I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea

Seaside through the looking glass. Author photo.

Oh, how I like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so high,
And all I ask is a tall ship
And a star to steer her by.

Green leaves a floating,
Castles in the foam,
Boats of mine a boating,
Where will all come home?*

The sea, and its margins, impact us profoundly. In the wise words of the great biologist, Rachel Carson:

Like the sea itself, the shore fascinates us who return to it, the place of our dim ancestral beginnings. In the recurrent rhythms of tides and surf and in the varied life of the tide lines there is the obvious attraction of movement and change and beauty. There is also, I am convinced, a deeper fascination born of inner meaning and significance.**

And later, in her chapter on “The Marginal World”, Carson says:

Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.***

In any number of ways, we come home to the sea. In travel, in thought, and in metaphor. As our origin, the ocean weaves a bright silver thread through our consciousness. It is an ever changing path which runs Tao like through our thoughts, emotions, and through the mythologies that define our world and our understanding. While the sea may have a face like the clock in the hall, it may also reflect the eternal albatross of the spotless mind.**** Its tempests mirror our innate violence, as its sometime placidity reflects our vast collective mind and soul.

The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life.*****

In addition to marking the very margin of our known existence, the sea may also be more compressed, its entirety contained even within any tiny fraction of itself. Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, describes a kind of arc between the seen and the unseen, partly in terms of childhood and the transition away from it. Gaiman’s cosmic ocean appears as the neighbour’s duck pond, but the appearance belies the vastness of the truth. This broader kind of metaphor extends to water in almost any form.

Long accepted by Jungians as a metaphor for the unconscious, water encompasses both life and death, all of cosmos and reality in liquid form. Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253), the great teacher of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism, described it this way:

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky. The depth is the same as the height. [To investigate the significance of] the length and brevity of time, we should consider whether the water is great or small, and understand the size of the moon in the sky.******

Melting frost. Author photo.

Often envisioned as a more yielding element (although it need not necessarily be so), water is frequently grouped with more feminine and receptive values in general. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Florizel, the young prince of Bohemia, finds himself falling in love with Perdita (who, unbeknownst to either of them, is the princess of Sicily). With the advent of his growing affections, all of Perdita’s actions assume a kind of eternal and regal profundity, and in his mind her dancing reflects the sea itself:

When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever. When you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.

A Winter’s Tale 4.4.161-72

The sea metaphor conjures eternity, the ever changing motion of the dance preserved as a wave, as in all such moments where we glimpse the eternal and wish to sustain our momentary apprehension of it. For Florizel, his awakening love encompasses his personal link with eternity, as he obliquely envisions his own individual identity suddenly becoming part of a larger whole in the same way that the waves dance on the surface of the greater ocean, of which they remain an integral part.

Light on water. Author photo.

Water may separate as well. It may divide in the form of moats guarding a fortress, or as the proverbial ‘oceans between us’ in either distance or understanding. Water may symbolise circumstances or forces that cleave shared fortune or romance asunder.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of shipwrecks causing division and distress. The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Pericles, and the Tempest all feature shipwrecks in various ways. In Measure for Measure, the character Mariana loses her kindly brother to a shipwreck which also claims the dowry with which she was to marry Angelo. As the Duke tells Isabella:

She should this Angelo have married,
was affianced to her oath, and the nuptial appointed.
Between which time of the contract and
limit of the solemnity, her brother Frederick was
wracked at sea, having in that perished vessel the
dowry of his sister. But mark how heavily this befell
to the poor gentlewoman. There she lost a noble
and renowned brother, in his love toward her ever
most kind and natural; with him, the portion and
sinew of her fortune, her marriage dowry; with
both, her combinate husband, this well-seeming

Measure for Measure 3.1.238-49.

The Duke further relates that with the loss of her fortune, the sanctimonious, self serving Angelo contrives to leave Mariana.

Left her in her tears and dried not one
of them with his comfort, swallowed his vows
whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor; in
few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which
she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her
tears, is washed with them but relents not.

Measure for Measure 3.1.251-6

The Duke describes her subsequent sad, detached existence at St. Luke’s, saying, “There at the moated grange resides this dejected Mariana.” Her kind and loving brother gone, and with her fiancé having cruelly abandoned her, Mariana not only retreats from the world, but sequesters herself within a moated country house, living inside a ring of water. In a Jungian sense, the water in Measure for Measure, reflects Mariana’s emotional state–first embodied as the sea, as a tempestuous agent of loss, and afterwards as the moat, a symbol emotional stagnation. Her sorrow being so ‘enmoated’ echoes her near complete disenfranchisement from the world.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously used Shakespeare’s description as the basis for his poem “Mariana” about the tedium inherent in pining for lost love:

‘Mariana in the moated grange.’
            —Measure for Measure.

With blackest moss the flower-plots
   Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
   That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
   Unlifted was the clinking latch;
   Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
      She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
Her tears fell with the dews at even;
   Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
   Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
   When thickest dark did trance the sky,
   She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
      She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
Upon the middle of the night,
   Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
   From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
   In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
   Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
      She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
About a stone-cast from the wall
   A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
   The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
   All silver-green with gnarled bark:
   For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
      She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
And ever when the moon was low,
   And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
   She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
   And wild winds bound within their cell,
   The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
      She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
All day within the dreamy house,
   The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
   Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
   Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
   Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
      She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
         He cometh not,’ she said;
      She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         I would that I were dead!’
The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
   The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
   The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
   When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
   Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
      Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
         He will not come,’ she said;
      She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
         Oh God, that I were dead!’

“Mariana” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This popular poem is widely available on the internet and in print.

In Tennyson’s poem, the farmhouse and its environs reflect Mariana’s isolation, resonating strongly with her deteriorated emotional state. Her entire life has become a frozen echo of the shipwreck that took her brother’s life and robbed her of her marriage prospects. In her post wreck psyche, motion has ceased, and the poem remains remarkably empty of active verbs. Mariana’s life has become locked into a static jumble of sorrow and bleak landscape. The only motion is the invisible passing of the hours. The poetic climax underscores loss and lack with fierce simplicity. “He will not come.” The future appears definite, but it remains exactly like the present–dominated by the lack of her beloved. The long slow days and nights stretch ahead within the landed shipwreck characterised by the grange, an often confused jumble of imagery and emptiness.

Mariana by John Everett Millais, 1851. In the Tait Britain.

Yet, water may give as well as take, and it may just as often serve as a vehicle or a way to something greater–to life, love, or opportunity. It is not always Homer’s ‘wine eyed sea’, glittering darkly up at us out of history. Boat journeys do not always end in disaster. They do not all lead to Sir Guyon’s “Gulfe of Greedinesse”. Water is not always salt, leading to shrinking boards and parched throats, dead albatrosses and ghost ships.*******

Just as often, water may bring positive outcomes–quenching thirst, cooling us, and beautifying our surroundings. Sometimes, our way is not fraught with peril. Watercourses may be slower and gentler, leading us to friendship and adventure.

“Hullo, Mole!” said the Water Rat.

“Hullo, Rat,” said the Mole.

“Would you like to come over?” enquired the Rat presently.

“Oh, it’s all very well to talk,” said the Mole, rather pettishly, he being new to a river and riverside life and its ways.

The Rat said nothing, but stooped and unfastened a rope and hauled on it; then lightly stepped onto a little boat which the Mole had not observed. It was painted blue outside and white within, and was just the size for two animals; and the Mole’s whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.

The Rat sculled smartly across and made fast. Then he held up his fore-paw as the Mole stepped gingerly down. “Lean on that!” he said. “Noq rhwn, step lively!” and the Mole to his surprise and rapture found himself actually seated in the stern of a real boat.

“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in my life.”

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “never been in  a – you never – well I – what have you been doing, then?”

“Is it so nice as all that? asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing – about – in – boats; messing -“

Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows. New York: The Heritage Press, 1940, pp. 6-7.********
Earnest Shepard illustration for The Wind in the Willows, 1931.

We all hope that our ride will be like Rat and Mole’s, leading on to friendship and discovery. We hope our boats will lead us on to landscapes brilliant with engagement and wonder. That our waters will remain calm, and that, when they cannot be, we will find safe harbour where we may weather the worst parts of the storm.

Life can be difficult enough. My hope is that every reader of these words will be able to make or find a sturdy enough craft to carry them dependably through their days to journey’s end. A craft of the mind, body, or of the spirit may do, but I hope it will be one that is seaworthy for all three climates, as well as any others which may happen upon us along the way.

Naturally, a boat creates its own dancing waves, and life is full of those. Rachel Carson’s ‘drive of life’ is like Perdita’s dance, embodied by the ever moving waves. Sunlight, moonlight, and the stars ripple, shiver, and reassemble endlessly, as do the circumstances in which we live. Water is the stuff of life. It is the element in which life begins, ends, and on which it briefly rides.

*With apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson and John Masefield for liberally reimagining their work. (Originally, ‘The Swing’ and ‘Where Go the Boats?’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is from his A Child’s Garden of Verses–first published as Penny Whistles in 1885. John Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’ was originally published in Salt Water Ballads in 1902.)

**Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. With Illus. by Bob Hines. New York: Signet Science Library, 1959, p. 3.

***Ibid, p. 11.

****Apologies again for the borrowing, to Stevenson (for his poem, “The Moon”) and to Charlie Kaufman (for his screenplay, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). A bit of the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner may be in there too.

*****Carson, p.11.

******Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjōkōan: the Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. New York, NY: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

*******Homer uses the phrase about the “wine dark” or “wine eyed” sea several times in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, seeming to describe a threatening sea, one that is tempestuous, or seems about to become so. Sir Guyon appears in Book 2 of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, in Canto XII (I think). Lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner are reasonably well known and self evident.

********Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows in 1908, but this citation comes from my grandfather’s 1940 edition of the work, which I’m delighted to have on my shelf.


Autumn leaves and sky. Author photo.

Winding down to the end. Year’s candle flickering, on the verge of going out. Nights imbued with autumn. Summer martins, on their black wings, heading south. Scents and flavours redolent of endings and sleep. Ashes of past years stir into the cooler breezes, heralding winter. Bright air fading, wan with weary grasping after vanished summer. No more hot kisses on the neck below the ear. Not now. Instead the breeze whispers rest and seclusion.

Perhaps Bradbury said it best:

October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .

Ray Bradbury, The October Country. (New York: Ballantine, 1955).

The fairy queen, Titania, calls the season “childing autumn” and it is. Harvest time, yes, but we can harvest many kinds of things. Childing not just pumpkins and gourds, vegetables, fruit, and wheat, but also feelings and memories. Different sensation. Different sky. Suddenly realising a much earlier dark. Fumbling to light a lamp. Candles lit with a growing understanding. Small holes in the dark glowing the tiny pinprick of good deeds in a naughty world.

Silhouetted trees seem to threat just before they fade into the menacing dark outside the window.

Tree branches against the night. Author photo.

Makes us wonder though. What do they do in thickening light, those folks down under the graveyard dirt?

“Mom? What do they do in the graveyard, Mom, under the ground? Just lay there?”
“Lie there.”
“Lie there? Is that all they do? It doesn’t sound like much fun.”
“For goodness’ sake, it’s not made out to be fun.”
“Why don’t they jump up and run around once in a while if they get tired lying there? God’s pretty silly–“
“Well, you’d think He’d treat people better than to tell them to lie still for keeps. That’s impossible. Nobody can do it! I tried once. Dog tries. I tell him, ‘dead Dog!’ He plays dead awhile, then gets sick and tired and wags his tail or opens one eye and looks at me, bored. Boy, I bet sometimes those graveyard people do the same, huh, Dog?”
Dog barked.
“Be still with that kind of talk!” said Mother.
Martin looked off into space.
“Bet that’s exactly what they do,” he said.

Ray Bradbury. The October Country.

Of course, the dead rise in Shakespeare too. At least Puck tells us that they do, and at least at this time of year, Puck may seem like a more reliable narrator:

Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide.
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.392-404.

The idea of a ‘triple Hecate’ initially seems to suggest that the fairies might be evil, After all, Hecate appears as the goddess of witchcraft in Macbeth, and many assume (whether correctly or not is the subject of other posts) that the witches in that play are a manifestation of evil forces. Although this conclusion seems tempting, it may be too much of an oversimplification of a complicated figure.

