Burns and Shakespeare chapter or act seven

Chapter Seven or Act Seven

In which Burns and Shakespeare take to the skies, space and pre-history.

In dreams we dream of wingless flight; flying solo, escaping earth’s surly bonds, that kind of thing. We leap from some high place, begin the headlong fall then spread our arms and - oh the relief, the joy, the freedom of it! Without effort we climb, we soar and swoop far atop this petty world. Above the rooftops go we, Mary Poppins-style; high and sometimes low over the treetops and roadways and fields and all the earthbound peoples and over all kinds of water. We are so happy. And then of course we have to wake.

William Shakespeare and Robert Burns, as with all who have been admitted to this place are similarly unrestricted. Of course not in sleep for they only sleep when they decide they’d like to sleep rather than when they have to. As we have seen, they can progress under water as well as on land and, by the same token they can wing without wings through the air and even through space. They do so whenever the desire occurs. They can go as far back as the dawn of humankind and as far forwards as the final setting of its sun. They are free to go wherever they wish within those bounds on or above or outside of the Earth. Two spirits together, the bards of England and Scotland now and forever; (‘forever’ of course being the finite span of Man).

RB: Come Will, let’s fly; let's watch the good old bad old world go by. He spreads wide his arms and leaves the ground, skims smoothly through a gap in the overhead canopy, William following. They emerge into a gentle sunlight. The dense, stone age coverlet of great, multi-green, broadleaf trees and giant ferns rolls away into the distance, rising and falling with the contours of the land on all sides except that of the beach and the sea, the mighty sea.

WS:. Yes, but we are to visit Socrates in his earthly time, yes? Perhaps we should ask him first to join us here.

RB: Why not? Instantaneously an old man is airborne alongside them. His blunt, well-lined face is suntanned, rimmed with full-waved snow white hair and beard, not in looks at all the classical Greek male. Good morrow, sir.

Socrates: Good morrow you bid me? Tut, tut, Mister Robert. All our morrows here are good, are they not?  But you wish to visit me during my life on Earth, I think. Therefore might I suggest we meet first in my Athenian jail rather than here in the spirit? I shall then be able to introduce you to those who some will call my pupils or by some my acolytes, or even my biographers albeit of an accidental kind: Plato and Xenophon, you know. All around jolly good fellows.  Oh and that scurrilous Aristophanes as well, writer of well-imagined plays like you, Will. Perhaps we can converse even with Aristotle should he deign to descend from Olympus!

WS: As you wish, sir. Thank you.

Socrates: Call me anything but sir. And be sure to have your questions ready, for from your questions and our opinionated answers might just emerge some new understanding or better yet, some ineradicable truth beyond our understanding even here.

He’s gone, leaving our two gentlemen hove to high up above these forest lands of the Rift Valley.

RB: What a man was that - is that!

The two of them begin slowly to move ahead, deep in thought.

WS: Robert, I feel a sonnet for the old man coming on. Should we compose one together?

RB: Why not? Alternate quatrains, then. But your contributions shall be more facile than my own for you composed so many more than I, Will. One hundred and fifty four sonnets that stand outside your plays. Less than half a dozen of my own! Right, so you first.

WS: Less than half a dozen, yes, but how I admire that one, those seventeen ninety three birthday reflections of yours! Composed on your morning walk you say ... Sing on, sweet thrush, upon the leafless bough, / Sing on, sweet bird, I listen to thy strain,  / See aged Winter, 'mid his surly reign,  / At thy blythe carol, clears his furrowed brow. // So in lone Poverty's dominion drear,  / Sits meek Content with light, unanxious heart;  / Welcomes the rapid moments, bids them part,  / Nor asks if they bring ought to hope or fear.  //  I thank thee, Author of this opening day!  / Thou whose bright sun now gilds yon orient skies!  / Riches denied, thy boon was purer joys -  / What wealth could never give nor take away! He pauses, then; I especially liked your finishing couplet, addressed still to that thrush  - Yet come, thou child of poverty and care,  /  The mite high heav'n bestow'd, that mite with thee I'll share.

