Sunday, May 21, 2006

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Too Alone

Rainer Maria Rilke

Listen (to Pavi read)

I'm too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy
I'm too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing---
just as it is.

(this, the poem that fell out when I opened the book after getting
home. an unconscious echo of this evening's thoughts- spoken and un.
this moment is holy. we see things not as they but we are- even, and
maybe especially- ourselves. rilke's self-reflexive twist)

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones---
or alone.

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.

I would describe myself like a landscape I've studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I'm coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtimes;

like my mother's face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.

- From Rilke's Book Of Hours translated by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy

The german original,

Ich bin auf der Welt zu allein und doch nicht allein genug

Ich bin auf der Welt zu allein und doch nicht allein genug,
um jede Stunde zu weihn.
Ich bin auf der Welt zu gering und doch nicht klein genug,
um vor dir zu sein wie ein Ding,
dunkel und klug.

Ich will dich immer spiegeln in ganzer Gestalt,
und will niemals blind sein oder zu alt,
um dein schweres, schwankendes Bild zu halten.
Ich will mich entfalten.

Nirgends will ich gebogen bleiben;
denn dort bin ich gelogen, wo ich gebogen bin.
Und ich will meinen Sinn wahr vor dir ...

This comes from a deeply spiritual collection of poems by Rilke. The “Book of Hours: Love Poems to God” (– his version of love mysticism perhaps?) [2].

Rilke’s choice of themes and his precision in expressing them make themes that are often neglected in poetry (and prose) outshine more dramatic subjects and ornate writing.

“... as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don't write love poems; … rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty - describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. … - And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not." [3]

Welcome Pavi! [4]


[1] Anaïs Nin puts it as, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

[2] As in Sufi poetry - God becomes the beloved. And there is no Without – God cannot exist without you and you cannot without God . A snippet from another poem in the collection,

What will you do, God, when I die?
I am your pitcher (when I shatter?)
I am your drink (when I go bitter?)
I, your garment; I, your craft.
Without me what reason have you?

...What will you do, God? I am afraid.

[3] Letter 1, from Letters To A Young Poet

[4] One more added to the list of people who will kill for poetry – this month has been good - Hatshepsut, Pavi ... : ) Look forward to their contributions (and their own insightful commentary) in the future…

Pavi, my fellow Rilke-lover – in our very first conversation she enlightened me on the importance of precision in poetry. On the difficulty in choosing the right words/expressions in poetry. Many words can express the same physical object, but each of them can trigger a distinct emotion(al memory). And a poem works or fails based on its ability to awaken that precise emotion. What better way to introduce her, than with a Rilke recording :)

Dear Contributors, do keep sending in your lovely selection of recordings, we love being challenged, surprised and tickled by your contributions.

[5] The other Rilke we ran – You Who Never Arrived

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Eyes and Tears

Andrew Marvell


How wisely Nature did decree,
With the same Eyes to weep and see!
That, having view'd the object vain,
They might be ready to complain.

And since the Self-deluding Sight,
In a false Angle takes each hight;
These Tears which better measure all,
Like wat'ry Lines and Plummets fall.

Two Tears, which Sorrow long did weigh
Within the Scales of either Eye,
And then paid out in equal Poise,
Are the true price of all my Joyes.

What in the World most fair appears,
Yea even Laughter, turns to Tears:
And all the Jewels which we prize,
Melt in these Pendants of the Eyes.

I have through every Garden been,
Amongst the Red,the White, the Green;
And yet, from all the flow'rs I saw,
No Hony, but these Tears could draw.

So the all-seeing Sun each day
Distills the World with Chymick Ray;
But finds the Essence only Showers,
Which straight in pity back he powers.

Yet happy they whom Grief doth bless,
That weep the more, and see the less:
And, to preserve their Sight more true,
Bath still their Eyes in their own Dew.

So Magdalen, in Tears more wise
Dissolv'd those captivating Eyes,
Whose liquid Chains could flowing meet
To fetter her Redeemers feet.

