Ships before the wind

Macbeth haunted by witches of the mind. Photo by Petaluma Shakespeare Company.

No garnacha at table. State of the world. Swords in the field. Lambs pursued by hunger starvéd wolves. Tragedy treading heels of tragedy. Those damned old fires of hatred and greed. Always been burning since the world’s been turning, as Billy Joel put it.

We think to be or not to Bb but we know not what we may be. Sam Shepard’s dramatic structure borrowed from a jazz piece. Dramatic cadences and elements interweave and repeat until moonlight shines out of the play. Like a dowager? Influenced by Shepard’s one time room mate, Charles Mingus? Or perhaps just “in the air”. Liebniz. Newton. The air is full of sounds. Noises. Off. Maybe not as funny.

While it may not always be Suicide in Bb, we still continue down the road to becoming ghosts. Storm or shine or blank of day. Parade of tomorrows. Novels, paintings, poetry, video games. All the influences of sky and dry grass. Roses growing in banks. In heaps. Long grass, waiting fingers to consume us.

The road to becoming a ghost. Author photo.

Things we long for, even as the weather turns cold.

How we long for “A forked mountain, or blue promontory/ With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world”. Antony’s words just before his death painting gorgeous, changeable skies.*

Bells toll incessantly. For me. For thee. Galloping horsemen close behind us. Hot breath on the neck of Golden Horn Hooligan while the world grows cold around us.

Still no Brigadoon. Only the mist over the moors at midnight. Our hearts weep but no one comes. No village appears. No maiden. We lock ourselves in. Double lock ourselves in, which is not our custom.

Outside, cows browse the margins of stubbled fields. The last brindled snakes of autumn lie across our path, soaking up the last fragrance of the light, the last remnants of the early autumn sun. One lone adolescent coyote forages through the vines. Field mice deeper underground. Will there be enough for winter? Should have thought of that before you turned your back on the too hot fields. The field is “now canopied/ Under these windows, white and azure laced/ With blue of heaven’s own tinct.”**

Leaves die back and cooler weather paints the lands against a cosmos in retreat. Spaces curl in upon themselves.

Autumn washed land. Author photo.

We are weary, weary. Pervading sense of just not going there. Not Bartleby preferring not to, but being unable to. Unable to go, to see, to look, to hear. Oh, I could think but for this screaming in mine ears. Every night at the same hour. The sound from that skull.

And lambs with us, those like snakes and doves, to whom can we turn? “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”*** Those amongst us, in the sleepy towns, the safe towns, the quiet neighborhoods, who would or will readily open fire indiscriminately in public places. Berserkers laying about them with their sharp swords, cutting even into crowds in the marketplace.

Strange men wandering the neighborhoods with electronic devices, trying to hack into household internet accounts. Strange cars patrol the streets, looking for work trucks which might be full of tools. The holidays are coming. Incidence of armed robberies on the rise.

Is this collective grief? Collective rage?

Some still pose themselves as avenging angels, crusading to save children from indoctrination–from drag shows or cross thinking. A woman’s weeds. Or a man’s. We need to check our genitalia. Check that at the door. (No, guns are allowed, just not genitalia.) Only what a birth certificate says. Or what scriptures says.

Angel wannabes donning gowns and wings and banning books so children cannot read them. High schoolers cannot read them. The righteous plucking out their own children’s eyes so that they cannot see things which might have been written, painted, created, or considered, by those whose thoughts do not conform to some amalgamated image of righteousness. Naked statues? Must be evil because the tree of good and evil cannot be about knowledge. It must be sexual.

If it is knowledge though, then we shall ban knowledge. As long as we consolidate thinking, power, money. We must not let them think, these young ones. We must point them in the right direction. It is our duty.

What does your own kingdom of heaven look like? Mine has old seventies style shag carpet and settees covered in brocade.

Nah, nah.

The barge she sat in like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them.

Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.227-30

Really? Hadn’t thought of that. Maybe have some of that next year albeit one gets tired of blue. We’ve done the seaside theme so often, but can one ever have enough of it? Ever have enough of love, garnacha, and the long night’s journey into day? Burnished beaten gold hanging from the trees reminds us. We grow old.

Autumn. Author photo.

The rude angels of mismatched design. Higgledy piggeldy presentation. Sloppy thinking. Legions of Youtube channels have arisen in efforts to banish them. Promote them. Who furthers demonic aims?

The quick and easy fix. The hack. Brilliant way to peel your lemons, eggs, pomegranates. If Persephone had only known, maybe it all should have been different.

Dissent arrived early for dinner. First in the chow line. Uninvited but arising. Generated naturally out of the rich brocade of human nature. The nature of our dreams.

Why does it seem that avenging angels, punishing angels, were the first angels? First created by God? Why? What might that teach us? Right from wrong? Tree of knowledge? Tell us that being bad is more fun than being good? Donald Sutherland the tempter biting the apple.

How might we be wrong or imperfect in the eyes of a perfect being? If thine eye offend thee. . .? What if thy neighbor offend thee? The neighbors all out in the streets, carrying laptops, tablets, devices, trying to hack into our internet accounts. Do we blast them? Smite them? Annihilate them?

Our collective rage rises up, a climbing mountain of wave. Rage. The dark side. Cookies.

Keeping tabs on others. Judging them. We may not mean to but we do. In them we see the faults we had and add some extra new ones too. (So sorry, Philip.)

As if we do not have our own transgressions. Whistling past the graveyard. Such a broad and fanciful graveyard. Overgrown. Glittering under hoarfrost.

Graves yawning before us. “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry.” (So sorry, Charles, Frank, Philip Van Doren Stern, and Henry Travers.)

We turn away, we turn away. We turn our faces towards the day, Yet always we are becoming ghosts. Ghosts in the field. In the tall grass. Our sullied flesh melting, thawing, and resolving itself into a less congenial frost.

Tall grass. Author photo.

Oh, up ahead see the darkness falling over the vast fields of the republic. As at twilight, we can no longer see clearly. Not that we ever could, but darkling shadows gather devouring what sight we had. Still, we are so often certain we are right. There are rules. Regulations. Right and wrong are absolute. We judge others and we judge ourselves.

We punish others, letting them know when what they’re doing is wrong. Leveling lives casually and indiscriminately because others seem menacing, different. They seem to be threatening us, our well being, or (for the most part) just annoying us. “You used up all the glue on purpose.” The old Darren McGavin line applies these days to immigrants. To them. They’ll use up all the healthcare. It won’t be sustainable. If we can only hold our little part of the world together, the rest of it can go to hell. At least we’ll be okay.

In the end, we become vengeful ghosts. We smile. Patient. Waiting. Awaiting the downfall of those who have wronged us.

Grudges are like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die, we are told. The vengeful ghost responds: fine. Don’t mind dying as long as the other person dies too.

Never wanted in to the damned union to begin with. Never voted for that. (Only my ancestors voted, prayed, scraped, and fought, to make such divisions less likely to ever happen again.) Immigrants poison the lifeblood of a community? A nation? A people (whatever that means). We divide ourselves. Partition the world. Slicing it up like party cake. Not enough for them too. Not enough in the purse for others. Refugees. People who will use up all the national resources on purpose.

Oh, how we tread the paths of despots who came before us. Division. As long as we don’t have to pay for it.

But then, if we really stop to think about it, we all pay for it, no matter who we shut out with fences, walls, or armed guards. It costs us. It costs the world.

And over here, the first child of division, of partition. War. That big, ugly mug. Sitting on it’s own throne of refuse. Burnished? Question of polishing a. . .what?

Well, I didn’t vote for this, at least. I only voted to keep uneducated, job stealing foreigners out. I only voted because I know the colonials are X or Y, lazy, uneducated, shiftless. They are harmful. Overpaid, overfed, oversexed, and over here.

Those people. (Who are “those people” anyway? Well, they’re certainly not us.)

Showing up late for wars and taking all the credit.

Others threaten public safety. Best to keep them out. A government’s job is to build walls. To keep us secure–we the hard working, the noble, the fairy tale denizens of our original country. Yet, those fairy dances only leave rings of mushrooms behind them. Perhaps the fairies build walls too, to keep us out of fairyland because we are unworthy. Why Chaucer writes of how the fairies have all vanished.

Fairy ring. Author photo.

A government must not spend money taking care of the indigent. Those people. It is their own fault that they are not willing to work.

The halt. The lame. The blind.

We should not have to pay taxes to support them. “If you see a blind man, kick him. Need you be kinder than God?”

Oh, we can be mean at base. Mean.

(Leave aside here those working two or three jobs, often while trying to raise a family, and remaining unable to make ends meet. Leave aside those who cannot find a job to support themselves, a job which pays enough to keep a roof. Most available jobs at minimum wage won’t pay for lodgings for anyone, at least not anywhere in the United States. Probably elsewhere as well.)

Oh, I don’t mean them. You know I don’t. I’m not heartless.

Then why vote like that?

No “socialized” medicine here! That’s communism. Everyone knows that socialism is merely communism under a different name.

Meanwhile, great cities arise. The unsheltered, who eke out an existence far from the fertile fields. Living in doorways, on council or on county land. In tents if they can get them. On road medians and the edges of highways.

The “homeless problem”? Is this because “no one wants to work anymore”?

Meanwhile, we cut education to the bone. We cut public health and mental health initiatives to the bone. (Oh, maybe that was Reagan and Thatcher, I forget.)

Most of the population used to have some cursory introduction to literature and drama, which gave them the rudiments of a context for considering and sorting ideas. But because these subjects, when deeply studied, do not tend to produce lucrative careers, now there is only STEM. The savior/damnation of the modern world. It’s really all about money, as the PM asserts. (Oh, not in those words, of course. It’s all couched in some rhetoric designed to make killing the humanities seem reasonable and humane.)

The natural economies of the world will kill it all for us in any case. No one wants to end up in a cardboard and tent city, unable to afford even a smart phone.

And while the world burns, we’ll soon be able to give people implants which will contain all of the humanities, all of our collective humanity, with an AI to sort it for us. The shelterless won’t have them, of course, but the rest of us will be clever then. We will call to mind great and pertinent quotations at parties–things which people once had to work to memorize. Our own faculties will fade away, our natural memories unnecessary.

Where does it lead? This bright world increasingly askew? It tilts us into the fire.

Melting axis. Author photo.

Can we learn any lessons from human history? (Oh, wait. We cut that beyond the scope of basic “western civ” courses. History doesn’t make money. Rip off the rearview mirror. What’s behind us does not matter. And how in time?

Will we learn in time that the very idea of “otherness” wreaks havoc on the world? Will we learn it in time? Years. Lifetimes. Bloodlines? Who is more damned? Sinners? Punishers? We judge. We pronounce. We exclude. Gleefully.

Damnation comes to us in many forms, but mostly dressed in grief and rage. Irretrievable moments. Shots fired which we cannot call back. Oh, great sorrow for all the sides in wars, all the innocents, all the lost talent, lost ways, lost meaning.

Bonfire, bonefire, of veritas, vanitas, vegitas. A falling away. Falling away from enlightenment.

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; Evil be thou my good; by thee at least Divided empire with heaven’s King I hold, By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign; As man ere long, and this new world shall know. (Paradise Lost, IV, 107–113). Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.****

Yet, if it is written, let us ban the books. Burn the books. We must protect the children. (Well, our own children. Who cares what other children believe or think?) We must construct the kind of society we need. Whole. Pure. Holy.

Satan lives in “alternative” ideas. Ideas outside of whatever scripture we believe.

We engineer society for safety. Not to lord it over others. Not to tell them what to do with their own sordid peculiarities. Except they shall not live amongst us, not adjacent to us. No. We do not want to hear the dogs barking in the neighboring state, so we will silence them. Shoot them, if need be.

What of the small ghosts, little ones wandering the world in search of peace and kindness. Oh, that’s why we have holidays.

Even when the peace itself enrages us, even when we feel compelled to take up arms as others have done, we will be left in incandescent rage. We grow larger. Vigilantes. Riding the night hunt endlessly. Knights of Oberon’s train. Step off your horse and become the dust.

Perhaps we trespass as those have trespassed against us, but we have God on our side. Anton LaVey telling us, “Do unto others as they do unto you.” How can we see otherwise when we are correct, right? Jesus loves me (but not necessarily you). This I know for the Bible tells me so.


It often seems we play a losing hand against the cold darkness of the world falling around us. We have no other choice. We buy peacemakers.

Some become vengeful ghosts. Not hand wringing, but winging into the world on little bat wings, seeking those who have wronged us, seeking the great cosmic correction fluid of the typewritten page. Tears. Piety. Wit. Rage. Call the hand back or we will cancel the writing altogether.

If martyrs teach us anything, they teach us that what wounds most is love, and that wounds do not heal. Instead, they offer us choices. We can become angels, ghosts, or hollow men, headpiece filled with straw.

But are any of these states really us? Our original? Providence in the fall of a sparrow? Oh, no. Not tears. Not rage. We strive endlessly for peace remaining unforgiven. No one takes us seriously. “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

Is the end of the road like Browning’s heaven? Or might that ending be painted other ways?

Katsushika Hosukai (1760-1849), vengeful ghost in physical form

Should we work in shops and sleep in doorways forever? The very cold in our bones awakens vengeful ghosts and they rise up like night around us.

What roads do they take? Where should we look when we cannot read the news? The news draws our eyes endlessly to the hell scroll. We cannot look away.

Ran, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Toho Pictures, 1985.

Oh, we should look away? We should. We must. We pull away from social media. We minimize our presence. We become a ghost. Watching only kills us. Slowly. Quickly.

Yet it also shows us that suffering is not only our own.

Perhaps our morbid fascination might also stir compassion. Empathy. As the humanities used to do.

Africa. Asia. Europe. The Americas. We watch struggles. Watching ourselves. Watching others striving. Starving.

We have struggles too. Disease. Housing. Hunger. Maybe we really are all fellow travellers on the ghost road. The late light slanting down making the shadows long and lean.

Growing shadows. Author photo.

It won’t be that long now. Can’t be.

Everyone we meet, smiling or stern, in glee or rage, endures the sometimes terrible vagaries of life.

Beyond our own faculties to judge anyone really. Nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Bright and dark marks streak our souls, and we become zebras of infinite complexity. Infinite jest.

Vote as we will. Behave as we will. No mere ghost will stop us.

Still, it behooves us and the world to extend the hand of kindness when we can. To think of others, of the different, more as being in the same boat. Doing the best for ourselves and those near to us.

For the problem with the world may lie not so much in violations of prescribed rules, but in unconcern and apathy. Better to touch hands with one’s neighbor, and try one’s best to understand them.

Were we able to address poverty and fear, we might go far (even now) in righting the listing ship of our world. Will we? I don’t know. But even a ghost can hope.

*Antony and Cleopatra 4.14.6-7

**Cymbeline 2.2.24-5

***KJV Matthew 7:15

****The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward FitzGerald. (Sometimes controversial, but also familiar.)

Great Caesar’s Ghost!

Yes, this is a repost. Suitable for the season though, for times when many cultures remember their dead.

The grave of Marie Corelli, whose former house is now the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford upon Avon. Author photo.

Also, ghosts can be surprisingly busy. Often busier than we intend. The living seem to think that it’s all just quiet rest and smooth sailing once we pass, but no. Believe you me. There can be an awful lot going on.

And sometimes, ghosts can be called hither and yon on various errands, which can be errands involving memory and regret, especially those still carried by mortal spirits in the world.

Great Caesar’s Ghost

We have just reached that point where latest night bleeds into earliest morning.  A man paces restlessly in a tent in the middle of a military encampment, all his companions long since asleep.  The crucial battle looms ahead of him, and his mind won’t let him rest.  Doubts surround his noblest convictions, threatening to vanquish them.  Thoughts of long-lost friends and lovers are awash in waves of pain and deep regret. 

Tortured by these reflections, the man hears a small sound. Turning, he sees someone standing before him.  One of his dearest friends.  A man whom he helped to assassinate, believing that his friend’s death would be better for the world.

In Act 4, scene 3 of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s portentous ghost appears to Brutus.  The ghost foretells Brutus’ final defeat at the hands of Marc Antony’s triumvirate forces in the coming battle at Philippi, but Caesar’s appearance also marks a final condensation and embodiment of Brutus’ own doubts and guilt. 

Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar. Copperplate engraving by Edward Scriven from a painting by Richard Westall. London, 1802. Caption: “XXX. JULIUS CAESAR. ACT IV. SCENE III. BRUTUS’S TENT, IN THE CAMP NEAR SARDIS. Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar.” Image in the public domain.

While we are used to ominous ghosts appearing in the plays of Shakespeare and in those of his early modern colleagues, these spectral devices have classical antecedents in Roman tragedy, and they have specific dramatic functions.  Apparitions frequently mark pivotal moments in the plot, moments where a lead character’s fortune alters, or moments where the play’s tone or the plot direction is about to change in some significant way. 