Like many deities whose sources lie in antiquity, Hecate is not merely a goddess of a single aspect of being and her domain and influence may have changed over the course of history. Frequently depicted as a goddess with three aspects, she is sometimes a triple woman, and other times she is a goddess with three heads–two of which may be animal (which might be variously a dog, serpent, horse, cow, or boar).

Hecate is often depicted as Ovid describes her, as standing watch at a crossroads with her faces watching in different directions. “Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition” Simon Hornblower tells us.*

Drawing of triple Hecate. The British Museum. Public domain.

October heralds this kind of watching. Hecate minded, Hecate faced, looking backwards and forwards, picking one’s way between was and will be:


The part of life
devoted to contemplation
was at odds with the part
committed to action.


Fall was approaching.
But I remember
it was always approaching
once school ended.


Life, my sister said,
is like a torch passed now
from the body to the mind.
Sadly, she went on, the mind is not
there to receive it.

The sun was setting.
Ah, the torch, she said.
It has gone out, I believe.
Our best hope is that it’s flickering,
fort/da, fort/da, like little Ernst
throwing his toy over the side of his crib
and then pulling it back. It’s too bad,
she said, there are no children here.
We could learn from them, as Freud did.


We would sometimes sit
on benches outside the dining room.
The smell of leaves burning.

Old people and fire, she said.
Not a good thing. They burn their houses down.


How heavy my mind is,
filled with the past.
Is there enough room
for the world to penetrate?
It must go somewhere,
it cannot simply sit on the surface—


Stars gleaming over the water.
The leaves piled, waiting to be lit.


Insight, my sister said.
Now it is here.
But hard to see in the darkness.

You must find your footing
before you put your weight on it.

Glück, Louise. “‘Autumn.’” The New Yorker, December 11, 2017.

In the cases of liminal deities, standing at crossroads, borders, thresholds, and other places of transition and/or change, it may be most useful to consider the divine presence as more than a mere signifier or herald of change. Instead, the god or goddess serves as a physical or palpable representative or manifestation of transition, of crossing from one state to another. In Hecate’s case, the ‘between’ quality associated with her converges with her cthonic (underworld) aspect. Yet, she is not generally seen as a psychopomp. Unlike Anubis, the Valkyries, the ferryman Charon, and numerous figures from other faiths and traditions, Hecate does not usually escort the dead to their final destinations. She sees the road in all directions, past, present, and future, but more as an observer than as a guide.

In the traditions of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), the task of comforting and escorting the dead usually falls to an angel–to the angel of death. In Islam and Judaism, this is often Azrael, an archangel who is usually depicted with an especially kind and merciful aspect.

The Angel of Death. Evelyn de Morgan, née Pickering, 1881. Public domain.**

In this sense, comfort appears at death’s heels. While the reaper may remain grim, riding the Biblical pale horse of the Book of Revelations, he or she is followed by an angel of mercy, of tenderness, of acceptance and inclusion. Followed by a calm and quiet equity, the leveling of earth and ashes.

In Cymbeline, Belarius likens the distinction to an angel:

Though mean and mighty,
Rotting together, have one dust, yet reverence,
That angel of the world, doth make distinction
Of place ’tween high and low.

Cymbeline 4.2.313-6

Here dichotomy converges. Hecate’s multiple gaze, not tripled, but bifurcated comes back together in the final dust. Human vision, with its tendency to see polarities, is also couched in the limitations of division.

Yet, Azrael is not an ‘angel of the world’, but a celestial one. Regarding neither honour nor degree, the archangel of death does not distinguish between the human qualities of mortals in the throes of their demise. He goes to all. He meets with them and carries them through their personal October, regardless of the falling leaves.

Still, goodbyes remain difficult. Those of us who remain behind while a loved one goes on into that undiscovered country may be tempted to rail against the end of things, to curse at death. In Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis, Venus does so when she finds her love Adonis has been killed by a wild boar:

So she at these sad signs draws up her breath
And, sighing it again, exclaims on Death.

“Hard-favored tyrant, ugly, meager, lean,
Hateful divorce of love!”—thus chides she Death—
“Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean
To stifle beauty and to steal his breath,
Who, when he lived, his breath and beauty set
Gloss on the rose, smell to the violet?

Venus and Adonis 929-36

Venus vows ever after that love shall be mingled with fear and sadness. In a sense, death ruins love for all of us.

In spite of Venus’ sorrow and her ranting, however, all mortals know that the gloss on the rose and the smell of the violet cannot last. The peeping calls or burbling rasps of frogs come only in certain seasons, and in between these bright moments stretch sleeps and silences. Earth’s worm may be likened to the Biblical serpent, or even to the presence of Coyote amongst the first people, or any other creation myth where death enters the human world. Even framed in these narratives, however, the introduction of death into the human realm took place long ago, in a time and set of circumstances now far beyond our present mortal powers to retrieve or remedy.

Not that we don’t try. Regeneration. Rejuvenation. Vaccination. We seek to dispel disease, to stave off death, and to defeat the aging process.

Still, even as the world grows hotter, October returns to us. Leaves change. An ending lies just around the corner of the year once again. Demeter and Persephone, mother and daughter, come together then separate again in a never ending cycle.

Late September pomegranate. Author photo.

We feel summer bees quieting, readying for sleep. Owls become more vocal. Birds behave differently as does the world. Trees change their gowns for the coming winter ball. Gardens change, and so do we.

We think of stews and heartier fares. We think of past times too, and people. We hope for better futures, while we look backwards a bit, like Hecate at the crossroads. The witches will be coming. This is October, after all. But for this moment, we wonder what lies ahead while we consider what we’ve left behind us.

The weather may yet hold splendid for a while:

October’s Bright Blue Weather

O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather;

When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And goldenrod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;

When gentians roll their fingers tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;

When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;

When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;

When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;

When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October’s bright blue weather.

O sun and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.

“October’s Bright Blue Weather” by Helen Hunt Jackson
October’s bright blue weather. Author photo.

Yet, although it may be bright for one week or even several, we sense something else coming. A hint of frost nips at the edges of the still warm days. Sleeping winter already stirs somewhere in her distant palace, shifting her long legs in her bed of cold winds and icy nights.

Not yet late enough for the apple harvest. Only early fruits and some of the grain. But the frost grows ever stronger as daylight receeds, reclaiming its seasonal domain, its sovereignty:

After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

“After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost

Difficult to know what comes after witches, after weather. More weather, yes, but it is hard to see winter’s magnitudes. How it might touch us. Wound us. Perhaps heal us. From where we stand, we can only see the change. Deepening. Russetting. Nature turning her now disinterested face away. We feel suddenly abandoned. Smaller. Forgotten by the cooling world.

We hope that after harvest, and after coming sleep, there will still come another, better spring. But we have become feeling blind to knowing. Consumed by emotion, memory, reaction, we cannot see. We cannot know.

Autumn fence. Author photo.

We only know the knock will come. Sounding on the door. Maybe sooner, maybe later, psychopomp standing at the threshold. Our own October coming home to us. Our own goodbye. And will that be a tickertape parade? Doubtful, but we cannot know.

And naturally, our lives are filled with smaller Octobers as well. House moves. Retirements. Greater and lesser dissolutions. Road leading us on to different ways.

Hecate sees past, present, and future, and Azrael sees all endings. But we cannot. We wait blindly, on our frail human raft, tossed in the midst of shifting weather. We endure the seasons and await our last October too.

For ghosts, for those already dead but still tied to people, places, things, this cool curling of the dark around our toes is not quite the same. October part of us. Anticipated. Arriving. Our angel of death comes more quietly. Ancient dictatorship reaching out. Simply, silently, finally. Just to take us away.

*Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 671.

**The roster of Archangels varies in number and identity according to various faiths and traditions. Although Azrael is one of four archangels in one tradition, the four archangels are also sometimes listed as Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. These archangels tend to embody and project various traits which may overlap. As God’s defender, the one who cast Satan out of heaven, Michael is often seen to represent strength and courage. Gabriel is a messenger who often projects knowledge or wisdom. Raphael, the healer, often presents an aspect of compassion and regeneration. Uriel often projects understanding–knowing the distinction between good and evil. Azrael’s psychopomp function tends to carry with it an overriding mercy, and a sense of the ultimate equality of all souls under heaven’s gaze. While this sketch oversimplifies an enormously complex subject, it also gives a general impression of how various emotional or mental qualities are thought to be encompassed and personified by celestial beings.

Till in her ashes she lie buried.

Autumn candle. Author photo.

Our line comes from Henry V, spoken by Henry during his seige of the French town of Harfleur. He demands the governor to surrender Harfleur in threatening terms:

How yet resolves the Governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit.
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves
Or, like to men proud of destruction,
Defy us to our worst. For, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the batt’ry once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie burièd.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand, shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infants.
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?

Henry V 3.3.1-18

Replete with imagery of destruction and death, these ominous threats are only the beginning. Henry’s subsequent speech pointedly includes the promised slaughter of townspeople and the violation of their wives and daughters. Yet, his leading picture paints a conjuration of Harfleur “in her ashes…burièd” as the aftermath of war “arrayed in flames like the prince of fiends”. The potent image of ruins smothered in ash is especially effective because the townsfolk have already been told that the French forces will not be arriving to rescue them. In effect, their resistance has already been rendered ashes.

Ash is a by-product of incineration. As we know, fire seldom consumes anything completely. Some residue of the previous substance remains behind, unburned, often (in the case of paper or wood) even retaining some of the original fuel’s structural integrity. Burnt wood or pages may leave behind ashen ‘ghosts’. Ash temporarily holding the shape of items before they burned. The word brings to mind rites for the dead, especially those often spoken at funerals, derived from the The Order for The Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer which reads in part:

Forasmuch as it hath pleased almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we, therefore, commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. . .

The Book of Common Prayer, Order for the Burial of the Dead

Couched in the language of hope and promise, the words of the rite move the listener quickly from earth to ashes, and from dissipating dust to resurrection.

Ash has other associations too. Almost all of us know the children’s rhyme of rings and roses. Musically the notes are akin to the children’s taunt here given by Mario’s arch nemesis, Wario:

Nintendo Mario franchise character Wario

Musical scholars tell us that this progression of notes as a taunt is found almost everywhere in the world. The taunting chant echoes frequently through popular culture. Here it is in Star Trek as Captain Kirk and his landing party confront the children who are the only survivors of a deadly plague which has killed all the adults on their earthlike world:

Star Trek season 1, episode 8. “Miri” written by Adrian Spies, dir. Vincent McEveety. 27 October 1966.

In the case of another well known children’s chant, ‘Ring around the Rosie’ seems to be similarly widespread, except that the words tend to differ somewhat across cultures and nations. The most popular British lyrics include sneezing:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

Whereas the most popular American lyrics include ashes:

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

Currently, the rhyme seems to be noted for its significant ‘creep factor’, its eerie associations derived from the tune, and the idea that the lyrics reflect disease and death. Here’s a video containing both the popular British and American lyrics, which some readers may find a bit creepy in any case:

‘Ring Around the Rosie’ Nursery Rhymes for Kids from Bussongs.com

The prevalent idea that this rhyme was originally about the plague is apparently a misconception, only promulgated after World War II. There have also been suggestions that the rhyme may have been derived from old pagan customs (particularly the sneezing) thought to help ward off evil spirits. However, the first printed version only appears in the Victorian era, around 1855, so there seems to be little real concensus about origins or exact meaning. Perhaps a reader with better knowledge of topics in ethno musicology can shed more light on this. In the past several months, the rhyme has been adopted by some as an ideal chant marking the length of time for hand washing during the current Covid 19 pandemic.

In the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday is observed as the first day of Lent. Traditionally a day of sacrifice and abstinence, the faithful often mark themselves with ashes as a sign of repentance, and as a reminder of the dictum in Genesis:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Genesis 3:19 KJV

The verse does not specifically mention ashes, but it does mention dust, and both signify the end or aftermath in the Book of Common Prayer. Shakespeare also relates them in the song from Cymbeline, which Guilderius sings as a liturgy, thinking Imogen has died. The song has been cited in previous blog posts:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Cymbeline 4.2.331-6

Chimney sweepers sweep away ashes, of course, and become dust themselves once their sweeping is finished. And even ‘golden lads and girls all’ come to dust in time.

