4th March 2022
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much we generally miss out when we read for meaning. And about what it is that can make a poem come alive for you, make you care about its details and feel connected to it. Memorising and reciting are brilliant ways to ensure that you don’t miss things out, because you have to get all the words active inside you – and in the right order (unlike Eric Morecambe’s famous line to André Previn about musical notes!). I’d like to share an example of this from my own recent experience, which I found revealing in a range of ways that connect with Poetry By Heart.
I’ve long loved Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It’s about feelings of vulnerability as you get older and are more in touch with dying (not that cheery sounding, I know). Like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poem is addressed specifically to a much younger man who the poet/speaker loves passionately. The age gap between them makes the speaker’s feelings of vulnerability come into focus with particular vividness and intensity. Here’s the sonnet, if you are not familiar with it –
That time of year thou mays’t in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold;
Bare ruined 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 ties up all in rest.
In me though see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed by that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
It’s the imagery – lovely and sad, bordering on bleak at times – that makes the poem work, and it was one of my favourite poems even when I was younger, mercifully not thinking about mortality that much. It was only recently that I tried to learn it properly by heart, though, and something extraordinary, that I’d never noticed before, began to come into focus for me about the way the imagery works. Aristotle famously said that in poetry, ‘the greatest thing by far is to be master of the metaphor.’ (Poetics) What I came to realise about this poem, though, was that Shakespeare, instead of performing his consummate mastery of the metaphor in any straightforward way, actually hesitates over how he is going to work the imagery – to the extent that he almost seems to risk losing control.
It was the second line of the poem that brought this sharply into focus for me when I tried to learn it by heart. In setting up a metaphor for his time of life quite traditionally in relation to the seasons, the speaker suddenly starts to go all wobbly about it. The speaker’s ‘time of life’ is presented as equivalent to the moment when ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few’ hang on the trees’ boughs. This seemed fine to me when I was skipping past the line, reading for its general sense. But when I started to learn it by heart, I began to think ‘Well – which is it, Will?’ The ephemeral glory of autumn’s last show of colour which tourists flock to New England to see in the fall? Or a diminished version of this, when many of the leaves have been stripped away by the wind? Or the stark imagery of life in full retreat, when the branches are laid completely bare? It’s as if Shakespeare is aware not only of the metaphor’s power to develop thought in a uniquely evocative form, but also of where it acquires an energy of its own, breaking in different directions.
Robert Frost has an interesting theory about poetry generating awareness of the limits of metaphorical thought that may provide a useful insight into what I think is happening here. Frost believed that metaphorical thinking underlies nearly all forms of human cognition, including science. However, poetry, he thought, can help navigate such territory more discriminatingly. He wrote that –
‘unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values; you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and in its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.’
(‘Education by Poetry’)
This is ultimately the most important thing that poetry teaches us, for Frost. It offers a kind of training ground in judging how far one should travel along a metaphorical strand of thought before it starts to break down and becomes less useful – or even dangerous.
Is Shakespeare aware of what his metaphor’s limits are here, in the way Frost suggests, perhaps? He doesn’t seem to want to ‘ride’ the metaphor straightforwardly to its logical conclusion, but instead allows the image to break, like a river’s flow, in a number of different directions. Perhaps the metaphor doesn’t – or can’t – convey the full actuality of the speaker’s situation and feelings? Or is it fuller than the prosaic version of an actual moment and situation? Perhaps all metaphors encompass potentialities – worlds within worlds – in the same way that quantum physics has taught us that matter is indeterminable when we try to calibrate its movement and mass at the level of the smallest particle.
Before learning it by heart, I had read through the line about the yellow leaves repeatedly without noticing that there was anything unusual about it. I saw the various renderings of the image as all more or less the same – details piled on to give a more concrete sense of the wintry scene – rather than noting anything that made me more curious. But when you learn a poem by heart you have to get the precise sequence of words and images right. Do ‘few’ leaves come before ‘none’ – as they should do if the line were simply a progression along a timeline of diminishing life – or afterwards? Although the metre would be exactly the same, the line would be a lot smoother – and perhaps easier to remember? – if ‘few’ were switched with ‘none’ in a mathematically straightforward sequence. Instead Shakespeare deliberately makes the line more disruptive. Trying to fix the line in your memory, you realise that the illogical positioning of the sequence is a kind of clue, alerting you to something that may be more important – and odd – than you first thought. The wobble is indicative of a deeper level of uncertainty, I think, as Shakespeare hesitates over the adequacy of his metaphor to convey the range of potential feelings and situations involved.
Perhaps this relates most strongly to anxiety about what quality of passion and what enduring love you can retain as you approach death? Will the sap of the speaker’s strong emotions sink low as he approaches the end of his life? The image of trees stripped bare of all leaves suggests this possibility. Or will his fading vitality produce an extraordinary last burst of intense colour, as in the display of autumn’s yellow leaves? Or something in between? Projecting forwards entails uncertainty, which the instability of the metaphors encompass. The next two quatrains in the sonnet complete this process, each developing a new metaphor for the speaker’s feelings about his ageing body, as though the previous image didn’t quite cut it. First, the opening image of trees is substituted for the metaphor of afterglow, just after sunset: the light sustaining life at its most ephemeral edge before darkness takes over. Then this too gives way to the glowing embers of a fire, ‘that on the ashes of his youth doth lie’. It is as though the poem is testing out possibilities of the form in which a consuming passion may still be present as death approaches. It’s refusal to settle is also a commitment to inhabiting the potentialities of life and love as dynamic, incapable of being fixed in time, always subject to change.
We are – all of us – imperfect readers. We read selectively, moving on when we think we have grasped the sense, locking onto what we need at that moment, just as we only perceive a fraction of what is actually around us at any point in time. Memorising can bring us closer to a complete experience of the poem itself, however, as opposed to the interpretation or meanings we have abstracted from it. This is still an interaction, of course – a creative, two-way process in which we bring our own experience to the encounter and make the poem our own inside ourselves. But it is the whole poem. And the slow, chewed over, and many times repeated ritual of getting by heart all the words in sequence brings the poem into focus in its entirety. If this is not done purely by rote, we are likely then to become attentive to things we’d never noticed before. And, perhaps most importantly, we become closer to the poem. As Robert Frost (yes, him again) also observed, ‘[T]he closeness, everything depends upon the closeness with which you come [to the encounter]’. It’s this closeness which is the fundamental element in our relationship to poetry, he thought: it can yield insights worth more than all the strained, foolish – and even clever – things we can say and think without it.
David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the 3-year Leverhulme Trust funded Poetry and Memory research project, an interdisciplinary enquiry into the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding. He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime.