A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This elegant book is part of a series published by Faber, of poetry selected by poets. So, we have for instance W B Yeats selected by Seamus Heaney, Ezra Pound by Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes by Simon Armitage – and William Shakespeare by Ted Hughes. This volume is the first I have acquired, but I don’t think it will be the last, as the idea is most appealing.
Shakespeare’s poetry is generally studied outside the context of his plays – the Sonnets, The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis, The Phoenix and the Turtle and a number of other fragments make up the collected poems. Some editions would also include the songs that are set pieces in the plays: It was a lover and his lass; O mistress mine; Come away, come away Death and so on. In his short introduction, Ted Hughes explains his intention to look for poetry within the play texts and choose passages that, in his judgement, stand alone as poetry. The example he takes is Macbeth’s speech ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, …’ which he sets alongside Yeats’s poem Death and Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land ‘Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, | Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell | And the profit and loss…’ Of Shakespeare’s lines Hughes says:
In fact, if one specifies that ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ is spoken by Macbeth as he faces the leafy army that will put an end to his spellbound, murderous career […], it actually limits the use of the passage to the reader. Its relevance is then confined to Macbeth’s predicament in a sacrosanct, old-fashioned play, rather than applied generally to the reader’s own immediate plight, as an ephemeral creature, facing the abyss, on a spinning ball of self-delusion.
So, interspersed with a number of the Sonnets and songs, a few passages from the longer poems, and ending with The Phoenix and the Turtle, Hughes presents with reader with passages from the plays, without context or reference. Some are familiar, some are not. Some are passages in prose that express a poetic idea. The game for the reader is to try to read them without the trappings of the theatre and the context of the rest of the play, and look for that wider and deeper speaking to our human condition. It is a fascinating game, and one that worked better for me in some cases than others. It is definitely a game, because it is possible to cheat – at the back of the book the pieces are listed by number with their references. I have to confess I found myself cheating by peeking rather a lot, but I came to the conclusion that this might not be the most helpful sort of curiosity. It is an illuminating exercise to read these pieces with Hughes’s intention in mind, including, maybe especially, those that are familiar, such as Hamlet’s soliloquy.
The arrangement of pieces is broadly chronological, so the plethora of sonnets works its way through in the first half of the anthology. This book is a place to encounter old familiar passages and contemplate them in this new light of being a Poem – favourites of mine are John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II, or, even better, Richard’s speech (‘For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground | And tell sad stories of the death of kings’); Falstaff’s appeal to Prince Hal; Henry V’s Crispin’s Day speech; Queen Mab; Othello’s travellers’ tales; ‘Be not afeard. The Ile is full of noises’ – and many many more. I also encountered some pieces that had passed me by on stage, or else in reading them as poems I found new meaning in them. A particular new favourite is Jaques’s speech from As You Like It:
A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food I met a fool;
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun,
And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.
‘Good morrow, fool,’ quoth I, ‘No sir,’ quoth he,
‘Call me not fool until heaven hath sent me fortune’.
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’ clock;
Thus may we see,’ quoth he, ‘How the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear.
And what better time than in the aftermath of an election to experience the catharsis of Coriolanus’s embittered harangue to the people:
You common cry of curs! Whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcases of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies with nodding of their plumes
Fan you to despair!
Phew. That feels better. He’d have been a riot online, would Coriolanus.
It is a book to dip into I found. So many of these pieces are profoundly introspective, so many evoke the pity and fear of the tragedies, the bloodletting of the history plays, the introspection of the later plays. Reading one after the other can be indigestible. But it has been a minor revelation to me to consume these passages as poetry in their own right, unshackled from the context of the play. There is, in fact, no such thing as cheating in reading, so immersing myself in a piece then looking it up at the back is perfectly acceptable behaviour! It is such a simple, refreshing device to present the passage on the page without the reference.
This anthology is also illuminating as an insight into the poetic sensibility and taste of Ted Hughes, his poet’s appreciation of another poetic genius, and if you are admirer of his work that is another reason to buy it.
William Shakespeare. Poetry selected by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 2000. 165pp
Please excuse the poor definition of the jacket illustration; I wanted an illustration of the exact edition I have, which I bought at the National Theatre Bookshop for £4.99. Another edition exists, with the title: Ted Hughes. A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. I suspect it is the same, but I have no proof that it is. It is listed on Faber’s website at £9.99, while the other edition is not.