The brick vault over ‘Margaret’s Well’ in the Welcombe Hills above Stratford upon Avon. Author photo.

The song itself is inscribed on the sign (visible in the above photo), by the old brick vault over the damp depression known as ‘Margaret’s Well’ in the Welcombe Hills above Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford upon Avon. Tradition holds that the well was the source of water for the nearby Clopton Manor House, which still exists, now converted into posh condominiums. The Cloptons were a wealthy Stratford family. Shakespeare knew at least some of them, and his final home (the grand New Place in which Shakespeare died in 1616) had been built in 1483 by Sir Hugh Clopton, who had been Lord Mayor of London.

Local legend has it that Margaret’s Well was named for Margaret Clopton, a daughter of the prominent family who drowned herself there around 1580 over a disappointed love affair. In spite of tradition holding that Margaret may have been one inspiration for Shakespeare’s character of Ophelia in Hamlet, such things are difficult to verify. The well itself remains a forlorn spot, boggy and lonely. Margaret’s ghost is said to haunt the area around the well on moonlit nights, pining forever for her lost love.

Time wipes away human life and achievement. The moving finger touched United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this past week, precipitating an ensuing political uproar over her now vacant seat. Many of us remain deeply concerned about who might be appointed to fill her court position (by a current administration that has repeatedly shown itself to be inclined towards profit, at the notable expense of the greater world. The Covid pandemic also rages, with over 200,000 people dead in the United States alone, and that number rises daily. In addition, the ravages of climate change loom large on the horizon, casting our planet’s ability to continue to sustain human life in doubt. In the midst of such massive changes, many people have become nearly giddy with despair.

A few hundred feet from where these words are being typed, a seasonal creek bisects a grassy field behind the house. Home to stray cats, opossum, and the occasional skunk, the creek also fills with frogs during the rainy season, and their winter songs twine through the tall grass and the nearby trees, a humming soundscape of lush chirrupping. In what rains there are these past few years, the creek bed has channeled water running down from the neighbouring mountain, across small parks and beneath several urban streets, until the flow eventually makes confluence with the local river. Largely responsible for the local valley’s initial formation, the river generates that part of the evening fog that doesn’t sweep in from the coast. The combined effect often submerges the valley in mist. Even now, nights may bring fog across the marshlands bordering the greater bay. Fog pools over hillside grapevines and laps at the feet of local hills. Sometimes the fog layer mounts behind the hilltops until it flows over them in pillowy cascades.

The creek boasts no pool like Margaret’s Well (which, although one cannot tell by the picture, is deep enough that it has been sealed off with heavy metal bars to prevent accidents). Of drownings in the local river or local ghosts, aside from a local tavern at some distance from downtown, and the old theatre (notable for its 2019 production of Macbeth), there seem to be few. And what ghosts there are seem to be quiet sorts, still and subdued like the old docks where the local fishing fleet once harbored. The fleet is long gone, but a few pilings remain, obstinately punctuating the mud at low tide.

Not that the place isn’t old enough for ghosts. A Native village before being settled by city dwellers seeking a more salubrious summer climate, many of the older houses date from the Victorian era. Because much of the town rests on bedrock, many structures survived the 1906 earthquake which levelled swathes of the cities to the south and north. Perhaps complacency has made the town as sleepy as it is. For although a major faultline slumbers only a couple of miles away, the most immediate threat on most local minds is fire.

Summers were hot before climate change, but lately the intense heat evaporates the little creek to a dry bone bed of pebbles. The town periodically mows the tangle of vegetation along the creek bed to reduce the likelihood of fire, but people live on tenterhooks nonetheless. The wisest keep bags packed in case of evacuation, waiting for the intense summer heat, and the likelihood of lightning, to pass. Quiet as it is, quiet as its ghosts seem to be, the sleepy town lies under seige as does so much of the American West–under the seige of the extremes of shifting weather. Any spark could leave the region buried in its ashes.

That the current U.S. federal administration tends to try to shift the blame for said fires away from its own appalling record of climate neglect is no surprise. Politics has always been thus. Human lives have always struggled beneath our seige of ongoing circumstance. Seasons and climates shift as do human lives, with the individual melting into the large. Eventually, we all follow Macbeth’s “way to dusty death”, and only in the meantime do we fashion our lives and future out of memory. Dust, ashes. Diamonds, rust. Raincoats and love affairs. Human lives reflect an ongoing engagement with decision and remembrance.

Tori Amos ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’

Yet, that our lives also remain an ongoing process of becoming memories does not absolve us of our responsibilities to speak our conscience. We cannot forgo our fight for the betterment for ourselves, and for others. In our lives, it becomes too easy to justify setting the larger world aside, partly because we leave it so quickly and so soon. But living only for oneself strikes most reasonable people as extremely misguided. The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee, the foundation of the Iriquois Confederacy (perhaps the oldest participatory Democracy on earth), tell us:

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

“The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in your mind and all your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation. In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.”

–The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee

My guess is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg might have agreed with much of this sentiment, at least in the general sense that, in spite of what we seem to think, we owe others a debt of care. The seige will always stand at our gates. It seems most prudent, it seems best, to remember the whole. Where we’ve been. Where we might be going. Soon enough, our faces will return to a place ‘beneath the surface of the ground’. Ashes bury us even now. Our little human lives fall to ashes and dust even as we think and speak, even as we cast our eyes to the horizon. Yet, our future retains a solidity that belies the passing current. What we build out of memory, will be our legacy. If we have any true effectiveness, it lies in the rising shapes we leave within our wake. Leave the town or its ashes. Teaching or ignorance. Love or rage. It is not about what we think we are, or what we hope to be. It is what we leave behind us that makes the world.

Now cracks a noble heart.

For Robert Ball

End of the road. Author photo.

Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Hamlet 5.2.397-8

The lines are Horatio’s, mourning the loss of his friend and companion, Hamlet. Some people think of these as the final lines in the play, but they are not. The final lines belong, fittingly, to Fortinbras, who enters the hall and reasserts authority over the carnage he finds there:

FORTINBRAS:  Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal; and for his passage,
The soldier’s music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

Hamlet 5.2.440-9

In a sense, this presents a strange finality–the discharge of what seems to be ordnance capping the previous scene which dealt so much in swords. Yet, this is fitting too. For although shots may be deadly, swords suggest the more personal nature of vendetta and/or vengeance. Blades are proximal and intimate. Rifles (or their forerunners dating from around 1411 c.e., or even earlier), more often suggest a more remote kind of martial authority, and have long been discharged as an honorific at occasions of state or military importance, as well as at funerals.

What’s more interesting may be the various quality of the different characters’ epitaphs for Hamlet. Horatio’s words describe not only singing angels, but suggest flying ones as well. His “flights of angels” suggests something lofty, soaring, and transcendant. On the other hand, Fortinbras’ speech emphasizes the more immediate resumption of earthly authority. Where Horatio guides our thoughts to an everlasting rest, accompanied by celestial music, Fortinbras speaks to the physical world with language of bodies and fields. The language not only reflects their different characters (Horatio the philosophical scholar contrasted with Fortinbras the soldier), but also those different characters’ more immediate concerns.

Horatio (himself kept from suicide at Hamlet’s urging that he remain to tell the tale) harkens after his friend. His aggrieved impulse yearns to follow his friend in death. His thoughts seem already fixed beyond this earthly life in which events have profoundly unseated his sensitivities.

Fortinbras, in contrast after a brief assessment, rapidly assumes the mantle of courtly responsibility, stepping into the role of ruler of Denmark as well as Norway. This ending brings Fortinbras’ character full circle, because his own father had been killed by Hamlet’s father before Hamlet begins. The settlement of this ancient grievance and of the lands disputed in it gives the narrative its final symmetry.

Yet, if Fortinbras’ last words are the epitaph for the action in the text, and if Horatio’s last wishes for Hamlet are a kind of epitaph for the character, what of Hamlet’s last words? In his dying speech, Hamlet also briefly assumes authority, at least long enough to transfer it to Fortinbras:

HAMLET:  O, I die, Horatio!
The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit.
I cannot live to hear the news from England.
But I do prophesy th’ election lights
On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited—the rest is silence.

Sailing towards the Golden Gate. Author photo.

Silence. Mute as the grave. Hamlet has gone. The actor playing the character subsequently lies onstage with the other dead of the play’s Danish court until the curtain call rouses the actors from their slumber. Always a challenge for the director.

Yet, when examined together, the three characters’ eulogic words also display a kind of overarching symmetry which may not be immediately apparent. Silence, rest, and shoot. The first two seem immediately akin. When the flights of angels have finished singing, the ensuing silence beckons as the hallmark of eternal rest. ‘Shoot’ seems to resume the active and suggests a more controlled governance, but it also marks a profound finality.

Presenting arms displays worldly force, a more mundane kind of power, which is limited. The sound of shooting breaks the silence, and may rouse one from a rest, but it cannot raise or wake the dead. In the world of the play, this final display of death seems irrefutable.

Yet, the idea of shooting also suggests projecting, or issuing forth, especially when we think of stars. For shooting stars are traditionally our collective repository of hopes and wishes. This blog has cited the words of Robert Ingersoll previously, but part of the eulogy that he spoke at his brother’s grave bears repeating:

He was a worshipper of liberty, a friend of the oppressed. A thousand times I have heard him quote these words: ‘For Justice all place a temple, and all season, summer!’ He believed that happiness was the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest. He added to the sum of human joy; and were every one to whom he did some loving service to bring a blossom to his grave, he would sleep to-night beneath a wilderness of flowers.

Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.

He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death for the return of health, whispered with his latest breath, ‘I am better now.’ Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas, of fears and tears, that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.

Robert Ingersoll, spoken at the graveside of his brother, Ebon, 1879.

Ingersoll parallels the star with hope, and in spite of the fact that he was sometimes reviled for his atheism, he pointedly hoped for something better beyond this life and beyond this world, as many of us do.

Zen practitioners in particular, monks and priests, have an ancient tradition of writing death poems–jotting down impressions, thoughts, or feelings about life or the beyond at or near the moment of their death. Perhaps one of the most striking of these is that of Takuan Soho (沢庵 宗彭), who died in 1645. A major figure in the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism, Takuan was a scholar, painter, and poet who initially refused to write a death poem. Those around him entreated him, however, and at last he took up his brush and wrote:

Yume. Dream.

As multimensional as existence, the idea presents any number of potential facets. Perhaps life is the dream, perhaps the moment. Perhaps the after. Perhaps all of them or the fact that, from our perspective, they appear distinct.

It may be that the Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi captured it best:


Gods are everywhere:
war between Koshi and Izumo
tribes still rages.

The all of All, the One
ends distinctions.

The three thousand worlds
are in that plum blossom.
The smell is God.

English version by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto.

Endings happen. Characters, loves, friendships, plays, and fellow human beings. However we react to that may depend greatly upon who and where we are at any given time. Whatever our perspective or our understanding, endings may leave us seemingly alone in a moving cosmos to sort whatever we can. Or not. In the end there may be only hope, stars, and plum blossoms. However we may contrive to craft or shape it, whatever shooting we may bid, the rest is silence.

Turn, hellhound, turn!

Distant wildfire smoke. Author photo.

Hour approaching twilight. King making his way through the castle. Sword arm aching. Tired. Sword heavy. Crown heavy.

King. Not like he thought.

Distant battle sounds barely register. Scraping metal. Crashes. Thumps. Muffled shouts. Footsteps. Faint smell of smoke.

Push her away. Her absence looms. Push away her being gone.

No matter. Trees have come to Dunsinane.

MACDUFF: Turn, hellhound, turn!
Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back. My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.
MACDUFF: I have no words;
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out.

Macbeth 5.8.4-10

We know this moment. High noon. Midnight. Where time stops. What registers by the watch ceases to matter. This is our collective moment of the final clash, the gunfight, the battle for ourselves, whomever our opponent may seem to be.

A minute past midnight. Author photo.

