Wednesday, January 2, 2008

More Pus and Decadence


Nothing Like the Sun is as an autobiography of William Shakespeare, framed as a lecture given by Anthony Burgess (who is the author of the book). And the prose is just as you would expect from a collaboration between Shakespeare and Burgess:dense, witty, powerful, oozing with pus and legs and decadent prose. The easiest way into the book is through the plot, which tells the story of WS's rise to prominence and the loves and troubles he comes across along the way.

There is, firstly, his early gift and thrill with words. “’Water hath a trick of drowning and, at best, is a wetter.’ And then the jingle ruled him, already a word-boy. ‘Water wetter water wetter water wetter.’” Then, his unusual appetite for love, or at least his unusual skill in rendering it. “He heard above the beating of his blood the rustling of linen, a gentle panting at the restraining fingers of tapes and laces that yielded all too slowly...” This is the young domesticated WS, writing a youthful sonnet in the middle of a house-hold night, the slops and greasy broth and father calling for work, a bickering sister.

“And, childish, I am put to school of night
For to seek light beyond the reach of light.”

His father is sympathetic. “I have somewhere a piece of fine parchment. Copy the poem fair.” But the dark women is all bundled up with someone else. WS runs on fire from the happy rogering may-pole pagans, their “buttocks moon-besilvered,” and gets well drunk on sixpence of beer and the brimming talk of country rogues. A gap in the memory, a naked surprise in the morning, an accidental child and an accidental wife.

How doth WS the married man? Well, “he had but half of that bed now, and the familiar rest he sought, in so great need, so worn, was less than one quarter what it had formerly been.” WS the married man goes not very well at all, and with not much hope of getting better. “For one line of verse,” he says to his new wife, “I would trade thirty such scolds as you.”

Off he goes to teach words to little boys, and is fired for making lewd advances on his students. He leaves with his future all broken up, but his word-sense in tact, as ever. “I am going,” said WS. “I feel defiled.” (A good phrase, he saw that: a field defiled.)’ Back to the railing wife and her belly double-pumped with babies.

Things really get going, the WS we know starts to really take over the plot, when he falls in with the Queens Men, who arrive in Stratford just as an old herbalist, “cat-queen, cartomancer”, is driven up the street by a mad cruel mob with their heads full of witchy jeers. There is more madness and cruelty in the book, of nature and of humans; but more on that later.

In WS's adult career there are, on Burgess's account, a few key turning points. One is WS’s response to an attack from a fellow actor, an attack upon his talent and good-will. He is conceited, he is told, an upstart; indeed, he is an “upstart crow.” WS will not stand for this. He has always fancied words. With something to prove, fancy hardens into ambition. He will not sniffle along as a mediocrity, a “play-botcher, an excitor of groundlings, a poor stumbling actor. The time was come to show he was a poet.”

Titus Andronichus
is another key, because it starts a friendship that shapes the life and mind of WS. The play piques an audience of nobles, who call the playwright to dine. Wits parry, eyes discover. WS is commissioned by Essex to write a poem, Southhampton quips and glitters. WS is beguiled, and he knows this in a way you might expect, through speech: “the triple chime of his name’s homonym from that lordly and desirable mouth…the lip’s pout, the red tounge’s lifting lazily.” It is a short step to the beginning of a lush, difficult friendship, one that moves from infatuation to love, teacher to equal, affection to tension to bitterness and split. The career of the friendship helps to define the course of the book and of WS's creative life. WS goes passive and old as his boy-lord grows grows restless and clever, setting one eye on advancement and another on treason. And this is the friendship that inspires the bulk of WS's sonnets: the marriage sonnets come first; later, when the clever Southhampton sees through them, the sonnets of the revival of love; the sonnets of ill-fated lust, when WS's lust turns ill-fated.

There is another turning point when Southhampton takes WS to the public execution of three Spaniards. Here is blood and slaughter in the middle of cushions and fair coaches, and WS is shocked, especially by the response of his noble friend, who is callous and smiling. The hangman’s knife going straight from heart to groin, the fat on the heart, the small girl who leaps and claps when the entrails come out. It is the start of WSs separation from Southampton, but also of his tiredness, his growing age.

Age, however, does not enfeeble his appetites for too long. “Let me take a breath, let me take a swig, for, my heart, she is coming”: separation from Harry coincides with the arrival of a new intimacy, a glittering Negro who revives a “boyhood’s timid lust for the wealth of endragoned seas and spice-islands.” It is a rich union, lush and violent, more so when her infidelity is found out. “To her to rail, beat, near-kill. I rip her bodice, tear, wrench, gnash, chew.” After this, WS goes despondent, withdraws into verse.

We do not hear a whole lot about the writing of WSs great works, or the playing of them; we get the context instead, their worldly inspiration and deployment. WS wooes S with his Venus and Adonis. The young nobles “swoon at its rich conceits,” as they do with The Rape of Lucrece. This is sweet Master Shakespeare at his sugary best, and the Inns of the toffs, and the University darlings, lick it up and go dizzy with epithets – “oh, the commodious conceits, the mellifluous facetiousness.” We see the intrigue behind the marriage sonnets the scenes of filth behind Troilus and Cressida. We witness a short sketching-out of a “warring family play”, with a Montague coming into it, and the next we know of Romeo and Juliet is as a finished play, “ravishing the inns.” Here is boss Dick Burbage saying a play is needed for a wedding in three weeks, here is a stanza from Chaucer, here a name (“And then came the name Bottom…”), and a title forked straight out of real life: “Yet with my fire made up I sweated as midsummer, and lo I got my title.” We witness WS turning away from the poems that ravished his noble patrons. They are something, but not enough. He cannot go on “living in a filigree cage, fed on marchpane, turning out jewelled stanzas for the delectation of lords, a very superior glover.” His sees “verse of a very different order.”

