Tag Archives: Shakespeare

When blood is nipt, drink Hypocras.

When long ago I was beginning to explore the world of poetry for the sake of my children whom I was homeschooling, I ran across this poem by Shakespeare. It’s from the play, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” and every time I read it, especially in winter, it drives the damp and chill right into my bones. That is poetic power!

Notes on words and phrases: Dick is blowing into his hands, or on his fingernails. Joan is likely skimming the pot. The roasted Crabs are apples. People say the owl may well have been the common Tawny or Brown Owl, pictured below.

I’ve transcribed the poem as I found it originally in Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither. In his notes on this entry he gives a recipe for a warming drink such as Dick, Joan and Marian would have welcomed:

“To make Hypocras the best way.–Take 5 ounces of aqua vitae, 2 ounces of pepper, and 2 of ginger, of cloves and grains of paradice each 2 ounces, ambergrease three grains, and of musk two grains, infuse them 24 hours in a glass bottle on pretty warm embers and when your occasion requires to use it, put a pound of sugar into a quart of wine or cyder; dissolve it well, and then drop 3 or 4 drops of the infusion, and they will make it taste richly.”

That recipe doesn’t say that the ingredients are finally heated all together, but I would think so…? The one below, with an owlish theme, is on the rocks – brrr! A cup of Hypocras might feel pretty good today, as I am still “coffing” away, but lacking that I concocted my own steaming drink from ginger tea and Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Almond Beverage. I hope all of you who are in winter are staying warm enough, and merry, too.

Tu-Whit To-Who

When Isicles hang by the wall,
   And Dicke the shepherd blows his naile,
And Tom beares Logges into the hall,
   And Milke comes frozen home in paile;
When blood is nipt, and waies be fowle,
Then nightly sings the staring Owle,
               Tu-whit to-who
               A merrie note,
While greasie Jone doth keele the pot.

When all aloud the winde doth blow,
   And coffing drownes the Parson's saw;
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
   And Marian's nose lookes red and raw;
When roasted Crabs hisse in the bowle,
Then nightly sings the staring Owle,
              Tu-whit to-who
              a merrie note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

-William Shakespeare

The Library of Congress

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Ceiling of the Great Hall

The Library of Congress, the Thomas Jefferson Building, was a joy to visit, primarily for its architecture and design – which is not what I had anticipated. Before I had left home, when Kate suggested that we go there, I had naturally thought first of books, and exhibits about books.

We heard a story about how it ended up so beautiful: The first two construction attempts failed at the level of the foundation, and a third person was called in to complete the project. His son, who had recently graduated from the University of Beaux-Arts in Paris, took over the design and completion of the interior ornamentation. Or so our tour guide told us 🙂

When I was trying to review these facts online for this post, I discovered another version of the story in a book about “German Achievements in America.” That story does not mention any failure on the part of the original (German) architects, but rather emphasizes that they spent twenty years perfecting the design and were never given adequate credit for it.

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Main Reading Room

This page on the LOC site gives broader detail about the drama of these events — involving “the selection of the proper cement for the foundation” — and eventual completion in 1897 of the main building of the library, which was not named for Jefferson until 1980.

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Thomas Jefferson deserved to be honored this way, because he offered to sell his whole personal library to Congress after their collection of books was destroyed by fire in the War of 1812; at that time the library was stored in the Capitol. He said he would accept whatever price they decided upon. Previously they had owned only law books, but Jefferson persuaded them that “…there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” and they bought his 6,487 books for $23,950. That amount was based on the number and sizes of the books.

Jefferson’s generosity was not because he no longer needed what he named “unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the U.S.” He used the money gained to pay some of his debts, and began right away in a “frenzy” to assemble a replacement library for himself, saying, “I cannot live without books….”

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(A little part of) Thomas Jefferson’s Library exhibit

Two-thirds of the new Jefferson library was destroyed by another fire in the Capitol, in 1851. In the last decades efforts have been made to restore all the books that were in the original collection bought from Jefferson, and by 2008 replacements had been found for all but 300 of the original books; together with the volumes not destroyed by fire, these all comprise the exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s Library which has been on display since then. Though we wandered through a couple of other exhibits in the building, this one is where Kate and I spent the most time. I had been to Jefferson’s home at Monticello ten years ago, but through this unhurried perusal of his books I felt more connection to him than ever before.

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Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, an appointee of Abraham Lincoln, had wanted the Library of Congress to be not just a resource for legislators but a library for the whole nation, and he was responsible for the copyright law of 1870,  which required every author of any copyrighted map, book, piece of music, etc., to deposit two copies in the Library. This method of acquiring materials worked very well, and soon Spofford was pressuring Congress to approve a separate building dedicated to housing the collection, and to do it quickly, because books “were being piled on the floor” and he could see that his job would soon devolve into “presiding over the greatest chaos in America.” Though it took 25 more years before the new building was ready to store the books in a more orderly fashion, Librarian Spofford stayed on all that time, presumably presiding over chaos with hope.

