I have not often succeeded in being topical here on Sweettenorbull, but with 2016 having marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it appropriate to include at least one post on the Bard this year. So, here is my belatedly topical, and very unseasonal, take on one of my favourite passages in Shakespeare. A mid-winter day’s take on some lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in
That’s Oberon, the king of the fairies, or faeries, explaining where he will find his wife, Titania, the queen of the fairies, on whom he is going to play a rather mean trick. The soliloquy of which this is the beginning sets the scene for this trick and the action that follows. It is light-hearted stuff compared to many of Shakespeare’s other famous soliloquies: it is fair to say it worries at none of the great themes – life and death, love and hate, truth and falsehood, justice, fate, none of that. It is a bit of atmospherics, a means of setting the scene for a play that is essentially a bit of enjoyable nonsense.The purpose of the passage is to enchant the listener, and, for me at least, it does so every time.
It is a little fey, I know. We are talking about a passage full of flowers spoken by a great big fairy: not altogether manly that.I’m more into the flowers than the fairies, but I suppose that in itself is something of an admission. A few years ago that great journal of earthy British humour, the Viz, ran a memorable cartoon where Biffa Bacon is chastised (that is, beaten to a pulp) by his parents for reading the Guardian newspaper instead of the Sun. He has just about managed to persuade them that the Guardian isn’t just for ‘snurbs and short-liftaz’ when a free supplement falls out of the paper, ‘Fifty Poems about Flowers’. Biffa’s parents are enraged by this basic affront to decent Geordie reverse-snobbery and duly pummel the poor lad senseless.
Actually, I understand where they are coming from (Newcastle, of course, which is also where I come from). For a long time, I would hazard from the early 19th century all the way through to the late 20th century, flower imagery was the standby of mediocre poets and poetasters, which may have fixed in the public’s mind, even those, like the Bacons, who would never read poetry, the idea of poetry as something blandly decorative, stuffily middle class and rather effeminate. But this view and all that bad poetry were merely unfortunate by-products of what is actually a great tradition in English poetry of poems about flowers, running from early poetry to the modern day.
I would argue that at least a passing acquaintance with the English countryside and its flowers heightens ones appreciation of this poetry; at the same time, reading the poetry improves one’s enjoyment of the countryside. Well, this is true for me, at least. About seven years ago, I lived for a couple of years in Durham, and at about that time, after years of serious novel reading, I was getting very into English poetry. Three poets who I read a lot at that time were William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas and the American William Carlos Williams, in all of whose poems flowers feature prominently, usually with the flower named. Partly to know the flowers in their poems better, and partly because I lived near a rather nice meadow park (like many parks and meadows along the Tyne or the Wear, actually a reclaimed coal mine), and had started to notice flowers whose names I didn’t know, I bought an old Reader’s Digest guide to wild flowers at a car boot sale, and started to casually familiarise myself with the names of those I most often saw. After a couple of years I could identify most of the common flowers I’d come across, and recognise them when they came up in the poetry I was reading, and just walking the countryside I would notice and appreciate flowers much more whether I knew their names or not.
That first line of Oberon’s captures he very real wonder one feels when one comes upon a bank of wild flowers while wandering the woods or countryside. Myself, I know a hillock in Durham where cowslips sprout some years, and, mysteriously, some years they don’t. I know a wooded roadside bank that is carpeted with violets a couple of weeks each spring. In the nearby Finchale Priory there is a reliable bank of anemones on the north bank of the river. When we moved a little north to Prudhoe in Northumberland, my wife and I gradually found comparable scenes – another bank of anemones, a patch of teasels, a riverside outcrop of reeking ramsons, a field of mixed white and red clover. Finding such scenes and remembering them became one of the pleasures of walking.
Paul Auster the novelist and and sometime critic wrote of an interesting difference between English and French poetry. In French poetry, he claims, flowers tend to be described simply by the word flower – fleur, while in English poetry they are given specific names. I can’t quite remember where he went with that (I read it a long time ago and do not have it to hand), but I think he went on to generalise from this that the French think in the abstract, while the English-speaking peoples favour the specific and concrete, perhaps that the English like to categorise while the French philosophise. And maybe there is something in that. The English value the poetic power of particular names. Look at the first four lines of Oberon’s speech: it contains the names of six different flowers. Just the names of those flowers take up thirteen of the lines’ forty syllables. The last two plants take up six of the last lines’ ten. A great deal of the lines’ beauty inheres in the sound of those names alone. I wonder if Shakespeare, if indeed most people of his time, could reel off the names of plants like that, when plant lore was still a living tradition. Perhaps he asked around his fellow playwrights and actors at the Angel.
We tend to imagine A Midsummer-night’s dream taking place in an English woods – it certainly sounds like one and it has a couple of bona fide English myths wandering around in Puck and Robin Goodfellow. But of course the play is set in a wood outside Athens – it seems the characters wander into the wooded paradise of Arcadia – since that place was mythical I suppose Shakespeare was quite at liberty to model it after the woods of his homeland. Poets in the sixteenth century tended to use a classical setting for their pastoral poetry, as well as their love poems, which is why shepherds and maidens alike had names like Lycidas, Cynthia and Clarissa, rather than Roger, Mary and Lisa. This was a matter of convention, but it also gave them a bit of liberty from the rigid social mores of the sixteenth century. Titania is acting in a way that might have had a contemporary Englishwoman up before the church courts, ‘lulled ‘by ‘dance and delight’, sleeping in the open air in the most sensuous of settings.
There is a faint echo of Middle English poems in these lines, where ‘blow’ retains its Middle English meaning of ‘bloom’, and might remind some readers of the line ‘bloweth mead’ in ‘Sumer is ycumen in’. Eglantine is another word with a medieval ring to it, carrying the scent of Norman French: the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was called Madame Eglentine, and gently mocked by the narrator for her old-fashioned Norman French pronunciation. Critics have commented much on Shakespeare’s propensity to use earthy Anglo-Saxon words in conjunction with Latin derived words (examples here would be nodding violet, enamelled skin and, arguably, luscious woodbine), but there is there is also here the mingling of modern and archaic English words. It all adds to the sense in the play of the past and present mingling with the eternal, of the familiar morphing into the strange and foreign, and of reality blending with fantasy.
As a reader who has read more than his fair share of poems aboot floo-ahs, as the Bacons would style them, I can’t help but sense a foreshadow of much later English poetry in Shakespeare’s lines. I have already mentioned those other serial flower name droppers Wordsworth, Thomas and Williams. Titania perhaps provided some inspiration for that equally fickle (though nastier) lady of the woods, Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. And the alliteration and unusual syntax of the phrase ‘weed wide’ puts me in mind of Hopkins, who claimed to be reclaiming the old alliterative tradition of Old English. I could go on a lot longer about the richness of Shakespeare’s language and its influence, but a post, like a garden (though unlike a mythical wood) has got to end somewhere…