RB: I thank you. Consistent was I if nothing else. Always in praise of the virtuously or unvirtuously impecunious!

WS: furrows his brow in thought,  conjures up some of Aristophanes’s allegorical clouds to help the flow of his creative juices. Then … here’s one, then, for dear old Socrates …

He said he had the wisdom so to know -
What? Nothing!  But in truth it was most wise
For thoughtful man is always on his own
And scorns the need for obfuscation, lies.

Though nothing is the sum of what he wrote
And nothing was the wealth he left behind
When welcomed hemlock trickled down his throat  
What majesty of mind he left his kind!

WS: that’s excellent … so …
Master of unassumed philosophy
Ex mason, warrior, leader of the State
The star of Clouds by Aristophenes
Is, of all classic Grecians most great

Propounding truth to his last dying breath
as, centuries on, would Jesus Nazareth

WS: That’s not too bad, but I say - Jesus Christ? … I have wondered where he is if not with us. If any man on Earth should be here, it is surely he.

RB: I know not. Perhaps he was not of his time but of all time, as your friend Johnson wrote of you yourself, Will, if that not be to trivialise the Messiah. Perhaps we should visit Jesus at the time he came down to Earth from Heaven.

WS: Well, why not. As is said, the cat can after all look at the king. But now that I’m in the poetical mood here’s a sonnet for you ...

I praise the works of Burns, my Scottish friend,
I’ll sing with him the songs of his old race  
As auld acquaintance truly has no end
We’re going hand in hand by God’s good grace.

‘For all that’, he wrote, ‘A man is a man’
And one life is his for him to use well
So he lives and loves as right as he can
And writes as true as the toll of the bell.

The good folk came out in old Dumphries town
To bury the Bard that all the world owned
They have not forgotten who wears the crown -
Rabbie - now here to eternity loaned.

I read him again, I hear the pipes’ skirl
‘Awake’ they say; ‘See your saltire unfurl’.

Far below a great flock of small birds is assembling from the treetops like the issue of steam from the surface of a volcanic pool. The two men come again to a stop, watching with interest as the flock twists and turns, forming and reforming into its own uniquely beautiful abstractions.

RB:  Two thousand three hundred and thirty one fine feathered birds of one species, of one mind, moving as a single entity. Now we know the truth of what mother Shap told us: He who made this world allowed all creatures to talk without sound to those of their own kind. One leader down there, two thousand three hundred and thirty instantaneous responders to her instruction. How very odd that we of later years had lost the ability to comprehend the simply obvious.

WS: Deliberate, Robert. What Man could not understand he tended to discount. There was and is a rhyme and a reason to all things. The good mother also said, ‘But He made only Humankind able to understand other creatures’ talking without sound between each other. Nothing else can do so.’ said she. Shakes his head sadly. So we must have lost that gift long before our times.  

RB: Indeed we became as if struck deaf to the thoughts of others and even to the thoughts of our own kind, responding only to the imprecations of those who would exloit us for their own pointless gain and our own selfishness. Come, let us rise to watch the world go by. They soar upwards and ever upwards. But in response to yours, William, here’s my sonnet to you …

Sing on, sweet Prince, high on the leafy bough,
Sing on, our Will, I read once more your words  
The words that put to joyful flight the birds
With love and tears to spite the furrowed brow.

The words that touch so many human hearts,
‘Though scholars always failed to find you out
‘Twas never
you that it was all about;
It was
your words touched every human heart.

We thank you, author of transporting plays,
Whose sun reigns high to gild our heavenly skies,
Whose mirrored soul to all of Man still cries
There is the chance of glory all your days!

Self-hidden fount of meaning deep and fair,
Our thanks for that great gift with you we share.

Up they rise; higher and higher and higher yet until in no time (for here there is no time) the Earth is a slowly turning globe, beyond it the spangled blue-black darkness of their universe. Beyond that, invisible, other universes far, far beyond number. This latter, Burns and Shakespeare understand, even if they knpw that human understanding and human imagination, even here in the spirit, are as limited as it is in the power of a thermometer to understand things beyond its surrounding temperature.

