The History of Poetry – 2 (William Shakespeare)

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) – Ariel (c. 1800-1810), oil on canvas, approx 36.5 x 2o inches, courtesy The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

┬áContinuing from yesterday – Allen Ginsberg’s 1975 Naropa lectures “A History of Poetry”

AG: Now how many here have read Shakespeare? How many have not read any Shakespeare at all? You haven’t?

Student: Not much

AG: Okay. Great. A live one! How many here have not read “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare? High, raise your hands. How many have read “The Tempest”. So it’s about half each. So I want to read a few lines from “The Tempest” (jumping from Anglo-Saxon!). “The Tempest” is considered by most people, or some scholars, to be Shakespeare’s last play. So it’s his sign-off, his last message, his last perception, his last view of things as he wanted to present it to the public, or to himself. The hero is a magician, Prospero, who has great powers, who got screwed out of his kingdom, (Milan was it?), by (his) brother-in-law, (in) some family squabble, hassle, and exiled to an island, where he spent many years perfecting his solitary meditations and magical studies, and plotting revenge, and ripening in his own mind, studying his powers. Horny, (he) made it with a witch, Sycorax, who was local to the island, like a real hag, and sired Caliban, a sort of half-beast, half-man, Rudra, ego, or beast, whatever. He had an assistant, androgenous angel Ariel, who did his bidding, while he did his magic, flying through the air, creating musics to bewitch people occasionally, creating tempests (so, the title of “The Tempest”). Caliban is commenting on the music he hears on the island created by Prospero, the magician, with a couple of clowns (Stefano and Trinculo), one that he is leading around on the island. Ariel plays a tune on the tabor and pipe:

“Stefano: What is this same?/ Trinculo: The tune of our catch, play’d by the picture of Nobody/ Stefano: If thou be’est a man, show thyself in thy likeness. If thou be’est a devil, take’t as thou list./ Trinculo: O, forgive me my sins!/ Stefano: He that dies pays all debts. I defy thee. Mercy upon us!/ Caliban: Art thou afeard?/ Stefano: No, monster, not I.
Caliban: Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises/Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not./ Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/ Will hum about my ears; and sometimes voices,/ That if I then had wak’d after long sleep, / Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,/ The clouds methought would open, and show riches/ Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d/ I cried to dream again”.
I’ll do it again, the “Be not afeard..” [he reads it again]. That’s like a really pretty thing, that “thousand twangling instruments”, and sort of archetypal, longing to get back to the beautiful dream. I think the closest to a basic Buddhist notion of the universe in English literature comes in a famous speech by Prospero, in the midst of the play, in Act IV. Prospero the magician has created a magic show in the air to entertain his guests, or sort of an eclogue, procession of the seasons, with representatives of the natural forces, a masque, a pastoral masque, sort of a Whole Earth Catalog masque, say. Diurnal forces represented symbolically, or ancient, natural, pagan images. But he forgot. He hadn’t cleaned up the whole tangle. He’s created this huge tempest that has brought all of his enemies, the people that screwed him up, brought them to his island under his power. Now he’s going to take his revenge on them, or straighten out the scene, or whatever he’s going to do. He’s got to figure it out, actually. He had a plan, but as he actually has the power over all his supposed antagonists, originally, he changes his mind somewhat. There is something that he had forgotten. Yeah, Caliban had joined the jokers, had joined the clowns, to upset his plan, and, in the midst of this magic show that he created, he suddenly remembered that his own karma, Caliban, his own karmic kid, Caliban, his own cock, so to speak, was now going to screw the scene up for him. Whatever Caliban is. It’s in a very pretty instant, because the daughter, Miranda, who he has on the island, a very pretty little teenage teeny-bopper, is going to marry, or is falling in love with, Ferdinand, a prince, who was brought along in the tempest, and he was entertaining them with his magic show and (then he) suddenly remembers:

“Enter certain Reapers, properly habited: they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance, towards the end whereof Prospero starts suddenly and speaks, after which, to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish”. His own mirage vanishes. “Heavily”.
Prospero: (aside): I had forgotten that foul conspiracy/ Of the beast Caliban and his confederates/ Against my life. The minute of their plot/is almost come (to the Spirits) Well done, avoid; no more./ Ferdinand: This is strange. Your father’s in some passion/ That works him strongly.”
Miranda: Never till this day/ Saw I him touch’d with anger, so distemper’d.
Prospero: You do look, my son, in a mov’d sort,/ As if you were dismay’d; be cheerful, sir./ Our revels now are ended. These our actors/ (As I foretold you) were all spirits, and/ Are melted into air, thin air./ And like the baseless fabric of this vision,/ The cloud-capp’d tower’s, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself, / Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve/ And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/ Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;/ Bear with my weakness, my old brain is troubled./ Be not disturbed with my infirmity./ If you be pleas’d, retire into my cell,/ And there repose. A turn or two I’ll walk/ To still my beating mind.”

So he had a real vision all of a sudden. “Beating mind”, it’s really sort of precisely like a presentation of maya. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen in English in getting at the essential dream-like, dreamstuff, dream-like-ness of our own universe. It seems to be the last word in the English language on what the nature of the universe is. The gist. I don’t think anybody’s beat it, in stating, if not what the universe is, what it seems like, what, archetypally, to any 9-year-old consciousness, (and thereafter throughout life).

