It’s hard to close a book like Bring Up the Bodies and leave the lustre and terror of that Tudor world behind. It’s hard, too, not to want to read ahead. I know what happens afterwards – Henry marries three more wives; his three surviving children each take a turn on the throne; it’s Boleyn’s daughter that gives her name to the next age. But I want Hilary Mantel to tell it to me again. I want the rich, breathless pulse of her voice, the turn of the seasons in her hands. Alas there’s only one more book to come: her story ends when Cromwell’s does, so Henry and his heirs are left to their own devices.
I almost wish some copycat would take up the story, giving us Elizabeth’s court in the same fashion. The one thing I felt wanting in Mantel’s world was what happened sixty years later, when Elizabeth was old, and therefore what she couldn’t have written about without anachronism: the great flourishing of English letters at the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century. What’s missing in Cromwell’s ambit is the intoxication of lyric, longing, complex verse. Wyatt and Surrey are well enough in their way, but they are to Sidney and Shakespeare what betamax is to the ipad. The Elizabethans, given in Mantel’s manner, would be a treat.
Yet nothing in my experience leads me to expect success from attempts to fictionalise poetry. To wit: Shakespeare in Love. Or worse: Anonymous. I’d better content myself with poetry unfiltered through fiction’s sieve. So here’s a wintry sonnet from Shakespeare, number 97, which fits the season outside my window, and might as well stand for the desolation of leaving a lover as for finishing a good book.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness every where!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widowed wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.