52 posthumous reflections
By ALAN WALL.
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion…
– William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
KATHERINE HAMLETT DROWNED in 1579 in the Avon a few miles outside Stratford on Avon. Unhappy in love, perhaps. Even so, the magistrate declared it was not ‘felo de se’, so there was no need, as there would be later with Ophelia, to administer merely ‘maimed rites’. The same year my fifteen-year-old sister Anne died. Seventeen years later in 1596, Hamnet died too. My only son. The only son of William and Anne. To our ear in those days, and our orthography too, there was no distinction between Hamnet and Hamlet. And now it is 1600. The fatherly ghost of the ghostwritten son warns each night now of the devastation already past and the one still to come, if he doesn’t get a move on.
Last night, having ghosted it on the stage and warned that ghosted son of mine of some dark things that had recently been, and others still to come if he doesn’t get a move on, I dreamed Anne rose out of the waters, drowned, sodden, mute. Those are pearls that were her eyes. The mercury globes of the alchemical opus. Each one large enough to furnish a fairy queen with her kingdom.
But which Anne was it rising up like that out of my darkness? Which of my Annes had I forced underwater?
AH KIT. WHAT happened to you, old friend, rival of the quires and the boards, the other fierce cock in the cockpit?
A poniard through the eye, as if you’d written it out and schemed it all yourself.
The state’s frothy scum in attendance. Its usual agents. A dispute, the coroner reported, regarding the reckoning, and all in a little room in Deptford.
‘When a man’s verses are not understood, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.’ I had Touchstone say that in As You Like It.
At least you will understand the words I gave to the man in motley.
But are you are still out there somewhere listening, Kit?
(I know the answer now, of course, having found my way around this labyrinth at last. The ink above dried long ago.)
IT IS THE day of my death. Bells are ringing. Not for me. The two thousand souls of this town form constellations with their flinty spirits, festival candles flickering in trees. (Is this what you call neuronal?). I think I may be seeing them clearly for the first time today. Wife weeps; ditto daughters. Wives and daughters do though, don’t they? Part of the job description: exactly what you expect of the relevant dramatis personae. Wish Ben were back here for one last mighty thrash. But then it was the last one with him that brought me down to this. How we laughed at the cold that evening. I daresay he’s laughing still. When God made Ben’s insides, he borrowed his stepfather’s trowel and his mortar to do it.
Soon enough I’ll meet my only father and my only son. One more old mole heaving around down there in the cellarage. No papist rites have been appointed here, however maimed.
Everyone in Stratford is a Catholic now, of course. Except for all the ones who aren’t.
AND SO THEY dug me up. And so he picks my skull out, having heard me named by our rugged chorister of death here in the graveyard. Like Lazarus brought back from the grave, though in my case left to moulder a little longer. Another of his I’s; another of his eyes. Erasmus says the king has a thousand eyes, and in two years time he’ll be one of The King’s Men. To see him stare like that, right through me (as he sees through every one of us these days). He sees through my inventions, including the one that bears his name. Makes me wish for a moment to be dressed in flesh again, if only to tempt him to a jig, the way we used to, before his melancholy and his antic disposition. And this little indisposition of mine, in the form of my mortal annihilation.
Couldn’t even make him laugh this time. Alas, poor Shakespeare.
LET ME SPEAK through my clowns. I so frequently did.
Call this one Armin. Robert Armin. Kempe has gone, with his balls tied in a knot. So much for dancing all the way to Norwich, with sticks and bells, thwacking yourself around the buttocks and the thighs. When there’s more than enough to get on with up here. We used to be the light relief, but he (take care – he’s listening) has made us weighty enough these heavy days. All I had to learn once were dances and songs, and I already knew all those. Now I say more sense to Lear, and in as many lines, as he says to himself. Until the end, of course; until the very end. By then I’m hanged offstage, and happily out toping while the actorly mortalities mount and the grander verses soar..
I’ve heard that none of us were a patch on Will Somers, who after a number of queens had departed in turn, arrived at the royal table one night with his tunic tied over his head and said to King Henry: ‘Call me wifey.’ And the old King laughed. As did all other courtiers around that table, each of whose heads stood tickle on their shoulders at that very moment.
(By the way he never doubled as Cordelia. He was nearly forty by then. Even the King of France, for all his dowryless devotion, would have turned up his nose, and headed back to Les Pigalles. Wifey is as wifey does. By thirty-five they’re past it. I know.)