Up goes the Globe Theatre, and up goes the rod again of WS, and away he goes again on a lusty marathon. The narrator recounts one particular night with his black beauty. In the plot of the book, more things go on after this event: WS goes into decline, breaking out into pussy gruesomeness and weary sores; he speaks his dying words, he dies. But on this particular night he goes out into the London night and walks along with his dark friend, and as he does so the grim city turns, on an edge of love and fancy, into a lovely place where lovers walk. This transmuting act, played out in dirt and filth for the sake of love or art or some other high thing, has the feel of a climax. The beggars are heroes, the kites are cleansers:

“London, the defiled city, became a sweet bower for their love’s wandering, even in the August heat. The kites that hovered or, perched, picked at the flesh of traitor’s skulls became good cleansing birds, bright of eye and feather, part of the bestiary of the myth that enthralled them as they made it. The torn and screaming bears and dogs and apes in the pits of Paris Garden were martyrs who rose at once into gold heraldic zoomorphs to support the scutcheon of their static and sempiternal love. The wretches that lolled in chains on the lapping edge of the Thames, third tide washed over, noseless, lipless, eye-eaten, joined the swinging hanged at Tyburn and the rotting in the jails to be made heros of a classical hell that, turned into music by Vergil, was sweet and pretty schoolday innocence.”


*****

Themes? There is a lot of madness and a lot of cruelty, of nature and of people. The witch-hunters, the plague and all it caused, the sunny horror of a public execution, prison-riots and money-riots, cracking heads and sticky blood in the afternoon, pus-bulging syphilis, the rats in the tower. Shit heaves. Rats run.

“The flesher shooes flies off with both hands before chopping his stinking beef.”

“The city grew a head, glowing over limbs of towers and houses in the at-scurrying night, and its face was drawn, its eyes sunken, it vomited living matter down to ooze over the cobbles, in its delirium it cried Jesus Jesus.”

More than once WS sees the city as himself.

“In my delirium the City was mine own body – fighting broke out in ulcers on left thigh, both armpits, in the spongy and corrupt groin…the image of the falling city, pre-figured in the prodigies of a night, was drawn from my own body – the bloody holes, the burning hand.”

Some of the best descriptions of physical filth are used as reports of other kinds of corruption:

“Limping about Bread Street and Milk Streer, inhaling Fleet Ditch, I was drawn to searching out my fellows in disease, gloating on a nose-sore like a raspberry, a lip glistening soft, wet, huge, coal-shiny, a naked arm that was yellow streaks and rose pustules, a stone mined with worms. Then I reeled at my discovery of what I should have long known – that the fistulas and imposthumes, bent bones, swellings, corrupt sores, fetor were of no different order that the venality and treachery and injustice and cold laughing murder of the Court. And yet none of these leprous and stinking wretches had willed their rottenness. The foul wrong lay then beyond man’s own purposing; there was somewhere, outside time’s very beginning, an infinite well of putridity from which body and mind alike were driven, by some force unseen and uncontrollable, to drink...the fruitful triangle of stealing friend, stolen mistress, WS. Well, what was the agitation in the city of mine own soul but that? A finger-dip into butter-smooth pleasure and the armies and rioters trample through my veins, crying Kill kill.”

Kites are omnipresent. They wheel above the story like page-numbers, marking time and happenings. They signal the arrival of the plague, “announced in tender swelling buboes.” They share in the slaughter at Tyburn, where three Spaniards, shackled for treason, are rope-dangled, stretched, and opened up by a hangman’s axe. They hang around the rise of WS, around the soft and witty lords in their gold float; and around the decline of WS, his flesh-eating ruin. They are connected to WS's wife, whose name they screech as WS travels home to find said wife with child; they are part of the dark romance in the later pages; as mentioned, they are cleaners in WS's romantic vision of London.

The book is full of bodies, and human fleshiness gives rise to the most lovely notions and the most appalling. It is full of sweet and golden love, spicetrees and fresh thighs; but it is full of ugliness too. This is Shakespeare’s time, when people lived close to their bodies and to the bodies of others, to dirt and sun and indelicate nature. There are no planes but there are kites. There are no buses or fridges or self-cleaning toilets. Nature is the opposite of whiteware. It is profuse and lusty and runs away in the distance, changing out of sight, and thereby it fits perfectly the prose of WS. At the end of the book there is a sense of massive sickness and massive termination, a mad ending that is too sick and violent for reason; it makes reason soft and na├»ve and senseless, and leaves poetry as the only sane thing, because poetry is madly full of words and it rows over the horrible mess and casts it on a clean mirror. “Die in dust but live in filth. Well, if we are to live with it we must somehow ennoble it.”

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