Yet, ghosts can also perform expository and narrative functions.  In Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the ghost of the Spanish officer, Andrea, consorts with the embodied persona of Revenge to serve as a kind of chorus, offering a simultaneous commentary and directional indication for the play.  In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which was perhaps written 15 to almost 20 years after Kyd’s influential drama, the ghost of prince Hamlet’s father becomes, in a sense, a coalescence of memory and revenge in a single figure.  Old Hamlet’s ghost is a manifestation of a kingdom ill at ease, of the dis-ease within the state, a personification of the way in which the former kingdom’s leadership has been murdered, metaphorically to become a ghost of its former potent self.

Neither need spirits be singular or strictly linked to the past. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example, the titular character is visited in his sleep by a number of ghosts of various people whom he has murdered, and this dire omen, as Caesar’s ghost does to Brutus, presages his defeat and death in the upcoming battle of Bosworth Field.  However, in Macbeth, in addition to the prophesying spirits that appear to him in Act 4, scene 1, Macbeth is also shown a procession of future kings who will be descended from his former friend, Banquo.  These future ghosts have no dialogue, but they speak strangely to our sense of fate and predetermination, further accelerating Macbeth’s already rapid descent.   

Caesar’s ghost does this as well, not only indicating Brutus’ impending downfall, but also precipitating the denouement of the entire play.  Yet, in keeping with the nature of ghosts themselves, the appearance of Caesar’s ghost in Act 4 of Julius Caesar also encompasses a broader dimension than that of a simple perfunctory dramatic device.  On a character level, the ghost combines a quickening confluence of circumstances with a dramatic turning point, not just in the weary Brutus’ fortunes, but in the character’s mind and spirit as well. 

Appearing in the liminal space at the very edge of dreams, the ghost confronts a Brutus who has already been navigating psychologically choppy seas.  Just before the ghost’s appearance in the play, Brutus has argued with his co-conspirator, Cassius, and he has also been contemplating the death of his beloved wife, Portia.  The row with Cassius has hinted to Brutus that he may have been relatively isolated in the nobility of his own motivations in participating in Caesar’s assassination.  He has been pointedly confronted with the idea that other conspirators may have participated in the assassination more from hope of personal gain than from a genuine effort to secure the greater good of Rome. 

So, this phantom moment in the play characterizes profound emotional and intellectual isolation.  Even the musician has fallen asleep and the music has gone silent.  Alone with the profound ache of his wife’s recent death, and with the chasm of potentially having committed to a questionably moral cause yawning at his spiritual feet, Brutus’ painful self-examination marks a true dark night of the soul.[i]  It is into such moments of enormous emptiness that ghosts most often appear to us.

Enter the Ghost of CAESAR


How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.


Thy evil spirit, Brutus.


Why comest thou?


To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.


Well; then I shall see thee again?


Ay, at Philippi.


Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit Ghost[ii] 

The ghost’s response to Brutus’ opening question leaves open the kind of interpretive space that we find elsewhere in Shakespeare, potentially allowing the line to be read in more than one way.  While the ghost seems to say that, as an “evil spirit”, it is a spirit of ill omen to Brutus, it also states that it is “thy” evil spirit, and perhaps signifying Brutus’ own evil, representing the ripening fruits of his character’s past associations and transgressions—his participation in the confederacy to murder Caesar finally coming home to roost.   

If we consider “thy evil spirit, Brutus” as a kind of reflection of Brutus’ own evil, it hearkens back to Cassius’ initial arguments to Brutus, when he first begins to beguile Brutus to join the conspiracy against Julius Caesar.  Cassius’ statement in Act 1 that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings” (JC, 1.2.148-9) is reflexive, turning responsibility back upon the self.  Cassius speaks of personal advancement here, saying, “Brutus and Caesar—what should be in that ‘Caesar’? /Why should that name be sounded more than yours?” (150-1).  In spite of Brutus’ later assertion, “Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?” (4.3.20), Caesar’s murder nonetheless retains the taint of having been motivated by personal gain, haunted by the ghost selfish glory possibly having supplanted the greater good.

Not surprisingly, Brutus seems somewhat resigned to the news that Caesar’s ghost will see him at Philippi.  His response, “Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then” indicates not so much surprise or indignation as recognition and a possible reconciliation.  For Brutus, from this point in the play, only the descent remains. He becomes both actor and character, ready to step through the curtained entrance of his camp tent and take his character’s place for his final segment of the play.

In terms of performance-based considerations, “enter the ghost of Caesar” tells us that the apparition should be recognizable—that the audience should be able to identify the ghost as Caesar’s as readily as Brutus does.  Caesar’s ghost speaks with Brutus directly, representative of an active past that remains with the audience in the ongoing world of the play.  Whether emblematic of the past mistakes, regret, or of the mounting force of impending failure the ghost’s presence remains a remarkably solid one, strongly indicating the approaching culmination of all of these forces.  It may even be seen as a materialisation of Brutus’ own collective sorrows, gathering upon the stage.

This idea is especially sobering, reminding us how much our own pasts remain always with us.  Our own sorrows and regrets wait just outside of our tents, ready to slip in and speak to us on late nights when we find ourselves so suddenly alone.  In these shadowed moments, faces of vanished friends return to us, as we face what we might have done differently in our own lives. 

In Julius Caesar, Caesar represents a great potential change for Rome.  Caesar’s ghost, however, seems to represent something much more personal to Brutus and to us.  It represents the things that haunt our lives and our dreams and return to us in our most solitary moments of reflection.  Shakespeare reminds us that we all have our own inescapable ghosts following us, and that this is part of life.  Ghosts represent those alchemical flashes when the past surfaces once again at the very moment that it transforms into the future. 

In this heartbreaking moment, Shakespeare condenses Brutus’ movement away from friendship, and from the best part of himself.  His loyalty has transformed into an empty scarecrow that overlooks mere rhetorical constructs of ‘honor’ and ‘nobility’.  Even before Marc Antony tears them down, those words ring hollow because they have somehow been brought to Brutus from outside himself.  In the moment that Caesar’s ghost confronts him, Brutus finally perceives his fatal mistakes as he faces a future that promises him the only kind of end to which such paths always seem to lead.

Graves along the Avon outside Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon. Author photo.


Some time back, when the ghost still walked the world, he was conversing with a friend who denied the existence of ghosts. When asked if he had ever seen one, he said, “Of course not, because there’s no such thing!”

Still, the ghost submits that there are indeed such things. Perhaps not always apparitions like those we see on stage or in the cinema, but things which follow us, trouble us, haunt us, sometimes for the whole span of our brief lives. These memories, regrets, and clinging bits of our past might not trouble those who lead exemplary lives, but show me where those are, and I’ll show you a fragile facade.

If ghosts really show us anything, they show us our own humanity, offering remembrance more immediate than any pressed flower in the pages of a book.

[i]  Brutus’ experience resonates strongly with the tortured isolation that frames La noche oxcura del alma, “The Dark Night of the Soul” written by the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross (San Juan de Cruz, 1542-1591). The opening lines of that poem read: On a dark night,/ Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—/ I went forth without being observed,/ My house being now at rest. (E.Allison Peers, trans.)

[ii] The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, 4.3.317-30.

And because it is my heart

***Trigger warning***

(The following post contains violent verse and some 1980s era animated violence and sexist imagery. Always trying not to offend anyone while walking the line of potentially offending everyone.)

Not Shakespeare’s heart, but instead from the American writer Stephen Crane.

In the Desert

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”

“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it

“Because it is bitter,

“And because it is my heart.”*

Which brings to mind an old Blue Oyster Cult tune:

Heavy Metal, Columbia Pictures, 1981.

For the bitterness of the human heart remains an ongoing battle. Winds of limbo always roaring around us. The psychic and actual wars of daily life. We smile. All the scars are on the inside. We come to like it because it is bitter. We smile on through it all.

Nat King Cole. “Smile” is a song based on an instrumental theme used in the soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times. Chaplin composed the music, inspired by Puccini’s Tosca. John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the lyrics and title in 1954.

The pie doesn’t always taste bitter, Tamora. Sometimes, it can be almost cloyingly sweet. And it is not like Titus’ pie, not like what he feeds Tamora, except that we feed it to our children, just as our forefathers fed it to us.

A man in northern Michigan saying, “Your little bit of drainage won’t matter to that big lake. You know how many people been dumping stuff in that lake for years?”

Yes. For centuries.

Won’t make a difference. Lake so clear because of invading zebra mussels brought in on the hulls of boats. Sturgeon gone. Lake Trout gone. Perch largely gone. (They catch what they can in Lake Superior now, not in Lake Michigan.

The fisheries collapsed in the 1950s, and the lake has become a shining ornament–a surface for fast motor boats, jetskis, and wetbikes. Fewer and fewer sailboats. Tourists coming to the National Cherry Festival to drink beer, albeit what brand they might drink remains in question these days.

All this clamor around us while we become dandelions. Our heads turn white and our seeds blow away. Then we are bald, bald. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste. . . Yeah. You know.

Our neighborhoods become cookie cutter housing estates where older people walk little dogs. Like Bradbury’s pedestrian, our night walks remain solitary–blue glow of video screens pulsing from the windows of passed houses. Little houses made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

Making our way down the old track through the woods, past the shambles of an old, unused deer blind, we come to an abandoned tomb.

An Abandoned Tomb

Wild grasses engulf

the tumbledown fence;

I wonder whose tomb this is?

Cattle and sheep

graze its high mound,

foxes and rabbits

inhabit its empty spaces.

For a traveler,

this is a heartbreaking sight;

where are the children

and the children’s children?

The sighing autumn wind

arouses a breeze of sadness,

a lonely stirring

in the willow trees.**

Too old to wear our trousers rolled. Probably too old to eat a peach. Just the empties comin’ back.

Old tombstone. Author photo.

But we don’t think about it. Shove that thought away. Roll it up in a rug. Making out this last will and testament because “if I die, I want. . .” No ma’am. When you die. . .

Do you think someone will leap into the grave? Someone to watch over me or fight. Over my dead body! My soul (sole) preoccupation.

We are so caught up in things, but it all boils down to bitterheart tea. Friendship. Love, Money. Freedom. Yes. Freedom.

Way Out West

‘Twas good to live when all the range,

Without no fence and fuss,

Belonged in partnership with God,

The Government, and us.

With sky-line bounds from east to west,

With room to go and come,

I liked my fellow man best

When he was scattered some.

When my old soul hunts range and rest

Beyond the last divide,

Just plant me on some strip of West

That’s sunny, lone and wide.

Let cattle rub my headstone round,

And coyotes wail their kin,

Let hosses come and paw the mound,

But don’t you fence it in.****

Another unspoken thought goes with this old soul on the range. No need to hasten that goodnight, that big sleep. The East Coker’s descent into the mine comes soon enough. The grass grows wild across the plains. Lightning scars the rocky rims of the pitching world. No hurry. Come late come soon, like the mastodon, sooner gone. Don’t remind us. Don’t speak of it. Don’t remind others. We all know it.

It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she’s got to see him Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else, I said Good God do you want to see her in it.”It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she’s got to see him Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else, I said Good God do you want to see her in it.***

Jewel’s rage bound up with compassion. Memory. Grief. He sees the angel of despair before it arrives.

Whoa! Hold on. Why in this handcart? Where are we going? Where will this carriage stop to let us out?


That old house winter,

finding mummied honeybee

husked from former summer,

curled behind the window seat,

brittle-winged tufted back stripes.

Did she feel, in a removed way,

a bee feeling of her loss,

extended family gone,

far hive remembered?

When did she know?

Realize her not returning

when her far end came?

Colony humming on

without her, summer thunder,

sunlight warming honey

she would never know.*****

The far shores. The distant country. We know. Where the elves go. Where Bilbo and Frodo go.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Buena Vista Pictures, 2006.

Okay. Maybe Bilbo and Frodo go someplace a little different.

We all weep at the goodbyes. Ours. Theirs. Ours again.

And we worry about those we leave behind, even as we feel ourselves slipping away.

But in this night of darkness. . .well, I’ll leave that as Robert Ingersoll said it. He said it best.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. New Line Cinema, 2003.

Always life in the midst of death. Always throes lead on to throes and pangs and quarks and leptons. Waves and particles, the heaving face of God. Our politics specks on the moving still surface of a massive cosmos.
Dai Jin (1388-1462). Travelers Through Mountain Passes. Palace Museum, Beijing. Public Domain image.

Small world? No. We are minuscule travelers in a huge universe, which is much more vast than we can begin to comprehend.

“Now why don’t you tell me about your past? About your childhood? We’ll try to get a handle on your grief.”

Tell you?! No thanks. I was there. I lived it once. No desire to go there again.”

“We might be able to exorcise your demons, if we work together.”

“No. They don’t really go away. They just get a little quiet sometimes. What happened, happened. I know you think you might help, but going back does no good. Best to move on.”

Let us focus on the life. The spark. Bird song outside the window. The source of the Nile, Dr. Livingston.

OMG! Those are crocodile shoes.

Sheds crocodile tears.

Mock turtle soup.

Damn mock turtles. The fiercest things you ever saw.

Still part of life. Life.

The hoopoe instructs the other birds who seek their king:

“Love has no time for blasphemy of faith,

Nor lovers for the Self, that feeble wraith.

They burn all that they own; unmoved they feel

Against their skin the torturer’s sharp steel.

Heart’s blood and bitter pain belong to love,

And tales of problems no one can remove;

Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine —

And if you lack the heart’s rich blood take mine.

Love thrives on inextinguishable pain,

Which tears the soul, then knits the threads again.

A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives

The vital essence to whatever lives.“******

Living field. Author photo.

Love exceeds and obliterates the self. Life does too.

Once knew a man who had devoted his life to the martial arts. The discipline. Working out and meditating (which is part of working out) every day. Each complete form including its own lying, seated, standing, and moving meditations. Years to learn, practice, and recall. In Tai Chi, each movement not only containing all the other movements, but also while doing the first movement envisioning the next, and the last. A mind art as well as a physical one.

“Why choose this?”

A level gaze. “Because what are you going to do with your time?”

He was right. Many paths lead to a proverbial heaven, or to understanding (which may be the same). Many faiths. Many practices. The mirror, or no mirror, behind the veil. Human time will pass anyway. Ask a ghost.

Clues blow like scraps in the winds of the world. They float around us, sometimes reaching out their hands in offering. Sometimes the universe speaks to us.

The man of Valland, “so lame that that he was a cripple and went on his knees and knuckles“, one day had a dream. “He dreamt that a noble man came to him and asked where he would go, and he mentioned some town. And the noble man said ‘Go thou to St Olav’s Church which is in London and there thou wilt be healed.’ Then he awoke and straightaway went to find St Olav’s Church.” But in London, there were so many churches that no one could tell him where to go, or where the church might be. “But a little later a aman came up to him and asked where he might be going; he told him and the man then said: ‘We two shall both go to St Olav’s Church; I now the way there.’ Then they went over the bridge and on the street which brought them to St Olav’s Church. And when they cam to the churchyard gate the man stepped over the threshold of the gate, but the cripple rolled in across the the threshold and forthwith rose up healed. But when he looked about him, his companion had gone.“*******

Clap your hands. The goose is out. Body exposed in the golden wind. Can almost hear the eyes of the mind rolling–the ghost has descended to mystical quasispeak once again. What the hell is the spectre going on about now?

Sometimes the little cut and paste breaks up our artificial differentiation of attention. After all, topics and categories are only really distinct because we deem them so.

Written on the Wall at Xilin Temple

Regarded from one side, an entire range;

from another, a single peak.

Far, near, high, low, all its parts

different from the others.

If the true face of Mount Lu

cannot be known,

It is because the one looking at it

is standing in its midst.********

Words are vehicles, capable of leading us to truth. This is the sad tragedy underlying the ongoing orphaning of English literature, drama, and the arts in U.S. universities (and everywhere else). We lose the truth for losing the way. Real truth is not a mere comparison, but is instead an actual thee, an actual summer’s day. The beacon of words leads us on to that realization, that seeing. It takes us to what we really long for in our deepest hearts.

Different ways. Math can do this too. And biology. Anthropology. There is no exclusivity.

But words are designed to be like things. Signposts deliberately crafted to help us. To carry us when we become lost. If things are symbols, words are paths.

“Mum said things were essentially emotions. They were little symbols of the life that had been – a Proustian emblem – which was shy she kept so many of dad’s things. Symbols are not to be tossed away lightly.”*********

Pay attention to the symbols. Weed your life, but do not discard them all. Here is richness in the tea.

But cling to words. Without them, there is no way beneath our feet. No road. No bridge. Nothing leading us to unseen or undiscovered countries.

Shrouded Golden Gate. Author photo.

For this moment we have become so desperate. Painted ourselves into corners. Pinned between rocks and hard places. Screwing courage to sticking places has rendered us inflexible. Damnation. Literally. Scriptures and moralistic posturing trying to define our law.

Arguments of faiths aside, we all potentially face fearful things. When Angelo tells Isabella that if she sleeps with him, he will spare her brother Claudio, she is faced with what for her is an insurmountable moral obstacle. Claudio, facing death, has a difficult time understanding his sister’s reluctance to save his life.