The showdown embodies our own dark night of the soul. As San Juan De La Cruz put it:

Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose

All in the dark went right,
Down secret steps, disguised in other clothes,
(O coming of delight!)
In dark when no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose.

And in the luck of night
In secret places where no other spied
I went without my sight
Without a light to guide
Except the heart that lit me from inside.

It guided me and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me,
And led me to the one
Whom only I could see
Deep in a place where only we could be.

O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
Lover and loved one moved in unison.

And on my flowering breast
Which I had kept for him and him alone
He slept as I caressed
And loved him for my own,
Breathing an air from redolent cedars blown.

And from the castle wall

The wind came down to winnow through his hair
Bidding his fingers fall,
Searing my throat with air
And all my senses were suspended there.

I stayed there to forget.
There on my lover, face to face, I lay.
All ended, and I let
My cares all fall away

Forgotten in the lilies on that day.

“Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross. 16th Century. Trans. A.Z. Foreman.*

Dark and light. Author photo.

Humans are torn by our dualistic nature. Polarization seethes within us like soft ice cream, both delicious and deadly. Sexual reproduction saves us and damns us. Our very regeneration arrives through temptation and potential damnation. Our pure spiritual aspirations don’t always hang so well on the frame of our needy, greedy flesh. Spirit yearns for one kind of being, flesh for another. Spirit seeks more spirit. Flesh hankers after more flesh. Why are the tastiest foods always so bad for us?

Naturally, “once you get used to them, the healthy foods actually taste better!”

Yes. Yes. We know. But the beer may also taste awfully good.

Our subsequent restlessness becomes tortured sleeplessness, only to be resolved by confrontation and union, in the darkness. The soul meeting with the Soul. Union of the self with the Self. This can be peaceful, but it is also, especially in literature and the arts, so often represented as being violent.

We struggle over the soul of our own humanity, whether that presents itself as the soul of a nation, of a village, or of an individual. Whether internal or external, this meeting of dark and light in flux is often a battle. And only on the other side of that, “when the battle’s lost and won” may we find eventual salvation or peace.**

Our struggle may be with aspects within ourselves, or with an intractable social fabric. Here’s a scene from 42 with the very recently departed Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson:

42, Dir. Brian Hegeland, featuring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. Warner Brothers, 2013.

Of course, there is no permanent solution. Not until we meet the solace of the grave (and perhaps not even then). The ongoing nature of this struggle is the reason we remain perenially obsessed with this opposition–writing it and reframing it again and again, the strange violence within it appealing to our more bestial natures. Grimly fascinated by the violence within ourselves.

In Macbeth, the struggle of the self with the self becomes apparent on multiple levels. For example, the characters of Macbeth and Macduff are strikingly similar. Like the fungible male lovers, Demetrius and Lysander, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not much really distinguishes the two thanes in Macbeth. In many respects, they are almost interchangeable. Both men initially serve King Duncan. Both are married. Prone to similar kinds of introspection, they often speak in similar ways, and with similar cadences. Both live according to similar moral codes, and even their names are parallel, although Macduff has children while Macbeth does not.

Yet, Macbeth is shown a prophecy which drives him off course. His glimpse of the future drags him forwards in the same way that memory sometimes drags us into retrospection. The witches’ mention of the word ‘king’ tugs at the short hairs of Macbeth’s ambition, making him impatient with obsession. Macbeth finds himself unwilling to wait for his future to arrive in its own time, and of its own accord. Lady Macbeth’s nudging renders his present less immediate, less material. Ends begin to justify means.

If we extend the old metaphor of devil and angel dwelling inside each of us, we may see Macbeth and Macduff as embodying these two aspects of humanity. Each has positive and less positive qualities, but one appears to keep himself on the road, while the other departs into the rooky wood. Two roads diverge in Birnham Wood, and I, sorry I am only one traveler seeking both, abandon the white whale for the throne, the crown.

In the vernacular of the American western, the metaphor becomes a gunfight. And it represents the culmination of a profound mixture of memory, both sweet and vicious, and often a predatory kind of vengeance. There are many cinematic examples of this duel, but this one, directed by Sergio Leone, and scored by Ennio Morricone, captures the bittersweetness of human polarity. It shows us the ways in which the past often intrudes upon the present and renders the immediacy of the pull of memory with strong cinematic style:

For a Few Dollars More, Dir. Sergio Leone, featuring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Gian Maria Volonté, Producioni Europee Associati (PEA)/United Artists, 1965.

In such moments, leave taking remains literal. In these stories, as in Macbeth, someone has died, and in a kind of exchange, someone else must die for that. Often, we sacrifice the dark parts of our own soul, cutting away our painful memories, our transgressions, our rages, and our sorrows. For it is only after our negatives have been expunged that a new king is able to again ascend the throne of humanity. The Christ story, the idea of one (a King) who dies for the sins of all humankind, is naturally one of the most familiar examples.

As for our sorrows, as for sins against our humanity, against our loves, these are so profound that they leave us incredulous in their aftermath. When Ross tells Macduff that his family is dead, Macduff almost cannot, at first, comprehend the words:

Let not your ears despise my tongue forever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.
MACDUFF: Hum! I guess at it.
Your castle is surprised, your wife and babes
Savagely slaughtered. To relate the manner
Were on the quarry of these murdered deer
To add the death of you.
MALCOLM: Merciful heaven!—
What, man, ne’er pull your hat upon your brows.
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.
MACDUFF: My children too?
Wife, children, servants, all that could be found.
And I must be from thence? My wife killed too?
ROSS: I have said.
MALCOLM: Be comforted.
Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say “all’? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
MALCOLM: Dispute it like a man.
MACDUFF: I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part?

Macbeth 4.3.236-64

Our perceived duties and obligations may haunt us in such cases, turning to guilt. How we might have been here or there at such a moment, at such a time. How we might have handled things differently. Hindsight. What might have been. Regret. Bitterness.

The eventual resolution may offer an uneasy kind of peace, but it usually comes at a price, with a wounding or a sacrifice, and throughout the struggle, the self faces the threat of annihilation:

But the air was too full of noise and gun smoke for me to notice pain. Wasn’t bad pain anyway. I got the sights up for another shot, and heard bullets hit metal as Frenchy and Pablo fired. The chair swung around and there he was–or there it was–with both colts cocked and pointed at me.

The Devil & Streak Wilson by Daniel Boyd.***

American culture, with its undercurrent of violence, lends itself easily to the western genre. In the mythos of the fictional American West, one lives and dies by the sword, or by the six gun. Still, the fact that weapons have become such cultural talismans also remains deeply problematic. While those of us in the United States may imagine ourselves as dragon slayers, as gun toting protectors who maintain law and order, our social proliferation of weapons (currently supported by the NRA and a president who panders shamelessly to the ignorant side of American personal mythology) releases more dragons than all our weapons could slay.

Although I cannot know, it has been said that many modern Japanese people, especially males, tend to view themselves as modern day Samurai, adhering to a social and moral code of Bushido. Considering the ways in which corporate and self improvement protocols strive to foster carefully crafted ‘inner warrior’ ideals in the boardroom or in the psyche, such aspirations appear to remain only modern mythical constructs that hearken back to a set of bygone ideals which are themselves also constructs. Heightened rhetoric about guns and the Second Ammendment to the United States Constitution suggests that a fair number of Americans (usually males) view themselves somehow as heroic gunslingers, potentially representing little candles of law throwing beams in a naughty world.

The Second Ammendment to the United States Constitution actually says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.****

This speaks nothing to deeper morality or responsibility, let alone the dark night conjurations of those for whom firearms have become mythic totems for ideas of motley coated individual freedoms. The ongoing American fascination with firearms speaks its own dire warnings. Breonna Taylor? Jacob Blake? Brandon Laducer? That’s just a list of people shot by officers. What about the people shot while protesting, by others like Kyle Rittenhouse, who believed that they were maintaining law and order? “From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word.” “[Y]ea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”***** How easily ideas may become dangerous, especially when wrapped in rhetoric about God, family, dreams, prosperity, and all the security blankets of our dreams, and placed into the hands of the misguided.

Perhaps we have seen too many vigilante moments in our plays and films. Some people attempt to act out these fictions in real life, forgetting that they are fictions, and the underlying cutural structure of racism too often rises to the surface in such cases as well. People have always been suspicious of ‘others’, and that suspicion seems to grow with our collective social guilt–increasing in direct proportion to how much the social and cultural fabrics we inhabit have wronged one group or another. And sadly, the history of individually and communally committed wrongs based on racial characteristics runs long a deep. Our stories present our cultural vernacular–seeking to present ourselves to ourselves, incorporating myths with which we explain ourselves and justify our actions. Yet, when the mythology of our own nobility, or our own heroism breaks down, we are often left facing ourselves again in the darkness as our own guilt rises up before us. The gunfight becomes a gunfight with the self, but some will always displace the shadow self–projecting it onto others, onto those who we believe ‘look’ different from us or believe differently from the way we believe.

Because fewer and fewer of us seem to be trained in critical thinking these days, perhaps because our educational budgets remain in tatters in the face of more capitalist centered political agendas, fewer people seem to have the proper capacity to evaluate words, behavior, and events. We begin to see Macbeth and Macduff not as characters in a cautionary tale, but as warriors to emulate. We begin to believe that we are samurai. Inwardly, we picture ourselves as characters portrayed by Clint Eastwood, and we fail to recall that those characters are fictive portrayals of a larger mythic structure.

If gunfighters or swordsmen illustrate anything for us, it should be to help us remember that the lives of real gunfighters in the historical American West were seldom glamorous or exciting. In fact, they were usually only really remarkable in being incredibly brief. Anger and vengeance as an actual lifestyle are almost never anything like they are in the movies, as even the movies often indicate:

The Princess Bride, Dir. Rob Reiner. Clip featuring Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Guest, 20th Century Fox, 1987.

Had the United States not worked so hard for so long at fostering its anti-intellect strains, more people might see how ludicrous such emulation is. Had people been taught to think, been schooled in recognizing misleading sales pitches, we might not be where we are. Yet, here we are.

Many Americans retain a strong sense of ‘cowboy’ identity, and romanticized versions of history and identity can be difficult to shake when they become so deeply ingrained:

Waylon Jennings, 1978. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”. Written by Ed and Patsy Bruce, 1976.

Yet, our general idea of cowboys derives from the cinema. We forget that, historically speaking, few cowboys carried sidearms. They couldn’t afford them, and a pistol isn’t all that useful when driving cattle. And rifles were for bagging small game for dinner, not for shooting protestors just because you somehow disagree with their message.

At the same time, many of us also fancy ourselves as ideological freedom fighters. Some of us babble incoherently about ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ while seeming to have only the dimmest reptilian understanding of what those concepts might be or what responsibilities they might entail. Also, apparently surprising numbers of people think only of their own rights–as if rights were something assured in a vaccuum, even at the expense of fellow citizens or our communities. The right to carry firearms. The right not to wear a mask.

Yet, in spite of our independent freedom fighting, we seem to so easily fall for a confidence games. We believe what we perceive as the underlying substance in political speeches that are really only rhetorical tools–so often meaningless oral smoke and mirrors specifically designed to make us follow meekly while under the illusion that we might be asserting ourselves.

But what about the rugged individualist? Oh, the idea of that character is still out there too, and still a cowboy. The talismanic weapons have been updated, but the cowboy remains much the same:

Die Hard, Dir. John McTiernan. Clip featuring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, 20th Century Fox, 1988.

These are fiction, of course, but they are fictions of an especially deep and resonant kind, because, in ways both good and bad, they speak to the personal mythology of identity. And it is important to note that politicians use these ideas repeatedly everywhere.

If a politician proclaims that an “America First” agenda must include putting immigrant children in cages and destroying their families, one has to wonder how anyone can support it. Yet, chillingly, people do. Perhaps because those children–really just children–are cast through tricks of political rhetoric into the menacing role of the ‘others’ in our mythology. Administrations that threaten legal protestors–their own citizens–with federal troops can espouse no real concerns about human liberty or safety, but once those protestors have been cast as ‘others’ the perspective changes. Such policy and rhetorical perspective, substituting words like “riot” in place of “protest”, results in a consistent erosion of real human rights beneath the subterfuge of rhetorical posturing. This is how people like Hitler rise to power.

