Thursday, October 13, 2016

Poems I Journey With 25

Introduction: Poems and characters from Elizabethan Times 1

Shakespeare’s plays – written in Elizabethan times, that epoch in English history marked by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603, born 1533) – are highly popular and constantly studied and reinterpreted in performances with diverse cultural and political contexts for some few centuries now though there was an period when his work lay undiscovered or unpopular. The genius of Shakespeare's characters and plots are that they present real human beings in a wide range of emotions and conflicts that transcend their origins in Elizabethan England. His themes, then, are truly universal and transcend time and place.

Christopher  Marlowe
It is, I find, very fruitful to place Shakespeare in his era by listing several of his many contemporaries, those who lived at any time during his life span: Shakespeare’s own dates are 1564 – 1616 and he was 39 when Elizabeth died, and some of his contemporaries are Christopher Marlowe (1564 –1593), a brilliant young playwright and poet killed in a tavern brawl; James I of England 1566 – 1625, formerly James VI of Scotland who translated what is known as the famous King James Bible,  Sir Walter Raleigh 1554 –1618, one of whose poems I have already reproduced in these pages; Dr. Simon Forman (1552 – 1611) the astrologer, occultist and herbalist, much maligned and persecuted during his lifetime because of his heretical and unorthodox beliefs, yet he is credited with having saved many patients during the London plagues (1592 and 1594); and, of course, the famed actor, theatre owner and artist Richard Burbage (1567 –  1619).

Poems and songs appear in many of Shakespeare’s plays. They are often profound. One universal theme, of course, is that of death and dying, that is, one of the four ultimate concerns outlines by the Existential Psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom. Mortality and the sheer unpredictability, even the pure random chance of life are uppermost in my mind as I write these lines.  Firstly, I was in a car smash yesterday where I wrote the vehicle off, or totalled it, as those of you who are from the USA would say. Thankfully I was uninjured and no one except me was involved as I nodded off at the wheel after an exhausting day at work. How I got out of the car in one piece I’ll never know. Having to spend 12 hours in A & E or ER was in itself a wonderfully mind-concentrating experience. I witnessed much that I care not to dwell on much here, yet it was a “wake up call,” to live whatever remains to me on this earth as fully and as profitably as I can as indeed we are fragile and brittle creatures that can literally be snuffed out at any time. Meditating on death and mortality is good for the soul as it enables us to value life all the more and to live in the moment or in the NOW. 

William Shakespeare
With this in mind, I have been leafing through and pondering poems that I love on line.  I quite like the following poem or song from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (Act IV, Scene ii, lines 2656 to 2680). The first two stanzas are spoken (not sung) alternately by the two brothers, Guiderius and Arviragus. Then, they take it in turns to recite each line of the remaining two stanzas alternately, except the final two lines of each stanza, which they recite together. Guiderius and Arviragus are the sons of Cymbeline, abducted as babies by Belarius, and brought up as woodsmen. They recite the song over the corpse of Fidele, who they think is a man, but who is in fact Imogen, their sister, who they have never seen, and who is actually not dead, but who has drunk a draught of a poison the effect of which puts her into a state which resembles death. Cymbeline is often called a "problem play" because it defies traditional categories of genre. Many Shakespeare critics settle on calling it a "tragicomedy" since the first three acts of the play feel like mini-tragedy, while the play's second half feels like a comedy. In this sense, it is a play that incorporates many existential themes as well as humour as a way to cope with those problematic themes. In short, this beautiful song speaks much to me after my recent escape from the swing of the “Grim Reaper’s” indifferent scythe.

Fear No More

Fear no more the heat o' the sun;
Nor the furious winter's rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.

Fear no more the frown of the great,
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dread thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave! 

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