Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems: from As You Like It

This is the fifth in a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem, and a second poem that speaks to, or resonates with, that poem. This week’s poem is “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare, written around 1600.

The Poetry Foundation states, “While William Shakespeare’s reputation is based primarily on his plays, he became famous first as a poet. With the partial exception of the Sonnets (1609), quarried since the early nineteenth century for autobiographical secrets allegedly encoded in them, the nondramatic writings have traditionally been pushed to the margins of the Shakespeare industry. Yet the study of his nondramatic poetry can illuminate Shakespeare’s activities as a poet emphatically of his own age, especially in the period of extraordinary literary ferment in the last ten or twelve years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.”

This poem is a bit of a hybrid, in that it’s not only a poem, it’s part of a drama, spoken by the melancholy character Jaques in “As You Like It.”

If you’d like to hear Morgan Freeman read the poem, wonderfully, here’s the  link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5hcaYEcAp0

 

All the World’s a Stage

William Shakespeare

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

 

In one of the most famous metaphors in literature, Shakespeare compares the earth to a stage, and designates individuals as players. It harkens back to the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes 1:4-5: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”

Unlike my previous much loved poems, I didn’t have a particular one picked out so I had the pleasure of reading over his sonnets and other poems to find this—I simply couldn’t go further with this series without acknowledging The Bard, to whom anyone writing in the English language owes such debt. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, most scholars believe there was no English dictionary when Shakespeare wrote his poems and plays. So he was truly making it up as he went along—not only the play, but the language.

Here’s an image that shows many of his phrases we use today: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/377598749980862729/

I chose this one not because it was markedly of higher quality than the other poems—indeed some of the sonnets, especially 18 and 116, are perhaps more artful—but because this poem taught me something valuable.

Shakespeare defines seven stages of a man’s life:

  • Puking infant
  • Whining school boy
  • Young, sighing lover
  • The soldier
  • The “justice” or upstanding leader
  • Silly old man who thinks he’s still young (“pantaloon”)
  • Super-old man, toothless, blind, and as helpless as a baby

The surprise in this list, for me, was the seventh stage, described here, which might be as valued as the earlier stages:

“ . . . Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

The last is a step many want to avoid; people profess a desire to die ‘with their boots on,’ but it’s a stage that can be honored as part of the natural progression. Anyone who’s taken care of someone in such a state knows there are, even with the missing teeth and eyes, moments of immense value. Shakespeare thus, across the ages, gives me new respect for those who provide care and hospice in this seventh stage; I now see their encouraging work with spittle and bedpans as sacred.

* * *

The poem that I find resonates with William Shakespeare’s poem is itself an homage to The Bard. One thing I learned as I wrote the many drafts of this poem is how much the reader likes to hear things in chronological order. This is kind of tricky for a writer because our memories don’t require such an order. For example, my instinct was to capture the moment of people seated, watching the play, first. But on re-writing this, I found, in order to say what I wanted to say, I had to start much earlier. Regarding Shakespeare’s poem, we all want to get to the center—to the lover, the soldier, and the justice. But Shakespeare satisfies the reader’s sense of order by taking things in order, starting with the infant.

 

American Shakespeare

Kevin Arnold

We watch the stars slowly begin their twinkling
at Ashland or Aspen or a park in New York City
or a smaller town where perhaps the Rec Committee
has bent a few rules and the oft-broke Arts Commission

found some funds to get the thespians to memorize
those long soliloquies for almost nothing.
Volunteers have parked cars and ushered
people to their seats to keep ticket prices down,

so the house is packed and the meadows blanketed.
Once the players start, the amazing turns of phrase
transfix us as night moves toward total darkness
and the actors seem so close we can touch them.

In the newfound intimacy we swoon at the lovers’
kisses and that their four-century-old bawdy badinage
still comes alive today. Many of us still hope-against-hope
for the lovers to make things work until we slowly admit

again what we’ve known along: they are star-crossed.
Still we smile as the curtain call looms, knowing Shakespeare
will proclaim an elegant order behind tonight’s tragedy,
and, when the players bow deeply, we will rise.

 

Next week: John Updike’s “Another Dog’s Death.”

Photo By: Simpson College