CLAUDIO  Death is a fearful thing.
ISABELLA  And shamed life a hateful.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling—’tis too horrible. (Measure for Measure, 3.1.131-43)

May be. Maybe. But let us rest.

We can always leave the hospital and walk back to the hotel in the rain. But maybe later “il faut cultiver notre jardin.” (Sorry. That doesn’t quite rhyme.)

Perhaps our life from here is not only under Bram Stoker’s sunset. Perhaps there may be sunrises as well.

Lit horizon. Author photo.

Let’s hope so, as we hope for comfort and happiness for all in this tortured and tumultuous world. In the meantime, live as well as you can and stay safe out there.

*Crane, Stephen. “In the Desert.” Poem in The Black Riders, and Other Lines. Copeland & Day: Boston, 1895.

**Shi, Wenxiang. “An Abandoned Tomb.” Poem. In Sleepless Nights: Verses for the Wakeful, trans. Thomas Cleary. Berkely, California: North Atlantic Books, 1995, 71.

***Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990, 14.

****Siringo, Charles. A Lone Star Cowboy. Santa Fe: Charles A. Siringo, 1919, reprinted in Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax. Cowboy Songs. New York: Macmillan, 1952. 333.

*****Langdon, John. “Honey.” Poem. In The Freedom of New Beginnings: Poems of Witness and Vision from Sonoma County, California. Phyllis Meshulam, with Gail King, Gwynn O’Gara, and Terry Ehret, eds. Petaluma: Poetry Crossing Press (Taurean Horn Press), 95.

******Attar, Farid al-Din. The conference of the birds. Dick Davis, introduction. Afkham Darbandi, trans. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2011, 67. Mystical texts can be notoriously difficult to translate as much of “meaning” may depend upon the language in which it is couched. As much as it can, this translation adheres to Attar’s original medieval Persian couplet form.

*******Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla or the lives of the Norse kings. Erling Monsen, ed. A. H. Smith, trans. New York, NY: Dover, 1990, 540.

********Su Dongpo. “Written on the Wall at Xilin Temple.” Poem. In Zen Poems. Everymans Library, 1999, 123.

*********Kilburn, Lindseigh. The Lily of the North. Slough: Maple Publishers, 2022, 213.

Ill angels

Angel of grief*

We typically think of angels as protectors and companions. Sometimes, they may be warriors. Destroyers of evil. Walking beside us. Keeping us safe.

But there are other angels who are not guardian angels. Not angels of “now I lay me down to sleep”. Not springtime nor summer’s day angels. Not by a long shot. Not someone to watch over you unless it be to watch you weep.

Angels of sorrow. Angels of loss.

Angels of dental work.

These angels are angels of uneasy nights. Of guilt, confusion, angels whose soul (sole) purpose seems to be to observe the senseless–tragedy, downfall, ruin. Loves gone wrong. Fortunes lost. Best laid plans gone off the rails.

These do not level Sodom and Gomorrah. They do not defeat heaven’s rebels or punish the wicked. Other angels bear heaven’s whips and scorns, but not these.

These are not the fearful scour of Allah’s desert wind. These are not angels of death. They do not bring peace at the end of the long and restless trail. These are the opposite of easy sleep and gentle dreams.

Angels of the answer no.

But they include more than the angels of sorrow.

These are also angels of dead glass eyes looking back out of the dark. The angels of late hours and miles to go. Angels of the weary restless, of unnatural sounds. Angels of “what was that” during hours when it might be better not to know.

These are the angels of false friendship, of spilled secrets, of abandoned defense. These are the angels of false hope and sickness. Angels of the empty road through tough territory. The angels of empty words and hollow crowns.

Angels of the darker swamps of the human soul. What swims beneath the murky water of our dreams? What rises from that black surface to gaze unsympathetic upon the sleeping world? What soft voice whispers promises after fatigue breaks down our sense of right and wrong? What hides in the jungles of the night?

Pin oak against cloudy skies. Author photo.

There it is again. That late at night sound. Surely it is just the wind. Maybe a cat.

The half seen motion. Figure darting out of sight. Edge of vision angels cloaked in shadow. Slipping around the corner. Melting into the darkest edges of the gloom. Our secret damnation. If only they knew. If only.

Retreating shiver dreams. Angels of doubt. Of suspicion.

Cary Grant in Suspicion, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

In Henry IV part 2, the Chief Justice tells Falstaff:

You follow the young prince up and
down like his ill angel.

Henry IV part 2, 1.2.166-7

While the words are often taken to mean an ill angel as someone who leads to harm or offers a bad example, the words also may suggest an angel who might be somehow ill in themselves. Diseased. Not altogether well or whole.

While the Justice implies that Falstaff is an ill meaning angel–a puck. misleading night wanderers, and laughing at their harm–his words also suggest something else. “Ill angel” may not be quite the same as an “ill-intentioned angel”, and certainly for all his vice, Falstaff is also no picture of good health.

We’ve written about Satan in previous posts.

Gustave Doré, illustration to Paradise Lost, book IX, 179–187: “he [Satan] held on / His midnight search, where soonest he might finde / The Serpent: him fast sleeping soon he found”.

The primary ill angel of western tradition, Lucifer’s exile from heaven presents a never ending dark night of the soul. The nature of the rebellion in heaven depends upon the tradition. It ranges from fomenting a conspiracy to an open and total war against those angels loyal to God. In the end, the exact circumstances seem to matter less than the aftermath.

For while Satan seems to excel at leading human souls astray, the banished former angel also remains a profoundly lonely figure. We picture him brooding over his lost kingdom of darkness on a lake of fire. Even with all the minions who serve him, Satan also seems to be perpetually accompanied by the angel of solitude. He is not only alone but also lonely.

Lone hawk, foggy field. Author photo.

Lucifer’s isolated landscape of smoke and blackened rock reflects both his outer and his inner reality. His own choices, impulses, or perhaps needs and characteristics have removed him from heaven’s table, and he has become an inversion of his former self. His fallen, diminished being contrasts his original magnificence. Other angels, erstwhile companions, have become adversaries. It is easy to imagine his dark turnings having congealed into a hard place within his heart.

Wrapped within the scope of those dark wings is the whole host of Pandora’s box. Worry. Trouble. Sorrow. Hurt. Those things which seem to walk beside us. With us. Always.

“Hurt” by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), 1994. Covered by Johnny Cash for the album American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002.**

Lucifer becomes the leading angel of the sunset. Batwings. Not only the sunset of angels, but our sunsets as well.

In a mythological sense, Lucifer comes to embody inversion and perversion. Just as the first sorcerer in Diné cosmology breathed widdershins–reversing the sacred life breath (níłch’i). Like the other trickster figures to whom he is related (often coyote and/or jackrabbit in Native American cultures, and Falstaff too, in a sense), Satan reverses the natural order of being. In healthy individuals or societies, Lucifer represents the ever lurking threat of disease or profound social unrest. Slowing. Breaking down.

This contrasts any number of great goddesses (especially in Celtic tradition) who represent fertility. They not only project power and authority, but they also lend these to their partners (often through sexual relations which underscore the fertile nature of their being). Sex with the devil, however, made mortals into witches***, giving them powers to commit malevolent acts instead of abilities which might allow them to command, lead, unify, or rule. Witches became agents of disease. They eradicated ease and disseminated dissension.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 2 is filled with images of disease and its cousin, rumor (which spreads like disease). And although Falstaff characteristically deflects the idea, there is an underlying suggestion that he may be an ill angel indeed:

FALSTAFF  Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my
PAGE  He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy
water, but, for the party that owed it, he might have
more diseases than he knew for.
FALSTAFF  Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me.
The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is
not able to invent anything that intends to laughter
more than I invent, or is invented on me. I am not
only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in
other men. I do here walk before thee like a sow
that hath overwhelmed all her litter but one. If the
Prince put thee into my service for any other reason
than to set me off, why then I have no judgment.

2 Henry IV, 1, 2, 1-14.

Instead of confronting his own illness, Falstaff becomes a kind of devil, pointing up the pride in others. He deflects his page’s words about the doctor’s ominous evaluation with the idea that men “take pride to gird” at him.

Similarly, when Satan notes that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in heaven”, his pronouncement carries the whiff of sour grapes along with a determination which has been wrung into especially ungenerous wine.**** His own illness and dissatisfaction shine even more brightly through the smoke and mirrors of his self delusion.

The adversary wears many seductive guises, and it employs many different kinds of angels. Adam and Eve’s serpent helps to engineer their expulsion from Eden. Beyond temptation the empty figures of rank solitude and desperation lie in wait. The seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, all of which are mentioned in previous posts) are only a beginning.

Yet seldom does the inversion confront us directly. The metaphor of Pilgrim’s Progress becomes just that, a rhetorical device. A counterpersuasion.

Christian’s battle with Apollyon*****

Usually, the demonic remains hidden, working more subtly.

We all know the deal too good to be true. Attractive stranger, cash offer, or the golden ring spotted lying in the street.****** The innocent kiss on the cheek. A seemingly genuine hug. The friend who isn’t. The user. Slipping tiny gifts to hook our interest. The extended hand seeming righteous and royal, promising affectionate fidelity.

Promises. Promises.

Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees, Dir. George Abbot and Stanley Donen, Warner Brothers, 1958.*******

But what of Lola’s own contract? The sick angels of what we most desire–love, riches, or fame. How easy might the rule bend, or the shorter path arrive? It certainly can’t hurt us just this once.

Iago cautions Othello about jealousy, obliquely suggests that there may be reason to be jealous. Then Iago uses the word repeatedly, hammering it into Othello’s heart.

OTHELLO:  By heaven, I’ll know thy thoughts.
You cannot, if my heart were in your hand,
Nor shall not, whilst ’tis in my custody.
IAGO:  O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves!
OTHELLO:  O misery!
Poor and content is rich, and rich enough;
But riches fineless is as poor as winter
To him that ever fears he shall be poor.
Good God, the souls of all my tribe defend
From jealousy!

Othello 3.3.191-206

Iago sows the idea of jealousy, and then fosters it. Angel of bad seeds. Ungenerous, pretending loyalty and honesty while secretly malevolent.

As ubiquitous as grief are these angels of uneasiness. They plague humanity endlessly. Our individual and collective blood pressure spikes each time someone opens fire in a cinema/supermarket/school/hospital/public place. Even miles, counties, states, or countries away it affects us. No person an island. One country invades another. A country forces down a passenger plane to jail a dissenter. The march of rising prices, failing healthcare, our lives described by the pronouncements of billionaires.

We engineer machines to think without really knowing what might happen. We practice eugenics without understanding how the human organism works. We believe that our little bit won’t really make a difference in the fight against climate change. We trust that God (or billionaires or corporations or someone) will take care of it before it gets too far out of hand.

Medicine runs to “one size fits all” protocols while insurance companies or government budget offices dictate what treatment people receive, dictating what they will cover and what they will not. Meanwhile large pharmaceutical companies focus on marketing, on selling. The financial bottom line, profit, supplants wellness as a goal.

Society goes on baking Gordon Gecko’s lines from Wall Street into our psyche. Every week the financial news has a new article about people not needing more education, not needing university. All the while most people can’t seem to think their way through a wet tissue while the fonts of critical understanding, literature, drama, art, history, and philosophy, continue to vanish from the education marketplace. Because they don’t make money. They don’t make us billionaires.

We don’t need to improve ourselves. We need to make money. We’re told that the average American had better retire with three million dollars if they’re to retire comfortably. Rising costs of medical care? Vanishing Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid?

And you folks in Europe or the British Isles reading this, remember Boris Johnson conferencing with Trump about privatising the NHS? That can’t and won’t happen there though. It will never happen there. The people would never let it, would they? They would rise up in revolt.

Yet Brexit was never going to pass either. The possibility was ridiculous. Who would vote for mere rhetoric, for proud sounding words like “independence” and slogans about “control of our own destiny” when they could participate in something bigger than themselves? Never happening, I tell you.

Bring me my Ruger plated gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my AR 15. Fire!

It will be okay. It will be okay. We won’t circle the wagons that far. We wouldn’t become medieval fiefdoms again–bordered, separated. Segregated. Bigoted. Keeping out the others–the Syrians, Afghans, refugees, or Hungarians who might be stealing our jobs, corrupting our kids. The Hindus, the Muslims, the (insert faith which isn’t my own here), the great manipulators of minds, thieves of our children’s souls.

The “look who’s talking fallacy” rears its ugly head out of the dark swamps of the human soul. Nations built on bigotry. Built on walls and separation. Anyone can become president, but for everyone else, much of day to day life in the United States remains an exercise in running to keep ahead of the financial reaper. Death and taxes, but taxes first.

STEM, STEM, STEM. No mention of arts or drama or literature or history. No philosophy. Such nonsense topics are poor choices in higher education. Parents need their children to make money. They cannot, will not, pay for foolishness. Poetry is fluffy nothing. Quit school and work. You could become manager. You might even move up from there.

Some will. But the lie remains that hard work can get you there without generous scoops of luck. Hard work certainly. But people seem to overlook luck and connections. Cleverness and who one knows. The right place at right time-ness of it all.

Keep the majority under employed. Keep them birthing to feed the corporate machine. Local labor nickle and dimed to death in an endless stream of economic attrition. The world runs on debt and it follows us on long, quick striding legs. Follows us in our days. Follows us in our dreams.

The terrifying uneasiness always snapping at our heels.

There will be those chiding the ghost for saying this. There will be those who respond, “Yeah, but I know a guy who became a billionaire selling t-shirts”. Of course you do. So do we all. People become movie stars and opera singers, sports personalities, and billionaires of all stripes every day. But the truth remains that many many more do not.

Do billionaires chill out in front of Netflix? Not so often it seems. Too busy reading, making, minding, or cultivating their billions and their minds. Honing critical thinking even when their ideas prove crackpot. New deals. New ideas. Vending machines on Mars. Quadrilateral exoskeletons. Buying social media platforms or sports teams.

Do these folks go see Shakespeare? Well, not in the United States, at least, where the fabled Oregon Shakespeare Festival seems to be fighting for its very financial survival. Too bad they missed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

And what about non-billionaires? Eight hours of sleep a night when they can? Reach the age of forty and wonder why a solid manager’s salary no longer pays for much. Why they can’t afford eggs. Movies. Gasoline. Chewing gum. Does anyone still chew gum?

What of the machinery itself? To function, a capitalist society needs worker bees–those who will continue to labor at the lower tiers to support the economic tiers above them. The people with money still need relatively affordable soap, dishes, fans, clothes hangers, clothes, computers, and (these days more than ever) phones. Even with the spread of robots (ask Cathie Wood, unless a trading AI takes over her job) someone has to help manufacture these.

In the meantime, in the U.S., degrees in English literature have become viewed as mostly useless. STEM is where we must compete. Listen to statesfolk. Congress. State legislatures. Staple passers. Selling gas. Selling staples. Talking. Passing.

Listen to the investors. Read the financial news. They’ll tell you just like they’ll tell you what you should buy, tell you what’s on sale on Amazon, and what latest skin product favored by celebrities. How did X get that glow at the Met Gala? Who’s going to that coronation anyway?

Meanwhile, an increasingly uneducated population becomes unable to comprehend political and social mechanisms, incapable of steering the ship of state. From veering to careening we go. Merrily we roll along, only voting what we see on television or what someone tells us. What we hear in church. At work. Or on the news. Fox crowing loudly until someone says, “Prove it.” Oops.

Years ago, when the ghost was a person, it met a French lady who was working in a shop. She lamented the state of retirement in the U.S., the devastating lack of imagination.

“Mon Dieu!” this lady exclaimed. “People retire here in the United States and then they go and get another job! Or they go play golf! Can’t they think of anything better to do with their time?”

Nothing against golf, but no. We either do not or we cannot think. We are forgetting/have forgotten how. Our constant feed of electronic streaming “content” robs us of our imagination.

Loneliness, Surgeon General? We discuss little with anyone. We only watch. Our French lady could not imagine a more terrible fate than to work all of one’s life and then, faced with the opportunity for a departure into something creative, to instead go back to work again.

Yet, we can lay these ailments at the door of capitalist society if we wish, for we must continue to work. We must chase the three million gold pieces at the end of the rainbow even as the amount becomes five million, eight million, ten, twenty. Just over that hill. Remaining elusive for most folks even in a world where new billionaires seem to pop out of the woodwork.

Distant gold. Author photo.

Once one grows too “mature” for whatever one does, one must transfer to other industries. Not always less glamorous, these occupations may or may not pay the bills, but at least they contribute. Store clerk. Warehouse worker. Dog walker. Someone who spent a life in the insurance industry can always become a consultant–giving seminars on insurance options or how to retire.

How to retire. The brass ring at the end of the road. Retirement. Freedom.

Some angel beckons. Let’s hope it is an angel of satisfaction, and not the angel of despair.

Or that old angel of envy. “Be thankful for what you have”. Yes. Yet, when you are eighty and can no longer pay your medical bills, fewer roads remain open to you.