It becomes difficult to overstate how wrong headed such unevaluated mythical thinking is. We are not really our myths. We make them. And we can either choose to take the myths that others would craft for us at face value, and follow like sheep into the fold, or we can forge our own–recrafting our own myths and our own understanding as true warriors, as those who think for ourselves.

The real truth is (whether you choose to believe it or not) is that people need each other. We need other people, we need other cultures, we need other faiths, and we need other countries. People everywhere should take care of each other and not just of themselves. Needless to say, reasonable people, don’t shoot each other.

This is not to say that our inclusion should be blind. We should not encourage untreated hemophiliacs to work with kitchen knives. But when we begin to cast people whom we may not truly understand as malevolent others, then we begin to stray from the true path of understanding. For our smaller concerns are just that. They are small.

Exclusion really only cuts away our own humanitiy, leaving us pitifully diminished in its wake. On the other hand, inclusion supports the better side of us, nurturing the angel in our human natures. Inclusion allows us not only to see different people more clearly, but also to treat them as they really are–as part of us in the larger sense, as part of the greater whole that comprises the global human community.

Of course governments and policies may shift, as they have in the past. However, should the political system in the U.S. keep to its present course in the next election (which, sadly, looks entirely possible at present), Birnham Wood will eventually come to Dunsinane again.

In one sense, Macduff may be understood as a representation of our flawed but nobly striving humanity. An as long as we survive, he will always be out there. Should things take a turn for the worse, he will eventually appear again on the doorstep, voice in his sword, ready for change. When that day comes, our most important task will be to stand with him.

For now, we can do our best to stand with humanity today. For all my readers worldwide, I urge you to continue to observe safety protocols, recycle what you can, and try to minimise practices which might contribute more to climate change. Tell your family and friends that you love them. Tell them today and remind them often.

For readers in the U.S., I encourage everyone to try to take fewer postal shipments in October and early November to help alleviate postal congestion at those times. Also, most of all, please remember to cast your vote either by mail (which mail ballots may most often be dropped off at your local election office), or in person for the November 3rd presidential election. Remember that you may register, check your voter’s registration and/or request a voter’s ballot by mail at vote.org.

Take good care out there, and best of luck to you all.

*Saint John of the Cross. “The Dark Night of the Soul”. 16th century. A.Z. Foreman, trans. http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.com/2009/09/saint-john-of-cross-dark-night-of-soul.html In the original Spanish:

La Noche Oscura Del Alma
San Juan De La Cruz

Cançiones del alma que se goça d’auer llegado al alto estado de la perfecçion, que es la union con Dios, por el camino de la negaçion espiritual

En una noche obscura,
con ansias en amores imflamada,
¡oh dichosa uentura!
sali sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A escuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfraçada,
¡oh dichosa uentura!
a escuras y ençelada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me ueya,
ni yo miraua cosa,
sin otra luz ni guia
sino la que en el coraçon ardia.

Aquesta me guiaua
mas cierto que la luz del mediodia,
adonde me esperaua
quien yo bien me sabia,
en parte donde nadie parecia.

¡Oh noche que me guiaste!
¡oh noche amable mas que el aluorada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!

Y en mi pecho florido,
que entero para el solo se guardaua,
alli quedo dormido,
y yo le regalaua,
y el ventalle de cedros ayre daua.

El ayre de la almena,
cuando ya sus cabellos esparzia,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello heria,
y todos mis sentidos suspendia.

Quedeme y oluideme,
el rostro recline sobre el amado,
ceso todo, y dexeme,
dexando mi cuidado
entre las açucenas olvidado.

**Macbeth 1.1.4

***Daniel Boyd. The Devil & Streak Wilson. (Oakland: Montag Press, 2020), ebook. Also available in paperback on Amazon. Boyd’s tale presents the metaphor of self struggle in a significant way, by couching the duel with the devil in the western vernacular.

****This is arguably the earliest version, and the one ratified by Delaware. Other states have ratified different versions, often changing the placement of the commas. The original idea stems from the English Bill of Rights of 1869 which says, in part, “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defense suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law”.

*****The first line comes from Robert Ingersoll’s words spoken at the grave of his brother, Ebon. The entire oratory is recorded in the Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, collected by his brother, Clinton P. Farrell, and may be read here: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/961082-robert-s-eulogy-at-his-brother-ebon-c-ingersoll-s-grave-even The second line comes from Job 1:15 in the King James version of the Bible.

And darkness be the burier of the dead.

Rain near sunset. Author photo.

Notice how the darkness itself becomes active in this thought. The darkness becomes an agent of finality, assisting with the closure attendant upon the dead. The words are spoken by the Earl of Northumberland in Henry IV part 2 (Shakespeare’s sequel to his Henry IV part 1). Northumberland implies that instead of standing on ceremony, instead of maintaining a civilised pretense of honour or decorum, we may simply abandon the dead to nightfall. Shadowed silence will remove the dead from our view, perhaps without any actualy burial at all.

Northumberland’s disillusionment has ample foundation. His son, Harry Percy, the capable Hotspur who was seen as a more talented parallel to King Henry’s son, Prince Hal, has been slain at the battle of Shrewsbury in Henry IV part 1. This loss alone would prompt bitterness, but the grievances of Shrewsbury also persist unresolved.

Yet, Henry IV part 2 is more than sequel to the play that comes before it. It is, in a sense, a reframing of familiar elements that casts them into a different context.

Late summer sunflowers. Author photo.

The same world seen through a different kind of lens, becomes a world reflecting dis-ease in this second play. It is as if not only the monarch himself but also court and broader country show their age and wear. Henry IV part 2 is a play which emphasizes not only the cracks in the facade, but also the decaying structure beneath it.

Sunflowers gone to seed. Author photo.

This is the court of a king who gained his throne under circumstances that many felt were may have been questionable, and dark chickens have come home to roost. Instead of ‘coming of age’ as it does in part 1, the world of part 2 already came of age some time ago. Its court is worn, weary of conflict, and still rests uneasily upon the troubled foundations laid when King Henry IV originally took the throne in a revolt against his cousin, King Richard II.

Opening with the character of Rumour, Henry IV part 2 offers us a world where king, state, people, and politics all seem to have fallen ill. Replete with images of sickness and disease, the play almost seems to hound its audience with the idea of decline. Seeming old before his time, both King Henry’s own ‘body’, and his ‘body politic’ seem to be failing him, and physical, spiritual, and psychological malaise, are emphasized in various ways throughout the text.

No exception, Prince Hal’s second ‘father figure’ also stands on the precipice of declining health in part 2. In part 1, Sir John Falstaff seems a wicked clown, representing the comic side of irreverence. His inventive connivances are amusing, and he acts as a kind of Peer Gynt foil to King Henry’s often dull and moralistic Brand. Falstaff frequently bends or breaks the rules to his own advantage. In part 2, however, Sir John becomes a tragic figure, and the shadow of his impending decline casts a shadow over his dialogue in his first scene of the second play.

The contrast is plain. In part 1, Falstaff’s opening lines joust lightly with Prince Hal:

FALSTAFF Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
PRINCE Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old
sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and
sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast
forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst
truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with
the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of
sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues
of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses,
and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in
flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou
shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time
of the day.
FALSTAFF Indeed, you come near me now, Hal, for we
that take purses go by the moon and the seven
stars, and not by Phoebus, he, that wand’ring
knight so fair. And I prithee, sweet wag, when thou
art king, as God save thy Grace—Majesty, I should
say, for grace thou wilt have none—
PRINCE What, none?
FALSTAFF No, by my troth, not so much as will serve to
be prologue to an egg and butter.
PRINCE Well, how then? Come, roundly, roundly.
FALSTAFF Marry then, sweet wag, when thou art king,
let not us that are squires of the night’s body be
called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s
foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the
moon, and let men say we be men of good government,
being governed, as the sea is, by our noble
and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance
we steal.
PRINCE Thou sayest well, and it holds well too, for the
fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and
flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by
the moon.

Henry IV part 1 1.2.1-35.

Falstaff plays with the idea of thieving, even imbuing the practice with a suggestion of nobility and mystique. Yet, there are also hints of what is to come in this first play. Falstaff’s opening question about the time of day hints at a lateness of the hour–lateness which extends not only to the day in question, but also to Falstaff himself. For while the dialogue remains playful, the Prince’s measured responses, and his mention of Falstaff’s superfluity, suggest that Falstaff’s relationship with the prince may stand on borrowed time. Even in his agreement with Falstaff, Hal specifically mentions change. Hal’s “the fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea” offers a subtle note of foreboding.

Tides change, and the moon does too. Hal’s words suggest shifting phases moon, of tides, and, along with changing fortune, the allegiances of a prince due to, at some point, become a king. As one of the moon’s men, Hal subtly suggests that he, and perhaps his friendships, will ebb and flow as well.

Moon and Venus just before the August dawn. Author photo.

Falstaff’s opening lines in part 2 are more specific. Tellingly, in this opening scene, it is no longer Prince Hal who is his companion, but a young squire, who has apparently carried Falstaff’s urine to a doctor for examination.

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.
Thou whoreson mandrake, thou art fitter to be
worn in my cap than to wait at my heels. I was never
manned with an agate till now, but I will inset you
neither in gold nor silver, but in vile apparel, and
send you back again to your master for a jewel. The
juvenal, the Prince your master, whose chin is not
yet fledge—I will sooner have a beard grow in the
palm of my hand than he shall get one off his cheek,
and yet he will not stick to say his face is a face
royal. God may finish it when He will.

Henry IV part 2 1.2.1-24.

The doctor’s evaluation does not seem promising. At the same time, Falstaff offhandedly makes light of Hal’s beard, commenting on the prince’s maturity with a kind of familiar license, and taking the Prince almost for granted. Yet, again there seems to be a discordant note to the words, and something seems faintly ominous in “God may finish it when He will”. Darkness may become the burier of the dead, and of the living too.

Of course, King Henry IV part 2 is the play where Hal rises to power, and in so doing, he banishes Falstaff from him:

FALSTAFF God save thee, my sweet boy!
My Lord Chief Justice, speak to that vain man.
CHIEF JUSTICE, to Falstaff
Have you your wits? Know you what ’tis you
FALSTAFF, to the King
My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing. Know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils.
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. To the Lord Chief Justice.
Be it your charge, my lord,
To see performed the tenor of my word.—
Set on.

Henry IV part 2 5.5.42-73

Although Falstaff assures his companions that this speech of the new king is but a public show, and that Hal, now King Henry V, will later come to Falstaff privately, this is not true. The king never returns to him at all, and Falstaff apparently never reforms.

When we next hear of him, in Henry V, Falstaff is on his death bed, and his position in the play has become decidedly minor. No longer does he enter in the second scene, but he is only mentioned in the first scene of the second act, when Hostess Quickly implores his friends to gather ’round his bed to say goodbye:

BOY Mine host Pistol, you must come to my master,
and your hostess. He is very sick and would to
bed.—Good Bardolph, put thy face between his
sheets, and do the office of a warming-pan. Faith,
he’s very ill.
BARDOLPH Away, you rogue!
HOSTESS By my troth, he’ll yield the crow a pudding
one of these days. The King has killed his heart.

Henry V 2.1.79-86

Falstaff quickly becomes the dessert for crows that Quickly has foretold. After an intervening scene where King Henry V catches out three traitors amongst his companions and orders them executed, we return to a scene where Falstaff’s friend are in mourning for him:

HOSTESS Nay, sure, he’s not in hell! He’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. He
made a finer end, and went away an it had been any
christom child. 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
‘a babbled of green fields. “How now, Sir John?”
quoth I. “What, man, be o’ good cheer!” So he cried
out “God, God, God!” three or four times. Now I, to
comfort him, bid him he should not think of God; I
hoped there was no need to trouble himself with
any such thoughts yet. So he bade me lay more
clothes on his feet. I put my hand into the bed and
felt them, and they were as cold as any stone. Then I
felt to his knees, and so upward and upward, and
all was as cold as any stone.

King Henry V 2.3.9-26
Flowers and a field. Author photo.

