More Shakespeare (Prospero’s Farewell Speech)


Prospero (a fragment from “Prospero, Miranda and Caliban” (1789) – Henry Fuseli  (1741-1825)- via York Museums Trust

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, 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, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.

(That speech) is constantly quoted by (William) Burroughs in all of his writings and in all of his novels. That one speech of Prospero. He constantly takes  that and cuts it up and mixes it with (Arthur) Rimbaud or Time magazine – “President Eisenhower leaves not a rack behind”, or “The purpose of these manoeuvres is offensive weapons, the globe itself, the cloud capp’d towers leave not a rack behind”,  or “The purpose of leaving not a rack behind is offensive  weapons”, or –  any number of..   “when hand caught in the door leaves not a rack behind” . That phrase – “leaves not a rack behind”  is a…  “Rack”? –  actually was, I think, defined in an earlier poem as a heavy cloud, heavy dark cloud – “leaves not a cloud behind”.   I remember (Jack) Kerouac puzzled over that. We didn’t have a ..  We never did look it up, what a “rack” meant. He thought it was, sort of, like, the pool-hall, where you rack, you rack up your score, “leave not a rack behind”, you know a pool-hall rack, or a scoreboard..

Peter Orlovsky: Or luggage rack?

AG: Yeah

Peter Orlovsky: : Put your luggage on a luggage rack.

AG: Yeah, “leave not a luggage rack behind”! – You know, a rack – nothing to hang anything onto, behind, no shelf to put anything on to, behind. So what “rack” meant was, like, always a puzzle.

That passage was understandable straight off, wasn’t it? or do I have to explain? Did anybody not understand that?  (that) “cloud-capp’d towers” passage?

Student: Could you go through it again?

AG:  Yes . “These our actors as I foretold you (he’s put on a little play in the air)  These our actors,/As I foretold you, were all spirits, and/Are melted into air,/into thin air:/And like the baseless fabric of this vision.. [Allen continues and reads the speech again]….”Sir, I am vex’d;/Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled,,”  -(I’ll go around and take a walk and “still my beating mind”) – “Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:/If you be pleased, retire into my cell/And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,/To still my beating mind”.

It’s not only that he has a vision (which is very interesting) at the moment, at that moment  talking with them, seeing the end of the play of good and evil, he has this visionary moment of seeing the whole universe dissolving, like the airey spirit that he created [Ariel]. Then – but he also comes down after that, he doesn”t  hang on to it, he comes down and calms himself down, gets back to earth and says, “bear with me, my old brain is troubled”. In other words, he doesn’t lay a trip on them. He just tells them what he saw, and realizes that it’s a little heavy for them, for them, for the young kids. So he says, “bear.. don’t be scared, don’t be disturbed by my infirmity, go into my cell, if you be pleased, “retire to my cell/ And there repose” – and I will take a walk and I’ll cool off  – ” A turn or two I’ll walk” ( “turn or two I”ll walk/ To still my beating mind”)  “To still my beating mind” is a great phrase – like, for having had a visionary experience.  There is that line in William Blake later on – “for frantic light doth seize my brain” (he’s got a line – “for frantic light doth seize my brain” – for frantic light doth seize my brain”  – [editorial note – the actual line is “For light doth seize my brain/with frantic pain”] – that’s Blake, that’s two hundred years later, well,, about a hundred-and-eighty years later. I always liked that . There’s so much in that.. because there’s so much in that one little speech –  a total vision of the universe (where it begins and where it ends) , a vision of the transitoriness and dream-like aspect, which everybody knows actually  but a total and perfect statement of it. It’s never been said better – that everything’s going to go, you know, the pyramids, the sphinx, the nuclear reactors are all empty, are all dissolving, or will dissolve.

Student; But new things are arising, no?

AG: Well he was saying that he thinks that’s temporary, this particular phase of it, new things recognizeable to us are still arising. But he actually says, “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself” – so it’s like a final long-range (thing) – “the great globe itself”,  not only “the great globe itself”, but, “Yea, all which it inherit” (what does that mean? –  yea, everything which “the great globe” has inherited –  “the great globe itself /Yea, all which it inherit”, which it, the globe, inherit (which means the sphinx, the pyramids, the Bible and the Gods and Jehovah, I think)

Student : I thought all that out of which it arose…

AG: I don’t know. That’s a good one – “Yea, all which it inherit”,  all that out of which it arose – yeah all that which it inherit. So it arose out of nothing,or arose out of a little sleep, or the dream made a…you know a little sleep.  Of course it does say that  the life of sleep is before and after. Anyway,  “…all which it inherit, shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind.  (“Rack” in the sense that,  won’t leave…won’t even leave a cloud, a thought behind, won’t even leave a dark, dirty cloud behind.

Is that true? –  that everything’s going to dissolve and fade away and nothing will be left behind?  That’s…  (John) Keats wrote – “Here lies one who’s name was writ in water”  – same thing, written in water. And the traditional Zen line is, “thought (or life, but thought itself) leaves no more imprint than the imprint of a bird’s flight in the air”, (the imprint of the bird’s wings in the air, or the imprint of the bird’s flight in the air)

Student: The bird in the sky

AG: In the sky?. You know how it (goes) formal?

Student; The imprint of the bird in the sky.

AG: The imprint of a bird…. Well, the imprint of a bird”s flight in the sky – “writ in water”, “leaves not a rack behind”.  I think that’s totally true. I think it’s the basis of all poetry – the realization of the complete magical quality of present existence, (the) total magical nature of it, that it’s here in  apparition, and these spirits appear to be here, but will “leave not a rack behind” and will dissolve like the imprint of the bird in the sky, or Keats’ name “writ in water”. I think everybody has that inkling when they’re a kid, at one point or other you get that little glimpse, “oh, of course, it’s like a big shadow-play. But Shakespeare said it, once and for all in the…this is, I guess, the best statement of it, East or West, that I know of. It’s been stated by Sir Walter Raleigh – “Tell beauty it is but dust..”, you know – tell lust it is but bust.. but..Shakespeare’s got the most elegant statement of it of anybody. So this may be the highest point in, like the highest point in Western poetry possible, where he reached the highest possible philosophical blackness, you know, lightness, whatever, the highest philosophical..penetrating the entire universe with one thought,with one realization. And at the same time the most gorgeous and fundamental imagery – “the great globe itself”, the globe and clouds, and that little picture of the globe in the clouds, seen in the mind’s eye like a little tiny golf-ball or something

The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
I guess if “Full fathom five/those are pearls that were his eyes” is the most famous, that might be..  The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself/Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve” – I think that’s the basis of poetry really, to get that visionary glimpse (which is ordinary mind also –  it’s both visionary and ordinary mind, so it might take a broken leg to wake you up to  it!)

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately eight-and-three-quarter minutes in] 

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