Satan takes Job’s life in hand, and that expression about the patience of Job comes from the patience of Job. Exemplary. Exceptional. Is the reward of patience really patience? What good does that do us in the end, St. Augustine, if we can no longer live on what we have?

Sage advice? Platitudes?

Yet many would have us believe that people are only poor because they are lazy.

Oh, but we do not condemn. We are not the executioners. Not us. We’ll elect the next politician and they’ll do better for us. They’ll help us stop this madness.

For we have run mad. The angel of madness hovers close at hand. So close.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare companies, theatre companies, simple drama groups close left and right and roll up the sidewalks for lack of funding. Who has time? There’s so much to see on Netflix, on Prime, on Hulu, Disney, Apple TV, and it’s cheaper than those tickets for live theatre. Less chance of catching something too.

Besides, Shakespeare? Really? It’s so passé. We had to read one of those in high school, the one about the lovers who kill themselves because the message doesn’t get through? I’d rather watch Virgin River on Netflix. Something with language you can understand. More modern. Who wants to listen to that old crap? Who wants to support the words of the ancient, white, patriarchal, western European establishment?

And yet, and yet, and yet. Who did not read Shakespeare? What writers and thinkers have not?

Falstaff is a kind of fallen staff, bending the truth like balloon animals. His moral decay is cautionary to us. We should avoid becoming such a masterpiece of ruin.

The relationship between Falstaff and Hal remains as complicated as any modern plot with a touch of angel woven into it. For as much as he expects eventual advancement of the prince, Falstaff also loves him. And in some sense, Hal’s rejection of Falstaff (once Prince Hal has become King Henry V) is deeply painful. Tragic.

In Henry V, when Falstaff lies dying, Hostess Quickly says, “By my troth, he’ll yield the crow a pudding
one of these days. The King has killed his heart” (2.1.85-6).

There’s the true illness. The sad angel peering out of the play at us. For although physical ailments may be daunting, even unbeatable, death of the heart leaves us no escape. No exit, if you will.

Miracles do happen. We may yet recover from cancers and all manner of sorrows. But the loss of a profound love? That may be the rub. That late thought in all the remaining empty nights of our lives.

When love has gone, by death or doorway, do we ever fully recover from the blow? True loss, true grief, true despair, is like the angel at top of this page. A stone too immovable to shudder in its sorrow. Still, cold, and weeping in the elements forever.

*Angel of grief, 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story which serves as the grave stone of the artist and his wife Emelyn at the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. Photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran aka Carptrash 17:52, 7 August 2006 (UTC).

**”Hurt”, directed by Mark Romanek, the video won a Grammy and a Country Music Association award for best video.

***These witches described in early modern demonology texts should not be confused with wiccans–with followers of old natural/healing religions–although they often have been and still are sometimes. Worth remembering that there are contrary wiccans too.

****John Milton. Paradise Lost, 1, 263.

*****H. C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo – The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come by John Bunyan with notes by Rev Robert Maguire and illustrations by H. C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo London, Cassell, Petter and Galpin c. 1850. Public domain.

******One possible opening ploy of the infamous “pigeon drop” con game, often worked by gangs around heavy tourist areas like Times Square in New York, or the Opera or Tour Eiffel in Paris.

*******Film based on the play of the same name by George Abbot, Douglass Wallop, Richard Adler, and Jerry Ross, based on the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglass Wallop.

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds

Relief showing Helios, sun god in the Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Between the first quarter of the 3rd century BC and 390 BC. Marble, 85,8 x 86,3 cm. Found during the excavations lead by Heinrich Schliemann in 1872, now in the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, Germany. Public domain.

Enter Juliet alone.

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging. Such a wagoner
As Phaëton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways’ eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalked of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties, or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night. Come, Romeo. Come, thou day in
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night; come, loving black-browed
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love
But not possessed it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed. So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.

Romeo and Juliet, 3.2.1-33.

We get it. Juliet urges the sun to quicken its course across the sky. She’s in a terrible hurry not just to see Romeo, but also to be with him physically, to lie with him. In Juliet’s soliloquy, Romeo becomes a blend of night and day. His brilliance, and perhaps also the brilliance of her attraction, makes him day in night–something which shines out even in the darkness of night.

If only the day would pass more quickly. We can feel this, the idea of having bought the mansion of love but not possessed it–of having given our hearts, but not yet brought our body and soul to the giving. We understand this wild fructifying urgency. It borders on desperation and the need consumes us as it does Juliet.

Yet, as with so many desperate pleas, something within this also feels vaguely apocalyptic. In the first line, for example, yes, Juliet is talking about the horses of the sun–the steeds that pull the sun chariot of Helios/Phoebus/Apollo. While it seems natural that the sun’s horses should be “fiery-footed”, the word fiery also hints at fire’s potentially destructive aspect. A galloping horse afire might suggest the horse of the second seal of the apocalypse in the Biblical Book of Revelation. In the section describing the events indicating the approaching end of the world, a red (fiery) horse comes at the opening of the second seal:

When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come and see.” Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.

New King James Bible, Revelation 6:3

Nuclear weapon test, 1954. Public domain.
“Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.”

Fire, red, blood, Armageddon. Abaddon (from the Hebrew) or Apollyon (from the Greek) being the demonic figure representing destruction or doom is a destroying angel of the abyss. Hastening the end of Christian creation.

Apollyon battling Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Public domain.

Well, okay. Maybe. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If we wind it back just a bit, maybe Juliet is merely talking about the sun–only really thinking about hurrying the day to finish so that she gets to see her love. Fine. But the ghost isn’t the only one who sees apocalyptic tones mixed into these lines. The end of one day symbolizes the end of them all.

Consider West Side Story, the musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet conceived by Jerome Robbins with the famous score by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. When we look at the film versions from 1961 and 2021 respectively, we can see where the film directors take the quintet version of the song “Tonight”. The song integrates what has initially been introduced as a musical love theme with darker choruses which reflect Anita’s more mature sexual expectations and the underlying currents of violence anticipating the coming fight between the Sharks and the Jets.

The 1961 film, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, opens the song with the striking red sky underscoring the longstanding rage and resentment between the gangs in preparation for the coming war:

West Side Story. United Artists, 1961. Dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise.

In contrast, the 2021 film version’s opening palette remains cooler, reflecting the combatants’ more general emotional disconnect. The matter of fact way in which the two groups select their arsenals emphasizes chilling calculation over fiery emotion.

West Side Story. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2021. Dir. Stephen Spielberg.

In each case, we know where this is going, just as we know where it goes in the play. And, in a bigger sense, each moment, the scenes from the musical and the soliloquy in the play, reflects a lifelike progression. For when we think about it, life has its own apocalypse in the mix as well–right there in the recipe, blended into the batter before it’s poured into the pan to bake.

It’s there in Juliet’s language. Speaking of losing her virginity, she talks about losing a winning match. One wins by losing. Love itself includes loss. Initially, love brings the loss of innocence, of self, of childhood, of inexperience–for by joining with and exploring another, we lose part of our inviolable individuality.

In the long run, of course, one lover invariably loses the other. Whether the loss be to infirmity or death, or to love’s dissolution, we have come to expect life to be like this. In part, human growth is learning forgiveness, learning to walk on after loss.

Here’s “Antilamentation by Dorianne Laux:

Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering any of it.
Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.

Laux, Dorianne. The Book of Men: Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.

Saturday night may be full of expectation from the perspective of a Saturday afternoon, but it also ends.

We have the advantage over Juliet because we know the play. We know that she is at the beginning of what is to be a brief love–a ‘doomed’ love. We know that because of the blood enmity embedded in her family and the social structure of that feud within her home in fair Verona, she will not win this match. Life is already far too weighted against her. In this sense, our alpha is our omega as well–even as the play begins, we know how it ends.

Still, in this moment Juliet is the child with the new gown she cannot yet wear. She waits for night. She awaits a bus, a taxi, a conveyance, without knowing where it might ultimately take her.

The night which she awaits may bring her peace. She hopes for the peace of connection with her Romeo. Night may bring sleep–perhaps sweet sleep in a lover’s arms. But Hamlet’s pause about death swims up in our minds peripheries. In that sleep what dreams may come?

Mercutio gives us a fair idea about what we might expect. Queen Mab runs her tiny carriage about in the night as a kind of inversion of the sun chariot, of Phoebus’ car, and she brings dreams to those whom she encounters. As Mercutio tells Romeo:

O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spider web,
Her collars of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small gray-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid.
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
On courtiers’ knees, that dream on cur’sies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit.
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail,
Tickling a parson’s nose as he lies asleep;
Then he dreams of another benefice.
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep, and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes
And, being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled much misfortune bodes.
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage.
This is she—

ROMEO Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace.
Thou talk’st of nothing.

Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.58-102

According to Mercutio, Mab begins with lovers’ brains and dreams of love, but this quickly shifts to dreams of greed and dreams of cutting foreign throats. The alpha of love seems to give birth to other states of being in the speech which moves nimbly from dreamer to dreamer. The process of dreaming carries one across the stream and lands us on the far shore, or perhaps the scorpion nature stings us halfway across.

Perhaps it behooves us to remember that the angel of death is an angel, a minister of endings and not a punisher. Just as the Valkyries arrive to escort fallen warriors to Valhalla, so the angel of death appears to minister to the Christian soul at the moment of its demise. Yet, as Tony Kushner reminds us, the kiss of the angel of death is often red–back to the fiery, but in this case deeper. It can be wine dark, and sometimes one ending seems to lead on to another:

Andrew Scott and Dominic Cooper in Angels in America. One scene performed for the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Borne back ceaselessly into the past? Even as we meet another, we meet their end or else our own. Love–that piece of ourselves we give to any other encompasses a kind of death, a vision of an ending certain to arrive eventually in one form or another. The angel of death will not be stayed, whether it comes for another or for ourselves.

James Joyce knew it, and John Huston’s 1987 film of Joyce’s short story The Dead recognizes it and highlights it in closing. The ephemera we are. The flotsam and jetsam of previous endings drifting inexorably towards our own. Towards all endings. Even as you meet her, or him, or them, the ending is already there. Present, even if unformed, as yet unshaped. Still, it is there.

John Huston’s The Dead. John Huston, dir. Vestron Pictures, 1987.

Fiery-footed steeds rolled into a falling snow. The things we carry with us until we no longer can do so. Love. Demons. Dreams. Angels. And our connections. Guilt and affection. All carried like packs on our backs trudging through the snow.

Even when we set others aside, or they set us aside, as sometimes it must be, we carry them on. That old heart and memory refrain. We carry them at sea and on land, flying and trudging, season upon season until our own dark snow begins to fall general over Ireland. Then we finally set them down.

Alas, poor ghost!

Calanish Stones. Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Author photo.

Even as Hamlet laments the horrors his father’s ghost describes, so the prince is already becoming a ghost himself.

It waves me still.—Go on, I’ll follow thee.
You shall not go, my lord. [They hold back Hamlet.]
HAMLET  Hold off your hands.
Be ruled. You shall not go.
HAMLET  My fate cries out
And makes each petty arture in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.
Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away!—Go on. I’ll follow thee.
[Ghost and Hamlet exit.]

Hamlet 1.4.87-96

“My fate cries out.” Hamlet follows the ghost and his following works on several levels. In one sense, he follows the ghost physically, trailing behind the apparition as it leads him to another location. In another sense, he follows the ghost into its own narrative, listening to what it tells him, opening his mind to it, and entertaining a willingness to act on its version of events–to avenge his father’s murder.

In a third sense, the ghost also leads Hamlet into the spirit realm. Following the ghost is moving towards the ghostly, moving Hamlet closer to becoming a ghost himself. Each step the prince takes in the ghost’s wake leads him further from the world of the flesh, away from the solid world of sentries and castle ramparts, while ushering him deeper into a realm of incorporeal fog.

This fog may or may not be literal. Although sometimes staged as a foggy night, the dialogue between the two sentries in the opening scene dwells more on the “bitter cold”, heart sickness, and a general apprehension. Identity remains in question, which suggests a kind of fog, and even after the ghost has identified itself to Hamlet as “thy father’s spirit”, doubts remain that the ghost is what it says it is.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.


Notably, the ghost, for all its likeness to Hamlet’s dead father, is not the former king. The ghost says, “I am thy father’s spirit.” There is a subtle distinction in this. The ghost is no longer Hamlet’s father, rather it is something which once was his father.

GHOST:  I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.


Its state of being has altered, and the ghost is in flux, undergoing a purification by fire. Like Ophelia’s later mentioned baker’s daughter, Hamlet’s father has ceased to be in a former state, and is undergoing a sea change in a sea of fire.* As Ophelia later affirms, “Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be.” 4.5.48-9. Life remains ever changing. As Ophelia reminds us again in her mad flower ramblings. “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.” 4.5.207-9.

Poor ghost, or is it the poor remaining daughters, sons, partners, friends whom we should pity.

This ghost writer has written elsewhere about ghosts, how they can be echoes, especially in Shakespeare. They are characters who ‘were’, and ghosts exist as reminders of the past. Spectral Banquo still appears at the banquet from which his murder, arranged by his erstwhile friend, Macbeth, had prevented his attendance. The dead Julius Caesar visits Brutus on the night before his defeat at Philippi. Similarly, on the night before his decisive battle at Bosworth field, Richard III is visited by a host of phantoms of his victims–Prince Edward, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan all tell Richard that they will sit heavy on his soul.

In character terms, ghosts may mark the weight of memory, guilt, of previous transgressions returning to visit the living. Ghosts also indicate moments where things have gone awry in the world of the play’s past, and in terms of dramatic mechanism, they represent pivotal moments in the plot–moments when characters, circumstances, or fate change direction.

In Hamlet’s case, his father’s ghost sets him on a course which ultimately will lead not only to his uncle’s death, but also (either directly or indirectly) to the deaths of multiple other characters as his vengeance cuts an especially wide swath. Not only Hamlet and Claudius, but Hamlet’s revenge also encompasses Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, and Laertes as collateral damage. Not uncommon in early modern revenge tragedies, the mounting deaths can present a challenge to directors. What does one do with the large number of bodies covering the stage at the end of the play?

These corpses are revenants too, visual reminders of death for the audience, even as the final restoration of order takes place in the play’s world. , The profound discord of vengeance lingers, even after someone new takes command. Ghosts seem a bit like the “shine” as Halloran (played by Scatman Crothers) explains to Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s The Shining:

The Shining, Warner Brothers, 1980.

In this film, the ghosts range from creepy to terrifying. Still, in both The Shining and in Hamlet, the most frightening ghosts may be found in characters’ minds.

Once Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, he climbs a metaphorical stile in the fence between the living and the dead. He enters the kissing gate between two different fields of existence–being and been. In this spot, weeds grow highest at the margin of the field and the space beyond the fence gives way to deeper woods.

Warwickshire kissing gate. Author photo.

When the spirit directs him to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet lends the ghost a surrogate physical presence. With the spirit representing a will towards resolution, Hamlet serves as the ghost’s extension by becoming the ghost’s agent in the world of the living. Hamlet also becomes a bridge between the afterlife and his own. He becomes the ghost’s earthly mind and hands. Hamlet begins to serve as a bridge between living and dead, between the world of the play, and the world beyond it.

Fairy Bridge. Isle of Skye. Author photo.

Such bridges may function on multiple levels. Like the bridge above, they may connect the mortal world with a fairy land outside of it, but they may also signify a connection between the play and the audience, and the action of the play and its aftermath.

There are all sorts of boundaries, borders, connections. In the same sense that life leads on to an inevitable end, so one place leads on to another. Boundaries may also be seen as gateways.

The Pacific from the Golden Gate (from the Golden Gate Bridge). Author photo.

Stiles, bridges, gateways–these may all be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or any combination of these. Transition, change, is constant and unlimited. It may be gradual or precipitous, and each life tends to be full of gradients from across the spectrum. Places go through their own transitions as well, often serving as reminders of and connections to a vanished past.

Even houses of worship may become relics. Remnants of changing patterns of faith and conflict. Marks of the ongoing political struggle inherent in human belief and its place in the world, or between the worlds of gods and those of humankind.

The ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Author photo.

Sometimes, we see those gods’ worlds as humankind conceived them–all stone arches and lofty pinnacles. Reaching. Reaching for something they cannot truly touch (except perhaps within the human heart. Ask William Boyd, or better yet, read the novel).

Rievaulx Abbey ruins in Yorkshire. Author photo.

Whilst offering windows into human pasts, the ancient hallmarks of belief may also extend glimpses of other worlds.

Rollright Stone Circle, Oxfordshire. Author photo.

From our human perspective, it may all seem connected, all part of a greater circle. We do stand in a circle.

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

From T.S. Eliot Four Quartets 2: East Coker

The alpha and the omega anyone? Although death coils intimately within life and being, Hamlet seems to cross a line when he chooses to follow it deliberately. Whereas our usual ways of reckoning, of gazing across the fence, may afford a relatively safe kind of thanatopsis (not that anyone reads William Cullen Bryant so much these days), Hamlet defies anyone to stop him from following–offering to make a ghost of anyone who prevents him from climbing the stile and crossing the fence into the next field.

