On Julia’s Clothes and 99 other most popular poems

This must be one of the shortest, heavily anthologized poems in the English language. On Julia's Clothes, by Robert Herrick, runs to only six lines. But, witty and playful, this 17th century poem is one of the 100 most anthologized poems in the English language, according to the Columbia Granger's World of Poetry. Here are links to the top 100. But first…

On Julia's Clothes
By Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

Continue reading “On Julia’s Clothes and 99 other most popular poems”

Talk Like Shakespeare Day today

Dost thou think, because there's something rotten in
the state of
the economy, there shall be no more cakes and ale? Fie, dismiss thy fears.
We shall revel today in wholesome mirth and laughter in fulsome praise of the
genius of Master Shakespeare. Sweet Bard of Avon, begetter of the finest verse
and plays, who was born today and made all the world his stage.

Out, damned
Spot, out, I say!
No walkies today. Leave thy master amongst his boon
companions sired by the most noble Shakespeare. Behold Hamlet, Prince of
Denmark; greetings, King Lear; welcome, noble Antony and Cleopatra, thy beauty
beyond compare. What sayst Othello, my lord? Remark the Scottish tragedy. Et tu, Brute? O Romeo, Romeo!
wherefore art thou
missing, Romeo?

All the world's
a stage
, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and
their entrances.

Alack, such is life. Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to
dust.

But do thy
worst, old Time: despite thy wrong
, Shakespeare's verse shall live ever
young. And his plays too. So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long live these
and these give life to thee, Master Shakespeare.

Thou shalt live and we'll dwell on thy fabulous creations. What a piece of work
is man
, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, that he can create
works like these – prodigies of art emanating from the quill of the
extraordinary Will, the incomparable Bard of Avon!

It's Talk
Like Shakespeare Day
today. Visit the website.

Here are more blog entries on "Talk Like Shakespeare" , continuously updated by Google Blog
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And here's "Talk like Shakespeare" on Twitter.

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Shakespeare in love: The youth and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

Shakespeare's sonnets are the greatest love poems in English literature, says The Times. And they are mostly homoerotic, says Bill Bryson in his book, Shakespeare.

That makes them all the more remarkable. For, let's not forget, as late as 1960 Penguin Books was tried for obscenity when it published Lady Chatterley's Lover in Britain.

Shakespeare's sonnets, on the other hand, have been appearing in popular anthologies like Palgrave's Golden Treasury since the 19th century. Book 1, containing poems selected by Palgrave himself in 1861, included Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") and Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold"). Both are addressed to a young man. No doubt they are beautiful poems. Sonnet 18 especially.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The poet praises the incomparable beauty of the person he is addressing who, he says, will be immortalized by his verse. But he doesn't say who he is speaking to — whether it's a man or a woman.

He is equally vague in Sonnet 116, my favourite.

Continue reading “Shakespeare in love: The youth and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets”

Shakespeare On The Double! The Bard in plain English

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Shakespeare On The Double! Twelfth Night translated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

The greatest English playwright in plain English at long last! Now I can understand every word written by the Bard as long as I have a copy of Shakespeare On The Double! in my hand.

Shakespeare On The Double! The unusual format of this paperback edition of Shakespeare's plays makes him as easy to read as any current bestseller. Facing every page of the original text is another page which "translates" the text into modern English.

So on one page you have the original text:

If music be the food of love, play on…

On the facing page is the "translation":

If love feeds on music, play more music.

I am quoting the opening words of Twelfth Night (play, synopsis) spoken by Duke Orsino and "translated by" Mary Ellen Snodgrass.

It may not sound like Shakespeare. But the translation is useful when you run into more complex passages less easy to understand.

There are passages whose meanings might have been perfectly clear to Shakespeare's contemporaries but which have to be explained to us.

Take these words of Viola in Twelfth Night, for instance. She confesses her love for Duke Orsino to Olivia's jester, Feste. But here is the rub. She is disguised as a young man – and neither the duke nor the jester suspects she is a woman. And yet her confession draws no response from the jester. He merely asks her to wait while he informs his mistress that she has brought a message from the duke.