Not full sailes hasting loaden home,
Nor the chast Ladies pregnant Womb,
Nor Cynthia Teeming show's so fair,
As two Eyes swoln with weeping are.

The sparkling Glance that shoots Desire,
Drench'd in these Waves, does lose it fire.
Yea oft the Thund'rer pitty takes
And here the hissing Lightning slakes.

The Incense was to Heaven dear,
Not as a Perfume, but a Tear.
And Stars shew lovely in the Night,
But as they seem the Tears of Light.

Ope then mine Eyes your double Sluice,
And practise so your noblest Use.
For others too can see, or sleep;
But only humane Eyes can weep.

Now like two Clouds dissolving, drop,
And at each Tear in distance stop:
Now like two Fountains trickle down:
Now like two floods o'return and drown.

Thus let your Streams o'reflow your Springs,
Till Eyes and Tears be the same things:
And each the other's difference bears;
These weeping Eyes, those seeing Tears.

After that stinging rejoinder to his last poem, I figured Marvell would want a good cry.

This is Marvell at his baroque best, each quatrain an intricate and polished gem - a new image or metaphor introduced, expanded and then beautifully closed out, and through it all the constant counterpoint of eyes and tears, ending with that glorious final line. This isn't, to me, a particularly moving poem in an emotional sense - I'm more apt to laugh out loud at the cleverness of the verses than to feel any real empathy for Marvell - but it's a sparklingly brilliant one.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell

A.D. Hope

Listen(to Hatshepsut read)

Since you have world enough and time
Sir, to admonish me in rhyme,
Pray Mr Marvell, can it be
You think to have persuaded me?
Then let me say: you want the art
To woo, much less to win my heart.
The verse was splendid, all admit,
And, sir, you have a pretty wit.
All that indeed your poem lacked
Was logic, modesty, and tact,
Slight faults and ones to which I own,
Your sex is generally prone;
But though you lose your labour, I
Shall not refuse you a reply:

First, for the language you employ:
A term I deprecate is "coy";
The ill-bred miss, the bird-brained Jill,
May simper and be coy at will;
A lady, sir, as you will find,
Keeps counsel, or she speaks her mind,
Means what she says and scorns to fence
And palter with feigned innocence.

The ambiguous "mistress" next you set
Beside this graceless epithet.
"Coy mistress", sir? Who gave you leave
To wear my heart upon your sleeve?
Or to imply, as sure you do,
I had no other choice than you
And must remain upon the shelf
Unless I should bestir myself?
Shall I be moved to love you, pray,
By hints that I must soon decay?
No woman's won by being told
How quickly she is growing old;
Nor will such ploys, when all is said,
Serve to stampede us into bed.

When from pure blackmail, next you move
To bribe or lure me into love,
No less inept, my rhyming friend,
Snared by the means, you miss your end.
"Times winged chariot", and the rest
As poetry may pass the test;
Readers will quote those lines, I trust,
Till you and I and they are dust;
But I, your destined prey, must look
Less at the bait than at the hook,
Nor, when I do, can fail to see
Just what it is you offer me:
Love on the run, a rough embrace
Snatched in the fury of the chase,
The grave before us and the wheels
Of Time's grim chariot at our heels,
While we, like "am'rous birds of prey",
Tear at each other by the way.

To say the least, the scene you paint
Is, what you call my honour, quaint!
And on this point what prompted you
So crudely, and in public too,
To canvass and , indeed, make free
With my entire anatomy?
Poets have licence, I confess,
To speak of ladies in undress;
Thighs, hearts, brows, breasts are well enough,
In verses this is common stuff;
But -- well I ask: to draw attention
To worms in -- what I blush to mention,
And prate of dust upon it too!
Sir, was this any way to woo?

Now therefore, while male self-regard
Sits on your cheek, my hopeful bard,
May I suggest, before we part,
The best way to a woman's heart
Is to be modest, candid, true;
Tell her you love and show you do;
Neither cajole nor condescend
And base the lover on the friend;
Don't bustle her or fuss or snatch:
A suitor looking at his watch
Is not a posture that persuades
Willing, much less reluctant maids.