Still, danger is always with us. Death surrounds us like the proverbial lover’s embrace, only closer. In our mating lies the hinge to the door of our senescence. Those ever renewable, quickly healing bodies of our youth seem to decline so quickly after puberty. Carlos Castañeda’s fictionalized Yaqui wise man Don Juan Matus might describe death as a friend who lurks ever at our left shoulder, but it all seems even much more intimate than that.

“Hotel Liquor” sign from demolished hotel in Northport, Michigan. Author photo.

Some places seem more likely to hasten our ghosthood. We all know dangerous places, albeit these may be changeable. A road at night. A path through the Carpathian Alps (again at night). A secret government facility (perhaps, but not necessarily, at night). A laboratory where someone tests the boundaries of existence or reality as we know it. Any place in eastern Ukraine this week. Still, for all that, it sometimes seems as if in our collective mythology, the most dangerous place in the world might be a small town.

British small towns–we all done seen ’em on the teevee–may have only a few houses and a shop. Perhaps a nearby university extension or an art museum. Some small towns may have neurodivergent physicians or knowing postpersons. Often, there are schools, town halls, amateur theatrical productions. Yet even as small as these places are, people seem to die there at an alarming rate. Worse, people are murdered!!

Let’s face it, in places like the Shetlands, the Midsomer, and other similar small remote locations across the United Kingdom, beleaguered detectives and their faithful sidekicks wade endlessly through personal quagmires of simmering resentment and smoldering, sometimes unrequited passions. Shocking murders seem to happen in such places on a weekly basis! And don’t tell me that this is just television, that the ideas are merely fabricated.

Just as bad might be the small town in the United States, where perhaps a stranger from out of town is always stumbling across something much bigger than the small town or its narrow minded police chief can handle. Unless the police chief is the one who, having only recently taken up the post, begins to see just how “wrong” everything is. Only a few ears may be trustworthy. Otherwise, the whole thing is lies. Lies, I tell you. And only one person might set it right.

As Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron says:

School is a lie. Prison’s a waste of time. Girls are wondrous. Grab your fill. No man was ever lain in his barrow wishing he’d loved one less woman. Don’t listen to no one and nothing but what your own heart bides. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Fight to the death. Don’t give up.

Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, Act 3.

No sirree, Bob. Not for me. Not even the Christmas specials on the teevee can stop the killing in those small towns.

Might be safer to live in a city. But then one had better not look out the window too much. Might see something bad. And commuter trains? Forget it. Might be better just to stay inside and keep the blinds drawn.

In polite social discourse, Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes might all be said to be so young–too young to be visited by death. And although we all know there really is no age limit (upper or lower) on death, it still seems significant that Hamlet follows his father’s ghost. This seems to set him on a track to all things ghostly. Murder and haunting and all things foul be they physical or not. In some sense it is almost as if Hamlet’s subsequent entanglement also entangles everyone around him, and they all go traipsing down skull and crossbones lane together.

Oh, sure. Claudius is already on it. He’s so riddled with guilt (rotted with guilt, rutting in guilt) that it seems as though he’s almost waiting for the avenging angel to show up and smite him. (See how I worked the word smite in there? Great word. Should be used much more frequently than it is.) As soon as Hamlet steps on the ghost road though, all the younger generation either follow along or are dragged onto the track.

In a larger sense, we are all on this path, of course–all following either late or soon. We are all becoming ghosts. Yet there seems to be some degree of elasticity about when we step into the shade. In most of our lives, some matter of degree remains. We may walk by the river, but we need not necessarily approach the gravestones.

Graves by the Avon. Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon. Author photo.

This elasticity, this potential for temporal election, does not deny the inevitability of death, but for many people it does introduce some element of choice. We still follow the course into darkness, but we have at least an illusion of delaying that. Not that, Hamlet’s father, Old Hamlet, was given any choice. The ghost tells Hamlet:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood.

Hamlet 1.5.66-77

Of course, no one in Denmark knows the real truth–no one except the murderer (Claudius), the ghost (Old Hamlet), and now Prince Hamlet as well. As the ghost says:

’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forgèd process of my death
Rankly abused.

Perhaps Denmark needs a good detective, but that’s not the way early modern playwrights usually did things, is it? Why have a detective when you can have an avenger instead? No, not the superheroes necessarily. We still have modern vengeance films galore, and although they may not all be typical westerns, they still are.

Naturally, we aren’t all avengers. We aren’t all gunslingers, sword wielders. Very few of us are ex-servicemen with outrageous sleuthing and tactical skills and seemingly limitless supplies of cash, strength, and stamina. Yet, we all approach the river boats of night inexorably.

Boats by the Avon. Night. Author photo.

Eventually, we climb on board, even if the nature of the ensuing journey remains a matter of doubt and a subject of debate.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Buena Vista Pictures, 2007.

Naturally, life remains a journey as well, with a whole catalogue of trials and concerns before we board the final boats.

Yet, there are also as many ways to become a ghost here without even touching a boat. Staying lost for any reason, neurodivergence, atypical emotional engagement, or a host of ‘misfitisms’ may leave one internally howling at on the edge of the gutter, where one may wander like a spirit all of one’s days.

Last stage of all (strange eventful history indeed–or is it eventless in a larger sense?), perhaps, one may move to one of those suburban neighbourhoods. You know them. Soulless, post modern architecture, living with the ongoing conversations of mostly weather. Lots of it. More every day. There, one may subsist as a shadow in the aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally landscape forever. At least until that final boat finally arrives.

It may be love which never arrives. Something which never reaches fruition. The fruit tree dies in its sapling state instead. The love which we thought might be meant nothing in the end. Perhaps our only real consolation is coffee.

K. D. Lang, “Black Coffee”, Shadowland, Warner Brothers, 1988.

So many ways to become a ghost, or perhaps to see the ghost change happening. We look up at the sky and as in Clarke’s story, all the stars start going out one by one.

Maybe we are swept out to sea. But we don’t actually mind. At least not like we thought we would. Maybe that truly is our purpose. Just a catalog, a filing system.

For all of it, maybe becoming a ghost is usually much more accidental than Hamlet’s intentions. For without intention, where are we? Illinois? Nebraska? What would the Wizard of Omaha say?

Maybe we just remain too late. We linger when the carnival is closing down. We see the tired carneys removing blocks and sandbags, taking down the lights. Maybe it isn’t the stars going out. Maybe it is just bits of neon going dark. Much as we might long to ride the sky swing to the heavens, we may only arrive after the last ride has left.

Sky Swing. Mop Fair. Stratford upon Avon. Author photo.

For once the lights begin to go out, we may not really reach the sky after all. We may only have a ‘Sy Swig’, which may not taste at all like we thought. Perhaps we should have gone with a Guinness, or a real ale somewhere. Maybe that ride with all the sporting logos on it, or another sandwich.

No matter what it is in the end. We eventually reach the boats. Even Kane Tanaka reached the boats. And they are always waiting for us. Day and night. Year in, year out.

Tom Waits. “Shiver Me Timbers”, The Heart of Saturday Night. Asylum Records, 1974.

Maybe, with the world so threatened these days, Hamlet’s course does not seem so far afield. Perhaps we should focus on righting the wrongs done to us. Perhaps the course of vengeance might help to focus our being. In some cases, it must:

The Decemberists, “The Mariner’s Revenge”, Picaresque, Kill Rock Stars, 2005.

The revenge which may drive us through life may take many forms.

Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!

Melville, Herman, introduction by Viola Meynell. Moby Dick or the Whale. New York: Avenel Books, 1985, 581.

“Go on, I’ll follow thee”, Hamlet says to the ghost. Ahab shouts, “. . .let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!”**

We all follow something, even if what we follow is a wish for peace. We yearn for resolution. A quiet, comfortable place. A home. A good book. A lover’s arms. Satisfaction of some kind–intellectual, emotional, physical. Somehow our passions come to rest. The owl hoots softly, but not urgently. Winters mild but summers not rendering us a howling inferno.

We would prefer not to howl. Not to have to howl unless we want to. Those dogs do that more than enough deep in the night. And the butterflies. Howling silently. You may have heard them without knowing. Ghastly.

When we do wake from the butterfly’s dream of being human, where will we find ourselves buried?

In a church?

Holy Trinity Church. Stratford upon Avon. Author photo.

Along a distant road at the edge of some lake country?

Lake Country. Author photo.

In a seldom used chapel?

Sir James Douglas. St. Bride’s Church. Douglas, Scotland. Author photo.

The question is, once we’ve done (or not done) whatever the ghosts of our various pasts have demanded, will they think of us? Remember us? Will angels pray for us?

Mourning angel. Lurs, France. Author photo.

Becoming a ghost is a natural process which may happen faster or slower, depending on what we choose. Will we fade in the artless milieu of the modern world, eating our own tails like a forgotten mythic serpent, spitting venom to kill the thunder god. Is that only in comic books? Will we climb the belfry when we realize our betrayal, or will we just stay at the table for another hand at hearts?

Will we speak? Will we stay silent? Hear the din of racing combustion engines, leaf blowers, mowers, and oversized SUVs and pickups murdering our unborn children. Will we look at monuments, angels or gargoyles, and wish that we were stone like them?

*A 1948 song by Sonny Burke with words by Paul Francis Webster. Memorably recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. This ghost suggests that it is worthwhile to listen to each of these versions, and all the others. K. D. Lang did a version with Grover Washington Jr. It’s on Youtube as well, and it’s fantastic.

**For more about whales and Hamlet, including parallels with the biblical Jonah, please see the essays of my friend, Paul Adrien Fried, who has done a great deal of work on biblical references and allusions in Hamlet:

all the tribe of hell

Tribes. All of us.

How we see ourselves. Others. Angels. Demons.

Gustave Doré’s 1866 illustration of Satan Yielding before Gabriel, for John Milton’s 1866 epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Hatfields. McCoys. The family of Devil Anse Hatfield against the family of Ole Ran McCoy, although both sides had fought for the Confederates against the Yankee Union in the American Civil War.

We are the quick. The dead. The moving. The still.

We. They. Us. Them. We are them. Montagues. Capulets. Aufidius. Coriolanus. England. France. Oberon. Titania. Theseus. Hippolyta.

Ineffectual Democrats. Heartless Republicans. Lazy. Bigoted. Immoral. Amoral. Greedy. Greedy.

Trouble choosing sides. Historicists. Cultural materialists. Deconstructinists. All the contexts of the world rolled into a rolling stone. The fate of Hippolytus, that papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died…

Maybe it’s the gods. Goddesses lined up like just desserts–Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, “Tell us, Zeus, which of us is most beautiful–the most beguiling, the most compelling.”

Zeus for all his faults still wiser than to call that particular coin in the air–almost laughing–almost weeping, “Ohhhh no. Let Paris choose. Uncle Billy, he’s your man.”

Greeks. Trojans. Cressida. Troilus.

Titus. Tamora. Romans. Goths. Old. Young. Experienced. Naive. All pulled down into the pits. La Brea.

Robert Bruce Horsfall, Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits, fronispiece for A History of Land Animals in the Western Hemisphere by William Berryman Scott, 1913.

Some decent restaurants not too far away. Once upon a time.

Now pits. Tar pits. Time. Mammoths. Rich and poor. Cats and dogs living together but no nearer.

The title line for this post appears in Othello. Roderigo, intoxicated with the idea of being with Desdemona, comes to Iago for help, saying that he will drown himself if he cannot have her. Iago ‘promises’ Desdemona to Roderigo if Roderigo can provide enough money, allying himself with ‘all the tribe of hell’ to get the deal done.

IAGO It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission
of the will. Come, be a man! Drown thyself? Drown
cats and blind puppies. I have professed me thy
friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving
with cables of perdurable toughness. I could never
better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse.
Follow thou the wars; defeat thy favor with an
usurped beard. I say, put money in thy purse. It
cannot be that Desdemona should long continue
her love to the Moor—put money in thy purse—
nor he his to her. It was a violent commencement in
her, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration
—put but money in thy purse. These Moors are
changeable in their wills. Fill thy purse with money.
The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts
shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida.
She must change for youth. When she is sated
with his body she will find the error of her choice.
Therefore, put money in thy purse. If thou wilt
needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than
drowning. Make all the money thou canst. If sanctimony
and a frail vow betwixt an erring barbarian
and a supersubtle Venetian be not too hard for my
wits and all the tribe of hell, thou shalt enjoy her.
Therefore make money. A pox of drowning thyself!
It is clean out of the way. Seek thou rather to be
hanged in compassing thy joy than to be drowned
and go without her.

Othello 1.3.377-404

We know how these devil’s deals go. Ralph Kramden will not become wealthy. The scheme will not work. His tribe cannot. George Bailey may be the “richest man in town”, but he will not become wealthy either. And even after triumph, single combat under the eyes of angels, Henry F. Potter will still be living across town–in a nicer house, with servants and a nicer car.

In The Philadelphia Story we watch them. The social elite. The rich. Material world inhabiters. It’s not only the girls who are material. Diamonds are everyone’s best friend. In the story, the tribe’s world, customs embedded in wedding, is invaded. Another tribe intrudes–the tribe of commoners. Reporters sent secretly to cover the wedding (which never fools Tracy Lord, the lead socialite herself).

Republicans. Democrats. Tories. Labour. Lib dems. Wait, that’s three. Black, white, gray. Earl Grey–with blue blossoms (Lady Grey) or not. Debt holders and debtors. A social and economic minefield. Squid games. There’s even a swimming pool.

Those who are for education. Who think that studying literature and philosophy is edifying and promotes the kind of critical thinking which fosters capable and responsible citizens. Or, those who think formal education, college/university, is largely a waste of time. In the United States, this rhetoric seems to be on the ascendant. In large part, this is due to the increasingly corporate structure of the U.S. We need people who can fill boxes in Amazon’s vast warehouses, and people to drive delivery trucks much more than we need people who can think for themselves or understand Plato.

Rhetoric from Fox Business (known for being popular amongst political conservatives) is case in point:

College bad. Money good. Suddenly, the ‘cool kids’ are not going to college, the article tells us. The article supplants the narrative of university providing a formative higher educational experience with a narrative of its own–that being successful (equated with making money), does not require college. Being a dropout is better than being a grad, the article suggests (in spite of the fact that most dropouts tend not to make nearly as much money over a lifetime as their degree holding contemporaries.

The rhetoric isn’t new. More than forty years ago, in an essay for Newsweek in 1980, Isaac Asimov noted the prevalent anti-intellectual current in the United States:

Of course, the U.S. has arguably become a place where making as much money as possible over one’s lifetime is of paramount importance. If one doesn’t retire with millions of dollars (as much as $ 5 million, according to some sources, albeit it is hotly debated–usually with the disagreement coming from conservative financial mouthpieces), one cannot afford one’s healthcare in later life. And that’s just healthcare costs. The idea of traveling frequently or living comfortably someplace can cost much more.

Making money is essential. Making lots of money has become the most important thing in American culture, superseding intellectual and civic discourse, human interaction, and most of human sympathy. ‘I’m all for the arts as long as I don’t have to pay for them. I pay more than enough in taxes for national defense and other things I need.’

It might be worthwhile noting that after the populists kill education completely (something which they’ve tried to do wholesale ever since Ronald Reagan cut the U.S. education budget by 80% in the 1980s), no one will retire comfortably anyway except the descendants of wealthy corporate and political (which are far from mutually exclusive) families.

This may be just what U.S. conservatives want (the politicians, not their more deluded voters). By dumbing down the general populace, we render them incapable of thoughtful voting. More susceptible to media rhetoric and much less able to think for themselves. Easy votes. Just shout loudly enough. Or ‘loud’ enough, if you prefer the flat adverb of the contemporary colloquial.

Timon of Athens plays with the polarity. The two tribes of wealthy and poor? The generous versus the opportunist. Timon starts wealthy, supplementing friends and giving lavish entertainments. After he loses everything, he lives alone in a cave, rejecting human society. His extravagance and generosity transform into the negatives of those attributes. Timon becomes a misanthropic hermit, a kind of embodiment of a null set. Empty intersects with empty. Rage.

Moon Over Buffalo is not the same. These characters are working actors not glamorous socialites. Were these folks on a cruise, no one would care with whom they fraternised except themselves and each other. George Hay’s affair in the play is not the same as Nickie Ferrante’s in the film An Affair to Remember. Only Charlotte Hay cares about George’s indiscretion. The whole world cares about what Nickie Ferrante does. Different tribes intersecting at a null set.

After all, we are from different places.


Paris. Author photo.


Rome. Author photo.

Dubuque, New York, Wharfdale, Napa:

New York. Author photo.

We are donkeys, elephants, giraffes. But wait, that’s three again.

What prompts this triple goddess, this Hecate of transformative witchcraft? What makes the good soldier murder, rise, and become the despotic king? What makes the fair and foul confuse each other? Does good need evil to be good?

Hamlet slouches away towards some Bethlehem we never envisioned. Nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Tell that to Ophelia. Or, after the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, be revenged on the whole pack of them.