ZBIGNIEW HERBERT WROTE his own critique, entitled ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’.
(I do not wish to sled the Polack on the ice, or even poleaxe him. I honestly can’t recall the line I wrote now, so am infirm and mute regarding your crux.)
The Pole says that every time a Hamlet rules, a Fortinbras soon follows. After the anguish in closed rooms, the altercations between fury and doubt, the chewing of the bedsheets and the trembling at the ectoplasmic vision of the ghost, some new order is required, one best constructed by men in hard hats whose fixed smiles arrive in separate carriages from their souls, and who often come down from the North on the Sabbath. Hyperboreans. The way James came from the other side of Hadrian’s Wall to fill the void made by Elizabeth’s departure. And how the southerners cheered.
So Weimar is followed by Hitler; Kerensky by Lenin; Allende by Pinochet. You seem to have economised the succession these days. Now Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, is succeeded by Barack Obama, state assassin, who merely points his pen nib at a name, and that name disappears forthwith from the Book of Life. Such sessions take place weekly. They don’t even bother to draw the White House curtains any more. The villainy of my monsters always makes them invisible.
Cleopatra at least liked to watch her victims die in person, seeing which new poisons worked the best, as she observed their entertaining writhings. (Wish that I’d left those lines in now. My stets were mostly discounted by my fellow sharers, who wanted the Egyptian shaped for love, first the General’s kiss, then the asp’s.) Hitler had all his choice assassinations filmed, so he could have them screened whenever he grew bored with Fritz Lang’s Siegfried.
MAYBE IT’S THAT Nobel Peace Prize of yours. Previous recipients: Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin. Straight poison then, like that stuff in Gertrude’s calix. An international lizard hunt. Not available in our day, or I’d have sent the Duke of Gloucester, old Richard Crookback, to Oslo on a free weekend, once he’d sorted out the Princes in the Tower. He’d have mounted his certificate of authenticity on jewelled braid, pleased to hear of irony’s long-overdue assassination.
AN ODD ONE, now I think of it: how Angelo in Measure for Measure is succeeded by the Duke, who marries himself a nun, without even asking how she might consider the prospect. Like Luther with Katherine, escaped from the cloister, moving into the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, and calling it home, while she hoovers away and gestates. Good Protestant gestation. Wittenberg. Hamlet’s chosen city, which he never did get back to, sadly.
SOME OF THE lines you like best were not by me. How we sauntered in and out of one another’s pages back in those days; this show or that; one playhouse or another. ‘I can improve this line, I think – our lad was evidently nodding when he scribbled that one.’ At first we hardly thought it mattered, till the Quartos started hitting the streets. If my words were to be printed, then I wanted them at least to be words I had some recollection writing.
Sometimes I’d watch my own creation up there uttering words I’d never entered on his tongue, or my foul papers, or dropped off the at the Stationer’s Office. Taken on a life of his own, I’d think. Seems I’m making golems at last. Next season we’ll do Prague with old John Dee leading the gags – the Hieroglyphic Monad, how they’ll roar. Get him a vent’s figure, and they can talk Enochian up there together. They’d love The Tempest in the alchemists’ old quarter. Get tickets now while there’s still standing room, you groundlings.
GREATEST PROVIDER OF jobs since Jesus. No one has ever killed on my behalf, so far as I know. Though I had them slaughter one another freely once I’d set them free to roam the boards up there.
THE SONNETS. NEVER meant a single one of them, if by meant you mean trapped in its singular meaning. I meant each word though, as I mean all these today. Can you really have lost this usage already, my faithful followers? How the words must buckle then in your throat, snagged by that shameless succubus, sincerity.
FOR SOME NOW I believe I am the core of all that’s evil: dead, white, male and unfathomably gifted. The gift gave me more sleepless nights than I could count, if that’s any sort of comfort. And if it were not this one you’d be loathing, undoubtedly it would be that. Animus going hither or thus on its pleasurable journeys.
Glad I can still be of use. Anne, could you interrogate her, might surprise you with some of her answers. She often did me.
A GREAT BIBLE-READER. Mine the Geneva, mostly. You must admit the characters there are often as vainglorious as mine, their creator at least as dubious. You only have six of my signatures; you have ten of his commandments. So take your pick.