WS: Wistful. But how beautiful it truly is, this globe.

RB: And see the colours of it, our earthly home!

WS: Oh, yes! And how proud we were in my time about that first circumnavigation by the Englishman, Drake. Proof positive that we lived not on a dish but on a sphere. That’s why we named our new theatre The Globe of course. Everything up to date in London Town, you know!

RB: And by my own time so many of the public houses in that, by then United Kingdom had also adopted the idea. There was even a Globe Tavern in my last home town.

WS: chuckles. Meg Hyslop’s The Globe in Dumphries, staffed in part by her niece, the barmaid Anna Park, mother to yet another of your offspring!

RB: I was not proud of that, especially as it was Jeannie who needed to take in my daughter and bring her up. Ruminates. However on the plus side, I suppose, I did address my finest love song to that lovely, fair-haired Anna. I never bedded any one of the fair sex without loving her you know, Will. That’s my only defence for the promiscuity as I knew it then and even more so now.

WS: Oh yes, the barmaid Anna Park; she for whom you wrote; Twas not her golden ringlets bright, /  Her lips like roses wet with dew, / Her heaving bosom, lily-white-  / It was her eyes so bonny blue. This lady of yours, she is here. Robert?

RB: Sighs. No. I loved the forty three women I conjoined in sexual union and thirty eight loved me in return - for however short or long a time - but of these only three are with us here: They are my Jeannie - Jean Armour who I married and the mother of my children - the very young Jane Cowan and my very own Clarinda, Nancy McLehose.

WS: Any regrets?

RB: Not here of course, but there? Many indeed.  Not lovely Anna, though, she for whom I wrote. The Kirk an' State may join and tell, / To do such things I mustna: / The Kirk an' State may go to hell, / And I'll go to my Anna. / She is the sunshine of my eye, / To live without her I canna; / Had I on earth but wishes three, / The first should be my Anna. He does a little skip-jig in the air. But what of you and your loves, Will?

WS: I cannot say - as have you - that most of the ladies I bedded were loved by me, nor me by more than a few of them - although many loved enough my money. Chuckles. That last certainly included Mrs Anne Shakespeare. However there was oftentimes a true fondness all right. But here? Only Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Oxford, beautiful and blighted love of my life. Love! All those questions we asked ourselves and each other: Recites: What purpose has that urge that blots all other things, / And drains the mind of all except a certain she? / That has you risk your life to find that old glory, / Grows, some fresh pink rose in thorny secrecy / To prick you, have you bleed no matter what you give? / This agony, it moves from just a thing of glands? / ‘Forsaking all others:’ But a rose that’s not your own, / Is a fire by which the cold and lost may warm their hands? / Questions like your shadow leap ahead across your way. /And answers swirl around in chaotic shades of grey.

RB: The way we were ...

WS: The way we were, indeed! But enough of that. Shall we spin the globe, Robert? From here at the Neolithic back to the beginning of the Pleistocene perhaps, or on to its ending?

RB: Back to the beginning, I think; the beginning of our selves life as we know ourselves on that wondrous planet.  

They watch as the slow turning of the globe below stops, reverses, begins to pick up speed then accelerates until all its colours blur and the land shapes merge into a single, fast spinning ball of flash alternating blue-green and white. It’s rotation slows and comes to a stop, reverses direction once again before re-commencing its slow turn. But now the shape of the land masses are slightly different. The globe is of a visibly smaller size, more of its surface is green and white, less of it oceanic blue. 

WS: So you just know this earth is living, too. / She breathes; each breath a turning season long; / Although in ways unknown to me and you / She hears and shares the rhythm of life's song. Our Earth was already old when the first of animated movement occurred.

RB: And animated movement itself very old - at least by Man’s measure - before first consciousness arrived.

WS: And much more time before the consciously intelligent, bipedal life called by us Mankind arrived. He is pointing to the globe. We! Mankind! The golden species yet in large part this golden planet’s nemesis.