Then we awaken momentarily as winter sunlight. The calm before the sea comes to war with the harbour once again.

We are camels. Thirst. Obi Wan Kenobi buried deep on the far side of desert world, watching the rest of the star system ice over. Watching winter come. Bantha tracks. The sand people always ride single file to hide their numbers. The stars are lovely, dark and deep. Yoda has dinner engagements to keep.

Promises? Those who keep them. Those who don’t. The existence of Santa Claus seems to be largely a matter of opinion. Some firmly believe in him. Others do not.

Perhaps we can all still talk with one another.

Miracle on 34th Street, 20th Century Fox, 1947. (Edmund Gwenn, Marlene Lyden, Mary Field)

Perhaps we need to read each other’s literature. Sing each other’s songs.

Sure, you’ve read Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, Hamlet.

What? Haven’t read them? Don’t really read much? Saw the movie? Maybe a movie like that, a period piece anyway. Well, in that case you’ll fit in well with the new conservative agenda. Perhaps you can be a greeter at a big box store and help customers find their shopping carts or trolleys after you retire in your old age. No need to sit around talking about literature at the retirement home anyway. It’s likely that no one else will have read the books you’ve read or seen the films you’ve seen.

Maybe there’s the crux of the problem–the crux of misunderstanding. Perhaps it arises from never actually going there. Never reading. Never striving to understand outside of any context but our own. Perhaps it is not so much from the ignorant as from the incurious. Or perhaps those two are closely related.

Here are some insights about anti intellectualism from a blogger who is much more widely read than the ghost may ever be:

Things tend to overlap. One thing may not be distinct from another. When we vote for those who would censor our school libraries, we vote for a whole host of other intersecting and overlapping ideas. When we change one idea, we change the whole structure of our world.

How can that be? How can banning a single book change the world?

Here’s a well known video about how wolves change rivers. (If you’ve seen it, it might be worth watching again. It’s a great piece):

In The Oysters of Locmariaquer, Eleanor Clark describes the immersive process of properly tasting a local Morbihan Bay Breton oyster, and she relates the experience, in part, to architecture.

As for architecture, the French can build as horridly as anybody else when they set their minds to it, and it may be true, as educated Bretons will tell you, that in another ten years the region will have gone the way of the world in that respect, as its little summer resorts mostly have, and the sections destroyed in the last war. Only the old towns and buildings, especially farm buildings and the obscure little chapels with their extraordinary sculpture, are beautiful. But they are still in such preponderance, and the lovely countryside from all the inland heights down to the various, sometimes demonic chinoiseries of the shore, is still so undefaced by our standards, there is such pleasure to the eye and the mind everywhere, it is as though a know in your stomach, cramping the nerves and brain, were letting go. The sudden freedom from strain is bewildering. You are so used to ugliness–pervasive, scandalous, fly-by-night, brain-smashing ugliness, it takes a while to realize what has stopped hitting you. You can feel, you can think, you can enjoy food.

Clark, Eleanor. The Oysters of Locmariaquer. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992, p. 8.

Do we still have time to enjoy the food? Certainly in the day to day, for this moment we do.

We may have time to talk with each other as well, before the rulers divide us so much that we become docile (or not so docile) zombies at their command. Food for powder, Jack Falstaff? Let us hope not. Let us hope we can still have discourse. Still enjoy a different kind of food with each other.

We have so many challenges to tackle which are not each other, which are not our points of disagreement. We can only meet our current global challenges in common, working side by side. Divided, yes. And we will be so. Not everyone will enjoy Shakespeare, for example (perish the thought)! Still our mutual success, our continued survival, depends on us finding ways together.

My first suggestion, of course, would be not to vote for people who want to dictate what your children should read. When someone tells you what to think, evaluate it for yourself independent of what you might hear on any media platform. Think for yourself. Read things for yourself and talk with your children (and perhaps with other children) about it. Be open to questions and perspectives, even when those might differ from your own.

My second suggestion is to find all the books banned by any particular group who proposes banning books, and read to read them.

It can be so tempting to judge before we hear. Before we read. But true open listening, and open reading is a gift. Read books. Read to your children. And listen to them. Listen to others too, of course, but listen to children with particular care and attention. Children as a whole are our greatest teachers, especially if we can hear them before they are brow beaten into being adults. They teach us patience, nobility, perseverance, and love. What more can we need?

All the literature and arts, the creative, the ‘God spark’ within humanity stems from these virtues. When we capture that, hold it, and practice expressing it for ourselves, we become truly human again.

Iago allies himself with all the tribe of hell because he cannot serve two masters. The idea shows up in the Bible, of course, in Matthew 6:24:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

When Roderigo wonders how Iago can serve Othello when he hates him, Iago responds:

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed.

Othello 1.1.45-7

Having chosen his tribe, Iago has chosen his master too. “In following him, I follow but myself,” he says (1.1.64). Iago seems to be aligned with Satan indeed. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan says that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.” (Paradise Lost, Book 1. 263)

What about us? Should we abandon the false idea of ‘higher knowledge” promoted by universities in favour of making more money, or in favour of making money sooner? Would that be following mammon? Is our collective cultural fascination with billionaires–who seem to have displaced movie, television, and music stars as the popular icons of the present day–is that an indication of our society’s collective service to mammon?

Maybe we should read up on this. Perhaps, if we recapture the divine creative spark within ourselves and learn to speak that truth, then even ancient monsters will hear us and lay down their spears.

Let us hope so. The ghost still has serious doubts, but he’s like that.

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Magical ‘theory’ may be dismissed by scholars as too nebulous. A theory in the proper sense of the word, after all, explains facts, events, or observable phenomena. Yet magic is not a fact. The existence of magic cannot be verified, neither do its purported effects seem to be observable or reproducible. After all, human history is replete with legends, myths, stories, and ideas which aren’t based on scientific observation. The volumes written on magic may easily be relegated to mere superstition. There’s no proof to it. The worlds of Harry Potter, Merlin, Gandalf, and their kind are merely fiction. It’s not real. (Is it?)

Yet, volumes written on magic do contain elements derived from the observable world. Of course, the inclusion of ideas and figures derived from branches of learning like mathematics hardly makes magic itself ‘scientific’. Rather, magic tends to be swept into the bin with other pseudo scientific topics like the Loch Ness monster or bigfoot, or put on the shelf of topics like the crash of an alien spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, or the controlling influences which shadowy groups like the Illuminati may have over our world.

First page of Euclid’s Elements. Public domain. (Note the triangles.)

Whether magic as we might think of it is ‘real’ or not, it remains real in a social sense. Although we may be unaware of it much of the time, magic has become such a part of our social fabric that we constantly inhabit a complicated rubric of custom and behavior which has often been predicated on magical assumptions. Those who believe in higher powers may also commune in prayer with unseen but all knowing or potent angels or deities. And our innate sense of balance calls for balance in faith based matters too, giving us both angels and devils, bodhisattvas and the demons of samsara. Yet, it is perhaps in the mundane sense that magical practices have been most obviously woven into our social fabric and remain deeply embedded within it. This goes beyond black cats and ladders.

“Did you hurt yourself? Let me kiss it and make it better.”

In the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, many doors are still painted blue or green. It looks nice against the adobe walls, yes, but it is also thought to bring good luck to those who dwell within, whereas red doors have similar fortunate associations in Asia.

Also, many people still hang horseshoes by or above their doors (a practice which may relate to the legend of St. Dunstan nailing a horseshoe to the devil’s foot and only removing it after the devil promised never to enter a place with a horseshoe by the door).** The horseshoe not only attracts good luck, but the iron, in addition to repelling the devil, also repels fairies, witches, and all manner of evil spirits. A horseshoe with the points up will cup the luck and hold it, whereas a horseshoe with the points facing down supposedly provides a more specific “ward”, and protects one not only from roaming evils, but may also help defend against particular entities be they human or not.

Image source:

Still, iron seems to be a somewhat inconsistent ward, at least if one judges its effectiveness by Macbeth. For although Macbeth himself is almost certainly armed as he crosses the heath with Banquo at the beginning of the play, and although he may also be wearing some kind of armor, depending on the production, any iron he has fails in terms of apotropaic effect.

No matter how many times one has read or seen the play, the witches still appear, usually (but not always) three of them, and if we know the play at all, we know that Macbeth himself–the heroic, up and coming soldier– will eventually transmogrify into someone who resembles Emperor Palpatine much more than he does his previous self. Do we chalk this up to the ‘evil’ of the witches themselves, or can we assign some equal responsibility to Macbeth himself owing to his participation (be it more or less willing, more or less coerced), and his choice of methods?

The Macbeth witches are slippery, as nebulous as the forces of magic which they represent but they do not necessarily hogtie Macbeth. They merely tell him things, alluring things about his rank and stature, which is clearly enough to get the ball of fate string rolling.

As for the witches themselves, their nature seems like magic. In some ways, they might be anything. Described as being bearded and loathsome, their lines and actions are often mysterious, and sometimes incomprehensible. In a sense, they are much like the very magic they represent, and their characters have appeared in many guises on many stages and in many films. They may look like almost anything.

Assembled by Gc Howard on Youtube. The ghost owns neither rights to this video compilation nor to any of these films.*

They may embody the triple faced Hecate (a Greek goddess of sorcery, who also appears in Macbeth as a kind of queen of the witches). In classical mythology, Hecate has three bodies, and she looks forward, inward, and backward. In the 2015 Studio Canal film of Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel the witches suggest temporal variants of similar beings:

There is also the singular spirit sorcerer of Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood.

Note that even in this film, however, the singular ‘witch’ figure is still comprised of three visual elements–the central figure itself with a spinning wheel on one side and the trailing thread of fate on the other.

Something of the relationship between Shakespeare’s witches and the Wyrd Sisters, or fates, has been said elsewhere in this blog. In terms of production, each different version supplies its own texture to the story, emphasizing the director’s concept in each case. But aside from the relation to the original fate figures–the spinning maiden, the weaving matron, and the cutting crone, is there any additional significance to the number three?

Perhaps. There is more than one answer to the question, of course, and the answers are not simple.

The most obvious answer may come from looking at the fates again, or at the three bodied, three faced Hecate. In some cases, we see there the child, adult, and elder embodying the stages of life, and the passage of human time. But the trifold nature of this being also implies or suggests a center point–a place where the three intersect. This point may be in the incarnation of Hecate herself, or in the three stages/three ages of womanhood/personhood/human being. In the case of Macbeth, the intersection may be at the point of ‘witchyness’, some hypothetical place where seeing and manifesting become intimate.

This also suggests a kind of intersection in our understanding of witches (or the social phenomenon known as witches). Carr-Gomm and Heygate say that:

To understand the story of witchcraft in England we need to look at three different groups of people: those who practised folk magic up until the early part of the twentieth century; those who were accused of being witches during the centuries of persecution; and those who began practising a magic that they termed ‘witchcraft’ from the middle of the twentieth century.***

While this may be a good place from which to begin a social study, it meanders from the ghost’s point, which relates to a magical understanding of the witches’ function–to understand the idea of witches in the sense of the magic they do. For as sorcerers who do ‘actual magic’, they remain distinct from performers, from stage magicians who use illusions and tricks to entertain an audience.

Poster advertising Carter the Great. Charles Joseph Carter was a late 19th and early 20th century stage magician known for his elaborate acts. Image in the public domain.****

In order to understand those who ‘use magic in real life’ (if we can accept that there may be such beings), we must try to get some idea of what magic, real magic, might be. Google summons any number of definitions for magic, but these too often seem somehow inadequate or incomplete.

The online free dictionary, for example, defines magic (when the word is used as a noun) as:

1. a. The art or practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature. b. The charms, spells, and rituals so used.

2. The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring, as in making something seem to disappear, for entertainment.

3. A mysterious quality of enchantment

Setting number two aside, and three aside, we find number one to be a little indistinct as well. Yet, if we think about producing “supernatural effects” or controlling “events in nature”, it seems like we are talking about changing the way things are at a given point in time.

This isn’t merely transformation or transmutation:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. EMI/Python Pictures/Michael White, 1975.

If we accept that magic, in its usual sense, might be understood as the use of obscure forces (which may or may not be supernatural, but seem to entail more than the simple use of heat to boil water) to alter states of being or events, then we might be able to see magic in the sense of a contract that a magical practitioner makes with nature–a way in which the magician, and the world or universe, reach some kind of mutual agreement between them. Perhaps the magician somehow urges the world to change, and perhaps the world the somehow coaxes a kind of energy from the magician. Perhaps this is mutual, an understanding of sorts where the world and the magician each go half way, or part way. Somewhere, a common ground is agreed upon and reached. The sorcerer dances or dreams or walks or sees, and the flower blooms, the rain falls, or the young people fall in love. Sorcerer and manifestation meet somewhere somehow. The world and the magician, after some brief interlude, mutually participate in drawing happenstance, circumstance, or manifestation into being.

In this common ground of participation, there is a central point. It is a point defined by the first step of the sorcerer’s dance and the last falling petal of the blooming flower. The contract between the sorcerer and the world serves to facilitate the reaching and realization of this point. The sorcerer may stand at this point or move around it, and nature or the universe may remain stationary around the sorcerer or may be perceived as moving around the sorcerer.

If we consider the three sister arts (often thought of as martial arts, albeit saying so might be misconceiving) of Hsing-I, Bagua, and Taichi, then we may understand those as arts of expression, reception, and mutual participation respectively. Hsing I practitioners express their art into a receptive universe around them. In the circle walking art of Bagua, while the bagua practitioner moves around the circle, the circle may also be said to be moving around the practitioner–the practitioner receives from the universe around them and responds to whatever they receive. The Taichi artist and the universe mutually participate, simultaneously expressing into and receiving from each other.

“I don’t know, Ghost,” I hear some of you muttering. “Sounds awfully hokey to me. Awfully ‘new age’. Thinking, if you can call it that, made up of smoke and mirrors. Nothing to do with Shakespeare really. Just murky projection and equivocation, filled with fog and indistinction.”

Exactly. A bit like Macbeth’s moor. Like the haunted heath. Magic is the practice of hovering through the fog and filthy air–of moving into the indistinct to draw it into distinction.

“But it sounds like that old ‘wishcraft’ line, where someone has an ‘intention’ and the universe mysteriously conspires to meet that intention…”

Perhaps there is a bit of that at play. Some, especially those given to psychological interpretations of the plays, may argue that the prophecy given to Macbeth is self fulfilling–that once he hears it, it establishes a kind of underlying trajectory from which it is difficult, if not impossible, for him to escape. Still, let’s return to the play’s opening scene:

Scene 1 Thunder and Lightning. Enter three Witches.

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
SECOND WITCH: Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
FIRST WITCH: I come, Graymalkin.
SECOND WITCH: Paddock calls.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
They exit.

Macbeth 1.1.1-13.

When we break this down, the first word suggests something at once both definite and indefinite. “When shall…?” suggests that there will be a time for the next meeting, but that the speaker isn’t yet certain exactly what that time will be will be. The next part of the line, however, moves us from the temporal to the atmospheric while conflating the two. Thunder, lightning, or rain are not times, per se, but the first witch speaks as though they might be. They suggest the elements of fire and water, and they also suggest the dimensions of sight and sound (as Rod Serling might have said), but none of them seem to specify a “when”.

So here again is that “in between” quality with which magical ritual seems so preoccupied. In certain rituals, a magician may draw a magic circle and stand in the center of it. This could be a protective device–constructing a circle of safety, a barrier, around the magician to safeguard them from potentially harmful forces with which they may interact during the ritual process.

The direction in which the circle was drawn may have made a profound difference, however. Lewis Spence notes that “From time immemorial the Celtic peoples have retained the custom at religious and other ceremonies of walking in procession right-handwise, that is ‘with the sun’, or keeping to the right in a circular motion” and “this motion is known as deiseal (pron. dyāsh-al), that is ‘right-handwise’, and is regarded as propitious because in harmony with the movement of the sun.” However, the opposite, “circling to the left is considered ominous and is known in England and Lowland Scotland as ‘widdershins’, or ‘withershins’, derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wither’ meaning ‘against and ‘sith’ or ‘sins’, ‘to walk'”.*****

The Magic Circle (1886) by John William Waterhouse. Wiki commons image in the public domain.

There are many perspectives on magic circles, and on the magic of geometric shapes in general. Sometimes, moving with the sun is regarded as a motion which “invokes”–draws forces into the center of the ritual circle, while the widdershins movement “banishes”–repels or drives forces, energy, or entities away from the circle altogether. The choice would presumably depend upon what kind of force was being invoked or banished, with the ritual ‘force’ either seeking to draw towards the center point of the ritual circle or push away from it.

The circle also defines a center in which the magician stands–a place of power from which change or manifestation may be effected. The magician may become their own pole, their own world tree at the center of the universe they are in the process of crafting. The center suggested by Macbeth coalesces through the process of the play, even while the ultimate outcome may seem preordained. The initial question of the center point between “when” and “thunder, lightning, and rain” may only be the motion of a passing storm. It may be the mere hurly-burly of battle (both lost and won).

