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Thoughts on: Essayists, Poetry and Shakespeare inter alia

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Section 1:

The world has had, and now has, some fine essayists. I am not in the same league as the finest, but they set the bar for me. An essay is an experiment, not a credo. It is an exercise in working out what one thinks at a particular time and in a particular place. It is something made up, to a certain extent, in response to an excited imagination, what some might see as an overheated brain, what I see as the product of decades of living and thinking, reading and writing.

It is a type of short story told in the form of an argument or a history or even, once in a great while, an illumination. These are not my words, but the words of Cynthia Ozick, one of the many fine essayists whom I have come to read in these years of my retirement without 60 to 70, and often more, hours a week of job, family and community responsibilities breathing down my neck.

I don't mean to imply that job, family and community were not good for me. I would not want to have missed that half century of wall-to-wall people, say, 1949 to 1999, for the world. But now that those 5 decades are gone another me has emerged and is emerging, a reinvented me, reinvented as a full-time writer and author, poet and publisher, online blogger and journalist. Yes, full-time, with time-out of course to: sleep, eat, drink, take care of ablutions and hygiene, chat to my wife, family and friends, edit and do research, read and engage in scholarly activity.

There are many writers capable of creating those sometimes glittering and occasionally bewitching contraptions, pieces of prose, known as essays. It has taken me many years to come up with a short list of the best, at least the best from my point of view, from the myriad people who now write, and who once wrote, essays. But, even if all I did was read, I would never be able to read all the best of the best. Selectivity is, as it always has been, an essential pre-requisite even more now in this 21st century.

The essay is only one literary form; the world is now the home of a pantheon of literary forms which will keep me happily occupied until the roll is called-up to the proverbial "yonder." Clive James, an essayist himself whom I have only come to appreciate since my retirement, has a list of some very fine essayists and some of their essays at his website.

Section 2:

I have found Clive's website a useful one to bring some of these essayists as well as some of the best newspaper journalists into my reading life. Today I read an article in The Guardian, 16/10/'10 by Don Paterson entitled Shakespeare's sonnets. Don Paterson teaches in the school of English at the University of St Andrews and is poetry editor for the London publishers Picador.

I first came across Shakespeare's sonnets in high school back in the early 1960s, but the experience was short and, at the time, not that sweet. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was teaching English literature to matriculation students, I had a more full experience of his 154 sonnets. They are popularly synonymous with courtly romance but, in fact, says Paterson many are about something quite different. Some are intense expressions of gay desire, others testaments to misogyny. Wary of academic criticism, Don Paterson tries to get back to what the poet was actually saying.

After reading Paterson's article in The Guardian today, I decided to put together some of my reflections on poetry and on Shakespeare written since the 1990s when I began to eye my retirement from 60 to 70 hours a week of various forms of social and employment responsibilities. The following is a summary of most of my reflections involving Shakespeare and some of my reflections of my own writing of poetry.


Part 1:

Two of the many significant influences on my poetry, influences which have given great pleasure over the years to my mind and spirit, admired immensely now, only began to be appreciated in the years of my middle age and in the early evening of my life. Those influences were Wordsworth and Shakespeare. They helped me to see nature in all its forms. But it was not only nature in its external forms: flowers, trees, the entire geology and geography of place, that provided for me the deepest satisfactions and fascinations.

I found that nature’s external forms permitted my rational mind to attain a renovated and renovating vision of the organic world--and particularly my own personal world. This was achieved by means of the metaphorical nature of physical reality. My second wife, Chris, and nature programs stimulated my interest in and appreciation of the external aspects of nature.

This appreciation, this vision, was difficult to achieve; it developed very slowly over the decades; the pitfalls surrounding the acquisition and development of this vision, were many, obscure and subtle. But as one of Canada's poets, perhaps Canada’s greatest 19th century poet, Archibald Lampman, expressed the challenge: “the poet must not cease from the mental effort required both to obtain this renovated vision of external nature and to return, restored, to the world of men.”

Part 2:

This renovated vision found and now finds its chief conceptual home, its guiding hand, one of its chief tools and aids, one of its fertile sources and bases, in a view of physical reality in all its forms as a metaphorical construct whose value, use and importance is an inner, symbolic, dramaturgical, one. To put this another way: words and metaphors are not mediums which copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order, pattern and meaning. Metaphor persuades and illuminates because it integrates pragmatic, cognitive and linguistic knowledge with awareness of culture, ideology and history. This idea is a difficult one to put into words and, I know from my own experience and from years of trying to get students to understand the concept, that this brilliant source of insight is simply never grasped by millions of people. For the most part it never even comes onto their agenda.

The value or function of the metaphorical, or what can also be called the analogical, process is immense. On the obvious level, it is a useful way to explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar and the abstract in terms of the concrete. In addition, it has the capacity to compress a great deal of meaning into a few words and, because it offers a variety of meanings, it can be an expansive description rather than a limiting or restrictive one; it can counteract narrowness of thought, literalism, imitation and dogmatism’s many fundamentalist forms. But probably the most important feature of the analogical process is its ability to educate.

