Shakespeare, Lincoln, Macbeth

I'd like to take a closer look, for a moment, at the patch of poetry which actually triggered the formation of ye "Plumbline School". I was reading a history of the Civil War, by Bruce Catton (A Stillness at Appomatox). Catton describes how Lincoln, during a particularly bleak stretch in 1864, was reading Macbeth, & on one occasion recited this bit to one of his staff:

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

What is it about this particular passage which inspired the formation of this still-coalescing group & website?

I think what struck me in this passage is Shakespeare's, shall we say, conjunction of opposites - the synthesis of two different literary aspects : poetry & prose, eloquence & precision (directness, clarity, simplicity).

The many-layered context is significant. First of all, we have a theatrical, a dramatic situation. This informs the nature of the verse, substantially. The passage is part of a larger plot & scene. The lines are spoken by a king under extreme duress. The tension of the situation provokes the intensity of the language, its passionate figuration. The metaphors of the "poor player" etc. have a double impact (as they are spoken by a "player" in two senses of the term) - this is not "flowery" metaphor, but language whose intensity is in proportion, is adequate to its situation. It is "fitting".

This passage is an example of "synthesis" or balance in another respect. The development of Elizabethan dramatic verse demanded a correlation between the literary and the demotic, the everyday. The "high rhetoric" of blank verse, its eloquence and elegance, had to be fused with the prose values of simplicity, directness, naturalness, precision. We have to believe this is a man actually speaking, in an actual situation, not an actor reciting ornamental lines.

Another aspect of this also interests me. This passage was mediated, on this particular occasion, by a work of history - Catton's book, which in itself is an example of synthetic writing - a combination of prose chronicle (history per se) and evocative, imaginative, dramatic writing. Catton very skillfully sets scenes, describes landcapes & characters, finds dramatic meaning in the actual events he relates. We have, for example, Lincoln (the great writer, along with Jefferson, among the presidents), interpolating a passage of dramatic poetry into a real situation, with its own comparable dramatic intensity (the climax of the Civil War). What we have here is an example of the interpenetration of poetry and life - rooted, I believe, in Shakespeare's synthetic power, as poet, to evoke real human drama with the art of poetic masquerade.

This is, in part, why I think this anecdote, & this speech from Macbeth, might help point the way toward the principles of the "plumbline".

Now I'd like to share an old poem of mine, which in a way does the "Shakespearean" in reverse. Here I try to interpolate a kind of theatrical-Shakespearean rhetoric & reference into a 20th-cent. American occasion. I don't know how well it works. But it attempts a kind of synthesis of different rhetorical ranges & representative occasions.


It is no longer in my power
To pass the torch to those who follow.
Long ago I fell away from the steel
Fiber holding up the school gymnasium,
And years have obscured the clear
Path I walked, a serious child,
By the dreamy lawns, the sheltering
Oak trees of the suburbs. Shame
Weighs on me, tugs at my pride:
My tongue grows awkward, inarticulate,
Unable to confess in clever numbers
All the grotesqueries this antic mind
Would indulge - my soul, snagged
In a filmy web, in the seamy afterlife
Of manifest destiny, that central pomp
Of high-riding families, magnified
On the national screen. An irony
Hovered with dark wings over the slow
River of my growing, marking a sign
On the brow of the elder son.

We plant our feet on the boards,
And pretend a scene. But every word
Tingles with guile; the simple form
Of the body recites from memory
A better tale - more harsh, more
Innocent, exemplary. To be born -
To be thrown off-center - the rest
Is only lust, or circumcision -
And perhaps a morning breeze, echo
And reconciliation.

Enter Hamlet, reading.

Pray God, your voice, like a piece
of uncurrent gold, be not cracked
within the ring.

The envious ghost burns for his
Possessions - rattling armor there
On the far side of the battlements,
In the outer dark. Gertrude?
Ophelia? I remember Memorial Day,
Gathering families in the clear
Green stillness of the huge park -
And my brothers scampering, acting up,
Waving their tiny stars and stripes.
As in a grainy home movie, I can see
My meek father hovering over the grill;
Granddad motionless, his hearing aid
Turned off; and Grandma and my mother,
Laughing, bustling around, two bird voices
Diving into the water, where a bronze
Hiawatha carries Minnehaha carefully
Across the muttering stream...



Joseph Duemer said...

Henry, I was struck by your picking out of a particular sort of poetic virtue in the Shakespeare: that the metaphors are not merely decorative, "flowery" language, but integral. For some reason this seems related to Pound's dictum from The ABC of Reading that "The natural object is always the adequate symbol." In any case, I think this ought to be one of the signature virtues of Plumbline poetry.

Henry Gould said...

Like the Pound phrase!

I'm not opposed in principle to the ornamental, decorative, flow'ry, myself. The issue for me seems to turn on - to what (occasion, theme) is it (the flowery) the "right" style? Sometimes it works. Spenser's "Epithalamium" is absolutely magnificent. I think it's a matter of conjoining the flowers with the (intellectual) light & (necessary) water.

Joseph Duemer said...

Henry, you also write, above: "a correlation between the literary and the demotic, the everyday. The "high rhetoric" of blank verse, its eloquence and elegance, had to be fused with the prose values of simplicity, directness, naturalness, precision. We have to believe this is a man actually speaking, in an actual situation, not an actor reciting ornamental lines." And here I'm not so much worried about the ornamental -- not really an issue for me, either -- but your mentioning of the demotic. If we want to examine our own practice and assumptions here (the point, in part, of the Plumbline, right?), I need to say that I ground my own work in the Anglo-Scots-American ballad tradition, not in terms of form, but in the relation of my work to the demotic. And when I teach creative writing and American lit, I draw heavily on this same tradition, especially at the beginning of the course.

The ballad combines the demotic with the dramatic, and that strikes me as a kind of poetry that might "strike a chord," as you mentioned earlier. It also might be the kind of poetry capable of finding an audience, which has been one of Matthew's concerns in these discussions.

Henry Gould said...

Joseph, maybe you will post one of the ballad-tinged poems here, for a look-see. If you feel like it.

Now I'm trying to remember the name of this contemporary Scots poet who is quite popular in Britain right now... there's probably something about him over in Jacket... maybe you know who I'm trying to think of...