At the end of their first brief meeting, the witches have reached some kind of resolution, even if their conclusion still seems obscure. Together, they say “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. States of being have shifted and become their own opposites, and the newly established central point has perverted the natural order. Inversion and subversion have been newly established as the order of the day.

A scene later, when Macbeth finally enters, crossing the heath with his friend Banquo, the first line he speaks is, “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.”

Although he is clearly a participant who is bound up in the events of the play, Macbeth is not a magical negotiator. He is less certain. The fact that he has “not seen” so fair and foul a day does not preclude the possibility that there may be one. While for the witches fair is foul, Macbeth simply hasn’t ever seen the like.

Of course, this may be seen as yet another moment “in between”, a moment seeking a center point between the witches’ certainty and Macbeth’s less certain perspective, and it takes place just as the two groups are about to meet. This is an expectation–an anticipatory echo–looking both backwards to the witches’ words, and forwards to an actual seeing, an actual finding or definition of a middle ground. Yet, like the classical martial art form of Taichi mentioned above, there appears to be a mutual participation here, where the witches’ reality merges with Macbeth’s. The two realities begin a mutual participation at the very outset of the play.

In one sense, as soon as the witches invoke his name, Macbeth has already walked into the center of the witches’ triangle. Simply by being there, he has already occupied the center point of the play’s ritual and become it. While Banquo is also there at the initial meeting, the witches hail Macbeth first, and in that exchange the common ground of their communication becomes established. The witches’ invocation, like the title of the play, draws Macbeth into the center of the play’s ritual circle.

Perhaps seeking a common center is the basis of the “deed without a name”. Perhaps, just as Puck’s final lines at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream merge the voices of character Puck, actor playing Puck, and the play itself into a single voice, so does the witches’ ritualistic opening constrain the events of play, actors, and characters in Macbeth. As for other aspects of ritual practice which may be alluded to in Shakespeare’s work, those references must be left to another time.

What of the appearance of the multi faceted Hecate later in the play? Well, we have touched on her briefly, and we must beg her indulgence until we can spend more time with her again, perhaps in a future post.

For the moment, we have broached the possibility that there may be more to the witches in Macbeth than simple character texture or drama. The cultural texture may run even deeper than the historical context of a Scottish king who was relatively new on his English throne, and was fascinated by witchcraft, perhaps having been nursemaided on tales of Habondia or her flock.

Even as we move on into November, it’s good to remember that the witches always remain with us, even after the jack o lanterns have melted into earth. Sometimes, however, like Oberon, the witches are invisible.

Something to consider at this time of year–not to allow witches into one’s home, no matter how small and cute they might seem to be.

Wee Spooky Witch. Author photo.

Belated wishes for a happy Halloween, Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, All Saints and beyond. The ghost invites everyone to honor the dead and treasure the living, for one follows the other all too soon.

* The film versions in the compilation are (respectively): Polanski, Roman, Macbeth. United States: Columbia Pictures presents, 1971. Wright, Geoffrey, Macbeth. Australia, Palace Films and Cinemas, 2006., and Gould, Rupert, Macbeth. United Kingdom, BBC 4, 2010.

**More about horseshoes may be found in The Magic of the Horseshoe by Robert Lawrence. First printed in 1899, it has been reprinted frequently since, and modern paperback versions are ubiquitous.

***Carr – Gomm, Philip, and Richard Heygate. The Book of English Magic. John Murray: London England, 2010, 170.

****In spite of Carter’s ability to cheat death on stage, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1936, at the age of 61, and his son Larry took over the act as Carter the Great.

*****Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Rider: London & New York, 1945. Dover rep., 1999, 35.

that old white-bearded Satan

[***Trigger warning*** This post contains violence and rough language–in some ways similar to the weather in a changing climate.]

Shakespeare and aging?


Yep. How well we know it.

As we know him, the old one. Old scratch. The ancient adversary. Everything about him familiar, and all old. Old as the salt we throw over our shoulders to keep him behind us. Old as the hills, with eyes or without, whether with Steinbeck’s dark inhabitants or seemingly empty. Old as kisses. Old as angels. Devils. Demons. All the same. Old.

The old earth. Author photo.

Old as the earth and older. Older than the sun. As old as night and the cries of owls, their howlet’s wings destined for hell broth. We know it. The bell rings and it rings for thee. It invites us whether or not the sure and firm set earth hear our steps, whether Brutus so unkindly knocked or no. Maybe leaving us alone. Maybe not.

Red sun at the end of the old day. Author photo.

Age brings its own alone. For solitude is the curse and blessing which comes with age. It draws up a chair at the table, near enough to the fire on the long winter night. Grandfather lives too long and all his old cronies go before him into that good night. The cold season of old age knows only wind and brandy for companionship, as Frost would tell us. Philip Hoare writes of winter:

Winter is a lonely season. That’s why I like it. It’s easier to be alone; there’s no one there to notice. In the silence that ascends and descends at either end of the abbreviated day, there’s room to feel alive. The absence makes space for something else. I must keep faith with the sea. Swimming before dawn, I must leave my bike light on so that I can see where I left my clothes. Once the waves washed them clean away, leaving me to wade after them.

The sea doesn’t care, it can take or give. Ports are places of grief. Sailors declined to learn to swim, since to be lost overboard – even within sight of the shore – and to fight the waves would only ever extend the agony. You can only ever be alone out there.*

Yet, so often alone is not exactly alone, because that’s when thoughts come. Old thoughts. Old deeds. Old words spoken too hotly, things done too rashly. Our past swims up out of the sea and comes in through the open portal to sleep another night in the upper berth.

Satan. The old enemy. Old. Not the old joke — anagram of ‘Santa’, although both are old enough to be timeless and both might have white beards. Well, Santa has a white beard. At least we’re pretty certain that he does. He goes everywhere, not that we usually see him directly.

Yet, like that other one, the more adversarial one, the bb pellets that run all over when we load the air rifle, his influence may be readily apparent. Is Milton telling us that being bad is more fun than being good?

Animal House, Universal Pictures, 1978, with Donald Sutherland.

Parents assembling this or that unto the almost dawn of seasonal mornings. Needing batteries. Missing this or that and all the winter season will be damned. Is this not damnation?

Perhaps there is something to the Santa Satan after all. Santa down the chimney. Fire and ashes. Smoke. Personage emerging from the flames. Of the flames. Lake of fire. Long dead fires. Ashes in the hearth.

The age getting into our bones. Snake Plissken? Thought he was dead. Rooster Cogburn? Too old. Too fat. Like Santa.

Yet sometimes the old fat man can still be a kind of hero. Or perhaps the anti-hero.

The same scene from the film and its remake. The same standoff scene two ways, or one way–one imitating the other. The first scene, directed by Henry Hathaway with John Wayne starring as bounty hunter Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, Robert Duvall as “Lucky” Ned Pepper, Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, and Glen Campbell as La Boeuf:

True Grit, Paramount Pictures, 1969.

And the same scene, in the Paramount remake of True Grit, as directed by the Cohen brothers in 2010, with Jeff Bridges in the role of the aging Cogburn, Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, and Matt Damon as La Boeuf:

True Grit, Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Even the more recent remake of this film is getting old now. But then these characters and situations are old. Archetypes. Old scratch with a six gun.

We know these scenes. Even those we haven’t seen are familiar, because the western strips the basic violence inherent in so much of human mythology down to the bare walls. Good versus evil. We fight against the villains, even when they are ourselves. And the evil is an old evil, a lurking evil–known to us and long in our company. Westerns represent pure myth in the vernacular of the American frontier–itself an often hypermasculine, mythic landscape promiscuous with violence itself.

When it comes to approaching the end of life, sometimes the anti-hero is only good at hastening the end. The aging avenger, the angel of death who has grown old and tired because death is the only gift that they can finally bring to anyone–laying waste to evil even when it poses as good. And sometimes the anti-hero isn’t much of a hero at all, no matter how good the character might be at what he does.

Unforgiven, Warner Bros., 1992, Directed by Clint Eastwood.**

Age changes some things, and leaves others as they are. Human nature? Tennyson’s Nature remains on the page, red in tooth and claw. Age may make us hungry, desperate, tired. Desperadoes don’t really ride fences but if their innate violence turns inward, it tends to fester, increasing in intensity.

Aren’t you getting a bit far afield? Leading us off the straight and narrow as the old one might do? Leading us into a dark field filled with Error’s haphazard stones? Where’s the Shakespeare?

Really? After all this time? If you speak of the devil, he will appear. Don’t you know by now? Shakespeare will certainly be here soon, or at least his devils will arrive.

Prince Hal, in a bit of playacting in an Eastcheap tavern, acts as his father (King Henry IV) for a moment versus Falstaff’s own version of the prince:

PRINCE: (as King) The complaints I hear of thee are
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) ’Sblood, my lord, they are false.
—Nay, I’ll tickle you for a young prince, i’ faith.
PRINCE: (as King) Swearest thou? Ungracious boy,
henceforth ne’er look on me. Thou art violently
carried away from grace. There is a devil haunts
thee in the likeness of an old fat man. A tun of man
is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that
trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness,
that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard
of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted
Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that
reverend Vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian,
that vanity in years? Wherein is he good, but to taste
sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly but to
carve a capon and eat it? Wherein cunning but in
craft? Wherein crafty but in villainy? Wherein villainous
but in all things? Wherein worthy but in nothing?
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) I would your Grace would take
me with you. Whom means your Grace?
PRINCE: (as King) That villainous abominable misleader
of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) My lord, the man I know.
PRINCE: (as King) I know thou dost.
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) But to say I know more harm in
him than in myself were to say more than I know.
That he is old, the more the pity; his white hairs do
witness it. But that he is, saving your reverence, a
whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar
be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and
merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is
damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s
lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord,
banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for
sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack
Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more
valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not
him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy
Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
PRINCE: I do, I will.

1 Henry IV, 2.4.457-97.

As we noted, speak of the devil and he appears–in this case in the likeness of an old fat man. Hal’s description of Falstaff contrasts Falstaff’s own self description:

A goodly portly man, i’ faith, and a
corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a
most noble carriage, and, as I think, his age some
fifty, or, by ’r Lady, inclining to threescore; and now
I remember me, his name is Falstaff. If that man
should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me, for, Harry,
I see virtue in his looks. If then the tree may be
known by the fruit, as the fruit by the tree, then
peremptorily I speak it: there is virtue in that
Falstaff; him keep with, the rest banish.

1 Henry IV, 2.4.435-44.

Falstaff’s portrait of himself as Hal’s virtuous companion sidesteps his age by euphemizing it. He glosses. Falstaff describes himself as only “some fifty” or “inclining to threescore”, whereas Hal minces no words with the “old fat man”. Falstaff’s Falstaff ‘inclines’ while Hal’s ‘haunts’.

Hal’s Falstaff is a “trunk of humors”, a “bolting-hutch of beastliness”, a “swollen parcel of dropsies”, all of him an abominable misleader of youth. Falstaff’s Falstaff remains a virtuous “tree”, to be pitied for his age. Instead of a drunken whoremaster, he is “merry”–a “goodly portly man”, “corpulent”, “of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage”.

Yet, however he wrangles the verbage, Falstaff remains old, and we tend to associate age with evil. This association isn’t merely a matter of decay or decrepitude. It isn’t merely that age may become a process of dissolution, of falling away. It is not about losing friends, possessions, and even memories. It isn’t only the “second childishness and mere oblivion” cited by Jaques in his famous “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like it. It isn’t merely that we find age threatening or unpleasant.

It is more than that. Age walks hand in hand with evil. Age is not only undesirable for its deleterious effects on the human mind and body, but it is also often seen as an undesirable characteristic in a moral sense. The wise elder may be an archetype, but the devil, in his ‘old scratch’ form seems even more well established. Nearly as old as God, and older than the earth. The adversary is older than any wise elder excepting the Almighty itself. ‘Old’ may not be an exact equivalent of ‘evil’, but the two ideas never drift far apart from each other.

Setting aside the countless motion picture or television promotional trailers that begin with a deep voice intoning some kind of ‘ancient evil’, we can see the idea of age and evil bundled together in countless places. Early modern drama is replete with it.

There are exceptions too. When Henry V walks through the camp in disguise on the night before the battle with the French, he is challenged at one point.

WILLIAMS: We see yonder the beginning of the day, but
I think we shall never see the end of it.—Who goes
KING HENRY: A friend.
WILLIAMS: Under what captain serve you?
KING HENRY: Under Sir Thomas Erpingham.
WILLIAMS: A good old commander and a most kind
gentleman. I pray you, what thinks he of our
KING HENRY: Even as men wracked upon a sand, that
look to be washed off the next tide.

Henry V 4.1.92-102.

And there is the friendly old. Sir Thomas Erpingham is described as “A good old commander and a most kind gentleman.” The description is made in passing of an absent character, and it is not germane to the main discussion about the vagaries of war or the king’s mortal understanding.

Still, ‘old’ more frequently has negative connotations. At the least, advancing age suggests death’s inexorable approach, as Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 describes it:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Even in titles, ‘old’ seldom suggests good. The idea of age is less likely to be associated with nobility than it is with dissolution and vice.

Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One*** is a case in point. A young lover, Theodorus Witgood, has mortgaged his estate to his uncle, Pecunious Lucre. Witgood is in love with Joyce, whose own uncle, Walkadine Hoard, is equally old and unscrupulous. Can Witgood rescue his fortune and future happiness from his avaricious uncle? Therein lies the ‘trick’ of the title. Notably, the play’s title is not “A Trick to Catch Old Uncle”. Middleton’s title implies catching the ‘old one’, which is yet another name for the devil.

Like the devil, the old one in the play must be tricked in order for young love to take its free course. Not enough in itself, virtue must outwit aged vice. Virtuous youth is pitted against the adversary, against age, against the settled quality of inevitable decay.

Middleton’s play inspired Philip Massinger’s later play A New Way to Pay Old Debts.**** In Massinger’s play, the central character is the villain Sir Giles Over-reach, who is pitted against Frank Wellborn and Tom Allworth. Again, we see the pattern of youthful fortune and romance being threatened by villainy personified in a single character. Yet here, the villain need not necessarily be so very old. Instead, it is the debts themselves which are ‘old’. They are a manifestation of an ancient lack, an emptiness, a deficit hanging over the younger characters and impeding their fortunes.

Shakespeare’s resolution of the tug of war that Falstaff plays against Hal goes far beyond a mere play of words, for in the end, the opposition of age and vice against youthful nobility remains deadly serious in ways that it influences king and country. A 1989 film version of Henry V, adapted and directed by Kenneth Branagh, weaves in some of the above dialogue from Henry IV part 1 as a flashback to make the point:

Henry V by BBC films, 1989.*****

At the end of this moment, Pistol and Nym are reconciled and these men, who are obviously growing older, head off to war in France. It is an ominous moment, in a sense. The old glue which once held their company together has dissolved. Falstaff has gone to his grave broken hearted at Hal’s rejection, and all that seems to be left are a ragged group of aging men. One can hardly help thinking that old men often do not often fare so well in war.

It is often noted that when Hal becomes King Henry V, he must transcend his boyhood in the alehouses. He has made his study of the fringes of society over which he will rule, and he must abandon the social scaffolding which helped him deepen his understanding of people like Quickly, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym. Like a prospective employer, a university for example, in order to maintain his seat of power, a king must surround himself with younger, cleverer, and more agile blood. His counselors and teachers must be more recently schooled, and it is best if their understanding of modern trend is innate.

Old men (and old women too) age away from the world. They know less and less of contemporary issues, or of the real modern problems facing the world or of those problems’ potential solutions. After all, the aging population can barely navigate the internet, and when they do, they join outmoded online social platforms like Facebook, for example, which widely betrays not only their own privacy, but also their naiveté about the potential hazards of their behavior.

When they do understand something, their understanding may be tinged with baseness. Even their most animated conceptions may be laced with the vice which they have encountered repeatedly in their long lives.

Henry IV part II, BBC TV movie, 1979. Dir by David Giles with Sir Anthony Quayle as Sir John Falstaff.

In the end, the aging ones may drink to muster something–to recapture youth, or to numb the pain of growing old. The elder becomes a strange mix of frightened and frightening, of true grit and the unforgiven. Seldom needed, often forgotten and forsaken, they turn to what they can to fill increasingly empty nights and days.

Robert Frost described it too, this mutual emptying of an elder’s inside and outside worlds:

An Old Man’s Winter Night

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

This gradual emptying out of both the human and the world around them is the real adversary, the real Satan. The evil of age lies not so much in what the aging themselves still need as it does in how little they may be needed. Their words and thoughts are less and less frequently heeded or regarded, if they are ever heeded at all. Younger and cleverer heads go on to do the thinking, run the companies, teach in schools and universities in what is always an increasingly modern world.

Where does this lead us?

Yes, individually we age. We decay. Dissolve. Become empty. Husks of what we were. Owls hooting of youth into a vacant night. And now the world does too.