In order to fully appreciate all of the art and architecture of the Library, someone who knows as little as I of fine arts and literature would need days of viewing and background studies. Many short quotes decorate the walls, without reference to the work quoted, and I was curious about these. I did look up this one that I liked (below), and found that it is from a Shakespeare play. Though it is a statement about what we can learn not from books but from nature, I will close with it, as I myself must leave the Library and go now to explore some other good things.

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Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones,
and good in everything.

-William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

The company of tears – and thanks to all of you.

My father feeding pheasants in his back yard.

My father and my father-in-law were unusual, in that after their wives died, they each lived another nine or more years. Many men die soon after their wives, and people speculate about why. It seems that women in general do better when they lose their spouses; I have read theories about why this is… probably a lot of things contribute. Here are my ideas, largely gleaned from other people. Please forgive the over-simplification and generalities – we are all probably exceptions at least sometimes:

1) Women are used to taking care of things and people, so they know how to take care of themselves. They at least get the necessary things done for survival during the period while they are learning to live without their husbands. But if men have been used to the women cooking for them and in various ways making the house a home, they would be at risk for becoming less healthy very fast when their wives are gone, to some degree reverting to the risky behavior characteristic of unmarried men.

2) If women are, in the words of author John Gray, like “waves” whose emotions periodically roll over people around them, perhaps they know instinctively to let that tide of grief flow as long as it must. Men, on the other hand, don’t know how to deal with things they can’t control, and they want to fix problems such as emotions. If we know that we will get through this, and that there is no going around it, we are able to survive.

3) Women often have support networks with other women, and these friends help them to not feel alone. They have someone to talk to, and/or go shopping with, etc. They have a pattern of activity with other people that they can continue in some fashion as widows so they don’t start from nothing when creating their new lives. Men are notorious (at least, among most of my women friends) for not having friends in the same way. They are more likely to become depressed.

About thceltic heartsis last point, I know that you readers of my blog have been a important part of that network for me. I have never been in the habit of going out to lunch or taking walks with friends on a regular basis, being part of a knitting group, etc. I don’t even get helped by talking about my grief, but I am without a doubt helped by writing about it, especially if at least one person is reading-listening and affirming. So I thank all of you very much  – you are extending my life span!

What sparked my thinking on these things recently was finding a quote by
Donald Hall, the poet who was married to poet Jane Kenyon when she died in her 40’s. He wrote:Donald Hall_si-303x335

Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears.

Many years ago I enjoyed in The New Yorker an article that Hall wrote about his late wife. It was the first I knew of him, but several times over the years I’ve read more of his prose. He is still alive, though she died 20+ years ago, and he was almost 20 years older than she. Now he writes only prose, but I thought that if I were going to share that quote I ought to read some of the poetry he wrote after she died. So I borrowed the collection Without from the library.

kenyon and hall

I found most of the fresh-grief poems to be too fresh and overwrought, and I don’t know if that is only because I’m past that stage myself, or because of something to do with him being a man. Perhaps he was too distracted by mourning to be able to do his best work. I never did find one I loved; I like his prose so much better. But this later one serves well:

Letter After a Year

Here’s a story I never told you.
Living in a rented house
on South University in Ann Arbor
long before we met, I found
bundled letters in the attic room
where I took myself to work.
A young woman tenant of the attic
wrote these letters to her lover,
who had died in a plane crash.
In my thirtieth year, with tenure
and a new book coming out,
I read the letters in puzzlement.
“She’s writing to somebody dead?”

There’s one good thing
about April. Every day Gus and I
take a walk in the graveyard.
I’m the one who doesn’t
piss on your stone. All winter
when ice and snow kept me away
I worried that you missed me.
“Perkins! Where the hell
are you?”

————-In hell. Every day
I play in repertory the same
script without you, without love,
without audience except for Gus,
who waits attentive
for cues: a walk, a biscuit,
bedtime. The year of days
without you and your body swept by
as quick as an afternoon;
but each afternoon took a year.
……

The poem goes on for many more stanzas – this first part was my favorite, especially the last four lines. (The poet intended for the phrase “In hell” to be indented with only white space in the gap, but I haven’t been able to teach WordPress about this aspect of poetry — hence the filler line.)

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I have not read this.

Ten years after his wife’s death Hall published The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. I was surprised that the majority of the book is about their life after her diagnosis of leukemia. It does include the essay The Third Thing, in which he writes about their years as a whole and how the writing life figured into it. The story of how he brought Jane, not yet 30, to New Hampshire from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to his grandmother’s house where from a child he had always wanted to live, is very touching.

