When I select which texts to present here it’s most often an informal, beneath the consciousness, process. This week I thought I’d follow on from my last post and continue on the theme of a poet’s experience of age, but instead the events and times we live in overcame me.
Earlier I was beginning to translate a French poet, but I couldn’t concentrate on that task. Thrashing about, I eventually found myself working on this song from a Shakespeare play. After all, songs in his plays are usually diversions: a little light variety to help entertain the audience or something to help bridge a scene change. So OK, a diversion—but when I check for the context of this song in the play that uses it, Love’s Labour’s Lost, I find that it comes at the very end of the play. Could it be a diversion then, or is it an unusual summation?
On one hand it’s a very simple song isn’t it? A short nostalgic seasonal scene, though in Tudor-England times perhaps not so old-fashioned. Winter. Log hearth fires. Warm milk from the cow freezes in the pail. Icicles. The way-paths all fouled-up with snow and ruts.
But to throw it in at the very end of a play—a comedy yes, but one that I’m told is full of reference to all kinds of political events of Tudor times—that makes me ask if more attention is required.
One thing I notice is that although written centuries before the early 20th century Imagists, it operates just like an Imagist poem: it’s short, nothing is an elaborate metaphor developed over many lines. If it’s about winter and the cold, it never says “I’m sick of this lousy winter” or “It’s so cold!” Though a sense of palpable cold and wintertime stress pervades the poem, it’s only through physical images that this is portrayed.
A few minor language tweaks and it could have been written in 1915 not 1595 or so. Robert Frost could have hauled those logs. Ted Hughes could have witnessed the herdsman blow on his hands for warmth. The song could’ve appeared in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in.” A scene from the first act of Wilder’s 1942 “The Skin of Our Teeth.” That’s Tallulah Bankhead who’s broken up the chair for kindling.
Shakespeare’s winter song here is immediately preceded by another song in his play (the first song invoked spring.) Each song of the pair features a symbolic bird, and for this winter song we’re given an owl in its refrain,* a bird omen of unseen dread whose song, breaking with the Imagist show/don’t tell rule, is described as “a merry note.”
Merry? A little dark humor there I think. But even if that bird’s a bad omen, the fact that it’s singing means that it’s enduring. And the poem’s second and final stanza continues that theme of endurance. Everyone in church is sick and you can’t hear the sermon for the coughing (but coughing means you’re breathing, and who can tell how useful the sermon’s lesson might be anyway). The visible birds are hunkered down in feathers. There’s some crabs** sizzling in a bowl. There’s a fire. Tom’s brought more wood. There’s someone there to see greasy Joan cooking.
That refrain repeats and the song ends. Shakespeare’s play’s characters are kings, courtiers, and princesses and the plot their fancies. His actual world was full of war and deadly factions, brutal executions; a world of connivers, fools and tyrants, and even those who could combine all three. Yet, here he ends his comedy not with a wedding but with a song about modest endurance.
I think I lucked into this one this week. If one pays attention to this little song, it says something about those of us who are not kings or principal ministers.
Those who’ve endured my singing may be glad to hear this one is spoken word. The music is drums with a mix of four wintery synths played with my little plastic keyboard and MIDI guitar. The player to hear it is below. The full text of this short Shakespeare poem is here. I wish you the sustaining fires that are warm and illuminating, instead of the flames of fools.
*The refrain also features one of the more obscure words in the piece: greasy Joan is “keeling” the pot. I thought “stirring,” and there is some sense of that, though it may be particularly skimming fat off some stew.
**I thought of steamed crabs hissing, but if Shakespeare is remembering his rural Warwickshire it might not be seafood, but crabapples. Hot ale punch with floating crabapples was apparently a thing.