as nothing is spelt out – that Inez was murdered by her husband for her affair with Don Juan. If this was indeed the case, Don Juan had played a significant part in her tragedy, and, especially given how he still feels about her, he should feel guilt, and remorse. And yet, he doesn’t. Immediately after this rather affecting minor key passage, without so much as pausing for breath, Pushkin turns the tonality to a major key, and the rhythm becomes jaunty, as Don Juan and Leporello move on to talk about further conquests. Yes, Pushkin had Mozart on the mind, right enough.

This passage about Inez cannot be described as “expository”, as Inez is not mentioned again in the play. The entire section could have been taken out without affecting our understanding of what happens. But that minor key tonality it imparts, if only for a few bars, colours everything that comes afterwards. And it leaves us with a strange impression of Don Juan: he is a man clearly capable of introspection and tenderness and depth of feeling, who can be drawn to qualities other than mere external charm, and yet who bears no responsibility for the past, no guilt for his actions. He had, in the past, before the curtain raises on this play, killed the Commander, for reasons and in circumstances both left unspecified. But, once again, there is not the slightest hint in him of remorse: rather than feel sorry for the man he had killed, it is his widow, Doña Ana, who now interests him. The past is buried, and not allowed to interfere with the joys of the present.

In the second of the four scenes that make up this play, we are introduced to, in effect, a female equivalent of Don Juan, the actress Laura, who, like her male counterpart, demands complete freedom to pursue her desires. If Don Juan feels no responsibility for the past, Laura, only eighteen, and, hence, without much of a past to speak of, feels none for the future. When reminded that some day she too will be old, her reaction is:

…  Then? Why should
I think of that? What talk is this?

But even in those eighteen years, she had been Don Juan’s lover, and, in this scene, Don Juan comes back to visit her once again. This is yet another departure from previous incarnations of Don Juans: previous Don Juans did not care for their past lovers, their past conquests – they were always moving onwards to new experiences. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: he may not take responsibility for the past, and may refuse to feel any guilt that may interfere with his enjoyment of the present, but that past, nonetheless, is never dead for him.

In Laura’s apartment, Don Juan is challenged to a duel by a Don Carlos, whose brother Don Juan had previously killed in duel. (Whether or not Don Carlos’ dead brother is the Commander, we are never told.) Don Juan does not want to fight in Laura’s room, but he is given no choice. Of course, he kills Don Carlos. As in Molière’s play, Pushkin had placed the killing of the Commander before the play opens, but while Molière had done this to make Don Juan a more likeable character, Pushkin has no such intention: the killing of Don Carlos takes place in full view on stage, and, while it can certainly be argued that Don Juan was given no choice in the matter, we cannot but note the utter lack of remorse, or even of regret, either on his part, or on Laura’s. It has happened, it is now in the past, and responsibility for past actions, or guilt for past crimes, must not be allowed to interfere with the demands of the present.

And yet the past cannot be forgotten. There, it seems to me, is the paradox at the heart of this strange and elusive work. To enjoy the present, to seize the moment, the past must be forgotten; and yet, the past cannot be forgotten: the death-like pallor of Inez continues to haunt.

This paradox forces itself into the forefront of the action in the final scene. Here, Don Juan, having declared his love for Doña Ana under the assumed name of Don Diego, has been invited into her chamber. And, on the very brink of attaining his desire, he does the very thing that is most likely to thwart it: he admits that Don Diego is but an assumed name, and that he is really Don Juan, the killer of her husband. It is a startling moment, and not something I can claim fully to understand. It seems an inexplicable thing to do, and certainly not something that the Don Juans of de Molina,  Molière, or Mozart would have done. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: however he may try  to bury the past, to expunge it from his mind so he does not have to bear its burden, it refuses to remain hidden: it must out. And, in this startling final scene, it erupts unexpectedly into the open.

And at this point, the statue of the Commander comes to drag Don Juan into Hell. It is impossible not to see the stone statue at this point in symbolic terms. What does he represent? For surely, he must represent something: he is not just an optional add-on, present merely because the story demands it. The title of Pushkin’s play is not, after all, Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, or The Trickster of Seville: it is The Stone Guest. It is the statue, the title reminds us, and not Don Juan, who is at the centre of things, and it is up to us to understand the significance of this statue.

The obvious response is that he is the past that Don Juan had tried to deny – the responsibility he had shirked, the guilt he had buried, but which refuses to remain buried. Seen in this respect, we can find significance in the fact that he is of stone, the very antithesis of the flesh and blood that lives for the moment; we may find significance also in the fact that it is Don Juan who had invited him; or in the fact that the statue of the Commander is considerably larger than the Commander had been when he had lived.