Mistress Quickly describes Sir John Falstaff’s death in terms of the natural world:

He parted ev’n just between twelve
and one, ev’n at the turning o’ th’ tide; for after I saw
him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers
and smile upon his finger’s end, I knew there was
but one way, for his nose was as sharp as a pen and
he talked of green fields.

Henry V 2.3.12-17

Perhaps, as many might be quick to point out, it has been the disregard of older generations which have led the world to the brink of the void. Certainly, Greta Thunberg is right. Politicians everywhere have been panderers to the worst bases of corporate and individual greed. The human world now stands at the very margins of impending emptiness, and previous generations have too long ignored our effects on our climate.

Yet, at this moment we cannot afford to disregard any single human voice which might offer suggestions. We cannot afford to exclude thinkers from participation based on gender, ethnicity, or age. Thoughts which might help to open new perspectives or precipitate new methods may come from any source now–even perhaps from older, more experienced, and increasingly disregarded minds.

When the next tide turns, it may take more with it than just one old Shakespearean character. So, in the eleventh hour before that ebb and flow, it might be worthwhile to set aside the impulse that an elder might have already had his or her say, that they might have had their chance, or might have nothing left to teach. It might be worth one more passing of the talking stick to hear what the elders–not the politicians, but community elders who live amongst–us might say as well. We exclude them, even casually, at our greatest peril.

*Hoare, Philip. The Sea Inside. London: Fourth Estate, 2013, 34. (Highly recommended)

**Unforgiven manipulated the western trope of black and white hats, villains and ‘good guys’ by populating the western landscape with questionable individuals in all roles, and giving us the central character of Will Munny, a cold blooded killer who, try as he might, has never been really good at anything except killing people.

***A Trick to Catch the Old One was entered in the Stationer’s Register in 1607, and the quarto was printed in 1608. Middleton may have written the play around 1605. The first quarto states that it had been acted by the Children of Paul’s–one of the popular boys’ theatre troups of the time.

****A New Way to Pay Old Debts which was printed in 1633, may have been written in 1625 when the theatres were closed due to bubonic plague. It played until theatres closed in 1642 during the English Civil War, but It was also revived after the Restoration and Sir Giles Over-reach remained a popular villain even into the 19th century.

*****Adapted and directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, the clip features Branagh as Prince Hal, Robbie Coltrane (who also played Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) as Sir John Falstaff, Richard Briers as Bardolph, Geoffrey Hutchings as Nym, Robert Stephens as Pistol, Dame Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly, and a young Christian Bale as the boy.

Familiarity and old friends

“Time means nothing to a ghost.”

Well, that’s not always strictly true. Sometimes life gets busy.

While we do not wish to set friends aside, even temporarily, sometimes we must do so in order to attend to other things. Still, the corridor remains, the long hallway of the familiar, punctuated by various doors and shadows. When we do walk it once again, it is like a field, different even while remaining the same.

Familiarity itself may not be a mytheme like a tree or a shadow, but in the vernacular, it is still a thing.

The familiar may be an old friend or even a group of friends, but it may also be much more than that. Friends tend to support one another as a wall does a vine.

Clematis on the wall. Author photo.

But familiarity itself is a presence, a being–something which is ‘there’ even when intangible. Familiarity’s quality may vary widely. Things, places, people, and sets of circumstances may be endearing, charming, cozy, and also eerie, unsettling, and terrifying.

Friends generally seem to follow certain guidelines. Friends often forgive unintentional (and sometimes intentional) faults and trespasses. Friends connect on a level closer to the bedrock of shared experience and human warmth. They may see each other as beautiful. Even one who embodies a mountain of neuroses or character flaws may become wonderful through the lens of friendship. Connection may be a perfect blend of creation and relation, curious and ever moving.

Friendship’s familiarity allows room, making space for otherness in its inclusion. We rally beneath humanity’s unified flag. “She may be x, but she’s our x!”

Friends share discoveries and secrets. Here, Hamlet unexpectedly meets his old university friend, Horatio, at Elsinore:

HORATIO Hail to your Lordship.
HAMLET I am glad to see you well.
Horatio—or I do forget myself!
The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.
Sir, my good friend. I’ll change that name with you.
And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?—
MARCELLUS My good lord.
I am very glad to see you. To Barnardo. Good
even, sir.—
But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
A truant disposition, good my lord.
I would not hear your enemy say so,
Nor shall you do my ear that violence
To make it truster of your own report
Against yourself. I know you are no truant.
But what is your affair in Elsinore?
We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.
My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.
I prithee, do not mock me, fellow student.
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.
Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.
Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!
My father—methinks I see my father.
Where, my lord?
HAMLET In my mind’s eye, Horatio.
I saw him once. He was a goodly king.
He was a man. Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.
HAMLET Saw who?
My lord, the King your father.
HAMLET The King my father?
Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear, till I may deliver
Upon the witness of these gentlemen
This marvel to you.
HAMLET For God’s love, let me hear!

Hamlet 1.2.165-205

Horatio has come with the guards to tell Hamlet about his father’s ghost walking the battlements at night. The dialogue walks us through greeting, support, disclosure, the undertone suggesting the kind of quiet familiarity shared by friends. Hamlet protests against Horatio’s description of himself as “truant”. Horatio quietly agrees with Hamlet’s assessment of his own mother’s hasty wedding following his father’s death. “Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.” In friendship’s river, mutual regard flows through agreement and protective sentiment.

The dialogue builds to the revelations about Hamlet’s father while it also projects the ease between the two characters, reflecting the comfortable accord which so often exists between longtime friends.

Naturally, friends need not necessarily be ‘newsy’. Merely sitting in company, ‘being’ with each other may be enough. In friendship, familiarity may be marked by togetherness without expectation, without any need to fill voids with conversation. Such quiet community is part of human experience, often becoming central to the repository of our memories.

We sit on a bench surveying our surroundings. Hearing the birds. Seeing our own past.

Vast is the literature of memoir, which cannot help but veer into reminiscence. Frank Waters, the “Grandfather of Southwestern Literature” wrote his appropriately titled Of Time and Change about the Taos Art Colony. Many famous artists traveled to or through the area. People like Robinson Jeffers, Ansel Adams, H.D. Lawrence (who is buried on a mountainside outside of Taos), Willa Cather, and Aldous Huxley. Most haunting about Waters’ memoir, however, are his memories of his friends, Mabel Dodge Luhan and her fourth husband, Tony Luhan, and how they aged and changed as the Taos Colony times came to a close.

All of us who have been lucky enough to have friends know such moments. Sitting with friends, or sitting without them, and recalling them and others. Recalling what we did when and where and how it all was.

Shakespeare knew this too:

SHALLOW Ha, ’twas a merry night. And is Jane Nightwork
FALSTAFF She lives, Master Shallow.
SHALLOW She never could away with me.
FALSTAFF Never, never. She would always say she could
not abide Master Shallow.
SHALLOW By the Mass, I could anger her to th’ heart.
She was then a bona roba. Doth she hold her own
FALSTAFF Old, old, Master Shallow.
SHALLOW Nay, she must be old. She cannot choose but
be old. Certain, she’s old, and had Robin Nightwork
by old Nightwork before I came to Clement’s Inn.
SILENCE That’s fifty-five year ago.
SHALLOW Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that
that this knight and I have seen!—Ha, Sir John, said
I well?
FALSTAFF We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master
SHALLOW That we have, that we have, that we have. In
faith, Sir John, we have. Our watchword was “Hem,
boys.” Come, let’s to dinner, come, let’s to dinner.
Jesus, the days that we have seen! Come, come.

Henry IV, part 2, 3.2.204-26

Sometimes our old friends have become overfilled with themselves–the Zen teacup overflowing onto the saucer and then the floor. Still, we may indulge them, allowing them to speak on, whistling against the wind, to talk it out.

Old friends need not necessarily be human. Familiarity extends beyond the strictly human realm. Not only may objects be friends, but they may be amongst the most constant friends we have.

The old family teakettle. Author photo.

In many ways, objects may be more dependable than human friends. They may be more constant and more durable. The kettle never minds what kind of tea one makes. It never argues. It only sounds a whistle when the water’s ready.

Often, in human terms, the ‘auld lang syne’, the ‘old long since’, may be demons as much as angels. Lives are filled with vagaries and strangenesses. Annoying people. Inconstant. Traitors. Trespassers. The proud and sanctimonious. Why is pride the first sin? Because it defied the Lord in scripture? Or because the humans who deemed it so found it the most annoying sin of all. No one wants to listen to that guy who knows everything. (Take note you humans, and ye ghosts.)

Sometimes, like the great Ralph Stanley, one senses the inevitable lateness of the hour.

Ralph Stanley, O Death. Recorded in live performance.*

Death may be the greatest equalizer, the great peacemaker. The grave truly is a fine and private place, Mr. Marvell. Yet, death may also be, as Don Juan Matus supposedly said to Carlos Castañeda, “the only wise advisor that we have.”**

Perhaps fancy too. Sex going hand in hand along with death. The ever turning wheel of beginnings and endings.

Chloë No, it’s all because of sex.

Valentine Really?

Chloë That’s what I think. The universe is deterministic, all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.

Valentine Ah. The attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden.***

There are those times in life when we return to old friends, old lovers, or old acquaintance for any number of reasons. To say something previously left unsaid. Voice a grievance. Apologize. Make peace.

Hannah What does it mean?

Valentine Not what you’d like it to.

Hannah Why not?

Valentine Well, for one thing, she’d be famous.

Hannah No, she wouldn’t. She was dead before she had time to be famous . . .****

Time always catches us. Old death may suddenly turn on the lights on the brim of his hat and show us the empty house with cold wind blowing through it. Sometimes we return too late. We miss the nick of time. It eludes us, and we founder. Then we listen to what Hugh Laurie describes as “the minor key”–which is death itself.

From A Celebration of New Orleans Blues by Hugh Laurie. 2012.

We always tell ourselves that we will call. We will bump into them. We will drop a line, a text, an email. Tomorrow. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Well, you know the rest. We stand by the grave in solemn clothes while Hamlet jumps in. Ophelia has gone. Floated away, wreathed in blossoms singing snatches of old songs. In the end, Horatio alone is left to tell thee. Yet, even through time’s turn of the screw the familiar endures.

Strangely, oddly, peculiarly familiar. Familiarity wears any number of faces. It appears in any number of guises. It may arise in genuine friendships precipitated from an original enmity like the fox and the crow. They may be a familiarity of time, forged out of ancient recollection.


Up and down the high woods, up and down the low,  
Must ‘a’ gone a-hunting morts of years ago;  
When the beaver whistled, when the aurochs ran,  
Must ‘a’ been a-hunting when the world began.     

For I half remember (tusk on kingly tusk)  
How I’ve seen the mammoths moving through the dusk,  
Mammoths all a-marching, terrible to see,  
Through an awful oak-wood glooming ghoulishly.     

Shadows huge and hairy, as the day was done,  
Somehow I remember, walking one by one,  
Bulls grotesque and solemn pulling boughs in halves,  
Running ‘neath their mothers little idiot calves.     

Lumping through the oak-swamp, vast and dim and gray,  
I have watched the mammoths pass at dusk of day;  
Through the quaking hollow, through the tree-trunks stark,  
Gleams of mighty ivory breaking up the dark.     

That’s the way I dream it, that’s the way I know,  
Must ‘a’ gone a-hunting years and years ago,  
For I’ve seen the mammoths—‘tisn’t you that could—  
Moving like cathedrals through a dreadful wood.*****

Most often, friends are forged from communal experience. Shared sentiments and delight may bond us together. The weight of time may be ponderous. But it may also be lively and social. Time’s winged chariot may repeatedly offer us new wonders.


by Langdon Smith (1858-1908)

 When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
   In the Paleozoic time,
 And side by side on the ebbing tide
   We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
 Or skittered with many a caudal flip
   Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
 My heart was rife with the joy of life,
   For I loved you even then.

 Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
   And mindless at last we died;
 And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
   We slumbered side by side.
 The world turned on in the lathe of time,
   The hot lands heaved amain,
 Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
   And crept into life again.

 We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
   And drab as a dead man's hand;
 We coiled at ease 'neath the dripping trees
   Or trailed through the mud and sand.
 Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
   Writing a language dumb,
 With never a spark in the empty dark
   To hint at a life to come.

 Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
   And happy we died once more;
 Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
   Of a Neocomian shore.
 The eons came and the eons fled
   And the sleep that wrapped us fast
 Was riven away in a newer day
   And the night of death was passed. 

 Then light and swift through the jungle trees
   We swung in our airy flights,
 Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
   In the hush of the moonless nights;
 And oh! what beautiful years were there
   When our hearts clung each to each;
 When life was filled and our senses thrilled
   In the first faint dawn of speech.

 Thus life by life and love by love
   We passed through the cycles strange,
 And breath by breath and death by death
   We followed the chain of change.
 Till there came a time in the law of life
   When over the nursing sod
 The shadows broke and the soul awoke
   In a strange, dim dream of God.

 I was thewed like an Auroch bull
   And tusked like the great cave bear;
 And you, my sweet, from head to feet
   Were gowned in your glorious hair.
 Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
   When the night fell o'er the plain
 And the moon hung red o'er the river bed
   We mumbled the bones of the slain.

 I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
   And shaped it with brutish craft;
 I broke a shank from the woodland lank
   And fitted it, head and haft;
 Than I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
   Where the mammoth came to drink;
 Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
   And slew him upon the brink. 

 Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
   Loud answered our kith and kin;
 From west to east to the crimson feast
   The clan came tramping in.
 O'er joint and gristle and padded hoof
   We fought and clawed and tore,
 And cheek by jowl with many a growl
   We talked the marvel o'er.

 I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
   With rude and hairy hand;
 I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
   That men might understand.
 For we lived by blood and the right of might
   Ere human laws were drawn,
 And the age of sin did not begin
   Til our brutal tusks were gone.

 And that was a million years ago
   In a time that no man knows;
 Yet here tonight in the mellow light
   We sit at Delmonico's.
 Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
   Your hair is dark as jet,
 Your years are few, your life is new,
   Your soul untried, and yet --

 Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
   And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
 We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
   And deep in the Coralline crags;
 Our love is old, our lives are old,
   And death shall come amain;
 Should it come today, what man may say
   We shall not live again?

 God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
   And furnish’d them wings to fly;
 He sowed our spawn in the world's dim dawn,
   And I know that it shall not die,
 Though cities have sprung above the graves
   Where the crook-bone men made war
 And the ox-wain creaks o'er the buried caves
   Where the mummied mammoths are.

 Then as we linger at luncheon here
   O'er many a dainty dish,
 Let us drink anew to the time when you
   Were a tadpole and I was a fish.******

When we measure time on a geologic scale, it adds another dimension to our perspective.

While literature may be familiar, it may also be our friend. David Shields said, “Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this — which is what makes it essential.” True enough. Close friends may assuage our loneliness for a time. Horatios may discuss our defining moments with us, and their input may help refine our character. There is the old thought that if it weren’t for my friends who lend me character, I’d have no character at all. Perhaps that is true as well.

Old friends may take many forms. Favourite places, even when they may be gone from our lives, can be formative.

Paddlerest. Author photo.

Sometimes favourite conveyances–whether by land,

The Pashley. Author photo.

or by water.

Paddles at rest. Author photo.

An old volume may be dear because of content, because of sentimental association, or for both reasons.

Grandfather’s Shakespeare. Author photo.

To a cook, old friends may even take the form of a favourite kitchen tool or a favourite pan. A recipe, or even a seasoning blend–especially when it is one’s own.

Ghost blend. Author photo.

The field changes whilst remaining largely the same. We aren’t here all that long. Just a moment between sunrise and sunset. That incessant dying of the light.

Sunset field. Author photo.

We are a tide, our human experience marked with the ebb and flow of the familiar around us. We move and sow and reap, and we are sown and reaped in turn, the same old field yet ever changing. In the tide of time, we tread what water we can while constantly losing ground.

Sometimes life gets busy, and sometimes being in touch must be set aside for a time. Yet familiarity abides, as do old friends–and patient readers. That presence remains, not only being, but actually being there in life and at this point in time. We remain grateful for these markers in our lives upon this sea. For while it may be true that familiarity may breed contempt, it also, frequently, breeds content.

*American bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley started playing banjo when he was 19 years old, and invented his own style of banjo playing (Stanley style). His career had a revival later in his life with a resurgence in popularity for a number of his songs, including O Death, and Man of Constant Sorrow–which were featured on the soundtrack of the motion picture O Brother Where Art Thou. Stanley died in 2016.

**Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan: the Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Washington Square Books, 1991.

***Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. a Play. (2000 repr. with corr.). London – Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993, p.97.

****Ibid, p. 101.

*****Punch, 1914. Verse included here in dedication to RGL, who would know why.

******Yes, this has been quoted in previous posts. It is always worth quoting again in its entirety. Evolution is widely available online, and it is reprinted in many anthologies like The Best Loved Poems of the American People, Hazel Fellerman, ed. Doubleday, 1936.

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