1726. LEWIS THEOBALD restores me. And a hundred and ten years after dying, a fellow often needs a little restoration. But in the process he savages Alexander Pope, who had smoothed me out too glibly, so as to suit the mathesis of his Augustan numbers. Thus entering The Dunciad as the doyen of dullness, Mark One. Mark Two would be Colley Cibber, who played my Richard III to universal execration, his wooing of Lady Anne an egregious catastrophe. Though how precisely are you meant to act that scene, now I come to think of it? Although old Tibbald had my interests at heart, and left me better than he found me, I must side here with the author of The Dunciad. Thick as thieves, these writers.
Make of that what you choose. I was ever a cheerful mangler of the manes. Never be pious with your forebears. Do with me as you will. What, can you do me greater harm than hate? Now who did I give that line to? There were so many.
EMBLEM MAN. THAT’S me. Words and images coil round one another. Serpents in a pit. Time is the pit, the serpents its spacemen. This emblem recurs for ever now in my posthumous dreams, and I still don’t understand it.
IT OFFENDS THAT a mind as fine as Henry James’ insists I never really existed. Or rather that the ‘I’ that did exist is not the ‘I’ performing what my existence vouchsafes as the only point of my existence anyway. Unless you are suddenly short of a whittawer’s son, a dealer in malt and barley for the pantheon. A computer of tithes. Which is to say that all I was, according to hallowed tradition, is all I wasn’t. In other words – and other words were surely HJ’s specialty, his alterity an extended periphrasis – that all those words I wrote I didn’t write. ‘This lout from Stratford’, he called me. It was me, all the same, Henry. Sorry if it rubs your sensibilities against the grain, old chap, but this lout from Stratford wrote them all. Every single one. Well, very nearly.
I have come back here today to count my titles (including William Shakespeare, Gent.) and gaze in posthumous amazement at the speed I travelled at back then. Some of you have not caught up with me still. Many travelling under the name of critics.
MY SECRETARY HAND was always ropey, let’s be frank. Always in such a hurry to leave a trace of thought on paper. I’m hardly known to history as Her Majesty’s calligrapher. Dee could have been though, his every document a work of art. Wasted on Enochian. Had all my foul papers burnt: they make me look ill-educated. So all you have’s a few scribbled signatures, and that slice of Thomas More. All shaky and hurried as usual. I should maybe have taken more care.
‘Siege’ I wrote, not ‘sea’. How can anyone take arms against a sea, even one filled with mighty squid, or with the waves incarnadined?
But let it pass. Let it pass.
YOU CAN WRITE my epitaph, I told her, as she sobbed at my bedside.
But father, I can’t write. You never taught me or Susanna, although you taught my brother. (That’s Hamnet, my son and her dead twin. Still dealing in parentheses, even as I die.)
Then make it up inside your skull. The way I composed my Sonnets, walking from my lodgings to the playhouse. Get someone else to write the lines down for you.
I shall, she said, and did.
Good friend for Jesus sake forebear
To digg the bones enclosed here
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he who moves my bones.
I could have written something fancier, even with the raven croaking in my throat, but this I preferred. Never could look into Judith’s face but I saw the ghost of my dead son staring back at me each time. Hamnet. Thy father’s spirit.
THE QUESTIONS CONTINUE. Aristos’ queries obtain.
How could he have known so much about the court, this dolt from Stratford, a mere leather-worker’s son? A freelance poacher, ostler’s assistant, tavern ruffian?
Because I listened, and because I made it through the door. I bowed and scraped and sniggered when courtiers quipped their endless acrimonious asides. Why do they never ask the other question, these devotees of Bacon or de Vere? However did such mighty numbers pause long enough beside the kitchen door to hear the banter and the drunken prattle of servingmen and maids, the merry whifflings of half-pissed porters talking half-baked piss? My Lord the Earl of Oxford would not have called out to himself, ‘My tables. Meet it is I set it down.’ The smell alone set him scampering back to his Venetian choirboys, holding a scented kerchief, blotting-paper for his passion.
For myself, I knew those smells, grew up with them. I took out my tables and I set it all down. Courtiers also have their own distinctive stink about their mighty persons. Privilege’s skunk-tail rises. Captive good attending Captain Ill.
ARE YOU A true brother, my reader? Mon semblable? Which have you chosen then, captive good or Captain Ill? Be a true brother and I will reward you, I promise. I’ll show you at last what it was I wrote down on those tables, after I’d stared into the eyes of death. Which never once blinked, by the way.
Name a brother in my plays and he’ll turn treacherous in a matter of days. Prospero and Antonio. Claudius and Hamlet. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Clarence.