It is a dramatic moment – a "young man" confessing his love for another man. But we may not catch the meaning in the original text:

CLOWN: Now, Jove, in his next commodity of hair
send thee a beard!

VIOLA: By my troth, I'll tell thee, I'm almost sick
for one — (aside) though I would not have it grow on
my chin. Is thy lady within?

Snodgrass' translation makes the meaning clear.

CLOWN: When God passes out hair, I hope he gives you a beard.

VIOLA: I confide to you that I am lovesick for a man. (VIOLA in private) But I don't want hair on my chin. Is the Countess at home?

I have read Arden and other annotated editions which are useful for classroom studies, explaining words and phrases and allusions, putting Shakespeare in perspective.

But for simple enjoyment of his plays, Shakespeare On The Double! is hard to beat. The simple English translation is fun to read and makes one appreciate Shakespeare all the more. This could be a good companion to annotated editions for classroom studies as well.

Shakespeare and his women

Shakespeare It’s a pity Shakespeare (1564-1616) is no longer compulsory reading in Singapore schools. So many girls here have the perfect figure to play the boy-girl roles of Shakespeare’s comedies. No offence meant. It’s just that Shakespeare is taken so seriously it throws people off. Lighten up, please, Shakespeare wrote for entertainment. One may ask where’s the fun in King Lear or Hamlet. Well, for now, I will confine myself to the comedies only.

The choice may seem curious, particularly on this day which may or may not be his birthday but is certainly his death anniversary. But we all have our favourites and I prefer the comedies.

I just commented on the figures of the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies. Obviously they couldn’t be DD cups if they had to pass themselves off as young men, which they did so well that other women fell in love with them. Much of the fun in Shakespeare’s comedies comes from the sexual confusion of the characters in the plays. In Twelfth Night, Orsino woos Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, who is in love with Orsino. No, Olivia isn’t a lesbian, she sees Viola dressed as the youth, Cesario. Now there’s no way Viola could have passed off as a youth if she had DD cups. Rosalind, in As You Like It, couldn’t have had an hourglass figure either — or she wouldn’t have been able to dress up as the young man, Ganymede. Not even her father, the Duke, nor her lover, Orlando, can recognise her.

One wonders about the men in Shakespeare’s comedies. They are silly putty in the women’s hands! Excluding Prospero the magician in The Tempest, of course. That’s why I love the comedies. They get the sex thing so right! I know, being a married man myself. Not that my wife could have ever passed herself off as a young man. Thank goodness, I wouldn’t have liked being fooled like Orlando!

But my wife has the same high spirits and vivacity as Rosalind. That’s what’s so attractive about the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies — their wit and vivacity and high spirits. I think that’s what Shakespeare prized most about women. He couldn’t have been one of those gentlemen who prefer blondes. The Dark Lady of his sonnets had to be a brunette. She could have even been black, according to the writer William Boyd. Shakespeare, of course, expressed mixed feelings about the Dark Lady. But the exotic appealed to him. Otherwise how could his most celebrated heroine be the Egyptian Cleopatra? He was alive to sexual attractions across colour lines and their tensions too, or he wouldn’t have written Othello. But I am straying from the comedies.

My wife prefers the tragedies. After all, she teaches Shakespeare in her college in Calcutta (Kolkata). But I prefer the high jinks of the comedies. And the fun doesn’t stop at cross-dressing. There are other complications too. Think of the shenanigans in the wood near Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Act II, Scene 2 and Act III, Scenes 1 and 2.

Shakespeare can be bawdy but not lascivious. I haven’t read Venus and Adonis and his Poems so I don’t really know, but I don’t think he wrote anything as explicit as some of the passages in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. 

My Shakespeare is far from perfect but I am grateful we had to do Shakespeare in school in India. So did my son for his Indian School Certificate examination before going to college in America last year. He and I both read Julius Caesar but he also had to read The Tempest.

By the way, yesterday was Lenin’s birthday.

Literature or social studies?

Williamshakespeare Two days ago a letter appeared in The Straits Times headlined: "English literature: Keep its beauty pure". "Literature and fiction are not synonyms," said the writer quite rightly but then went on to add: "My dictionary defines literature as ‘writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest’." That may be a dictionary definition of literature, but it raises all kinds of questions. What is of permanent or universal interest? Literary fashions come and go. Yesterday’s literary lion is today’s dead bore.