Remember that she will be stirred
More by the spirit than the word;
For truth and tenderness do more
Than coruscating metaphor.
Had you addressed me in such terms
And prattled less of graves and worms,
I might, who knows, have warmed to you;
But, as things stand, must bid adieu
(Though I am grateful for the rhyme)
And wish you better luck next time.

No she doesn't stop with a passing comment on the previous post [1]. Hatshepsut, welcome!

[1] This poem needs no introduction. To ensure the best experience, dear listener, here is a link To his coy mistress. :)

[2] commentary by the minstrels.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

To his coy mistress

Andrew Marvell


Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart:
For, Lady, you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time's wing'ed chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity:
And your quaint honour turn to dust;
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now, therefore, while the youthful glue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the iron grates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Few poems in the English language are as influential [1] or as well-beloved as this one. And justly so. It's a particularly deceptive poem, one that opens on comic, mocking note and can be read, in its entirety, as a rather frustrated gentleman's desperate and hyperbolic attempt to get his lady into bed [2]. And yet somewhere in the middle of the poem, the silliness gives way to a darker sensibility and the poem gets down to business (a change in tone marvellously consonant with the change in meaning, vividly highlighting the two different arguments). What follows is arguably the most eloquent statement of the dictum 'carpe diem' ever put down in rhyme.

What woman, one wonders, could resist?

For more commentary, see Minstrels

[1] Eliot devotees will notice the "At my back I always hear / Time's Wing'ed Chariot hurrying near" that Eliot parodies in the Waste Land.

[2] Some things, apparently, do not change

P.S. The text for this version comes from the Complete Poems published by Penguin Classics and edited by Elizabeth Story Donno. There are several discrepancies between this and other texts - most notably the use of glue rather than hue / hew in line 33. Donno argues that glue is what appears in the Folio, and is therefore the correct reading.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Epilogue from Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare


If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

When I was first casting around for a blog name, my final list of candidates came down to Falstaff and Robin Goodfellow. I picked Falstaff because it was less of a mouthful and because on the whole I like Plump Jack more, but as favourite Shakespeare characters go, Puck comes in a close second. There's something so soaring and weightless about Puck, something playful and leaping and entirely magical.

Of all the epilogues Shakespeare ever wrote, this one is probably my favourite. So it's fitting that two weeks of Shakespeare posts should be brought to a close with Puck's words. Other Shakespeare pieces will follow, no doubt (some have already been promised) but the exclusive focus on Shakespeare, this 'weak and idle theme' ends here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Falstaff's 'Honour' Speech

William Shakespeare


(Henry IV Part 1 Act V Scene 1)

Why, thou owest God a death.


'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

I couldn't resist this one. This is an amazing speech - a direct and mocking attack of everything that could be considered heroic or honourable, a speech against every war-monger, terrorist and martyr, against anyone who would kill and die for honour.

Hath not a Jew eyes?

William Shakespeare

Listen (to the Mystery Cat read)

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

A guest post from Mystery Cat. He writes, "Portia's speech got me thinking about Merchant of Venice. In spite of fond memories of elocution contests in school, it's not a play I was never very fond of. I never bought into the anit-Semitic theory butI found Shylock to be an unreasonably vindictive villain, something of a caricature. So it's kind of sad that his mildly incoherent defence of vengeance doesn't seem terribly unfamiliar today."

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Quality of Mercy is not Strain'd

William Shakespeare


The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, (and so, Portia's Quality of Mercy). And commentary from the minstrels.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Plump Jack

William Shakespeare


(Henry IV Act II Scene 4)

Henry V
Well, here I am set.

And here I stand: judge, my masters.

Henry V
Now, Harry, whence come you?

My noble lord, from Eastcheap.

Henry V
The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.