Even now, after so many centuries of death, which you’d imagine to be a palliative of some sort, I can hardly bring myself to think of my own brother Richard with my wife Anne, going to it in that second-best bed. I bequeathed it to her as a memorial of love. Where she slept long after I was buried, lying alone by then, the quick and the dead both uncompanioned.
BARE RUINED CHOIRS.
Already ravaged by the time I first saw them, despoliated elms after a Dutch infestation. Traceries of sorrow on the skyline, petrified forests where tyrannosaurus screamed at pterodactyls flapping above him. Furies. Oh, they change their shape from age to age but are forever hovering about us.
My father saw them as a boy, monks and nuns traipsing in and out in habits and cawls, counting beads, mouthing their mummeries, their aves and their paternosters.
Watched him once stare out at England as though it were a lowering darkness, a black storm awaiting its worst moment. How can a whole nation apostasize, and God not say a single word?
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
MEMORIAL RECONSTRUCTION; MEMORIAL contamination. Tell me about it.
The history of my Quartos’ publication is like the history of Freud’s discoveries. We reconstruct the past as the present. So the present then commands the past.
But the past cannot always be displaced with such facility. Return of the repressed.
Quarto Two arrives to challenge Quarto One, its memorial contamination.
Then Folio arrives to vanquish all textual doubters, all disintegrators.
(And still they printed sea not siege. Heminges and Condell nodding again, the boobies. So much for death-bed bequests and faithful transcribers.)
MEANWHILE GOOD DOCTOR Sigmund, with his ottoman and ancient statuary, wreathed in cigar smoke and the fog of mental war, decides my pen was in the hand all along of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Him again.
Oedipus, remember, kills his father Laius at the trivium, where three roads meet (ego, superego and id in collision) and Sigmund kills William from Stratford in Vienna, where I set Measure for Measure. The stews of that town and its whoremasters were the id, the bawdy houses of unlicensed desire. Angelo is ego, seeing mirrored in his glass a man free from passion, the captain of his soul, but in truth controlled – however icily – by the same desire he dreams he lords it over.
The Duke’s the superego, with his bed-substitutions and arranged marriages (one of them his own). Now who would the superego marry if it could travel to the world’s fair, where the white slave trade meets the Tavistock, where the clinic and the brothel share a lease on life, like Faustus? Why, a nun of course. Thus do we finally draw up the entente cordiale between sex and religion; first he impersonates a confessing friar, then he marries himself a nun, and all the while the civil authorities have been in his pocket. Tammany Hall on the eastern marches. It’ll all be in the red-tops any day now.
Staying a moment with Sigmund. Thanatos the god of death is the Ripper lurking in the shadows of Vienna’s streets, Harry Lime’s polished shoes in the doorway, while the little brains of children shrivel and shriek from his medicine’s mendacity. The death-drive. Mortido or destrudo he called it, depending on whether there was an R in the month. ‘Be absolute for death.’ Thus says the friar who isn’t a friar, already imagining that nun disrobing. But Hamlet’s wariness is here too: ‘Ay, but to die and go we know not where. To lie in cold obstruction and to rot.’ Subsequent research on my part has shown this to be not quite accurate. The topography’s askew. Hardly to know that then though, was I?
I was always there before him, you know, my consulting room a quire of paper and the library of errant desire that calls itself humanity, and that’s why he had to kill me off. He met me at the trivium where three roads cross, and he struck first once then twice then thrice with his sharp nib, right into the heart of the matter. Totem and taboo. Civilization and its discontents.
LET’S SAY THAT Jacques in As You Like It is a syphilitic. There were plenty around back there, believe me, even in the Forest of Arden. This jade had put himself about a bit; he had even been abroad, where the Neapolitan bone-ache is easily acquired. Now in his retirement from court and society he has read everything. Wisdom, sadly, only makes him weary. Lady Sophia, whom he once went to Constantinople in order to bed, now offers him nothing but rebukes. He reads scientia in each of her wrinkles, and pines for the days of his ignorant betrothal.
A DREAM THAT has no bottom.
The alchemists thought the bottom of things, their quiddities and quidditas, could fall away, like trap-doors into the cellarage, and so turn lead to gold, with the interposition of the Stone. Thus does a pauper mineral go from whipping-boy to King.
It was the opus alchemicum I pondered, little globes of mercury, when I wrote ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’.
The sea-change happens when that dream wakes up to find it has no bottom. Leaves not a rack behind. Plays havoc with the terms of leases and tithes.
ALLEGORIES. I THOUGHT I’d fashioned quite a few, but not as many as you’ve subsequently made of me.