All of this makes for a coherent reading, no doubt, but it strikes me as unsatisfactory, as it reduces the poetic richness of the work to mere allegory, and symbols rich with meaning into impoverished ciphers. In these cases, it seems to me best to not interpret at all, but, rather, instead of trying to winkle out what these symbols and the poetic images may mean, to take them at face value, and allow them to resonate in one’s mind.

I can’t say this play has settled yet in my mind. But it does continue to resonate, and I do sense there is more substance here than can be conveyed by any interpretation I may have to offer. Pushkin seemed to see this myth in terms of the past, and of the burden of guilt for that past that we try to keep submerged, but which we cannot keep from irrupting into the present.

At least, that’s the way I see it right now: I’m sure that the longer I ponder on it, the more meanings it will continue to yield. It is, as I said, the most enigmatic and elusive of all the Don Juans I have encountered so far.

A sentimental post to start the year

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

There comes a time in middle age when the Ghosts of one’s Christmases Past begin to outnumber even the most optimistic of estimates of the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. Since I have long passed that tipping point, and the weight of Christmases Past lies so heavily in the balance, I trust I may be excused for focusing on the former rather than on the latter. And as I do so, it is hard not to feel, as Wordsworth did, that there has indeed passed away a glory from the world. Now, before I am accused of sentimentality – as is usually the case when I try to speak of such matters – let me expand a little.

Something has changed – something is very different now from what it had been in our childhood years, and the difference, as any smug commentator will tell you, is in what has changed in ourselves rather than in the outside world. Wordsworth – never the sentimentalist despite ignorant claims to the contrary – recognized this. The innocent brightness of a new-born day, he knew, is lovely yet. There’s no point asking where is fled that visionary gleam: it’s still there – we just can’t perceive it any more, and that’s all. It’s the way things are: no point lamenting the inevitable. But Wordsworth himself, though determined to find strength in what remains, could not help lamenting. We cannot, after all, stop feeling things merely because “there’s no point to it”.

One of the most touching of these laments is the poem “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, written in the darkest days of 1915, when he was an old man of seventy-five years, and when Europe, as if justifying the prophetic pessimism he had expressed in his novels years earlier, was in the process of tearing itself apart. In this wonderfully touching poem, Hardy looks back on childhood innocence and naivety; but the poem is not really about either: it is about one’s longing for a time when such innocence and naivety had been possible. There may not be any point to such longing, but we feel a great many things that have no point to them. That such longing is futile does not make it ridiculous, but, rather, imbues it with a profound sadness.

I find a similar lament in a piece that is often regarded merely as candy-coated decorative fluff – in the score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It is, of course, a perennial Christmas favourite, to be wheeled out every year along with the crackers, the Christmas tree, the mince pies, and the Dickens; and few, I think, will deny its charm. But what frequently is denied is its profundity. Tchaikovsky himself, we are told, considered the subject matter to be too light, and although, being a consummate professional, he gave it his finest craftsmanship, what he withheld was his artistry. It is merely decorative, merely a bit of fluff.

I have never been able to reconcile myself to this view, as I find the music genuinely and very deeply moving. I can’t deny that it is full of music that is decorative; neither can I deny that its subject – a Christmas Party, a child’s subsequent entry into a world of fairy tales, and her journey to the Kingdom of Sweets – is very slight, even, perhaps, trivial. But I was very interested to read recently this excellent piece by music critic Gavin Plumley, in which he argues that The Nutcracker is a piece that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s initial feelings about the nature of his commission, he argues, the composition of the piece was taken very seriously indeed, and not merely in terms of craftsmanship.

Although it’s always dangerous relating a work of art to the artist’s biography, it was good to have confirmation of what seems to me obvious from the music – that, far from being decorative fluff, it is a serious and deeply felt work, and a response to an emotionally shattering event (the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister). As Plumley puts it, “The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested”. But what exactly those “larger questions” are is not obvious, and different listeners will have different views on this.

To me, these larger questions are not about mortality: Tchaikovsky kept that for his 6th symphony, a work that, for me, in many ways complements The Nutcracker. Neither is The Nutcracker, as is often suggested, about Clara’s progress from childhood to womanhood: true, the nutcracker become a handsome prince, but I can detect no eroticism in the music, nor any indication of Clara’s sexual awakening. Indeed, she and the Nutcracker Prince go to the Kingdom of Sweets, which hardly suggests leaving childhood behind. These are not what I see in this piece, although what I do see seems difficult to articulate.

One thing that never ceases to strike me about the score (the full score, that is, and not the series of bleeding chunks that form the suite) is a sense of tenderness, a sense of yearning, and a profound melancholy that seems quite at odds with its alleged light-hearted fluffiness. Is there anything in all music that is more tender or yearning than that beautiful passage at the start of the forest scene towards the end of Act One? Or what about the passionate longing in the Act Two pas de deux? (“How is it possible to make so much just out of a simple descending scale?” Britten had wondered.) The underlying seriousness of passages such as this bleeds, as it were, into the rest of the score, infusing even the most joyous of numbers, the most seemingly uncomplicated of childlike dances, with a sense of something more deeply felt – something more deeply interfused, as Wordsworth might have said.