Treacherous leech of the prince’s early days or not, spirit of Northrop Frye’s ‘green world’ or not, force of nature, of humour, or irreverence or not, Falstaff is gone. Like the traitors apprehended by Henry V, Falstaff has been swept away by a greater current which has washed away the disease of Henry IV part 2, to replace it with King Henry V–a play showing us kingship in its compassion and its ruthlessness as well.

Here too, we see the cycle of the world, seasons governing the land and governing us as well. For we are always rising and fading, we are cadence, we are thunder and soft springs. No matter how lightly or how heavily we tread, the shadow falls over every doorway in time. Darkness buries not only other dead, but also buries us, as we eventually become the dead like any other.

As this post is written (in a passive voice more suitable for a ghost), the earth has shifted seasons again. Storms make their way across the United Kingdom and the United States. California has gone from soft deepening summer to the sudden scorching heat of high fire season within a single week. Dry weather brings skunks and other creatures ranging through the night, as they forage for diminishing supplies of food. Uncharacteristically, recent storms have whipped across the wine country too, their brief violence thundering through the early morning hours, seeming much like the violent opposition of ideas clashing in the land’s inhabitants. For frequently the natural world seems to reflect the undercurrent of the human world, however we might wish to escape the effects of either:

We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

W.B. Yeats, “The Stolen Child”, 32-42*

Sometimes we wish we could walk the soft moss ways, the tufted forest paths of bygone ages. Places where rabbits, toads, raccoons, or foxes prowl the gentler nights. We wish that it were not too late for this. That we could dive back into those endless evenings of our childhood–summer nights and winter snows. What we remember haunts us.

For now we stand now in a world like that of Henry IV part 2, a world become unwholesome and diseased. How we respond to that, what we choose to do from here, is up to us. Like Falstaff, we can fumble with the sheets and remember the green fields and flowers, or we can move forward, banishing treachery and disease from us with a hope that our doing so will not happen too late for times to come. The same time will pass no matter what we do.

Carl Sandburg captured this–the only seeming differences of time:

HERE is a face that says half-past seven the same way whether a murder or a wedding goes on, whether a funeral or a picnic crowd passes.
A tall one I know at the end of a hallway broods in shadows and is watching booze eat out the insides of the man of the house; it has seen five hopes go in five years: one woman, one child, and three dreams.
A little one carried in a leather box by an actress rides with her to hotels and is under her pillow in a sleeping-car between one-night stands.
One hoists a phiz over a railroad station; it points numbers to people a quarter-mile away who believe it when other clocks fail.
And of course … there are wrist watches over the pulses of airmen eager to go to France…

Carl Sandburg “Clocks”, 1918

What we do with our present time is up to us. Hate or heal. Depending on what we choose, where might we all be in a year? In five? In ten?

Smashed to smithereens

Night falling on the hills. Author photo.

Falling. Not someone falling. Not a thing falling. Not through the air or from a place. Simply falling. Isolated. Falling itself. The essence of dissolution.

In Richard III, George, the Duke of Clarence has a prophetic dream the night before Richard’s agents murder him:

Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in falling
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown,
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears,
What sights of ugly death within my eyes.
Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks,
A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.
Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept—
As ’twere in scorn of eyes—reflecting gems,
That wooed the slimy bottom of the deep
And mocked the dead bones that lay scattered by.

Richard III 1.4.19-34.

Dissolution. Potential lying dormant. Riches stacked and scattered across the bottom of the sea while human forms erode around them. Clarence, like an Ishmael, observes what is around him, but he cannot act.

“the falcon cannot hear the falconer”*


Nothing to hear and no one to hear it.

No falconer. No falcon. Gyre without widening, without spiral. Tree falling/not falling in a forest. Schrödinger’s tree. Soundless not soundless.

“Call me Ishmael.”** Fishmeal. Except that I only will be escaped alone will to tell thee. Job as witness to obliteration. It is as if Ishmael/Fishmeal remains exempt. A witness, a participant even. Yet not part and parcel of destruction. Ishmael is the telling, the reason of our knowing, and perhaps an agent of the whale’s vengeance in that he is there to see the tree making its sound.

Blossoming trees at night. Author photo.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”***

What is this thing called, Love? Mind evaporating. Mind exposed to the golden wind. No mind. No body. Madness. Forgetfulness. Oblivion.

Past and future become dense forests, the illusory unknown extending only in shadowy dream landscapes. Undulating into the unknown, they lead away from the now, into places we cannot rightly know. They are obivion, masquerading as bits of life, only representing where we believe we’ve been, and where we might yet go. Empty of substance. Owls hooting in the winter trees.

What’s past and what’s to come is strewed with husks
And formless ruin of oblivion

Troilus and Cressida 4.5.167-8

Agamemnon recognizes the onlyness of ‘now’ in meeting Hector. The immediacy is all, for in that point, in meeting, in the beached margent of the sea, in the ending is the beginning of all things.

行到水窮處  坐看雲起時  (I stroll up along the stream until it ends. I sit down watching the clouds as they begin to rise.)****

Emptiness actually full. Termination and inception in a point. Hesitation, forecast, and forestalling just projections of an ever disappearing mind, posited from absence.

Hamlet remarks this to his friend before the fatal fencing match:

HORATIO: If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will
forestall their repair hither and say you are not fit.
HAMLET: Not a whit. We defy augury. There is a
special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves
knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.

Hamlet 5.2.231-8

The moment of death is the moment of becoming and vice versa. Letting be.

Here is a version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” from the motion picture Across the Universe (CONTAINS STRONG IMAGERY):

Across the Universe, dir. Julie Taymor, Columbia Pictures, 2007.

In birth is tragedy. Nietzsche famously knew this.***** In flowering lays foundation for the fruit, yet also ends the blossom. The end of the world potted in a vase. The cut stems never again draw sustenance. The knife’s moment makes them into false show, sprays destined for the soonest kind of grave.

“Death of the organism through senescence–programmed death–makes its appearance in evolution at about the same time that sexual reproduction appears.”******

Moonlight through a blossom. Author photo.

Eruption! Flowering! Our attention, focus, and admiration. Death incorporated. Our gaze becomes Ted Hughes’ poetry.

We are Shiva, perpetuator of the universe. God/Goddess of sexual union and of final emancipation. Deity of creation and killer of demons. Winter coiled inside soft summer day. Vast slow heaving of trees, leaves sea against the restless wind, stars invisible in the daytime sky. Winter’s conception within the spring. Lamps against the dark and within the waiting darkness too.

Streetlamp. Author photo.

For even at the end, the universe simultaneously perishes even while it is born. Ishmael recounts his salvation from the sinking Pequod and the ensuing whirlpool that drags everyone else down to the bottom of the sea:

Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day nad night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharkes, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.*******

Moby Dick, p. 583.

Buoyed up by a coffin. Survival bursting, enduring through the perishing. Moss on treestumps. Birth in death. Falling up.

Falling. As we all fall. Dissolving as we all dissolve. Individually. Or as a nation or a world. The ocean remains the same.

After our Pequod sinks away into the darkness, what ship Rachel will sail over our horizon to rescue us? Or will we remain orphans on an endless sea of our own making?

How will we look back and see ourselves? Will we be able to? Will we allow the sway of momentary comfort, of immediate gratification, to extinguish our collective future? Cut down our forests? Run our people into the grave in order to maximise profit or capital advantage? Expect our neighbours to manage their lives on less because we yearn to save an extra 93 pennies on our taxes? Forfeit our schools to miserly budgetary management? Abandon our arts to the wind, and shape our citizens into ignorant slogan chanters?

What will we shape? What can we shape? What will we see? Or will we remain blind? We stand at the edge of such a precipice now. Will we look back at this moment and recall Marc Antony’s words after Julius Caesar’s murder in the Roman senate?

Even at the base of Pompey’s statue
(Which all the while ran blood) great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I and you and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.

Julius Caesar 3.2.200-4.

Let us hope, wherever we happen to be in this challenging world, that we can all do better. We must. Do better. Much better. Or we will not. Then we will not. Then neither we nor our children will be looking back at all.

*Yeats, W. B., and Richard J. Finneran. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York, NY: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996. The poem, “The Second Coming” is on p. 187 of this volume, and it is also available widely online.

**Melville, Herman. Moby Dick or The Whale. Edited by Viola Meynell. New York, NY: Avenel Books, 1985.

***Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems, 1947-1997. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2007. The poem “Howl” appears on p. 134 of this volume, and it too is available widely online.

****Wu, John C. H. The Golden Age of Zen. New York, NY: Image, 1996. John Wu’s translation of Wang Wei’s verses appears on p. 203 of this volume. Like the other poets cited above, much of Wang Wei’s work may also be found online, and John Wu’s introduction to Zen remains a clear and useful resource.

*****Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: “The Birth of Tragedy” and Other Writings. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, ed. Ronald Speirs, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Twelfth printing, 2010.

******Clark, William R. Sex and the Origins of Death. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 63.

you shall play it in a mask

Pulcinella. Author photo.

The title for today’s post comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the moment when Francis Flute, a young craftsman who mends bellows by trade, is called upon to play Thisbe in the play that the tradesmen hope to put on for the Duke’s wedding. Once Flute realises what is being asked of him, he becomes reluctant:

QUINCE: Francis Flute, the bellows-mender.
FLUTE: Here, Peter Quince.
QUINCE: Flute, you must take Thisbe on you.
FLUTE: What is Thisbe—a wand’ring knight?
QUINCE: It is the lady that Pyramus must love.
FLUTE: Nay, faith, let not me play a woman. I have a
beard coming.
QUINCE: That’s all one. You shall play it in a mask, and
you may speak as small as you will.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.2.37-46

Standing on what he perceives as the doorstep of his manhood, Flute has some confusion over gender roles. It seems almost as though he somehow fears that, by playing a woman in a play, he may miss whatever promise or potential he imagines might be offered by his coming beard. As a boy in world that seems (at least to him) to have strict gender delineations or definitions, the idea of playing another gender from the masculine ‘wand’ring knight’ he has in mind, confuses him and frightens him. (That it might actually excite him as well might be distinguished by choices in the actor’s process, and might depend on the breadth and scope of a given production.)

In this case, however, Quince’s mask remains a suggestion related to disguise. Flute can hide not only his gender, but also possibly his identity behind a mask as well, Quince implies that Flute’s mask can keep him safe from any public criticism or any potential ridicule about gender roles because, if he speaks ‘as small as [he] will’, no one will really know. who he is. No one will realise that it is actually Flute who is playing Thisbe.

Of course, this tends to fall by the wayside during the rest of the play, and I have never seen a production where Flute actually plays Thisbe in a mask. In fact, Thisbe’s lines are often some of Flute’s best moments in the play. A mask might not only squander such moments needlessly, but it might hamper the actor’s opportunities for some wonderful scenes.

Yet, Quince’s suggestion in Act I seems like an extension of safety, of anonymity. That, and Bottom’s subsequent suggestion that he play the role himself (as well as his role of Pyramus) manage to calm Flute’s momentary dissatisfaction.

Conversely, for the ultimate player, Bottom, any opportunity to perform brims with the promise to show off what he imagines to be his great talent and skill. After he agrees to play Pyramus, albeit after some disappointment at not being able to play the lion as well, Bottom immediately wonders “What beard were I best to play it in?” His face covering becomes an enhancement, an ornament, a display.

These two ways of masking, obscuring and displaying, are not really so far apart. In fact, traditionally, they are simultaneous. Pulcinella, pictured in the photo above, is often represented as wearing a mask, and the character embodies this confluence.* He hides while being obvious. He is at once deceptive and truthful. Like Bottom, who breaks character to blurt out upcoming plot details when he hears the audience questioning them, Pulcinella has been described by Antonio Fava as “the voice of the people, as the direct expression of a people as lively and spirited as the Neapolitans is never questioned.”**

Book illustration of Pulcinella in 1700 (1860) by Maurice Sand, found in Masques et bouffons: comédie italienne. Getty images, 12 July 2020.

