On Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd, Newsnight ended their programmed with a recital of part of Richard the Second’s soliloquy in Pomfret Castle just before his murder. Act5 scene5
I have been studying how I might compare
This prison where I live unto the world
And for because the world is populous…..
I cannot do it, yet I’ll hammer it out.
A good choice in these time of self-isolation. One can see why Richard is a role often favoured by actors as a stepping stone to playing Hamlet. Today I have walked our dog across empty fields filled with yellow dandelions and their spherical seed heads. They becam a memento mori for Shakespeare in his beautiful dirge, Fear No More the Heat of the Sun from Cymbeline:
Golden lads and girls all must // As chimney sweepers come to dust
In 2012 I published my translations of The Sonnets to Orpheus. In this testing time of viral pandemic, many of us have had more time to reflect than in years while others are facing daily the devastation that is being visited upon us. Quoting from my preface to that book, I wrote
“Despite his vision of the inter-relatedness of living things and the healing power of nature, Rilke also had a sense of the abysses of unique experience which separate us and make intimacy so difficult.”
As we slowly come out of the chaos and tragedy which will have harmed so many of us, how will we rise to the challenge of an altered world? What is that challenge? Of course words fail me. This prayer by Rilke seems to me to strike a suitably elegiac note:-
(Sonnet to Orpheus I, 19)
Even the world dissolves
like billowing cloud,
all things achieved
return to their beginnings.
Beyond change and clamour,
wider and freer,
cast your sustaining song,
god with a lyre.
We find pain hard to bear
or learn love's teaching,
and death's estrangement
Only divine song
heals and affirms.
The twelfth century gold jewellery box, back lit in its cabinet, held my attention. It was evenly covered on its rectangular lid and four sides with tiny square turquoise tiles. I made a rough estimate of how many by counting the number over a small area and factoring up. Eight or nine hundred. I could not imagine how the tiles had been placed so precisely, nor how fixed, and there was no way that I knew of finding out. But as I considered the skill of the anonymous craftsman, I felt oppressed by the exigencies of his task. And all to provide a passing delight to a spoilt noblewoman or courtesan. Perhaps. Although possibly a treasured possession passed feelingly from mother to daughter and beyond.
I looked longer. One tessella was paler and greener than the others and lay unassertively on the lid. Had its colour been degraded by a defect in its substance which had gradually appeared during the centuries since the box’s making? I preferred to think of it as the personal mark of its maker, unnoticed by the rich and carefree, but a salute to any future goldsmith, initiate to the mysteries of their guild. So that someone in the distant past might have recognised it as a sign of fellowship arriving from a still more distant past.