John Keats (one of my favourite readers) said my life was the allegory, and my works the commentary on it. Still not sure what he meant, but I’m glad he meant it. In fact, I am now in a position to put him right: my work was the allegory. Increasingly, my life became nothing but a commentary on what I’d written. I realised one night that I was living through my own marginalia. All my meanings were acted out in the hollow globe on Southside, not between the sheets or on the street. A writer creates a world on the sheets before him as he writes, not the ones he lies on, then steps outside, peering in through the window to see a lamp, a pen and a curious absence where he was but lately sitting. My Folio is the tombstone containing my remains, not that hatchet-job in Trinity Church in Stratford.
Ted Hughes believed the boar made its way through every little forest of words I ever planted, wounding Adonis in the groin and grunting mightily, while Venus wept. In the distance you can hear Jacques descanting on our seven ages, somewhere in Arden. (And Hughes died with Measure for Measure open beside his bed. Be absolute for death…)
Some now claim it’s all an allegory of the Old Faith.
Well let’s see. Henry VIII believed he should not have married his brother’s betrothed, and that’s why she was barren. God’s judgment on our contradicting the pentateuch. Vide Hamlet, where Claudius contradicts another of the larger rules in Exodus. And now the time is out of joint. The bloat king’s gone a-whoring…
If I’d been writing such an allegory, Ben would have noticed, believe me, and blathered to Drummond in his castle and his cups. We couldn’t have kept it all out of the papers, even the state ones, any more than you could hide away Harry cavorting naked in the Land of the Free. Odd how my Harry in the stews with Falstaff still acts as a princely model, four centuries on. Never call a prince Harry. Asking for trouble.
WHEN RICHARD DADD painted Titania, he wasn’t mad. His dream like mine still had a bottom. But by the time of The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke a sea-change had come over him.
He had killed his father, as Sigmund would soon kill me, his true progenitor, as Hamlet would finally have to kill the man calling him son. His eyes are so bright in his Bedlam photograph we’ve had it curtained down here. Those are pearls. Nearly blinded Dis one night when he came back tipsy from a grand consult, minus his anthracite shades.
WALTER BENJAMIN (WHO I wish had devoted far more time to my work) understood how Hamlet, holding the skull of Yorick and addressing it, is the key to allegory, the very heart of the Baroque. A moment of stasis when time’s translated into things, a vortex through which rushes the past, the present and the future. The dialectical image. All the hope that will ever be possible present here and now before your eyes. Now out of Yorick’s skull Utopia could utter its construction plans. And out of it could be spoken, with quiet precision, Eichmann’s nocturnal railway timetables. No darkness to be excluded in the propositions of Enlightenment.
The emblem shows how history dies into the objects in its landscape, history becoming its own ruins, the pile of detritus in Clio’s back yard. Whatever life it has is here, in ossified and petrified remains, scattered round the figure of Melancholy in Dürer’s tiny engraving. Bare ruined choirs. Ruins and emblems: time’s signatures, the traces we are left here to decode. Genetic ruins; our DNA the trace left by countless millions of extinctions. (Can I be the only one who thinks Dürer’s angel is a man, a pretty one, I grant you, but nevertheless? All angels were male in my day, and my day was pretty much Dürer’s.)
FIRST WE READ what was never written: constellations and venatic deposits and inscriptions. The heavens above and the hunt here below. How to find our way about and how to kill and eat.
Only when Ophelia is dead and in her grave does Hamlet publicly proclaim his love for the first time, having a moment before declared his love for Yorick too, but only to his skull. We always talk to one another’s skulls of course, whether there’s flesh on them or not.
She has now become an emblem of herself, frozen in the tableau, turned into the perpetual ruin of her own meaning. An utterance traced in runes inside the emblem book where Hamlet knows he is destined to meet her again, and that shortly. We are the figures in that emblem book, our one posthumous publication. Maybe that’s what Keats meant.
FRAGMENTS. ALL WE have, after all. The vase is shattered by the time it resurfaces, like Lazarus dazed by the dead, or Yorick staring fixedly, trying to remember that one infallible joke, the one that always raises a smile, even in the grave.
Each of my plays a shard, all that was left of a mighty structure I dreamt once. It had no bottom, an edifice in permanent demolition even as I built it, like Paris making way for Haussmann’s boulevards. Baudelaire saw all that and made an allegory of it. Bare ruined choirs. Andromache sold into sexual slavery, Troy in flaming ruins behind her back, like this Paris the swan makes its way through at dawn, flapping dirty wings in the trottoir.