Fava described Pulcinella as “a man without dignity, [who] is nevertheless indispensable to us all: without [him] … none of his countless ‘bosses’ could ever escape from the awkward tangle of troubles in which they find themselves. Pulcinella is everyone’s saviour, saved by no one.” In one sense, this sounds an awful lot like Bottom:

“Not only does love—Titania’s, his fellow players’, and his own love of playacting—redeem Bottom, but through his own redemption, Bottom also proves central to helping the greater love of Dream to conquer the grim specter of death and separation. In breaking character to rise comically from the stage after Pyramus’ death, Bottom asserts regeneration and renewal, infusing those qualities into the play at just the moment when the couples are on the verge of joining, of potentially creating new “issue”, new life. In dying as Pyramus and returning as himself, Bottom symbolically sacrifices himself to redeem us all.”***

Bottom needs no mask, in a sense. He plays the everyman that is himself, a modest braggart, like Pulcinella, he displays two faces to his audience, lover and tyrant.

Interestingly, there is a classic traditional recipe for a Neapoletan pizza known as “pizza Pulcinella”, which combines cottage cheese (or smooth ricotta, in modern versions) with pepper. With the spicy pepper serving as a natural contrast to the creamy cheese, the two faced character of the traditional dish is immediately evident. The recipe, including suggestions for modifications, may be found here: https://www.silviocicchi.com/pizzachef/pizza-pulcinella-ricetta-e-tradizioni/?lang=en

As Pulcinella and his mask suggest, the face we wear outwardly, the one we show to others, is not necessarily who we really are. Sometimes that is just one aspect, a caricature, an embellishment, or a simple lie.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine. Just fine.”

Musician Billy Joel’s 1977 hit song focused on our tendency to hide from each other.

In one sense, inside himself, Flute is the wandering knight he initially envisions. Fearless in his portrayal of Thisbe, he compels the audience to take his Thisbe at face value, as comic as the moment may unintentionally be. And Flute is the earnest lover too, springing into action as Thisbe with a noble sentiment to kill himself/herself over the body of his lost love Pyramus. In fact, one might argue that the lover in him wins out in the end.

After all, it is Flute who most laments the potential loss of Bottom when the weaver fails to make his expected appearance for their performance at the beginning of 4.2.

Oh sweet bully Bottom! Thus hath he lost sixpence a day during his life; he could not have ‘scaped sixpence a day. And the Duke had not given him sixpence a day for playing Pyramus, I’ll be hanged. He would have deserved it: sixpence a day in playing Pyramus or nothing.

AMND 4.2.19-24

It is a lovely moment. For Flute, the loss of their play means nothing compared with the loss of his Pyramus. Flute faces death, in the demise of the mechanicals’ performance, but that makes little difference in the face of the much more profound loss–the idea that Bottom might actually be gone. Bottom is, as Flute calls him a “paragon. A paramour is, God bless us, a thing of naught.” (4.2.13-4) Gone is Flute’s initial fear of playing another gender. Gone is any potential awkwardness about playing a paramour, gone is the worry that the play “goes not forward”. Only thoughts of Bottom the paragon remain, which fact speaks more deeply and truly to Flute’s love for his comrade than any other moment in the play.

This line of discussion might also lead us to consider social structures within the early modern playhouse itself. While the role of Flute was likely to have been played by a younger actor, perhaps a boy who didn’t look as though he might actually be able to grow a beard (which would make that line funnier). This ‘apprentice’ would most likely have played opposite a Bottom portrayed by a more mature and accomplished actor, perhaps someone like William Kempe, before he left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men company sometime after 1598. This idea lends the possibility of additional masks or roles within the Flute/Thisbe and Bottom/Pyramus roles–that of master and apprentice–which may or may not have been that much funnier to audience members who might have been familiar with the players themselves.

Of course, the masks we wear now are different, but even more essential. During the pandemic, human decency and concern for our fellow people everywhere dictates that everyone should be wearing a mask when they go out. Here’s a BBC news article about masks and the correct ways to select and wear them:


Where does this leave us? Long afternoons, mostly quarantined, wondering what might be next? Wondering where our saviour might be? Wondering how to become a saviour to ourselves and our loved ones?

Summer hills. Author photo.

Wondering who we are or who we might be, even under this rain or lack of rain. Used to be that we would sing and others would kill us for the lateness of the hour. Now, we sing and no one hears us at all. Crickets grow louder against that hushingness, growing against the evening like night jasmine almost at a bloom. Yet, it is not night jasmine coming. No.

We wear our masks and a dark sea laps around us. Closer, like a lost ocean where forgotten gods still sleep. Where we may sleep too, sooner than we think.

Man has lost the capacity to foresee
and to forestall. He will end by
destroying the earth.

–Albert Schweitzer

For our biggest masks now seem to be from ourselves. Looking in the mirror and seeing weirdly familiar strangers. Only they are falling into the ocean, the whistling sky, and mostly into themselves. The fruit has gone from the tree, and the ice cream truck from springs ago now sounds vaguely sour and wheezy. Out of tune. These are no longer the calls that we remember. These have transformed. They have become something else, slouching towards us with a mask dangling from outstretched fingers.

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

Rachel Carson. Silent Spring.****

Oh, we recognize this world, even if we do not want to. A song we heard long ago, and now playing not so far away. We’ve seen other songs. Many other songs. Some of them swallowed our grandparents. Now, they are waiting to swallow us.

Like Pulcinella, we need to see both ways. Please wear a mask. Wear a fucking mask!

Please tend to the environment as well as you can. Then do better. Much better. Right fucking now!

Lie to ourselves. Wear the mask. But now we have to know what lies beneath it too. We’ve nearly arrived at the end of the play. Will Bottom break character to rise up and save us, eliciting sacred laughter to chase away the grim spectre of death?

Summer rose. Author photo.

There is an old Zen parable about a boy who captures a live bird, and he cups it in his hands to take it to the local wise man. He plans to ask the elder whether the bird is alive or dead. If the old man answers ‘alive’, the boy will crush the bird and show the dead bird to the elder. If the old man answers ‘dead’, the boy will open his hands and let the bird fly away. Either way, the old man will be wrong.

The boy takes the bird to the old man and asks his question, “Alive or dead?”

The old man looks at the boy gravely for a long moment. Then he answers, “The bird is in your hands.”

Everything is now in ours. In our hands.

Right now. This very moment. As you read these words.

Yes, you.

What will I do with this bird? Native of the so-called wild and free? Rider of the air? Tawny. Ungentle child of wilder currents than I will ever know? What shall I do with thee?

I am my own combination of desert, shore, and thunderstorm. How can I reconcile these to save anything when I cannot find any meaningful employment in my own land, and I am routinely cast out by other lands? I see that true ghost of Shakespeare (@realghostofshakespeare) behind the door. He holds a broom, and he is laughing. What my friends see variously as the irony of life, or the multifaceted nature of India, France, England, or where have you. Here. Here is where I am.

The great actor, Salim Ghouse said, “Sufism was once a reality without a name, today it is a name without a reality.”*****

Masks everywhere. So necessary now, because most of us don’t really want to die. But also other kinds of masks are also everywhere. As they have been. Hiding ourselves from ourselves.

I encourage you to be gentle to yourselves, but also even gentler to the world. It needs us now or else it really will cast us out. The end of shoes, beards, masks, and all the plays we’ve ever known.

*Pulcinella is the ancestor of the famous Mr. Punch–known across the world for his naughty antics in the variously scripted or unscripted puppet show, Punch and Judy.

**Chaffee, Judith, and Olly Crick. The Routledge Companion to Commedia Dell’arte. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017.

***Langdon, John. “Death in Midsummer: the ritual death of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with reflections on ritual death in some of Shakespeare’s other plays”. The Shakespeare Institute Review. volume 1, Dave Paxton, ed., 2012. http://www.shakesreview.com/uploads/1/1/9/6/11968969/the_shakespeare_institute_review_issue_1_shakespeare_death_and_mortality_general_editor_dave_paxton.pdf

****Carson, Rachel L. Silent Spring. Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett, 1962.

Groping for trouts in a peculiar river

Wetlands in winter. Author photo.

Throughout human history, fishing metaphors abound. The title line appears in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, a sometimes challenging play that speaks much to the difficulty of defining or regulating human desire. The exchange between the local Madame, Mistress Overdone, and her tapster, Pompey, establishes for the audience why Claudio is being taken to prison:

POMPEY: Yonder man is carried to prison.
OVERDONE: Well, what has he done?
POMPEY: A woman.
OVERDONE: But what’s his offense?
POMPEY: Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.
OVERDONE: What? Is there a maid with child by him?
POMPEY: No, but there’s a woman with maid by him.

Measure for Measure 1.2.83-9

As the next part of the play makes clear, Claudio has fallen victim to a change of political regime. Although he has gotten Juliet with child ‘out of wedlock’, the judgment that defines his adultery as a criminal offense stands on a technicality. As Claudio tells Lucio:

Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta’s bed.
You know the lady. She is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.


Claudio is further frustrated by the fact that the old statutes against adultery had long remained unenforced, but the newly deputised Angelo (who has been temporarily granted sovereign authority by the absent Duke) has chosen to enforce the ancient laws and make an example of Claudio who has had the bad luck to impregnate his fiancée.

CLAUDIO: –but this new governor
Awakes me all the enrollèd penalties
Which have, like unscoured armor, hung by th’ wall
So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,
And none of them been worn; and for a name
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me. ’Tis surely for a name.


Pompey’s description of Claudio’s adultery captures the unusual nature of the ‘peculiar’ instance while the historical familiarity of the fishing metaphor also comments obliquely on the commonality of the act of adultery itself. In fact, the play calls the very idea of human judgment of others into question, and it leaves the question hanging in a number of ways that have established Measure‘s reputation as a ‘problem play’–which it is. It can be troublesome to produce and stage, and much of the play’s language remains complex enough to baffle the ear of many modern audience members. The jokes, many about sex or venereal disease, seem archaic, and even the ‘good’ characters seem to display a cold aloofness, an inaccessibly quality, that renders them less than fully sympathetic.

Country pond in Warwickshire.. Author photo.

In such instances, however, fishing metaphors offer abundant illustrative complexities in their own right, and this is in no small part because the task or art of angling itself can be both simple and simultaneously complex and multilayered. Fishing, as a practice, has long been evocative of mysticism. In this verse, by Ouyang Xiu (歐陽脩 1007-1072, also known as the Old Drunkard), the act of fishing lends a sense of immediacy and truth which in turn obscures the surrounding world:

The Angler  

Wind pulls at the silk line  
curling gracefully from the rod.  
In straw hat and grass cape, the angler  
invisible in thin reeds.  
And in the fine spring rain it is impossible  
to see very far.  
Mist rising from the water  
has hidden the hills.*
Pond, field, and rising clouds. Author photo.

Or, as Yeats describes it, fishing may be a metaphor for love, or how love arises and vanishes, quickly and mysteriously, along life’s way:

The Song Of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went t blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled n the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the drunken and licentious Sir Toby views the unpleasant and puritanical Malvolio as a “trout that must be caught with tickling”, referring to the trap that he, Maria, Andrew, and Fabian have laid for the steward–planting a false letter to make the egotistical Malvolio believe that his mistress is in love with him.**

Garrigue bassin Provençal. Author photo.

Yet, although catching fish can be a reference to a confidence game, there are other times when the metaphor refers to something else entirely. Fishing, often a solitary or meditative practice which takes place in the wilderness, may suggest mysticism, the human kinship with the entire universe. In Mary Oliver’s verses, catching a fish becomes a metaphor for human existence, and a luminous communion with something divine, something larger than any single self:


The first fish 
I ever caught 
would not lie down 
quiet in the pail 
but flailed and sucked 
at the burning 
amazement of the air 
and died 
in the slow pouring off 
of rainbows. 
Later I opened his body and separated 
the flesh from the bones 
and ate him. Now the sea 
is in me: I am the fish, the fish 
glitters in me; we are 
risen, tangled together, certain to fall 
back to the sea. Out of pain, 
and pain, and more pain 
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished 
by the mystery.

As, Dogen, the great Zen thinker and teacher used to put it, the moon in a dewdrop really is a thing. (Okay. I’m paraphrasing a little bit.)

World in a dewdrop. Author photo.