That is, when a person is forced to examine X in order to understand Y, he is exercising one of his most important capacities as a human being. “The ability to see the relationship between one thing and another is almost a definition of intelligence. Thinking in metaphors,” says Louis Simpson in his An Introduction to Poetry, “is a tool of intelligence. Perhaps it is the most important tool.” Indeed, a view of the existential world as metaphor is, for me, a key methodology for unlocking the world’s meaning, for moving from abstract concepts to concrete things and back again, a key device for providing a narrative framework for and conceptualization of life and one that is not imposed, one that is not based on something we are told to think.3

Part 3:

In the years 1995 to 2005, as I approached my retirement from so many forms of engagement with the world: full-time, part-time and volunteer work as well as an engagement with what was often a seemingly endless set of social and community obligations, I came quite clearly to understand the benefits and insights to be gained from excursions into this world of metaphorical reality, of inner reality and its renovating vision. But, as I have indicated repeatedly in many pieces of my writing and again in this prose-poem, there are correct and there are incorrect attitudes to nature and to vision, to metaphor and analogical thought. The liberty and the moderate freedom which our Age is seeking is embodied in and defined by an Administrative Order whose operating principles derive from the teachings of Baha’u’llah and provide the very structure of freedom for our Age. This is, though, a complex question and I will deal with this under separate cover, as they say. Neither nature nor vision, analysis nor creativity, should take the writer and poet away from a concern for man and society nor from his support of those institutional safeguards of this new Faith. But this is an issue for the Baha'i, a Faith I have been involved with now for more than 60 years.

I have taken a keen interest in the social sciences and humanities, the latter only in the last 25 years. These subjects or disciplines have, along with decades of observation and experience, some of it based in outrageous fortune, some in despondency, some in joy and much in immense quantities of the quotidian, assisted me in: (a) strengthening my spirit and mind and in exhausting them; (b) giving me an increased veneration and respect for certain portions of the world’s immense corpus of poetry and prose; and (c) acquiring a resolute contemplation of life developed over what seemed, and were, epochs of time.

My stance vis-à-vis the great poetry and literature of history as well as much of the social sciences and humanities has been more active especially since those social and occupational demands of life have diminished in recent years. This active stance, though, is necessarily a highly selective one rather than a passive and accepting method and mode. The resources available now for students and writers like myself are simply staggering in their magnitude. Life is short and time is fleeting; the hour is urgent and, let there be no mistake, ours in the duty to labor serenely and to lend our share of assistance in whatever way circumstances may enable us to assuage the fury of the tempest of our times.4

Part 4:

I must admit and acknowledge that my precursor models and their styles, those I have drawn on for my various and several literary purposes, have increased with the years. I qualify as a result, it seems to me, as a practitioner, as a legitimate Canadian/Australian hybrid participant, in the tradition that leads from the great Romantics to the great Moderns and the Postmoderns. My perspective rests on: (a) a resolute contemplation of my time and place, (b) a broad synthesis of much from the social sciences and humanities and (c) a noetic integrator that interprets large fields of reality, that is the ontological and theological, epistemological and teleological framework and construction of my religion. And because of this my perspective is—I can safely say--distinctly my own.

It is a perspective that includes man, nature, society, every atom in existence and the essence of all created things. It is the perspective of a man with a wide and, insofar as I am able to envisage and articulate, a coherent range of concerns. It is the perspective: (i) of an imaginative observer of both the external world and the world of the unseen; (ii) of one who is and has been for half a century committed to the gradual, evolutionary building of a new world, the foundations of a global society, the City of God, through the charismatic and prophetic figure of Baha’u’llah; (iii) of an adherent of a new and independent religious system with a detailed and verifiable record of its history and development; (iv) of a participant in a system whose growing influence is arguably the most remarkable development in contemporary religious history; (v) of a man who has not, as many might think, attached himself to a utopian, an unrealistic, dream; (vi) of a person who endeavours to see life simply as it is and to estimate everything at its true value in relation to: (a) a view of universal truth which is perennial but not archaic, (b) a view which accepts that no fortuitous conjunction of circumstances will make it possible for the human community to bend the conditions of life into conformity with some set of human desires—that such a hope, is illusory; and (c) a view that the world is one country, has one common homeland and humankind are its citizens.
--------SOME REFLECTIONS ON SHAKESPEARE-----------------
I will not deal with Wordsworth, one of those two influences I mentioned earlier. What follows deals, in the main, with Shakespeare and things I have written in the last two decades since the internet became part of my life: 1994 to 2014.
In April 1937 Vivien Leigh, one of the most popular actresses of the 20th century, had been in a rapturous sexual relationship with Laurence Olivier for nearly two years. At the time both of them were married to someone else. Olivier was a major actor-interpreter of Shakespeare for his time. Leigh had just begun her acting career. In that same month, April 1937, the Baha’i teaching Plan opened, a Plan I have now been associated with in one way or another for more than 60 years. Leigh moved in with Olivier 8 weeks later. And so began one of the famous romances of the twentieth century. Leigh had the intuition, sometime in May of 1937, after reading Gone With the Wind which had won the Pulitzer Prize that year, that she would play the part of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone With the Wind. And so she did: on Christmas Day 1938 she was offered a contract for the part. And so began her life of Hollywood fame.
Henrik Johan Ibsen(1828-1906) was a major 19th-century Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is often referred to as "the father of realism." He is one of the founders of Modernism in the theatre. His major works include: Peer Gynt, An Enemy of the People, A Doll's House, HeddaGabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and The Master Builder, among others. He is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare. A Doll's House became the world's most performed play by the early 20th century.
Some critics have come to view Jane Austen's novels as the writing of “a prose Shakespeare,”(1) a writer who exposed with her acid solution of words the empty foundations of social and personal morality in a violent and repressive age in English society.-Ron Price with thanks to (1)William MacAuley in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, Vol. 2, B.C. Southam, editor, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1987.