The Nutcracker depicts childhood innocence and naivety, but, as with Hardy’s poem, these are not, for me at least, its central themes: at the centre of this piece there is, I think, our adult longing for childhood innocence and naivety. And this longing, Tchaikovsky knew as well as did Wordsworth or Hardy, is futile: no matter how fervently we may long, we can never return to our childhood state. Indeed, this state of blissful innocence may never really have existed in the first place. But that does not prevent us from longing for it. It is this sense of futility of such longing that infuses this otherwise joyous music with so profound an underlying sense of sadness: I find it almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. Longing for something that can never be attained is a familiar Romantic trope: in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, this longing was for erotic fulfilment; here, it is for a childhood that is for ever gone.

That, at least, is how it seems to me. Underlying the joyous festivities of The Nutcracker (for it is indeed joyous), I seem to hear a lament similar to what I find in so much of Wordworth’s poetry, or in Hardy’s “The Oxen”.

Tchaikovsky’s next great masterpiece, his last, was his 6th symphony – an unblinking stare into the face of death itself, and among the most shattering of any works of art, in any medium. If The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s Song of Innocence (albeit innocence seen from the perspective of experience), his 6th symphony is his Song of Experience. They are two very different works of, for me, comparable artistic stature. While one looks back at the Christmases Past, evoking its joys but imbuing these same joys with the profound sadness for that which is lost, the other looks heroically and unflinchingly at what is Yet to Come. As another poet put it, we look before and after, and pine for what is not.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Translating poetry

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.


Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.


The passages quoted above have one thing in common: they are all poetry in translation. The first, is, of course, from the Song of Solomon in the King James Bible, and, though formally set out in prose, is, effectively, poetry: few, I imagine, will deny its poetic qualities. For the second excerpt, I have chosen two of the most famous stanzas of all English poetry – except, of course, it’s Persian poetry: the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. My third choice, a magnificent poem in any language, is Yeats’ rendition of a chorus from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. I think it fair to say that English literature – by which I mean literature in the English language, rather than literature originating from England – would have been immeasurably poorer without any of the above.

In my last post here on translations, I focussed on certain aspects of poetry that resist translation, and may have given the impression that translation of poetry is not possible, and should not even be attempted. If that is indeed the impression I have given, it was entirely inadvertent on my part, and I apologise. The quote attributed to Robert Frost – that poetry is “what gets lost in translation” – is, Tom from the Amateur Reader blog tells me, a misquote; but, misquote or not, it does, I think, articulate part of the truth: there certainly are aspects of poetry that, for various reasons, resist translation. This is, possibly, particularly true of lyric poetry, where, to a great extent, much of the meaning is rooted in the actual sounds of the words, i.e. the very thing that is specific to a particular language. But while this misquote of Frost’s may articulate part of the truth, it is very far from articulating the whole truth; for it is demonstrable that poetry in translation can be of a very high quality, and can, as the above excerpts illustrate, become great poetry in its own right.

In short, the statement attributed to Robert Frost should not deter us from reading poetry in translation. If one wishes to have a grasp of 19th century French literature, say, one needs as much acquaintance with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud as one does with Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert; Pushkin’s verse is every bit as important as Tolstoy’s novels, and Rilke every bit as important as Mann. To miss out on such great pillars of Western literature as Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Goethe, etc. is to leave massive holes (assuming holes can have mass, which, I realise even as I am writing, they cannot) in one’s grasp of what literature is; and the innumerable lesser pillars are also worth pursuing, and getting to know.

Having dabbled a bit at translating poetry myself, I have come across a few conclusions about the nature of the English language, and what it can, and cannot, convey. For the purpose of translating poetry is, after all, to create poetry in the target language: if a translation of a poem into English does not read like a poem in English, then no-one will read it, and the translator will have fallen at the first hurdle. But I do sometimes wonder whether my conclusions are correct. For instance, I had decided quite early that English cannot take too much alliteration – that if one overdoes the alliteration, one simply sounds contrived, and a bit silly. Shakespeare himself, after all, had taken the piss out of excessive alliteration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.

But if it is indeed true that the English language cannot take too much alliteration, it is hard to explain why lines such as the following, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the “Deutschland”, should be so powerful and affecting, and so self-evidently great poetry:

I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.


Of course, Shakespeare’s lines are, intentionally, bad poetry, whereas Hopkins’ lines clearly aren’t, but since insistent alliteration is common to both, it cannot be that alliteration in itself determines the quality of the verse. There’s something else there – but damned if I can see what it is. Perhaps what makes poetry great is a mystery that ultimately defies analysis, but there is no reason why a good translator should not be capable of creating a mystery in the target language that is equivalent to the mystery created by the poet in the original. At the very least, Edward Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, and the anonymous translators of the King James Bible, demonstrate that it is, at least, possible.

