Shakespeare’s “all-licensed fools,” to entertain
Are allowed to speak the truth,
Even when the truth hurts in the main.
All-licensed, too, whether in age or youth,
To create wonders, inventions of humor, art.
The sting of their verbal dart
Reckoned by great ones a small price to pay.
But foolery licensed too far, too long, exceeds
All moral bounds; hence “Take heed, sirrah: the whip.”
A great and seasoned Berlioz expert, quip
Or insult ever at hand, conducted us
(Occasion for which I’m grateful) in the Requiem.
His Berlioz biography, humane;
Insightful, beautiful writing. Rendered thus
Noble, his own private life, no need,
Not even one jot, to censure him for sin.
But “allowed fools,” Festes, keep their inner-Malvolio
Alter egos enemy-close,
Cooped up in improvised Bedlams of the mind.
Restrained, frustrated; when their betters unbind,
They spring forth trembling with revenge-impulses held in.
So angry, crammed with a sense of entitlement
To punish the world that first licensed them
Free to indulge their gift for entertainment
Then stowed them in cells,
They may become kin to terrorists and incels.
ELSEWHERE THAN ELSINORE
Define a nobleman? Wish to reside elsewhere.
Grass greener even where sheep-browsed commons lies.
Give Hamlet any nice realm, but not Elsinore.
Fortinbras leads a next army where it dies.
Cold Norway’s toughened his midwinter skin,
sharpened his mind-sword till where he has gone,
even frost is a playground by contrast, summer of sin.
The Polish mud, dank straw, equal for him clear dawn.
What of Edward de Vere? In love with Italy,
but not in its radiant time, choice place: more for
what it must change to. Transport these towns. Now see
what republican Venice offers Thames’s shore:
a London monarchy, swayed by the classic arts?
Statecraft and stagecraft, warmed by Italian sun-darts?
NATIVE WOODNOTES WILD
If by woodnotes we mean the printed signs
On pulp, then Shakespeare is a wild woodsman:
Absorber of the proverbs passed down lines
Of Italian scholars lifting every ban
On Greek and Latin learning. Shakespeare knew
His dulce et decorum est as well
As grand Erasmus, and as easily too
Enlarge an adage till it would hatch, then swell
A scene’s or play’s chief meaning from one small tag.
In Hamlet, “readiness is all”; Othello
Stands witness honesty, true “being,” will lag
While slanted “seeing” will thrive—mere wisdom? Slow.
Not fated to thrash a Don John or Vercingetorix,
Our Shakespeare mastered princely tongues and rhetorics.
Symphonic poem for choir and orchestra, Arnold Bax (1910)
Bax’s most Promethean choral work:
apropos that it should be a setting of Shelley,
one short scene from Prometheus Unbound.
The god-man soon to be freed from the eating bird,
the chains and ice of the Caucasian rock.
Heady, balmy summer. Warmth free-floats.
So giddy with poetry, Bax, but more with song:
melodic surges all but swamp the words,
or rather, distort the word-points listeners
listen for. But who cares? Or cares that choirs
must render their lines in alpine tessituras?
Sheer rude magic’s what counts. Shelley’s ideals,
Shelley’s radical rage for liberation,
rough-blended in this puzzling stew of delights.
The kettle itself boils over. Orchestra-riot.
Somehow, the shapes and contours keep in fold:
rambunctious celebration yields organically
to solemn processional, Elgar crossed with…Ravel?
Are we in Shelley’s kingless kingdom, or are we
in Blake’s Jerusalem, green and pleasant land,
now sprouting orchids, heathery purple dazes?
Ah, sweet illusion can only penetrate minds,
can only hoodwink audiences, so far:
would not sweet boy sopranos better befit
Shelley’s young solo apprentice-goatherd Fauns?
So much of achievement, dilemma; for just how
but with a Georgian-plummy-powerful woman
soprano reach incandescent ecstasy,
the power to sing those wise and lovely songs
Of Fate, and Chance, and God, and Chaos old,
And Love and the chained Titan's woful doom,
And how he shall be loosed, and make the earth
One brotherhood…that brotherhood summit capped
with high-D-shrilling radiance no Faun-boy,
no goatherd animal-legged, may squeeze from his lungs…
Symphonic poem, Arnold Bax (1919)
[Summer 1917. Crashes and subsidings of glittering surf on Cornish coast, watched over by the time-wrecked ramparts of Tintagel Castle, birthplace of Arthur, haven to Tristan and King Mark.]
This urgent back and forth, not just of waves
that slurp at pebbles, hammerhead stone tor,
burst shingle. Doubts and resolutions lave
violins’ undertune, roll over it ocean-choir.
Now Tania’s involute theme, sheer foam, surf-beat.
Seaweed-intricate patterns, of lipstick, of kohl,
can only underscore her face’s labile-fleet
sea-changes. What salt groundswell could console
you, her, in this trauma summer? Rendezvous
by bicycle, on foot. Brusque rapture. Stress
while first Isolde grapples with second Isolde,
each guilting the other, guilting the man who’s you.
Enough! cry the brass. Love on, live by excess.
Plunge all your morals in brine. Sing Tania, loudly.
TO THE NEW YEAR
—W.S. Merwin, 1927-2019
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
—Medusa, thanking Tom Goff for kick-starting 2020 for us with his fine poetry, plus Andrew Darlington for his sketch from over the sea—and wishing you a contented, productive new year full of poetry!—with a reminder that tempus fugit…
Photos in this column can be enlarged by
clicking on them once, then clicking on the x
in the top right corner to come back to Medusa.