'Sblood, my lord, they are false: nay, I'll tickle
ye for a young prince, i' faith.

Henry V
Swearest thou, ungracious boy? henceforth ne'er look
on me. Thou art violently carried away from grace:
there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an
old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why
dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel
of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed
cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with
the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that
grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in
years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and
drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a
capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft?
wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous,
but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?

I would your grace would take me with you: whom
means your grace?

Henry V
That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

My lord, the man I know.

Henry V
I know thou dost.

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

You knew this was coming didn't you? You didn't seriously think I was going to do a whole week of Shakespeare without getting in at least a few plugs for that greatest of all Shakespeare's characters - my namesake, Falstaff.

This dialogue is as good an illustration as any of just why Falstaff is such a favourite of mine - it's a delightful exchange, featuring the Bard at his most playful. Prince Hal has been summoned to the court of his father, and Falstaff and Hal are acting out, in jest, the scene that shall ensue when Hal appears before his father and is roundly scolded. At first Falstaff plays the King, while Hal plays himself, and Falstaff proceeds to admonish Hal for keeping company with a bunch of villians and thieves (they have just, as a trick stolen money from Falstaff), condemning all of Hal's companions save one, one only, a man of cheerful look, pleasing eye and most noble carriage, one Falstaff, who alone among Hal's friends bears the mark of true virtue. At this point Hal, accusing Falstaff of not being royal enough, takes over the role of his father and makes Falstaff stand in for himself, after which the scene above is played out.

It's a glorious, glorious scene, full of bombast and wit, mined with clever little asides that are guaranteed to make the audience laugh as much as the two characters playing out the scene, but the ultimate effect is as tender as it is hilarious - you can feel the warmth between these two people, the easy-going nature of the friendship between this fat, aging knight, and this prince of the realm.

Taken outside the context of the play though, the speech says much more (isn't it amazing how Shakespeare can do this - even the silliest speeches he writes turn out to have such a wealth of meaning and beauty). Falstaff is craven and ridiculous, he is a person who cannot be taken seriously, he is a man to be laughed at, to be scorned, a man with little merit save the fact that he is mostly harmless. And yet without Falstaff, without the spirit of folly and jest that he represents, this would be a poorer play. Without Falstaff the world would be unbearably dry, suffocatingly serious. Without Falstaff, we would have no one to laugh at, and reality would overwhelm us.

Falstaff is more than just a brilliant character in a memorable play. Falstaff is a reminder to all of us that we must not take ourselves too seriously, that we must remember to laugh, must be prepared to make ourselves ridiculous. Falstaff speaks for the fool in all of us, and his is a merry yet human voice.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves

William Shakespeare


(The Tempest, Act V)

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.

I've already blogged about The Tempest
elsewhere, so I won't bother to go over it again. Suffice it to say that I love how much distance this speech covers - going from the gently wondering, to the roaringly proud, to the surrender of the self. Absolute power corrupts, we are told, and certainly in many ways Prospero is a true tyrant. Yet here he is abjuring the very power he has spent so long attaining. And for that alone it is impossible not to be in awe of him.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Come Away, Come Away, Death

William Shakespeare


(Twelfth Night Act II Scene 4)

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it;
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown:
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there.

Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I was 14 and very bored and Twelfth Night was all I could get my hands on. How bad could it be, I figured, and settled in to read.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There's something very special about your first Shakespeare. No matter what follows, or how many 'better' plays you read, you always keep a soft corner in your heart for the play that started it all [1]. So perhaps it's only that which makes Viola one of my favourites among Shakespeare's heroines, and makes me think that Twelfth Night is a play especially rich in secondary characters. It really is an ensemble play - Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Feste, Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek. Such a truly delightful cast, that.

Today's poem is the one piece in the series that has almost nothing to do with the actual action of the play it is taken from. It is a stand alone poem, a song that the Clown sings at Orsino's bidding, a set piece. Yet it is a beautiful lyric for all that, yearning and sorrowful, it's music evident even when it is simply spoken aloud.