“What is poetry?” revisited

I can’t really remember who it was who said “If I think today what I thought yesterday, I haven’t been thinking in the meantime”. Maybe no-one said it. Maybe it’s one of those made-up quotes attributed to some famous name, like Einstein say, who, if the internet is to be believed, spent so much time making up smartarse lines that it’s a wonder he had any time left over to think about relativity and the like. But whether it’s a real quote or not, there’s more than an element of truth in it: I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who looks over past posts and thinks “No – that really won’t do will it?”

It was this post in particular that caught my eye lately, and stirred my disapproval of what I used once to think. To save you clicking on it, I had tried to answer the question “What is poetry?” and arrived at the conclusion that whereas prose is writing in units of sentences, poetry is writing in units of lines that may cut across sentences. And there I left it. I suppose that is right as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere near far enough. For it does not address the question of why we may think of certain passages of prose – in units of sentences, as specified –as nonetheless poetic.

And neither does it address
Why this writing, written
In units of lines
Will nonetheless fail, quite
Rightly, to convince most readers
That it is indeed

No, there’s something more to it than this. I’m not entirely sure what, but let us try, in the spirit of enquiry, to see if we can at least come close to an answer.

The first question that occurs to me is: Why write in units of lines anyway when writing in units if sentences makes so much more sense? The answer to that is, I suppose, that by writing in units of lines, the rhythm of each individual line becomes more prominent, and the words placed at the start and at the end of each line are given greater weight. And if we further ask why the rhythm of individual lines should matter, or why we should wish to give greater weight to certain words, the answer surely is not merely expressivity, but, more fully, an expressivity that prose, written in units of sentences, cannot usually give us.

Based on this, I’ll try, very tentatively, a definition of poetry that has nothing to do with such mundane matters as the units in which it is written:

Poetry is writing in which language is manipulated in such a way as it make it express things that, were it not for this manipulation, it would not be able to express.

By this definition, the third chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses is pure poetry; and my broken-up piece of prose above (which I nonetheless insist is far more poetic than much that passes for poetry on the net these days) isn’t.

But what kind of “manipulation”? A few come to mind:

– A focus on rhythms and sonorities, on the patterns made by the sounds of the words as well as the on what the words mean
– Connotative as well as denotative meanings of words
– The manipulation of syntax to give greater emphasis to certain words or phrases
– Imagery – i.e. attaching to certain things certain ideas, or certain concepts

o allowing a single thing to become attached to various different ideas or concepts, so that their common attachment to this single thing brings them together

o juxtaposing different things with different ideas or concepts attached to them, so that these ideas and concepts may then flow into each other

And so on. There are many, many more modes of manipulation – as many as there are poets to imagine them. And the purpose of all this manipulation is to force language to yield meanings that it would not have been able to yield were it restricted merely to dictionary definitions of words. Indeed, in poetry, the dictionary definitions are sometimes the least important elements. It is not to decry analysis to say that a poem can bypass analysis, or even thought about the literal meanings, to make its effect on the reader.

It may be objected that my new definition of poetry could be applied to prose as well as to poetry. To which I’d reply: “Yes, precisely.”

Blessed if I understand

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
– From “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My travails with Donne as recorded in my previous post, and, more especially, a Facebook conversation I subsequently had regarding that post, raise some wider interesting questions on how we understand poetry, and, indeed, art in general.

My own academic background is in science and mathematics, and, at least to the levels I attained, understanding in those areas is a very precise thing: each symbol in each equation or formula is precisely defined, and the relationship between these precisely defined symbols is itself precisely defined, and the scientific mind is trained to understand each of these things precisely, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Even where the formula denotes uncertainty – the famous Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, say – there is a precisely defined limit on the product of the uncertainties involved. When trying to absorb anything of a mathematical nature, to come to an understanding, one has to understand precisely what each of the elements means, and then understand, again precisely, how they come together, and relate to each other. Now, clearly, this is not the way we take in poetry, which, as T. S. Eliot once said, is something that can be appreciated even before it is understood. There are a great many poems that I love greatly, that haunt my mind, but which I would be at a loss to explain in clear terms: like this poem by Yeats, for instance. Unlike Heisenberg’s formula that puts limits on the product of the standard deviations of the momentum and position of a particle, there seems no limit here even to the myriad uncertainties. Could I explain what is meant by the “gong-tormented sea”? No, not really. It seems to make its impact not at the level of consciousness, exposed to light and to precision, but rather at some mysterious subterranean level of the mind.