Cardenio. Love’s Labour’s Won. Fragments and shards.
A POSTCARD INSCRIBED with an ancient copperplate script from Stratford-on-Avon. The picture on it that absurd Droeshout abortion. But the scrawled words are infinitely tender:
My darling Richard,
When will we meet like this again?
My love (all of it),
The date is August 1940. And the postcard is addressed to an RAF camp near the Channel. The Battle of Britain is just beginning.
My wife was called Anne, and my brother Richard. And wounds are not roses, not even in the wars of them. What goes around comes around. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now…
If my brother Richard had died in the Battle of Britain, in his Spitfire with its Merlin engine, or had his face scorched the far side of recognition, I might have loved him once more, despite the shenanigans with Anne, in that second-best bed of mine in Stratford, while I re-made the world on Thameside, and tried to avoid the stews of Clerkenwell. An endeavour in which I did not always succeed. Dark lady, indeed. Why the singular?
(At least try the Chandos portrait, by the way. Though that’s not quite right either. I could be a breezy little fucker, I grant you, but I never was a pork chop settling down to spit on a griddle.)
HAD I BEEN given (as Walter Benjamin once was) Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, what would I have made of it, I wonder? Just as strong as Benjamin on allegories of destruction. You wouldn’t get a cigarette paper between us there. The focused eye on the mountain of catastrophe accruing before it. And an emblem man to my fingertips. Words and images marry as disastrously as I did once.
I remember one evening walking back from Shottery, where she had bucked and buckled beneath me, then climbed on top. Not poppy nor mandragora…but let it be.
I met a poacher who told me that whenever he looked into a mirror, there was nothing to be seen there at all.
Allegory is one road to God, since His talk is often so allegorical.
Hire yourself a foreign scrivener and listen. Switch off the iPad, mobile, television set and DVD.
AND I, AS Borges said, am nothing.
Everything and nothing.
Like all other men except in this one respect: that I am like all other men.
INQUISITORS. AH YES. The smiling brutal questioners. Sir Richard Topcliffe, pursuivant to Her Majesty, who broke most of the bones in Cousin Southwell’s body.
I met him once; he stank uniquely of evil, even in a time and place not short of such mephitic odours. Almost asked him if he’d ever read Southwell’s verses, some of which I had by heart.
Topcliffe at Bridewell, or beside the Chancellery in Berlin, or in the basement of the Lubyanka, along with the revolvers and the vodka.
The spirit of Topcliffe persists, it seems, from age to age.
They tortured them, missionary agents of the Old Faith. Every prayer a preparation for their death.
But even Southwell quaked when Topcliffe held sway. Here was hell in a stone chamber; this was Satan’s kingdom come, here on earth.
My inquisitors these days would stretch and break the corpus, not (thank God) the corpus, minus the grave’s italics. Too late in any case. Judith warned them off, remember: Death arrives with its own italic pen to re-write you.
GOOD friend forebear…
In A Comedy of Errors I used the word ‘merchant;, a standard code-word in my day for recusant. But I also made him a merchant of Syracuse – is that last word really so hard as an anagram? None of your editors deigns to take note. And this merchant, despite his goodness, is condemned merely for setting foot on the forbidden territory. Ring any bells?
They rang no bells for Southwell, as they heaved his steaming innards out and hoisted them for the crowd at Tyburn. Lands from the ruined houses of prayer went to Leicester and Lucy, both of them brutal in their different ways. The King’s Commissioner came looking for the parish church plate. Our Lady of Walsingham taken to London and burnt. Now it’s illegal to possess a rosary or crucifix, or even appeal to the community of saints. Monastery stones go to build manors for the gentry; chantries rubbled down to dust. An age of gilded wonder and glory, no mistake.
CIRCE AND MEDEA knew a thing or two.
Never underestimate those witches.
Nor should you take their words as gospel: vide Macbeth.
Their words still form a frothy scum on the filthy modern tide, as they did on the ancient one. One or another of our sisters will be phoning you shortly, making an offer you can hardly refuse.
SAY I LIVED in time where Milton after me lived on in space. But now you have extended both so far, backwards and forwards, inwards and out, you leave yourselves looking infinitesimal. With every click inside the darkened chamber, time stands still. Do you never fear you might halt it with so many interruptions?