So where does that leave us? We live in a world where leaders murder their citizens by politicizing masks during a global pandemic, in a world where the study of Shakespeare and his contemporaries seems to recede in importance next to the altars of attainment and advancement. Where the importance of human life is routinely sacrificed at the altar of economic advancement. Where in spite of massively racist societies and the authorities and thugs who persist in operating according to their criminal precepts, ideas of human expansion, self examination, and spiritual and moral advancement are routinely thrown upon the every burning pyres of corporate and military/industrial enslavement. What should anyone do?

Chris Rea, “Gone Fishing”, Auberge (East West 1991).

Of course, why should anyone listen to any scholar of early modern literature? A humanities scholar? Someone who wasted years in a field that is being cut from so many universities because it has been perceived as largely pointless, and appears to be a terrible life choice, at least in terms of making money. Why should one heed the words of unemployed theatre practitioners? Actors? Directors? Writers? If they were so smart, these people, why didn’t they choose to study subjects that would offer them lucrative returns? Why should one listen to the yammerings of mere bloggers? Why should anyone care?

The answer is because the thinkers and the artists still tend to know, and that knowing seems to be in inverse proportion to how much or often such voices are dismissed as frivolous. We continue to argue for the expansion of possibility, the growth of our understanding of what human is, of what human life may mean, of what human experience is comprised, and of our options for a better a world beyond pandemic lockdowns and fascist politicians. That new world must be based on careful thought and understanding, on evaluation and critical thinking about human experience instead of something based on obsolete paradigms of material economics, We must see possibility beyond our society’s illusory emphases on human differences which have shamefully continued to impede those with ‘different’ skin tones, features, or cultures. We must look beyond structures that make money into a god, replacing those with methods of care for our fellow people and their well being.

Now, still faced with a global pandemic, we pause at this threshold of our very humanity, of our world. We must choose wisely now for the sake of all our children–all the children of our human community, for our neighbour’s children, and our neighbouring countries’ children are all our children too. We all fish from the same stream. We are confronted with the same fields, the same water, the same weather. I urge every reader to choose any metaphor you wish, as long as you don’t ignore the call. The hour is late indeed, and we must step forward as one humanity, all of us, before we lose the whole of our existence to a colder wind than we have ever known.

*trans. Henry Hughes

**Tickling trout is an old method of catching fish bare handed. A talented angler, lying on the banks of a stream, immerses his or her hand into the water and slowly approaches the fish with a gentle stroking motion. This gradually lulls the fish into becoming accustomed to the fisherman’s touch, or ‘tickling’, after which the angler may seize the fish and throw it onto the bank where it may be retrieved and taken home for dinner. Although such a practice may sound cruel to modern ears, history has it that it has been a way of feeding poor families since antiquity, especially those who had no easy access to angling equipment on short notice. In an account by the noted speech pathologist, Charles Van Riper (in the Northwoods Reader books that he wrote under the pen name of Cully Gage), an elderly poacher taught a young Charles how to tickle trout, stopping the young man after his second fish with the admonition, “How many fish do you need?”

And in the spiced Indian air, by night

The moon emerges.. Author photo.

When the sense of the exotic, or of non-Englishness, appears in those early modern dramas that were written for the English stage, the descriptions are sometimes characterized by an olfactory element. Titania’s line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one example, evoking a distant and romantic foreign landscape as she recalls the “vot’ress of [her] order” whose changeling child she does not wish to relinquish to Oberon. As a whole, Titania’s speech, both in this instance and throughout the play, seems redolent with a romantic sense of what critics often describe as “the other”, which remains in keeping with both her character and with the fairies as a whole. The fairies’ manner of speaking, their descriptions redolent with a kind of immersion in the natural world, underscores the fact that they are not human, as their own consistent differentiation substantiates.

The fairies’ separate nature, as another tribe of sentient beings who seem to be variously magical, surfaces again and again in their language. Catherine Belsey’s statements that “Shakespeare’s fairies talk like no others”, and that “their voices, unique in the play itself, assume a direct access to a more vital world” (which have been touched on in previous blog posts here) seem to be particularly keenly observed.* Yet, the idea of fragrance, of Bottom’s “flowers of odious savours sweet” (3.1.78, in which he mistakes ‘odious’ for ‘odorous’), still strikes us as particularly evocative. Even in Oberon’s famous line, where scent isn’t mentioned specifically, the description seems distinctly evocative of fragrance, conjuring the scent of a profusion of herbs and blossoms:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.248-52)

Upon hearing Oberon’s words, we can almost smell the night breeze. It comes over our ears “like the sweet sound/ That breathes upon a bank of violets”.** Orsino, Twelfth Night‘s lovesick Duke, seems to conflate the auditory and olfactory senses in a single phrase. Oberon’s line does the same by describing something that appeals to the senses of both sight and smell, and which may have an auditory component as well if we imagine that we can hear the night breezes that prompt the violets to nod by bobbing their heads. Such language presents a listening audience with a sensory experience that burgeons on all fronts, and in terms of all the senses. Passages that conjure the idea of scent, which can be most evocative of memory***, in the case of drama, tend to establish and reinforce the text’s visceral links to an audience in performance.

Blooming fragrant magnolia. Author photo.

The text of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, set on a mysterious island, offers us a banquet of potentially fragrant exotica, including Caliban’s “sweet airs”, the spirit Ariel’s “Bermoothes” or “Bermudas”****, along with a host of similar embellishments.

Christopher Plummer as Propsero and Julyana Soelistyo as Ariel in the Stratford Festival production of The Tempest.  DAVID HOU PHOTO from Richard Ouzounian’s theatre review for the Toronto Star, Friday June 18, 2010.

The sprinkling of sensory cues throughout the text not only renders the text more immediate to an audience, but also imbues a sense of romanticised exotica, if not of the exotic itself. Drama has always done this though, just as motion pictures and television series do now. By setting the action in a setting foreign to the supposed general audience, writers give their writing an additional element of shape and dimension, imaginatively transporting the audience geographically while also transporting them into the circumstances of other lives.

Dimensions like fragrance supply foundational elements to the very essence of story, in effect, to take the audience somewhere new, or to transport them in a new way. Yet, how easily we forget this, although, or perhaps because we are so constantly immersed in it–in the ongoing processing of human experience as story. As Jonathan Gottschall describes it, “Human Life is so bound up in stories that we are thoroughly desensitized to their weird and witchy power.”*****

The early modern dramatists knew this, of course, as did their predecessors across the world. Shakespeare’s plays famously feature locations like Cyprus and Verona while ranging through temporal settings from ancient Greece and Rome to pre-medieval Roman Britain, but he and many of his most effective contemporaries also repeatedly remind audiences of the immediacy of human senses in their dramas. This reinforces not only accessibility, by linking audience sense memory with that of the onstage characters, but also reinforces the experiential veracity of the ongoing drama, underscoring the “suspension of disbelief” with a kind of sensory feedback loop, where senses meld together in a way that further supports a temporary fictional reality. ******

The air redolent with exotic spices is not unique to Shakespeare, but pervades the literature of the day. In John Fletcher’s The Island Princess, the character Armusia, who has recently arrived in the islands of the play’s setting, waxes rhapsodic:

We are arrived among the blessed islands
Where every wind that rises blows perfumes
And every breath of air is like an incense.
The treasure of the sun dwells here. Each tree,
As if it envied the old Paradise,
Strives to bring forth immortal fruit – the spices
Renewing nature, though not deifying;
And when that falls by time, scorning the earth,
The sullen earth, should taint or suck their beauties,
But, as we dreamt, for ever so preserve us.
Nothing we see but breeds an admiration.
The very rivers, as we float along,
Throw up their pearls and curl their heads to court us.
The bowels of the earth swell with the births
Of thousands unknown gems and thousand riches.
Nothing that bears a life but brings a treasure.
The people they show brave, too: civil-mannered,
Proportioned like the masters of great minds.*******

Armusia’s description leads the audience on a tour of abundance from the olfactory to the visual, to the philosophical, painting a land of fulsome happiness and satisfaction.

Not that the conflation of the sensory need always lead to either the pleasant or the lush. Thomas Middleton opens A Game at Chess with the ghost of the founder of the Jesuits, portraying Ignatius Loyola as a cold and manipulative would be tyrant whose senses seek input as information:

IGNATIUS LOYOLA appearing, ERROR at his foot as asleep.

Hah! Where? What angle of the world is this,
That I can neither see the politic face
Nor with my refined nostrils taste the footsteps
Of any of my disciples, sons and heirs
As well of my designs as institution?
I thought they'd spread over the world by this time,
Covered the earth's face and made dark the land
Like the Egyptian grasshoppers.******** 

In this case, the character’s disapproving disappointment is underscored by a marked absence of sensory input. He “can neither see…Nor with [his] refined nostrils taste the footsteps”. Like a man in a cave whose eyes begin to blind themselves seeking for non existent light, Loyola’s entire sensory array seems crammed into a single seeking, which for the moment returns a null set. Of course, the ‘lack’ in this case remains in keeping with the character himself, obliquely reflecting his lack of morality and human concern. His will to world domination is also underscored by the metaphorical vision of his “designs as institution” being like a plague of grasshoppers that cover the surface of the earth.

That our language (used loosely in terms of our linguistic and our visual representations) necessarily derives directly from our thought and understanding, also means that our expression remains inextricably interwoven with our experience. This remains apparent in our literary and other artistic renderings, and most pointedly in the ways in which we may artistically manifest our inner landscapes in our outer world. In these presentations, one sense may effectively represent all of the senses.

Colour may be ‘felt’ as well as seen. The effect of any sense may overlap another, in some cases, making the visual somehow as palpable as that which might actually be touched. The visual and the olfactory have been widely linked to mood, and the whole of experience may not be as distinctly compartmentalised as we might have it.

Blooming rose. Author photo.

Even if we limit the discussion solely to early modern literature, examples of integration are legion, as Bottom’s famous instance of synesthesia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream readily indicates:

When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is “Most fair Pyramus.” Heigh-ho! Peter Quince? Flute the bellows-mender? Snout the tinker? Starveling? God’s my life, stol’n hence, and left me asleep? I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom. And I will sing it in the latter end of a play before the duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.


As much as this passage relates Bottom’s momentary confusion, his receding memory of his experience with the fairy queen, with a muddled Bible verse smacking of his momentary contact with the divine, it also indicates the totality of his experience, as a whole that falls outside of typical human expression. Words cannot contain the wonder of it. It really is “past the wit of man” to say what dream we really live.

Nonetheless, we continue to try to describe it. To encapsulate it. To catalog it. Our creative efforts also put forth new efforts of integrated experience every day. It is not only Shakespeare or his contemporaries who transport us to enchanted islands which are full of “noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (The Tempest 3.2.129-30). The contemporary example of Monsterstorm’s Crab Rave is case in point:

Noisestorm – Crab Rave [Monstercat release]

In a deeply troubled world, it behooves us to remain vigilant–to be both aware and involved. We continue to define our world as we continue to strive to improve both it and ourselves. We must learn, and we must also care for ourselves, if only for our loved ones, and to be able to continue our efforts for justice and a better tomorrow.

Right now, while many of us remain confined, it is also wise to dance upon occasion. The video posted above represents a good place to start. We should not give up the fight for a better world, but we must also dance when we can. ‘Stop and smell the flowers’ may be an old idea, but “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”******** is no less valid for that. May your weekend and fortnight be full of tropical islands, music, and sweetly scented air.

*Belsey, Catherine. Why Shakespeare? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 96.

**Twelfth Night 1.1.5-6.


****Some critics have noted that the “Bermoothes” may have been the name of an early 17th century London quarter reknowned for taverns, which might have given Shakespeare’s audience an additional laugh at the idea that Prospero would have sent his spirit servant, Ariel, to gather “dew” from the “still vex’d Bermoothes”.

*****Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, 2013, 1.

******For those with library access, a useful discussion may be found in: Walton, Kendall L. “Fearing Fictions.” The Journal of Philosophy 75, no. 1 (1978): 5-27. doi:10.2307/2025831.

******Fletcher, John. The Island Princess. Edited by Clare McManus. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2017, 122-3. (1.3.16-33)

********Middleton, Thomas. A Game at Chess. Edited by T. H. Howard-Hill. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. (1.1.1-8)

*********Herrick, Robert. His poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, may be read here: https://poets.org/poem/virgins-make-much-time

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