Orsino, asking for the song to be played, describes it as:

"that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times"

But for me the truer description is on page 1 of the play: "that strain again! it had a dying fall".

[1] At least so I've found and so some of my friends have told me. What happens if the first Shakespeare play you read is Merry Wives of Windsor I can't say.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Brutus's speech to the people

William Shakespeare


Julius Caesar Act III Scene 2

Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:--
Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

For sheer eloquence, for oratory on the grandest scale, Act III of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is hard to match. This particular speech comes sandwiched between Antony's 'bleeding piece of earth' speech and the magnificient "Friends, Romans, Countrymen' oration. But there are other fine speeches here - in fact the entire act has this declamatory quality, as though the speakers, being greater than mortal men, spoke a language higher than that of the common tongue.

Because it is so swiftly outdone by Antony's, Brutus's speech at Caesar's funeral is, I feel, somewhat underrated. It is a marvellous speech, starting off with an appeal to reason and order, but ending on an exhortative, almost indignant note, and playing on the Roman people's regard for their civic freedoms. The only flaw in it, is that Brutus simply asserts that Caesar was ambitious without ever offering any evidence of this, and it is this weakness that Antony exploits to full advantage in his oration.

That said, a large part of the glory of Antony's speech comes from the fact that it must successfully follow this one. Brutus is more than a worthy opponent for Antony to be taking on, and Antony has the incredibly difficult task of changing the mind of a crowd that has been soundly convinced by Brutus's speech before him. Watching him pull that off is like watching a great tennis player come back with a stunning response to an almost impossible smash.

As someone who's always loved debating, and who spent long years in college on the debating circuit, I've always loved this interplay of arguments - it's always represented to me a magnificent and sublime ideal of what a great debate should be like. This speech, and the one that follows it, is part of the reason I became a debater.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Queen Mab

William Shakespeare


(Romeo and Juliet Act I Scene 4)

I dream'd a dream to-night.

And so did I.

Well, what was yours?

That dreamers often lie.

In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders' legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider's web,
The collars of the moonshine's watery beams,
Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick'd from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love;
O'er courtiers' knees, that dream on court'sies straight,
O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O'er ladies ' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o'er a courtier's nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig's tail
Tickling a parson's nose as a' lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she–

Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk'st of nothing.

True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who wooes
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being anger'd, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping south.

Remember Holden Caulfield's line about how Mercutio was the only decent character in Romeo & Juliet? Here is the man at his most whimsical, jesting mightily at his friend Romeo's sighs, which are "as thin of substance as the air / and more inconstant than the wind" (remember, at this stage of the play Romeo is yet to meet Juliet, so his dreams are all of Rosaline, however much he might foreswear them in the next scene). It's a hilarious speech, and it's typical of Shakespeare that even a throwaway jest of his gives us so entertaining, so magical a character.

You've heard the expression tripping the light fantastic? This is how it's done.

Monday, May 01, 2006

All the world's a stage

William Shakespeare


All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I have very fond memories of this speech. The first time I ever performed it in public, I was ten, firmly in the middle of my second age. The occassion was the Primary School English Recitation Contest at my school, and I still remember the shocked look on the faces of the judges when, having been subjected to almost an hour of "Once there was a little boy" and "Farmer Brown went to town" they suddenly got hit with Shakespeare. I'm not going to pretend I read it remotely well, or that I even understood all of it, but it certainly made an impression.

It's not just that it's such a gloriously theatrical speech - though it is, of course, it's the Shakespeare equivalent of a Verdi aria - it's also Shakespeare's most cogent statement of a theme he returns to again and again in his plays [1] - the idea of the play as a metaphor for life.

[1] Including the line in Merchant of Venice that goes: "I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano - / A stage, where every man must play a part" - a line whose discovery I owe to my friend M. I would have been truly awed by her knowledge of Shakespeare's texts if she had not then gone and spoilt it by confessing that she'd always thought that was the "All the world's a stage" speech. Sigh.