Monday, February 22, 2016

`Vibrate and Live and Charm the Senses'

The customary tags – “Neither a borrower . . .,” “Alas, poor Yorick . . .,”But, soft! what light. . .” – I learned in the customary osmotic ways: from Looney Tunes, Little Rascals and cartoons in  The New Yorker. The first Shakespeare I remember setting out to memorize on my own, after reading it in some forgotten anthology, probably one edited by Oscar Williams, was, sensibly enough, a song:                                                          

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
. . . 

I knew the lines before reading The Tempest. The alliteration is irresistible. I defy you to read the first line aloud and not smile. The third line resonates nicely with scripture, and I learned the origin of “sea-change.” Ford Madox Ford cites the passage in The March of Literature (1938) and writes: 

 . . . Shakespeare is just ourselves at no excruciatingly esoteric mental level. The English or American adult male is said to remain all his life at the intellectual high water mark of the fourteen-year-old schoolboy and there is nothing in the thought of Shakespeare’s plays that an intelligent fourth-form schoolboy could not enthusiastically applaud and corroborate . . . The most the `teacher’—and, alas, quis docebit ipsos doctores? [“Who will teach the teachers?” – a play on Juvenal’s "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (“Who will guard the guards themselves?”)]—can do for a pupil is to perform the functions of an easier dictionary, telling the meaning of a tassel gentle, a hernshaw, a fardel, a bourne. But no one can explain why Shakespeare’s words, set one beside the other, vibrate and live and charm the senses?” 

The myth of Shakespearean impenetrability persists. I’m certain that when I first read the song from The Tempest quoted above, I knew only that “fathom” was a unit of length. How long (six feet), I wouldn’t have known, but it hardly mattered. This is the appropriate time to drag out Eliot’s old reliable “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” How presumptuous to assume we ought to immediately comprehend lines composed more than four centuries ago. One of the joys of reading Shakespeare or any writer of his age is the handy excuse it gives us to consult and linger in a good dictionary. “Tassel-gentle”: Romeo and Juliet, variation of “tercel-gentle,” a male falcon. “Hernshaw”: Hamlet, sometimes corrupted as “handsaw,” a heron. “Fardel”: The Winter’s Tale, a bundle or parcel. “Bourne,” Hamlet and six other plays, a boundary or limit. Ford goes on: 

. . .if you are anything like a proper fourth-form schoolboy, you feel all the emotions of first love, of spring freshets, of the call of the cuckoo, of moonlight on the Lido. There is nothing remarkable in the turn of thought; no unusual words are brought from a distance to add peacock’s feathers to a fowl’s tail. But the supreme verbal secret of Shakespeare appears in the sentence: `Those are pearls that were his eyes’—for that is the Shakespearian mind working.” 

In other words, Shakespeare, like Browne and Keats, thinks metaphorically. His thoughts are metaphors and his metaphors are thoughts. I recommend The March of Literature as an eminently browseable bedside book. Along with Shakespeare.


-Z. said...

Thank you. I've added TMoL to my list.

Edward Bauer said...

I learned from Looney Tunes that I liked classical music. Sometimes listening to the radio or, more embarrassingly, at a concert, I will chuckle at the scene the music conjures.