The first spark of genuine engagement with great writers most often comes from a teacher, and the ever-fresh immortality of the great work has its ironic contrast in the aging and death of those who made the introduction. So it is for me with Shakespeare, who was first truly impressed upon my imagination during my freshman year of college.[1] I must have read several Shakespeare plays in high school—Romeo and Juliet, definitely. (Franco Zeffirelli’s version with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting was a revelation when it came out in 1968.) Julius Caesar? Probably. The sophomore class in which I must have read it is most memorable, however, not for the play, but for the teacher’s temper. She was so furious at us one day that she asserted, naming herself in the third person, that she was going to explode. One of my classmates, schooled like all my generation in the preferred technique for avoiding personal injury during nuclear attacks, promptly got under his desk. We were brought up on the language of megatons, alas. Had the teacher not been quite so large, it would not have been quite so funny.

In any case, my love for Shakespeare began in freshman year at the University of Georgia, when I had the wonderful Marion Montgomery as my teacher, a man whose vast accomplishments were completely unknown to me at the time and whose literary stature was belied by his simple workaday clothes and his unassuming air of country irony. We were reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, and during that discussion, the conscious possibilities and complexities of art first broke in upon me. I thought of this poem yesterday on my afternoon walk, when I passed a tree full of birds and stopped for a moment to record them.[2] The recollection sent me back to the poem itself:

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

Mr. Montgomery pointed out how the three quatrains funneled down toward the closing couplet. The first four lines compare the speaker to autumn, a season of the year; the next four to the last light after sunset of a single day; and the next four to a fire burned down to its last coals. The couplet at the end makes the point sharply: “This thou perceiv’st.” I used to think that the poem was the speaker’s sentimental attempt to rouse sympathy for his age and his coming death. But now I see that it is a very unsentimental poem about the speaker’s own fading love. To paraphrase: “Now that my largely unrequited passion is almost spent, your love is stronger than ever — but only because you’re already planning the end.” (I expect a few arguments about that interpretation.)

But it was digging into the texture of the poem that impressed me more than the structure. In the fourth line, “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” something complex happens. Not only does Shakespeare compare the bare trees (stripped of their foliage, missing the birds that inhabited them) to choir lofts that now lack singers, but, as Mr. Montgomery showed, the poet subtly embeds an historical reference in the line by alluding to Henry VIII’s destruction of abbeys and convents all across England.

Even more impressive were the sound effects in the lines—for example, those commas that slow down the second line and make it feel tentative, almost confused: “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” This line, the one before it, and the one after it are in regular iambic pentameter, which means that Shakespeare deliberately sets up an expectation for that pattern, and then uses the expectation to force greater stress onto the words that do not fit it. He could have written “Those ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” for example, but putting “bare” as the first stressed syllable of the line and jamming it against “ruined” gives an entirely different effect. It’s hard to say, “bare ruined choirs where”—a tongue twister—but the end of the same line is as clear as a bird song, even with its three stressed syllables: “where late the sweet birds sang.”

Do you mean to say, I thought but did not ask, that these words did not just somehow fall there unconsciously? Could it really be the case that a poet did these things on purpose? My naïveté was profound. Not only could it be the case, but this simple exposition of the art of the Shakespearean sonnet was my introduction, not only to Shakespeare, but to poetry itself. Later in college, I had another great teacher at the University of Georgia, Dr. George B. Martin, with whom I studied Shakespeare’s great tragedies in junior year. I so respected his reputation that I read Othello three times in one weekend (an experience of increasing depth that I have never forgotten) before writing my first paper for him. That was my major introduction to the art of Shakespeare as a playwright. In graduate school at the University of Dallas, still another great teacher, Dr. John Alvis, first led me into an understanding of Shakespeare’s epic vision in the English history plays and his central importance as a political thinker; he later directed my dissertation on Shakespeare. Dr. Louise Cowan, an unparalleled teacher and the founder of many ongoing programs both at the University of Dallas and elsewhere, taught me in her famous course on comedy, where Shakespeare provided the complex paradigm that took me into the heart of the genre. Interpreting Shakespeare was central to a friendship of almost forty years.

Honoring Shakespeare at Wyoming Catholic College is a displaced and inadequate thanks, on a personal level, to these lifelong friends, but loving what they loved is an homage, both to him and to these teachers whose language and imagination he helped to form. Passing on the tradition keeps all of us in the debt of the man who gave voice, perhaps more than any other poet, to the whole range of human nature.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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Notes:

[1] Glenn Arbery, “Claudius’s ‘O, my offense is rank’ monologue from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’,” Wyoming Catholic College Blog, April 23, 2020.

[2] WyomingCatholicClips, “Bird Song,” YouTube video, 0:06, April 23, 2020.

[3] Obituary of Dr. George Martin Sr.Athens Banner-Herald, January 14, 2011.

[4] n.a., “In Memoriam: University Mourns Passing of Beloved Professor,” University of Dallas, January 10, 2020.

[5] n.a., “Dr. Louise Cowan,” The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, n.d.

The featured image is a Restoration period painting of Shakespeare made after the Chandos (c. 1667) by Gerard Soest (1600-1681) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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