"What about Shakespeare?" I can already hear some people asking. But Shakespeare as interpreted and performed today is hardly the Shakespeare of Garrick or Charles Lamb. And, frankly, how popular, how widely read, is Shakespeare today?

And let’s not even talk of the changing fortunes of poets and writers like John Donne and Anthony Trollope. Some may think it heresy to mention them in the same breath, but Donne’s reputation has risen and fallen just like Trollope’s. In fact, the whole business of literary criticism is not all that different from stock market trading in the sense that writers’ stocks rise and fall. Critics evaluate writers  just like market analysts rate a company’s shares as "junk", "bluechip" or "lacklustre". And some critics can be awfully choosy. There was this joke about FR Leavis, the famous critic. His collection of books could hardly fill a shelf, it was said, because he liked so few writers.

"Excellent writing is as essential to the study of literature as accurate calculation is to the study of mathematics," said the letter writer. But that again begs the question, what is excellent writing? To talk of literature and mathematics in the same breath is like lumping together apples and oranges; they could not be more different. There can be right and wrong answers in mathematics. Tastes and opinions change in literature. Even the language we use is different from our forefathers’. 

The letter writer poured scorn on some of the current favourites: "Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are popular writers. In comparison to the least writer in the English canon, however, their themes are shallow and their wordplay amateurish." I don’t know what a "least writer" is.

But the letter writer had no doubt at all about what is literature and what isn’t. "Mass-market bestsellers belong in holiday reading or library outreaches. Inferior works that are only ‘culturally relevant’ belong in social studies class."

Excuse me, then where should have been Shakespeare read in his day? In a social studies class? After all, he was a box office hit who wrote his plays to entertain the "groundlings" too.

I don’t think they taught social studies in school back then. But if they did, Shakespeare would have fitted right in — as well as in the literature class. There lies his greatness. And possibly of every other great writer, I think. They may have left behind "excellent writing"; but writing is not just a matter of craftsmanship; it is a commentary as well on people and society.

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets could have been a "black beauty" and a working girl, speculates author William Boyd in an article in the Guardian.

He writes:"Shakespeare’s working life was in Southwark, south of the river, and London Bridge, a noisome, rank and dangerous district, freer of the City of London’s legal edicts by virtue of its location, and home to its theatres, pleasure gardens, bear-fighting pits, innumerable taverns and brothels. Historical records establish that there were black and mulatto prostitutes in Southwark brothels at the time, and it seems highly feasible that the Dark Lady might have been such a working girl.

"Certainly, such an identification makes immediate sense of the sonnets’ rage and misogyny."

He points to the most famous of the Dark Lady sonnets — Sonnet 129 — which celebrates not love but speaks of lust and is full of self-loathing:  "Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ is lust in action … "

Here is the complete sonnet:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme
A bliss in proof–and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

William Boyd, author of novels like A Good Man in Africa and An Ice Cream War, has also written screenplays; that is how he ended up writing A Waste of Shame, a BBC television drama about the love triangle found in the sonnets, involving a "Fair Youth", the Dark Lady and the middle-aged poet. Boyd, who was formerly a lecturer in English at Oxford, read all the 154 sonnets — 126  addressed to the "Fair Youth" and 26 to the Dark Lady. The last two are bawdy allusions to mercury baths that were a contemporary form of treatment for pox, he says.

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Indian actress Indira Varma (above), who also appeared in BBC’s Canterbury Tales and Bride and Prejudice, plays the Dark Lady in A Waste of Shame.

Boyd does not claim to have found any conclusive evidence that the Dark Lady was a prostitute. But Shakespeare knew at least one brothel-keeper, he says.

He writes: "One of Shakespeare’s known associates was a brothel-keeper called George Wilkins, a violent man, arraigned on at least two occasions for savagely beating up prostitutes (one of them pregnant). I cannot prove that Shakespeare was a brothel visitor but the numerous documented connections between Shakespeare and Wilkins attest to the fact that he would have been no stranger to Wilkins’s rebarbative and sordid world."