All of this makes it difficult to talk about poetry. To define precisely each term, and explain how everything fits together to cohere into a whole, seems to be missing the point. And yet, merely to say how wonderful it is without expanding on what it is that makes it wonderful seems mere pointless burbling.

It is at this point that a scientifically trained mind unsympathetic to the claims of poetry is likely to ask how, if understanding at a conscious level is not the point, one may distinguish between poetry and gibberish. The cynic may say there is no difference, but that won’t do: Yeats’ “Byzantium”, no matter how obscure, is a work of art, and a very great one at that, whereas a few random words and phrases that I may put together is unlikely to be, and there must be some reason for this. Nonetheless, a poem is not a mathematical formula, or a crossword puzzle awaiting a solution: obscurities in a poem are to be absorbed, not explained away, as any explanation is likely to be facile and reductive. Some years ago, I confessed on this blog that I was still “puzzled” by Moby-Dick, but even as I was writing this, I knew I was meant to be puzzled – that, paradoxically, if I wasn’t puzzled, that could only mean that I hadn’t taken it in at all adequately.

Bearing all this in mind, I have to ask myself whether my confessed befuddlement with Donne’s poetry is but an indication that I have been approaching it wrongly – whether, indeed, my desire to “understand” is itself misplaced, and an unfortunate by-product of my scientific background. Although I am not entirely sure on the matter, I am inclined to think not, as my puzzlement relates not to that which lies hidden deep below the surface, but to the surface itself. My puzzlement is not akin to my wondering what the White Whale represents, but, rather, to my not even getting in the first place that Ahab is hunting the White Whale. In short, my lack of understanding, so far, is on a very basic level – too basic, indeed, even to be recorded in a blog that, I like to flatter myself, is sophisticated and cultured. Or something like that.

But I trust that it won’t take me too long to get to a level where I can, at least, grasp the surface. And then will come the really difficult bit.

Trying to read Donne

Monarchs aren’t often renowned for their wit, but if James I really did speak the line attributed him, that “Dr Donne’s verses are like the peace of God: they pass all understanding”, then he was spot on.

I have been acquainted – though no more than acquainted – with some of Donne’s more famous verses. Over the last two weeks or so, I have tried to come to a better understanding, and come closer to these works than a mere casual acquaintance can allow. Donne is, after all, indisputably among the major poets in the English language, and it is absurd that anyone with any interest at all in English literature should be so ignorant of his verse as I am. The project to become better acquainted with this body of work has not, at least in the early stages, gone too well: his sensibilities seem very alien to my own (which is perhaps why it has taken me so long to get round to a serious study of his works), and I find it difficult, often impossible, to follow his train of thought. His mind seems to make leaps that leave my mind bewildered; he finds relationships between object and thought and between thought and image that seem to me to make little sense. I feel like a dull-brained Polonius as a sharp-witted Hamlet is running rings around me: if only I can come to some understanding of those damn rings he is making – and why he is making them in the first place!

Not that I am giving up: these are but early days. But I don’t think I have come across any other major poet whose works have eluded me so – not even T. S. Eliot in his most inscrutable Four Quartets mode. In poem after poem, Donne puzzles me, and seems to laugh at my befuddlement. There are many examples I could give, but let me focus on the elegy titled “The Bracelet”, which strikes me as particularly opaque. The opening eight lines run thus:

NOT that in colour it was like thy hair,
For armlets of that thou mayst let me wear;
Nor that thy hand it oft embraced and kiss’d,
For so it had that good, which oft I miss’d;
Nor for that silly old morality,
That, as these links were knit, our love should be,
Mourn I that I thy sevenfold chain have lost;
Nor for the luck sake; but the bitter cost.

The first two lines refer to a motif that recurs quite frequently in Donne’s – the bracelet he wore around his arm of his lover’s hair. But the syntax of the sentence, that spans the first eight lines, is such that we do not know what the “it” is that he refers to in the first line until we get to the seventh: this “it” is, we then find, a “sevenfold chain”, the colour of his love’s hair (which, we may infer from the context, is the colour of gold). And it is only at this point that are we told that the poet has lost this chain, and is mourning this loss. Once we read these lines over again, they certainly make sense; but what should pass through the reader’s mind when reading these opening lines for the first time? What should the reader be thinking, or feeling, or sensing, or intuiting, as Donne spends six lines listing the various reasons he is not mourning something, even before the object of his mourning, or even before the very theme of mourning itself, is so much as mentioned? Speaking for myself, I was bewildered. Only when I read the seventh line did the first six lines fall into place, and I had, of course, to go back and read them over. But by this stage, the spontaneity of response – which has always seemed to me an important element in reading poetry – was no longer there.