RB: Gestures all around. Everything in this universe has, embedded within it, its very own nemesis, therefore its own time to be. There is no immortality. Only this other place is immortal, William, indestructible - this heaven as it is or was called by Man on Earth wherein we can observe without participation, be interested but without other emotional sensibility.  

WS: Come, let us visit our first ancestor proper down there. Mister Socrates and company will not mind the wait. Laughs out aloud. There is no wait when there is no time.

The two men are standing by the shore of what appears to be a large lake or loch (depending upon whether you are Shakespeare or Burns), behind them the giant forest ferns. A group of brown and black creatures, ape-like, some on two legs and others on four, are tearing at the flesh and bones of a substantial fish, apparently not long since washed up dead. A second group of similar animals, about the same in number, is watching from under the last of the fern/trees, apparently awaiting its turn. But all of a sudden one of their number darts forward, roaring, stops short of the feeding group, raises himself to his full height of about a metre and a quarter to scream out a challenge. A male of the first group stops eating, comes shambling on knuckled arms half sideways on towards his adversary. The rest is a blur of black, brown and red, red blood as the two males and then all of both groups engage in battle.  Very soon it is over. Some of the dead and dying lie where they have fallen, their incapacities wide open to the skies. The vanquished, many of them wounded, disappear unpursued into the trees. Those victorious and still relatively able turn, (or return, for we have no idea which side lost and which won), red in tooth and claw to their fishy prize, chasing off a pair of curiously rat-like animals that had been taking advantage at the carcase of their temporary absence. However, centimetre by centimetre, unobserved by the combatants, out of the water has crawled a scaly, eight metre long leviathan.

RB: What, Will? After all that? The crocodile seizes one of the larger surviving humanoids in its jaws before backing off into whence it has come, lashing into white the waters before slowly submerging, last sight a pair of yellow, blank, unblinking eyes amidst the spreading of the red.  

WS: So here! The violent ancestors of Mhod and Shap, so of all of us. Nobility? No, not here. Conflict, pain and early death from the very start. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. The love that became so important to us is notable for its absence here. On the contrary for the dead lie unburied, no doubt to be consumed by the denizens of the forest and of these waters when night-time falls. Already a blood-orange sun is falling low across the mirrored lake or loch. You know the meaning of it all - of life itself - such a question was at the centre of my plays and some of my verse. 

RB: You often concluded that life on earth had no meaning.

WS: Well, some of my people did: you know, my ‘characters’ as they are called, though they are real enough to me.

RB: Instance my countryman, Macbeth, …

Macbeth appears, clothed in rough splendour, striding along the beach, crowned head bent down, bloody hands clenched tight behind his back. They hear his mumbled thoughts:  Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing. He disappears, leaving in the primeval air but a lingering whiff of iron blood, sweat and sulphur.

WS: Of all of mine, the passage most meaningful to our friend.

Mandela appears, that look of gleaming friendliness upon his customarily smiling face.

Mandela: Gentlemen I am sorry to intrude, for you have not summoned me other than by reference. It is true that when I was taken to imprisonment with my fellow insurgents - you, know, we who were labelled as terrorists by the Prime Minister of your United Kingdom - I was allowed to take with me one single book, and that my choice was your complete Works, William. It is also true that I marked the reflection of Macbeth as my favourite.

RB: Nihilism, some might say, Nelson. Might I ask why that particular passage?

Mandela: It is a question to which you already have the answer, gentlemen. Look around you at this ‘first as last syllable of recorded time’. Look to we who are here and the end and look to the stars, my friends. Vanishes, chuckling.

Night has fallen. There are the cries of the hunters and the hunted near and far, the suck of wavelets on sandy shore, the scuttling of creatures … forty six creatures small and less small beginning with their grisly work. Then fifty … sixty one … sixty four … more and more of them …

WS: Whispers. To Athens? Or to the end?

RB: To Athens. But first, I suggest, back to the land of milk and honey. To your sweet deluded Ophelia and my wee timorous beastie perchance.

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