She fell in love with the place at Eagle Pond, but their joint realization of the strong desire to move there came in stages. It seemed preposterous for him to quit his reliable teaching job to do it.

“It was late October when Jane made the definitive announcement: She would chain herself to the walls of the rootcellar rather than leave New Hampshire. I was terrified; I was joyous.”

I wonder at my interest in a couple whose poetry I’ve barely read, with whom I might seem to share very little in common, unless you count, as I do heavily, their love for a secluded life at home by a lake, in the garden, reading and writing much of the day. They were part of a warm church community of which Donald’s relatives were also members. Donald loves baseball, and has been a lifelong smoker (Well, no, I don’t share that with him). They lived a life that perhaps the majority of the population would not be able to endure. In fact, some people asked, “What do you do?”

From “The Third Thing”:
“What we did: we got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day.”

I would probably find it easy to read about other couples also if they knew how to write as well about their everyday satisfactions – and sufferings. But I will have to move on, when I have finished this article, without learning everything that might be known about Donald and Jane, their life and their loves.

Though I might yet read more of their poetry. I have the fat Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon in the house right now, and will share with you this:

In the Grove: The Poet at Ten

She lay on her back in the timothy
JaneKenyon_NewBioImage and gazed past the doddering
 auburn heads of sumac.

A cloud — huge, calm,
and dignified — covered the sun
but did not, could not, put it out.

The light surged back again.

Nothing could rouse her then
from that joy so violent
it was hard to distinguish from pain.

-Jane Kenyon

Donald Hall is 87 now. In a review of Essays After Eighty we read, “Jane Kenyon’s presence is everywhere in Essays After Eighty. The couple were married for 23 years, until her 1995 death from leukemia. Kenyon was 47 years old. Hall endured a period of intense pain, captured in two poetry collections and a memoir. Twenty years later, raw agony has become constant, aching loss: ‘I will mourn her forever.’”

Perhaps his writing is the support that has kept him going, even though he had cancer before Jane ever got sick, and last we heard, he was still smoking a pack a day.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Stories of English – Wordstruck

A friend gave me a used paperback copy of Wordstruck, a memoir by Robert MacNeil, of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that he hosted in different formats from 1975-1995 on TV. I had heard his name during those years, but our family didn’t watch television, so we didn’t pay attention until he co-authored the book The Story of English in 1986. It was quickly made into a TV series that we watched on our video player at home some time later.

I have often thought of renting the films again, because they were so fascinating in our fairly brief viewing. Now I find that Netflix doesn’t have them, and they are out of my price range to buy. There are some excerpts on YouTube.

Wordstruck chronicles MacNeil’s life up until the time he wrote the book in 1989, focusing on his love for the English language, including an account of the early influences that he thinks may have encouraged it. On the first page he describes an evening in chilly Nova Scotia when he was still a little boy, his mother reading to him while he snuggled in his pajamas on the sofa. She is reading the Robert Louis Stevenson poem “Windy Nights” that I read year after year to my own children — so I knew from the beginning that I would enjoy considering the author’s family life.

His parents loved books, and books were the main diversion of their life as “members of the large, scraping middle classes.” Mrs. MacNeil’s voice “was multi-hued, like glass fused of many bottles in a fire, with wisps of Lowland Scots and Highland Gaelic, Irish, Hanoverian German, Acadian French, and the many flavours of English deposited by generations of British soldiers and sailors,” and “She sounded enthralled, as full of wonder and close-rivetted attention as I was.”

And for MacNeil’s father, “Whatever he was doing, his books were a constant; even when he was short of cash for anything else, like paying bills, books appeared. In fact, he used books to hide the bills he couldn’t pay. Occasionally I found little nests of them when I pulled out a book. My mother said scornfully that was Irish–dealing with unpleasant reality by putting it away somewhere, out of mind. She never knew which books to look behind. It made her both furious with him and tender.”

“He always wrote on the flyleaf of each new book the date and where he was, so I can follow him: reading Chesterton just after they were married in November 1929, Scottish poets the following spring, Conrad through the early thirties, and Proust at sea in wartime….” Ah, what a life people lived before television!

MacNeil the Shakespearean actor explains how the words and rhythms and story of a poem like “Windy Nights” were so effective at training his mind to appreciate poetry without him being aware of anything except that he didn’t want his mother to stop reading. His grandmother loved that one, too, and made him memorize it on walks through the public gardens.