But as soon as this is clarified, Donne introduces an ambivalence: the cost. This could be the cost of the chain that he has lost; or it could be the cost that is a consequence of the loss. It could be a straight-forward monetary cost, or, more likely, an emotional, or even perhaps a spiritual cost. All possibilities are tantalisingly present. And there is, I think, a further ambivalence: the object that he has lost is referred to not as a “bracelet”, but as a “chain”; so is this the bracelet of the title? Or could the bracelet of the title be the strands of his lover’s hair tied around his arm that he mentions in the first line? For, after all, why mention so striking a detail at the very outset if it is to play no further part in the poem?

Fine, let us move on. In the next two lines, we get this:

O, shall twelve righteous angels, which as yet
No leaven of vile solder did admit;

This sudden leap – for I can only see it as such – is very characteristic of Donne. Who are these twelve righteous angels? The footnotes refer to the twelve righteous angels guarding Jerusalem, as mentioned in the Book of Revelations, 21.12. I have actually read the Book of Revelations, but I am not so great a Bible scholar that I could instantly relate this line of Donne’s to this reference: I am grateful indeed for the footnotes for directing me. But I am still at a loss on how these righteous angels, Book of Revelations or no, relate to the first eight lines. The footnotes also tell me that gold coins worth ten shillings had depicted on one side the angel Michael slaying the dragon. Fair enough – but how do I knit all of this together? Are we to assume that the chain he has lost consisted of twelve of these coins linked together? I can’t see any other way of linking this ninth line to the eight previous ones. And even if I were to make this connection – which may or may not be what Donne had intended – the significance of reference to the guardian angels of is not obvious: maybe the angels on the coins making up this chain are to be seen as guarding the poet from harm, much as the angels from the Book of Revelations had guarded Jerusalem from harm. A great many conjectures and wild guesses in all this, but let us go on:

No leaven of vile solder did admit;

I think that’s clear enough – the gold of this chain, or of the coins possibly making up this chain, was pure, and has not been debased by “vile solder”. But “leaven” is a curious word to choose here; it is clearly a Biblical word, and the footnotes guide me to various verses in the Bible where the word is used. I look them up, but I can’t say they help me come closer to Donne’s intent. And nor do the lines that follow:

Nor yet by any way have stray’d or gone
From the first state of their creation;
Angels, which heaven commanded to provide
All things to me, and be my faithful guide;
To gain new friends, to appease great enemies;
To comfort my soul, when I lie or rise;
Shall these twelve innocents, by thy severe
Sentence, dread judge, my sin’s great burden bear?
Shall they be damn’d, and in the furnace thrown,
And punish’d for offences not their own?
They save not me, they do not ease my pains,
When in that hell they’re burnt and tied in chains.

So I was right in thinking that those twelve angels are seen, figuratively at least, as the poet’s own guardian angels. But why the loss of this chain should condemn these innocent angels to eternal damnation I cannot imagine. And I don’t think Donne is joking here: he would surely have taken matters of the soul and of eternal damnation rather seriously. I am obviously missing much here, and it bothers me that I have not the faintest idea of what it is I am missing.

And so the poem continues, over 100 lines, making leaps from one thing to the next while leaving behind no traceable connection, forcing together recondite thoughts, spraying out Biblical references at every opportunity. It is, I admit, tempting to say at this point that Donne is not for me – that his sensitivity, his perspective on life and on the world, are too far removed from mine; but I am not giving up so easily. Familiarity breeds understanding, after all, and I am determined to carry on familiarising myself with this poetry so that, even if I myself never become an aficionado, I can at least understand why others are.

The Peace of God may well pass all understanding, but it’s worth making the effort to have a bit of it nonetheless.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a review of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Christopher Lushcombe, seen as a live cinema broadcast on February 11th, 2015.

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an relatively early play, and not among Shakespeare’s best-known, but I find myself loving it and revisiting it far more often than many of Shakespeare’s better-known comedies, such as, say, Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. This could perhaps be something to do with the fact that this was the first play I ever saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: the production I saw back then (nearly 37 years ago now) was directed by John Barton, and it seemed to me then and seems to me still – although I do realise that memory can play tricks on these matters – nothing short of perfection. However, I don’t want to turn into one of those boring old farts for whom nothing modern can ever match the glories of the past: at least, I don’t want to assume such a posture on all matters. For in the matter of theatrical productions of Shakespeare, the quality, to judge from the Henry IV plays I saw in Stratford-on-Avon last year, seems to be as high as it ever was.

But it’s a difficult play to bring off, partly because Shakespeare more or less abandoned here the idea of plot, and also because so much of its effect depends on dizzying wordplay of a sort likely to lose a modern audience. Indeed, one can’t help wondering how much of this wordplay would have been picked up even by Shakespeare’s own audience: a line such as Berowne’s “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile” can yield multiple meanings when pondered at one’s leisure in one’s study, but delivered at the speed of sound in the theatre, it’s difficult to get little more than merely the sound of the words.