When I retired from a 50 year student-and-working life, 1949-1999, I slowly went about reinventing myself, as they say these days. It was a somewhat unconscious process at first in the late 20th century and the first years of the 21st but, gradually, several roles emerged and increasingly consciously. They were roles that enabled me to pleasantly occupy myself in the evening of my life. Only time would tell how many years remained before I shuffled off this mortal coil and suffered or enjoyed the sleep of death, as Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet. Whether these years, thus far, were early evening or late, I did not, although I might in time, come to know. As I write these words I am six weeks short of my 70th birthday on 23/7/'14.

In the first dozen years(2002-2014) of my retirement from FT and PT paid-employment, as well as most volunteer work and any formal educational study, I became, by sensible and insensible degrees: a writer and author, an editor and researcher, a poet and publisher, a scholar and student, an online journalist and blogger. In the years from 2002 to 2014 I organized, as systematically as I was able, a reading and writing program around my many interests. One of the categories of my interests was the literary world of: writers and poets, novelists and essayists, playwrights and letter-writers, biographers and autobiographers, diarists and journalists. Some call this field, which includes all literary works, and especially: fiction, poetry, drama, or essays, belles-lettres. It is a vast field of general literature and it is valued for its aesthetic qualities, its originality of style and tone, and often for the lighter branches of literature.
In 1953 Isaiah Berlin(1909-1997) published a book called The Hedgehog and the Fox. Foxes, he wrote, are people who know many things; hedgehogs know one big thing. It was in part a study of Berlin's literary hero, Leo Tolstoy(1828-1910), whom he described as a fox who wished at times that he was a hedgehog. Foxes draw on a wide variety of experiences and they do not boil down the intellectual world to a single idea. Such foxes include: Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, Anderson)-Ron Price with thanks to several internet sites especially Wikipedia on the topic of Isaiah Berlin.
I first came across Thomas Hardy in grades 11 and 12 in Burlington Ontario. His novels The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles were the novels we studied in those last two years at Burlington Central High School, 1960 to 1962. I was a good student, near the top of my class, but I remember finding Hardy: heavy, cumbersome, difficult reading, although nowhere near as difficult as the Shakespeare play we also studied each year back then. I did not come across Hardy, or Shakespeare, again until some thirty years later in the early 1990s when I taught matriculation English at a technical and further education college, now a polytechnic, in Perth Western Australia. It was Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Hamlet, respectively.
As a now retired teacher of ancient Roman and Greek history, among other subjects I taught from 1967 to 2005, I enjoyed today's ABC Radio National program on Seneca the Younger(5 BC to 65 AD). I have always found the aspect of Seneca of most personal interest was his influence on Shakespeare.

The closest to Greek tragedy that Shakespeare got was to Seneca's tragedies which Shakespeare rehabilitated. Classical tragedy means the ten Latin plays of Seneca not those of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. As one analyst put it: Hamlet is inconceivable without Seneca. These are just some thoughts from someone who is no expert on Seneca, Shakespeare or either classical or Renaissance cultures/civilizations. But the subject is of interest to muse about in these years of crisis in a world, a crisis not unlike that faced in the times of Seneca, in the first century of the Roman empire(31 BC-69 AD).
"To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub." What dreams, Shakespeare asks, may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil?” “That sleep of death,” may give us hellish dreams for all eternity.” That is the rub. This thought gives us pause and puzzles the will and ultimately makes cowards of us all. And so we bear the ills we have rather than fly to others we know not of.

Updated 06-16-2014 at 08:02 AM by Ron Price (To update the wording)



  1. Ron Price's Avatar
    I tried to edit the above document, my post on Shakespeare; at first I was unable to do so, but I figured-out the technique required.-Ron Price, Tasmania
    Updated 06-16-2014 at 07:45 AM by Ron Price (To update the wording)