Stories of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan; authors like Kipling and Dickens–they all contributed to a rich mental landscape, as words and word patterns populate the mind:

 “They accumulate in layers, and as the layers thicken they govern all use and appreciation of language thenceforth. Like music, the patterns of melody, rhythm, and quality of voice become templates against which we judge the sweetness and justness of new patterns and rhythms; and the patterns laid down in our memories create expectations and hungers for fulfillment again. It is the same for the bookish person and for the illiterate. Each has a mind programmed with language–from prayers, hymns, verses, jokes, patriotic texts, proverbs, folk sayings, clichĂ©s, stories, movies, radio, and television.

“I picture each of those layers of experience and language gradually accumulating and thickening to form a kind of living matrix, nourishing like a placenta, serving as a mini-thesaurus or dictionary of quotations, yet more retrievable and interactive and richer because it is so one’s own, steeped in emotional colour and personal associations.”

Obviously MacNeil’s mind has a very thick matrix, and the book is full of his sharing various experiences of his life in all its cultural wealth, riches I think are made more valuable by being able to speak and write articulately about them from a broad knowledge background.

So far I’ve just drawn from the introductory chapters, but there are a few incidents later on that I want to mention. During WWII when he was still a boy, MacNeil paid ten cents for a tour of a captured German fighter plane, and while he sat in the cockpit the inspection of the inside “convinced me that Germans were real people, human beings….The few instruments had German labels and the realisation that the man who flew this had to be able to read the words which I could not made him intelligent, alive–a real person with a name. So were the Germans who had designed and built this beautiful machine, even if it was no match for our Spitfires, of course.”

From singing in the choir in the Anglican Church:

“There was poured into the porches of this child’s mind a rich echoing soup of sound which made literal sense only when recollected years later. If scientists could examine my brain, as they do the contents of murder victims’ stomachs, they would find that I had gorged myself when young on plum puddings and fruitcakes of this seventeenth-century prose; each word simple in itself, the combination rich and fruity, loved for the taste on the tongue, through years in the digesting; words for their own sake. That was particularly true of the often-repeated passages from the Book of Common Prayer, paraphrases of biblical verses that constitute English worship since the sixteenth century.”

“All this exposure to the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the hymns seasoned me with the words and the forms that had launched British navies and armies into battle and imperial civil servants on their missions; the words that had christened the babies, married the daughters, and buried the dead of the Empire….It was like the tannin of English tea staining our souls for life. You do not lose it ever.”

God willing, His words have not stopped their work on the soul of this man who loves them so dearly as mere words, and not for His meaning that they carry. MacNeil tells us also about many of his favorite non-church words, like reek, and how they came to be and to change over time. He says of Old English: “The words are usually small, like nuts, with strong vowel sounds for flavor and a hard shell of consonants.”

In school the author was good at public speaking and reciting poems, and acting in plays. Then at seventeen, he fell in love–with Shakespeare. “On a winter afternoon in 1948….I didn’t find God but I found William Shakespeare, a piece of God’s work so extraordinary that he comes close to divinity itself.”

“The ironic cast of Shakespeare’s words released me a little from the prison of my self-absorption, and hooked me into a wider, grander scheme of things. They made me larger, freer.”

Of course, it is the language and literature of Shakespeare that MacNeil loves — but he also loves every other variety of English from limericks to slang. Being the author of The Story of English, he’s not afraid to acknowledge that language is always changing, and quotes Otto Jespersen, who wrote in 1905, “The English language would not have been what it is if the English had not been great respecters of the liberties of each individual and if everybody had not been free to strike out new paths for himself.”

There are some changes that do concern MacNeil: he wonders if we are losing our ear for the language because we have consigned good English to the printed page, and also started to depend on computers to choose our syntax and vocabulary. This makes us “more remote from the sound of our language, and therefore from a feeling for the weight of words.”

“There must be some living connection between the weight of words and truth….Today, it seems, words increasingly mean nothing to the person using them….The public words of public men seem to be used increasingly like aerosol room fresheners, to make nice smells.”

It was a very agreeable acquaintance to make, of Robert MacNeil and his love for the English language. I do like him, and spending time with him I was reminded of my own efforts to give my children a rich literary diet in their youth. I certainly did love to read to them; I even made them memorize poetry. But I know I haven’t loved the language as much as this man.

I’m impressed with his writing skill and glad to meet someone who rejoices in so many aspects of his humanity, but it is the Creator of us humans who ultimately deserves our adulation and love. For a fact, Shakespeare and even Robert MacNeil are examples of God’s handiwork and make us know something of the divine, because they are made in God’s image. I can’t revel in the language very long before I start to praise the God who gave us the gift of language and speech.

Just thinking about speech and language brings Psalm 19 to mind. I pray that the literature of the Psalter is a powerful part of the matrix of my own children’s minds and hearts — now I feel that we didn’t read from it enough. Here is part of that particular psalm to help me bring my review to an end:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
….Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.