Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Bart Feller and I attended a performance of this uneven Shakespearian oddity at Lincoln Center last night. I thought of minor pieces by major composers; it comes from genius but does not arrive a masterpiece. Harold Bloom finds the work so full of the author's self-parody, as to defy genre. "Everything about Cymbeline is madly problematical, as Shakespeare, in a willful mood, evidently intended." He writes in "Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human."

In Act III, scene iii, Morgan tries to dissuade his two young male charges from their desire to move from the mountains where they live to seek their fortunes in the city.

"Did you but know the city's usuries,
And felt them knowingly: the art o' th' court,
As hard to leave as keep: whose top to climb
Is certain falling: or so slip'ry that
The fear's as bad as falling.

Nay, many times,
Doth ill deserve by doing well: what's worse,
Must court'sy at the censure."

Quite a different evocation of city life than Milton's youthful lines from L'Allegro:

"Towered cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men,
Where throngs of knights and barons hold,
In weeds of peace, high triumphs hold,
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit or arms, while both contend
To win her grace whom all commend.

Such sights as youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream."

Milton was young when he wrote these lines, Shakespeare, experienced in the ways of London politics when he wrote Morgan's speech.

Czesław Miłosz's 1991 poem Youth, brings to mind, through veils of experience, this draw of the city to the young and its disorientations. I remember very well arriving in Manhattan at age 23. The city's hum, its pleasures, its cruel usuries and political treachery, all yet to come.

YOUTH by Czesław Miłosz (1991)

Your unhappy and silly youth.
Your arrival from the provinces to the city.
Misted-over windowpanes of streetcars,
Restless misery of the crowd.
Your dread when you entered a place too expensive.
But everything was too expensive. Too high.
Those people must have noticed your crude manners,
Your outmoded clothes, and your awkwardness.

There were none who would stand by you and say,

You are a handsome boy,
you are strong and healthy,
Your misfortunes are imaginary.

You would not have envied a tenor in an overcoat of camel hair
Had you guessed his fear and known how he would die.

She, the red-haired, because of whom you suffered tortures,
So beautiful she seemed to you, is a doll in fire,
You don’t understand what she screams with her lips of a clown.

The shapes of hats, the cut of robes, faces in the mirrors,
You will remember unclearly like something from long ago
Or like what remains from a dream.

The house you approached trembling,
The apartment that dazzled you—
Look, on this spot the cranes clear the rubble.

In your turn you will have, possess, secure,
Able to be proud at last, when there is no reason.

Your wishes will be fulfilled, you will gape then
At the essence of time, woven of smoke and mist,

An iridescent fabric of lives that last one day,
Which rises and falls like an unchanging sea.

Books you have read will be of use no more.
You searched for an answer but lived without answer.

You will walk in the street of southern cities,
Restored to your beginnings, seeing again in rapture
The whiteness of a garden after the first night of snow.

And finally, from Cymbeline:

"Nay, do not wonder at it: you are made
Rather to wonder at the things you hear
Than to work any." (Posthumus, V.iii)

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