Of course, it can be said that a line such as Berowne’s is more clever than poetic: it is an extremely intelligent person showing off, exhibiting but a facility with words, a verbal agility, an ability to exploit multiple levels of meaning; it is a self-conscious performance rather than anything very deeply felt. And I can’t help speculating whether the young Shakespeare may have felt this about himself. He must surely have known that he had a greater command of the English language than did any of his contemporaries, or even, for that matter, any of his predecessors; he knew that words obeyed his call. Did he perhaps worry, I wonder, whether this prodigious ability led not to an engagement with reality, but to an escape from it? That, instead of grappling with the seriousness of life, he was merely playing smartarse word games? I usually try not to speculate on authors’ biographies in this manner, but the reason I can’t help doing so on this occasion is that this is, it seems to me, one of the major themes of this play: Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to me very deeply concerned about the uses to which language is put. Through most of this play, we get dizzyingly clever wordplay, and exuberant verbal games; we also get some of the most exquisite and soaring love poetry; but, in the final section, something extraordinary happens. Just as the play seems to be hurtling to its merry and jovial conclusion, with the men all neatly paired off with the ladies, a messenger enters:


MERCADE     God save you, madam!

PRINCESS     Welcome, Mercade;
But that thou interrupt’st our merriment.

MERCADE     I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The king your father–

PRINCESS     Dead, for my life!

MERCADE     Even so; my tale is told.

And that’s it. Within just a few seconds, the tonality changes beyond all recognition. The high spirits and the exuberance that we had all been enjoying till now gives way to more sombre hues; faced with the implacable fact of mortality, these characters now have to put away their childish things, and learn to grapple with sickness, with grief, and with the impermanence of life itself. I think it’s one of the most wonderful moments in all Shakespeare.

But it is not a tragic ending. Paradise isn’t lost: it’s merely deferred. And when that paradise eventually comes, when Jack finally has Jill, both Jack and Jill may perhaps see the world in a more mature light; although, as Berowne sadly says, “that’s too long for a play”.

The final scene is one of veiled melancholy, of a growing awareness that sadness, like joy, is also a part of life, and cannot be banished. In The Taming of the Shrew, it had been the wife who had been educated by the husband; here, it’s the men who are educated by the ladies. It is the ladies who urge the men to delay the marriages by a year. And Rosaline specifically asks Berowne to leave behind his frivolous games, and tend the sick:

ROSALINE     You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

BEROWNE     To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

I can never quite satisfy myself with mere analysis just what it is about these lines I find so moving. Is it perhaps a recognition of loss? – a loss of something that cannot be recovered? For, once one is aware of the complexities of life, of all its dark shadows and its miseries, what price mirth? What good is it, when it has no power to move a soul in agony? Where is gone all the unfettered joy and the exuberance? Are all these, too, childish things that must be put away?

These questions aren’t answered: all that’s too long for a play, after all. This play comes to an end not with the characters becoming more mature, but with their realisation that, far from shutting themselves away from life, as they had planned to do at the opening of the play, they have now to engage with it. And, after all the linguistic virtuosity, the play ends with two very simple lyrics – homely songs, with everyday words, and images drawn from everyday life – such as maidens bleaching their summer smocks, or icicles hanging by the wall. We seem as far from the start of the play as it is possible to be: words are now used not for playing clever games, but for grappling with what is real.

Grappling with all this in a performance, however, is a tall order, and I hope it isn’t seen as a backhanded compliment when I say this production nearly succeeds. It is the first of two related productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this season – the second being Love’s Labour’s Won, a title one could search for in vain in Shakespeare’s Collected Works. It is known that a play with this title did indeed exist, but it is probably lost; or, conceivably, it could be the play we now know as Much Ado About Nothing. The Royal Shakespeare Company goes with the latter conjecture, and presents the two plays in tandem with much the same cast, and with Rosaline and Berowne transformed in the later play into Beatrice and Benedick. There is a further conceit in these productions: the two plays are both located in an English country house – the first before World War One, and the second after. I am not sure how this will work in Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won): that has not been broadcast in the cinemas yet; but I wasn’t, I admit, entirely convinced in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There is, after all, no mention in the text of any impending war, and the four men appearing at the end in military uniform seemed to me incongruous with the text of the play. And further, given what we know about the carnage that was WW1, it added a note of the tragic, which rather drowned out any sense of delicate and wistful melancholy.

Of course, one could say that the delicate and wistful melancholy is but my own interpretation, and that other possible interpretations can also be valid. I don’t dispute that. But, having read through the play again after seeing this production, I could not at any point find anything to justify an interpretation that sees this ending as tragic. For why should it be? The men aren’t really going to war – there’s no mention of it; and neither are the marriages cancelled – they’re merely postponed. At the end, Berowne reflects that Jack hath not Jill, and, when reminded that Jack has not lost Jill for ever, comments “that’s too long for a play”. This comment is a bit sad, perhaps, and wistful, and half-humorous; but what it isn’t, I think, is tragic: Berowne’s disappointment – and it is no more than that – is not devoid of hope. However, in this production, it was delivered while holding back sobs, and I really can’t see any justification in the text for delivering it in this manner.

The final songs as well, distinguished from the rest of the play by their extreme simplicity of diction, were performed here as a big musical number. It is all very well done, as indeed are all the other musical numbers. (This production, incidentally, is full of music, and it is all delightfully scored and performed.) But the simplicity which is the very essence of these final songs is missing. The play, whenever I read it, seems to have at the end a dying fall: here, instead, we are presented with a spectacular pageant.

Perhaps I shouldn’t harp too much on the ending: I only do so because this particular ending seems to me among Shakespeare’s very finest, and the replacement of a gentle and wistful melancholy with full-throated spectacle did, frankly, leave me somewhat disappointed. Which is rather a pity, as the rest of the production could barely be improved upon. Although, even here, there are one or two things for a Beckmesser such as myself to carp about. Why, for instance, change Berowne’s “guerdon” to “emolument”? Sure, the modern audience is likely to be more familiar with the word “emolument”, but given that the joke is about Costard not understanding what the word means in the first place, perhaps “guerdon” should have been left untouched.

Also, I couldn’t help wondering whether Michelle Terry’s Rosaline had to be quite so combative. Rosaline and Berowne clearly foreshadow Beatrice and Benedick in many respects, but even Beatrice and Benedick need to convince us that they do love each other, or, at least, that they come to love each other. Here, while Berowne is clearly besotted with Rosaline, I can’t say I had any great confidence that his love is reciprocated. At least, were I a young man (and I was once – honestly!) I wouldn’t have given much for my chances with this Rosaline.

And finally, while I am still in my Beckmesser mode, there’s the pageant put on at the end by the curate, the schoolmaster, and others of the “lower orders”. In Shakespeare’s text, when Nathaniel the curate does his turn as Alexander, he speaks his few lines, Berowne has a few witticism at his expense, and then they all move on. Here, the scene was expanded: Nathaniel forgets his lines; Berowne makes a scathing comment; and, as Nathaniel is about to leave the stage in tears, one of the ladies (I think it was Rosaline) calls him back; and this time, Nathaniel remembers his lines, to much applause. Now, it is true that the ladies in this play educate the men, and that Berowne’s witticisms at the expense of the performers are uncalled for; but did the text really needed to be changed to underline this point so crudely? Far better, surely, is Shakespeare’s own way of making the point: in the text, at the height of the men’s barrage of “witticisms” (as in the similar scene at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the men, and not the ladies, who mock the admittedly absurd show on view), the schoolmaster Holofernes says: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” It is a marvellous line. Holofernes had been, till this point, a preposterous comic figure, but with this single line he acquires a dignity and a humanity that the four noblemen at this point rather conspicuously lack. Sadly, this wonderful line was cut in this production, and this excision makes to me no sense at all.

However, leaving aside the Beckmesserisms, there was much to admire. First of all, the sets: each scene was set in a different part of the country house – in the library, on the finely manicured lawn, the drawing room, the terrace, outside the front door, and at one point, quite unexpectedly, on the rooftop. The sets and the ingenious shifts of scene were wonderful: this must have been magical to have experienced in the theatre. And, while I may certainly quibble with certain aspects of the interpretation, the entire cast was marvellous, speaking the very difficult lines superbly, and, with impeccable comic timing, getting laughs where I wouldn’t have suspected any existed. The audience is unlikely to have followed all the arcane wordplay, but with performances of such fine comic zest, it didn’t seem to matter. In particular, John Hodgkinson as Don Armado played the “fantastical Spaniard” with an exuberant comic relish, delighting particularly in the smutty double entendres; while Edward Bennett as Berowne delivered his soaring paean to love in Act Four – surely among the very greatest of all love poems – with such clarity and ardour that time really did seem to stand still, and we, the audience, became, in Hamlet’s words, wonder-wounded hearers.

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.

Shakespeare may indeed, as I conjectured, have worried whether his mastery over language might be an escape from reality rather than an engagement with it; but when one comes across lines such as these, one feels that he really need not have worried. The sombre hues of the final scene may lift this play from a fine work to a great one; but even without these hues, what we have is exquisite. And it is so exquisitely presented that to carp on matters of interpretation, as I have been doing, is likely to appear merely churlish.

Please note: a cinema broadcast of a theatrical event often makes an impact somewhat different from that when seen in the theatre. Do please see here for Sheila’s characteristically detailed account of the play as seen in the theatre: it really is the next best thing to actually being there.