When you send your spacecraft to other planets, crawling over them with metal legs and photographing eyes, what do you find behind each boulder? We would have thought the angels might have skipped out of those shadows, or curious species previously unknown on earth. All those infants fairies had taken, bright lunar faces speaking of enchantment in an undiscovered language. Whole worlds occulted by the censor and the dark between them.
Infinite acres of nothing.
So who then pays the tithes on these hollow globes, these empty crowns?
I WAS BORN a matter of years before the theatre itself. Ralph Roister Doister and Gorboduc were written while I gestated in the womb, rehearsing my first entrance. Burbage’s old man was building The Theatre when I was eleven – the age at which my only son was taken by the plague. (A black hole in my heart which could never again be filled.)
Within a year The Curtain opened.
Good of them to prepare so carefully for my arrival.
A theatre was thought little better than a bawdy house, and often shared the same address. In both you paid for deeds performed half in the dark. Hoped for the impossible encounter that would make your eyes as bright as Richard Dadd’s. And all in the pay of a Bedlam beggar…
I SAW THE Queen at Kenilworth in 1575, when I should have been at school.
Curious how vividly such details linger, given that I slept entirely for about a hundred years. That was after the first death. (Your poet’s wrong there, by the way. There may be others.) We dead can be heavy sleepers. Annihilation delivering its own phials of morphine.
I missed nothing, so don’t fret: dreaming pretty much non-stop.
Install a camera in this darkened chamber and you’d need your cinemas open 24/7. It all goes by too quickly for a word ever to be written down.
But with a camera…
I MISSED OUT on the age of lenses, sadly. Galileo started it in 1610. And I was dead six years later. Never even had a pair of spectacles made, so that by the end swans on the Avon looked like giant snowflakes, or linen saints riding the apocalypse. Yniswitren. The island of glass. Glastonbury, where they brought the Christmas thorn. Blood on snow, then as now.
WILLIAM DAVENANT TOOK to boasting he was my natural son; this being the result of my supposed cavortings with Jennet his mother during my stopovers at Oxford between Stratford and London.
Jennet was delicious, by the way, a fact not lost on my friend her husband, whose panopticon suspicion illuminated every nook and cranny of their inn. Particularly the bedrooms. William became Poet Laureate, a post unavailable to yours truly, and one so often filled by oleaginous careerists, soft-soaping their way to hideous preferment, with all the sugared prattlings of urbanity. Soon to be known as Sir, no doubt. Shadwell became one, God help us, and some more recent ones I cannot bend my tongue to utter. The birdlime of fools, Ben Jonson called honours, turning down a knighthood, bless him. Michael Faraday also waved all gongs away. How one admires those whose honour is their work, tout court, as Faraday insisted all our work should be.
WILLIAM MY GODSON ‘improved’ my work by adding songs as solace for the populace, to get them through some of my knottier moments.
Debussy is setting your Après-Midi to music, Mallarmé was informed one evening.
Thought I’d already done that, he replied, more to himself than the others.
HOW I LOVE the technical analyses, the linguistic perturbations. Makes me (posthumously) proud. How I employed hendiadys, that sort of thing. How uniquely in my work syntagmatic and paradigmatic meet at precise right angles to the world. Exactly. My aim precisely, every hurried writing morning at the Globe.
So permit me. Something you’ve barely mentioned. All my best images strived to be heraldic emblems, hieroglyphic figures where time momentarily loosens his deadly grip, and beckons space to usurp him – I could see the coming empire, even then.
Time hath my lord a wallet at his back…
My words gave me alms for oblivion, images to glow in the mind’s eye, as darkness gathers. It has not stopped gathering ever since.
WHEN I WROTE Richard III I became him. When I wooed Lady Anne, I truly loathed each act of wooing that had ever got a generation started.
When I wrote Lear, I was Lear. God, how I hated young women, all honeyed tongues and computations. Until Cordelia re-entered my chamber one day. Leaves fell in late afternoon sunshine, and I fell with them. We two will away to prison…
During Macbeth there was so much darkness all the lights in the Mermaid failed. And each mouth opened in jest showed snakes where tongues had once clacked. Ben in his cups became Cerberus.
AT THE END my mind suffered a sea-change into something rich and strange.
But still I counted my tithes.
Does God, I wonder, on bad days tot up his creations on an abacus?
Prospero is closing down the skies, calling the clouds home, like a Stratford farmer out in the fields, sniffing the first winds of winter approaching.
THE DISINTEGRATOR’S TEXT. Ah yes. Observe my corpus break apart once more. A convocation of politic worms is at him e’en now. Or is that only my disintegrating corpus? Cursed be the man…etc, etc. Judith’s sole publication, reprinted often enough.