How many of you had heard this particular passage? Yeah. And how many had not? Well, it’s worth hearing, I guess. The whole play moves to an end where, like a good yogi, Prospero finally renounces his powers and comes back to participation in a straightforward human universe, without trickery, hypnosis, magic. Shakespeare himself supposedly retiring from the magical stage, or retiring from his lifelong profession of creating illusions, thus speaking through his character, Prospero, after the play has ended. Prospero is going back to Milan. There’s one really funny phrase about his going back to Milan, actually. He says, he’s going back to Milan where “every third thought shall be my grave.” That’s really interesting. “Every third thought shall be my grave”, which, for those who do meditation, is kind of an interesting precision: to be able to count your thought, or, for Shakespeare to have been so precise, realizing that thoughts were discrete and (that) you could practically count them, and his constancy to his awareness, or his constancy of consciousness, of awareness, of his own death, had gotten that refined, so that “every third thought shall be my grave”. Then Prospero comes out, he’s resolved all the problems and everybody is going to go back to Milan in a ship, and he’s going to retire, he’s burned his magic books and he’s thrown his magic wand into the sea, and he’s dismissed Ariel, his imagination, his extravagant imagination, made arrangements for Caliban (I guess), and has ended the play and comes out to address the audience, with, what would be the equivalent, if it were analyzed in Buddhist terms, probably the Virtues. How many Virtues are there? five? Five Main Virtues? [Six, actually – or Ten – Editorial’s note – Paramita ]

Student: Seven?

AG: Seven?. The equivalent, that is, of applied self-awareness. [reads..] “Prospero: Now my charms are all o’erthrown,/ And what strength I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint. Now ’tis true./ I must be here confin’d by you, / Or sent to Naples. Let me not,/ Since I have my dukedom got,/ And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell/ In this bare island by your spell,/ But release me from my bands/ With the help of your good hands./ Gentle breath of yours my sails/ Must fill, or else my project fails,/ Which was to please. Now I want/ Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,/ And my ending is despair/ Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,/ Which pierces so, that it assaults/ Mercy itself, and frees all faults,. As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/ Let your indulgence set me free.

I always liked that “Now I want/ Spirits to enforce”, “now I want”, meaning, (I) lack. Now I no longer have my magic scene going, so I’m reduced to my human shade. “Now I want/ Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,/ And my ending is despair/ Unless I be reliev’d by prayer”, by the prayer of the audience.

Pound, in a sense, had arrived at that state of mind in his old age, in his ’80’s, or late 70’s, -yeah?….

How many here have not read Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Okay, then I’ll read one. Since this is the Kerouac School of Spontaneous Poetics, I’ll read..

Student: Disembodied (Poetics)

AG: Well, you know, the “disembodied” was kind of, actually, jokey nonsense. “Kerouac” is disembodied. It would be the “Disembodied Kerouac School”, actually, probably, if we were going to be literal.

So this was Kerouac’s favorite sonnet, and among the most celebrated of all the Shakespeare sonnets [Allen reads Sonnet 97 in its entirety – (“How like a winter hath my absence been..)”]. I just like that “What old December’s bareness every where!” – that’s good vowels. “What ohhhld December’s bareness every where”. And that was the key to Kerouac’s particular ear, that line.

Student: Allen, would you mind reading it again

AG: Read it again?

Student: Yeah

AG: Well, you can go read it yourself. It’s Sonnet 97, and they’ve got it in the library. I’ll read four lines. Really, actually, it’s only the beginning I really like! – “How like a winter hath my absence been/ From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!/ What freezings have I felt!, what dark days seen!/ What old December’s bareness every where!”
Which is a solid thing there. “What freezings have I felt!, what dark days seen!/ What old December’s bareness every where!”

There’s another sonnet on love, or transient love, that has one really great line. “On purpose laid to make the taker mad.” Love itself. “On purpose laid to make the taker mad”. Well, okay,
that was Shakespeare. So there’s a big book of Shakespeare you can go read in the library. I’d suggest that, if you’re interested in Buddhism, do “The Tempest”, because that’s total, that’s really right on for a study of someone dealing with his own powers, his own extraordinary ego, in a sense, or extraordinary self, his own powers, someone renouncing his powers, so it would be, like, in a sense, to some extent, the Vajrayana renunciation of the notion of sunyata, or emptiness behind the world, and plunging right back into the world, which is what Prospero did, if you know anything about all that Buddhist stuff. Yeah?

Student: I heard a crazy theory that Shakespeare was a Sufi..because the person who explained it to me was…

AG: That’s certainly a 20th Century theory. Probably he was. Certainly.., Why not? Well, actually, some people say they don’t even (know if he) exist(s). He has a lot of excellent notions. I guess Shakespeare is about the best thing to read if you want to write poetry because his fancy is so funny, his sense of language is so funny. I think Kerouac was reading Shakespeare when he got the “Old December’s bareness every where” and “What freezings have I left”, and he said, “Genius is funny.” Speaking of poetic genius – “genius is funny”. That is the combination of words that “On purpose laid to make the taker mad”. Or “in the dread, vast and middle of the night”. There is a strange humor about the juxtapositions of the words that is like amusing funniness, considering the such-ness of the language, or what the words feel like and how you put them together in a weird way that enters the brain for, like, the first time, so you hear the words and you hear the idea behind it and you get the funny vocal tone and voweled breath of words like “in the dread, vast and middle of the night” (I think it’s “Hamlet” – someone reporting to Hamlet about a ghost coming on the castle walls in “the dread, vast and middle of the night”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.