It was a treat last month to record an interview with ABC Radio National's Florence Spurling for an Encounter program that aired this morning, called “Heir to My Affection: the drama and poetry of William Shakespeare, John Donne and George Herbert.” You can listen to it here. We talked mostly about George Herbert, but Florence also spoke with Richard Strier and Peter Holbrook about The Winter's Tale (whence the line “heir to my affection”) and some Donne poetry. Recording it was fun, but listening was even better. There's something very special about hearing this poetry read and spoken of affectionately on air.
Last Friday was my final encounter with Richard Strier - a three-hour seminar on a single Herbert poem, “Love,” which I've posted before. I thought three hours seemed like a lot for one short poem, but the Professor said he could easily have spent a week on it.
We spent the first hour on the poem's form - the rhyme scheme (ABABCC), line lengths (10,6,10,6,10,6 x 3), metre (mostly alternating iambic pentameter, trimeter), and syntax (a move from longer to shorter phrases, from softer to harder punctuation). I confess this left me a bit cold - or perhaps I should say it found me cold; I'm never one to dive into group discussion before it's properly warmed up, and I felt terribly rusty on the technical stuff; my grasp of all those Greek terms (trochees, iambs, dactyls) has always been tenuous. I think form is tremendously important, but to plunge into it before any work on the meaning or tone of the poem felt premature, putting the cart before the horse. How can we know what's significant about the form, I thought, until we know what the poem's about? Perhaps it showed a lack of intellectual courage on my part.
Then we moved on to meaning. Word by word and line by line, we went deeply into the poem's emotional, social, theological, and intellectual world. We felt the courtesy and hospitality of the poem's atmosphere. We found it odd in the beginning that the speaker would “draw back,” from Love's welcome. We noted an increasing urgency and assertion in his resistance to Love's lovely invitations, his insistence on his unworthiness to the point, in the final stanza, of demanding to be sent to hell, rather than be Loved. A sort of paraphrase of what Milton's Satan says: better to reign in hell than be served in heaven. In the end, Love insists: you must sit down and taste my meat. And in the end, the speaker sits, submits, allows himself to be served, to eat, to be satisfied, to no longer be “ungrateful” but to be the willing object of grace.
In some ways a complex and prolonged analysis sits uneasily with a poem of such breathtaking simplicity. But the beauty of such poetry is that however much you break it open, it is never broken. Relentless interrogation will not weary or stale it, and there is no limit to the number of times or ways to encounter it. Like grace, it is new every morning. Like love, it always bids us welcome.
Last night I was lucky enough to hear Professor Richard Strier, head of the School of English and Divinity at the University of Chicago, give a public lecture on The Winter's Tale. He started off by telling us that literary value was something real and demonstrable, which was tremendously refreshing after years of being told by critics that it wasn't. He went on, in his wry and erudite manner, to make a case for the great literary value of this unusual play at the tale end (sorry) of Shakespeare's career, based on its substantiation of the thought that life (contra Renaissance in general) is better than art.
A strange mix of tragedy, comedy and romance, the play has a view of nature as benign and of natural, biological life as something to be celebrated. Against this is the warping proclivity of the human mind which unravels when it breaks its tether to real things in nature. To wit King Leontes, maddened by jealousy, convinced of an imaginary affair between his wife Hermione and his friend, recoils from nature, particularly its components of play and sexuality, and assigns pathology to its rhythms and workings, rather than to his own deluded state of mind. His “diseased opinion” threatens to destroy everything around him, including wife, friend, son and baby daughter. They are saved by the resistance of one Camillo, a usually faithful retainer, and by the redemption in the second half of the play, mostly by his now grown daughter Perdita, of the things he has maligned: nature, sex, play, affection, fancy.
The extraordinary and ambiguous scene at the play's close, where a statue of Hermione (looking mysteriously older) comes to life, brings to its climax the rivalry between art and life that runs through all the earlier scenes. Her living person is worthy of the love and worship her statue, as art or as icon, was patently not, and her resurrection confirms the irrepressible and beautiful fact of biological life. After sixteen years of living with the loss he inflicted upon himself, Leontes has wife and daughter restored along with his mental health, which, in this play, constitutes a correlation between what's in his mind and what's outside it. We are left with the question of whether Shakespeare intended to exalt life above art, or whether, by doing so artfully, he really intended the opposite. Professor Strier thought (in contradistinction to many other critics) that Shakespeare in fact wanted to affirm life above art, and art was simply his medium for doing so. To privilege art, he concluded, was idolatrous, and in general artists are much less idolatrous than critics.