I was happy when science discovered my atoms might still be of some use down here, or even up there. The latest edition of my works, I note, is printed on recycled paper. What goes around comes around.
I WAS EVEN happy to have Delia Bacon (was it really a century ago?) rummaging around here through the night. A barmy old bitch, and no mistake, but she provided one dead poet with some company and a little light relief. The grave’s a fine and private place, believe me. Lunacy on this side is, in any case, merely one more characteristic to be noted, along with lumbago and astigmatism.
In fact, this side of death we own up to everything.
Unless we are in hell, of course.
IN HELL NO one ever owns up to being anyone or anything or anywhere. What a racket they can make some days down there with their mighty nay-saying chorus. Trying to find a damned soul who’ll fess up to being collared fairly, bang to rights, is like walking the streets of Paris in 1945 saying, ‘Surely at least one of you must have collaborated?’ Or wandering the streets of Stratford during my time asking for a Jesuit priest to pop out of the tavern into the street for a moment, so as to help you get your brain around the mathematics of the Trinity.
It’s life, my friends, is the true disintegrator. And all you scholars on my blacker days divide in my mind between the Scavenger’s Daughter and the rackmen. Topcliffe’s hirelings, one and all.
MY HEART’S A malcontent. One beast with two backs in Stratford, one beast with horns roaming the capital. And how I still brood on that, centuries on. Can a corpse be cuckolded? I’ll ask the calculating shades when they return from their fields of square roots.
John Marston has put his pen down for good; gone into the church. (I know what he means. But still.)
Remember the Order of Conflagration? He whose works in 1599 were burned as filthy and scurrilous, by bishops and archbishops both, has now gone off to bend a cassocked knee along with them. And all his plays performed by the Paul’s Boys or the Children of the Chapel. Little eyases. The mimic apes and antic mirrors of our dwarfish selves. Stepped back through so many curtains of the years last night to listen. Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang. I could have wept, but after death the ducts dry up. Salt is rationed here. It’s hardly Siberia, though nearly as cold in certain seasons.
THEN HE OUTLIVES me by almost twenty years.
Will not permit his name on new editions, despite petitioning.
And when they put his gravestone up, the words (at his instruction) say Oblivioni Sacrum, sacred to oblivion. A wallet at his back.
I find I like that more and more, as being dead has now started to feel natural at last. (Give it time – you’ll get there bye and bye. And bye and bye is easily said.)
ALL DAY LONG he sits here gazing at the sweet blue globe through a forgotten seraph’s disused porthole, like a moonman peering through darkness at the bright lights of pavilions, all blazing away back home. Fireworks at the end of the war. The boys are home again at last from Troy.
Still hasn’t said a word, four centuries on. Maybe he’s considering how to sanctify Kit, which will not be easy. I think I hear Kit now, swearing at an angel. Some theological dispute, no doubt. Death has not attenuated my old friend’s vehemence one whit. And he still calls me Whittawer…
FIFTY-TWO POSTHUMOUS reflections. One for every year of my life, and every week of the year. Always liked images that used the seasons: That time of year thou may’st in me behold. And I died the same day I was born, which strikes me now as a touch theatrical…
Been reading Keats’s letters once more.
Yes, this fellow got me all right.
As did Melville – the dark deep mighty ocean of the human spirit, churning on through the night.
So did Hazlitt, who hardly ever quotes one of my lines correctly. I forgive him.
Johnson impresses sometimes with his well-informed conjectures. Don’t think he’d have clapped much at the Globe, all the same. Two or three audiences of Great Chams and we’d have been out of business.
Borges says that I was everything and nothing. If I wasn’t then, I certainly am now.
Bloom even reads the Bible through me these days.
On this side mortality we’re all of us deconstructionists.
But reading Genesis through me?
I feel elated, as well as belated.
Wonder why I never wrote a play called Jacob: Inventor of Asymmetry or How to Wrestle Angels through the Night. Maybe I did. Honestly can’t remember any more. Maybe they came and went again, like Cardenio or Love’s Labour’s Won.
I stand here now on our only bridge and stare downriver to the Pool of London. Conrad was right, though I got here long before him. This is the heart of darkness, no doubt of that. The heart of an immense darkness. Eyes of traitors on their spikes behind me, all staring in the same direction. Unlike me, they never blink, these dark captains, waiting for the tide out there to change.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.