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William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s works are famous all around the world. Even the critics who express doubts about the authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare still consider their author a genius.

The most well-known play written by Shakespeare is certainly Hamlet. It’s the only dramatical piece translated now into several hundred languages. There are several thousand stagings – no other piece of writing in the history of our civilization has gained so much popularity. Even Eastern cultural figures, who are usually indifferent to the pearls of the Western culture, have showed a great interest in Hamlet. Haruki Murakami, for instance, more than once claimed that it’s impossible to live without having read Hamlet, as such a life can’t be full.

The main character of the Hamlet tragedy is the Prince of Denmark himself, who is full of contradictions. These contradictions can be seen in the way he perceives himself (in his most well-known monologue “To be, or not to be? That is the question,” for instance), the way he treats others, and also in a certain opposition to the whole era.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a person who feels ill at ease in his era, with the people surrounding him, even with friends and relatives. He defies regulations existing in his society, and still is tied by the cultural stereotypes of his time. He blames his mother for an early marriage, although a woman living in that era could hardly decide her own fate, and so it was usual to marry one’s brother’s widow – people were even encouraged to do this. Yet Hamlet sends people to their doom or even kills them with his own hands without hesitations or remorse. Even the father of his beloved becomes one of his victims.

Hamlet is relevant even nowadays: the problems and inner conflicts showed in the play are painful for a person of any historic era. Is Hamlet’s father’s murder a sufficient reason for revenge? Where does the border lie between the light and the dark, reason and insanity?

The tragedy of people who can’t understand each other is probably the main topic of the play. So even today, when playwrights put Hamlet in modern surroundings, the words pronounced by the Prince of Denmark still resonate in the souls of spectators. Hamlet lives and suffers, and makes other people suffer. He is neither a teenager, nor a grown-up, he has royal decent, and so his deeds become known and discussed by many people. Hamlet doesn’t account for the sometimes absolutely criminal manifestations of his dissatisfaction with the world. It is other characters who take the responsibility: Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Anyone but Hamlet.

Hamlet, however, finds it hard that he doesn’t have to bear responsibility for his deeds and murders. In the same way a child finds it hard to live without the borders, created for him by loving parents. Being loved neither by his father, nor by his mother, Hamlet turns into a person, who is not ready for love. Not even ready to receive the love, generously granted to him by the young Ophelia.

The need to revenge his father’s death, that Hamlet considers his duty and responsibility, destroyed not only his own life, but the lives of the people close to him, and even the whole kingdom. Even today Hamlet is asking his question: is the life being lived for hatred worth it. Or should we better fill our lives with the love to our neighbors?

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk

‘Autumn’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and never seem to be denying.

And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.
We all are falling.

My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,

Holds all this falling in
His hands to bless.

Below is the original German text for those of you who can understand it, and for those of you (like me) who can’t, but who would like to read it to catch a glimmer of Rilke’s original music.

Herbst


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.

Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses

Fallen
undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.

This poem is full of such beautiful, melancholic and autumnal images. I particularly love the line in the first verse, “As if far gardens in the skies were dying”. This image strikes me as so uniquely brilliant, and makes me eager to read more of Rilke’s work.

Autumn, uses the notion of “falling” throughout, mirroring, of course, the falling of the leaves and the dying of the year. The season of Autumn is often attached to a state or tone of melancholy, as it inevitably reminds us of the the seasons of our own lives winding down. This notion is expressed in a line so memorable here that I am sure I will be unable to forget it: “And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,/ Into a starless solitude must fall.” The idea of the earth being a heavy ball promotes the feeling that none of us are immune to the melancholy of the passing of time, and the “starless solitude” is just a perfect coupling to create a vision of the bleakness of the state of mind being described.

In his final lines, Rilke introduces hope to the poem – religious hope: “Yet there is One who… holds all this falling in his hands to bless.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ by Guillaume Apollinaire

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

 

Here is my translation:

Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
And our love
It must remind me
That joy always comes after pain.

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Hand in hand let us stay face to face
Whilst
Under the bridge of our arms race
Eternal gazes, the weary waves

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Love goes by like this flowing water
Love goes by
How life is slow
And how Hope is rough

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

The days and weeks pass
Neither time past
Nor love returns
Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

This poem has been chiming in my head like a song on repeat for the past few weeks. I live near the Pont Mirabeau, and had read this poem a long time ago, but it had never really meant much to me. However, crossing the bridge the other day I noticed that there is a plaque with the first verse and refrain of this poem inscribed on it. I noticed how the music of the rhyme of the refrain reflects the magic, hypnotic banality of the river’s slow movement, and so I dug up the poem as soon as I got home.

I have tried to translate it as faithfully as possible, but found it difficult to recreate the music and rhyme of the French… For me, Le Pont Mirabeau makes me think about the unending torrents of people that flow through Paris every day. I often think about this, especially when I see old footage of horses and carriages, or men in tailcoats and top hats walking along the Rue de Rivoli or admiring the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The city hardly changes at all, but the people – so flimsy and fragile – live out there lives and loves here, die, and are then replaced by other lives and stories that begin and end. It’s like the water under the solid, seemingly unmovable Mirabeau Bridge.

There is certainly a sadness to the poem, and in the idea of love and time flowing past, as unretreivable as the river flowing under the bridge. But I also find something consoling in the resolute solidity of the bridge, which ‘remains” despite the days going by. Though life (and perhaps love) is transitory, there is still art – what we create and leave behind us – which is immortal. To my mind, the bridge in this poem represents the poem, the painting, the symphony, the building, the city – which man creates as a flag to his experience.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Childhood’ by Frances Cornford

I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.
Till through the banister I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty’s friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.

This is a piece that really intrigues me because it manages to have both a childlike tone, and also one that is so spot-on in expressing the ‘helpless’ tragedy of old age. It evokes so beautifully the way that age defines us — both as a child, and as an elderly person.

Phrases like “grown-up people” and the notion of people getting “stiff backs” and  veiny hands “on purpose to be grand” ensure that the poet’s voice retains a childish element. We can all remember thinking things like this of ‘grown-ups’ when we were children; age limits the child’s understanding and empathy due to lack of experience.

The speaker describes her “great-aunt Etty’s friend” who’s beads have “come unstrung” and who gropes around to find them “as they rolled”. What a poignant image. The word ‘unstrung’ is carefully chosen – it delivers the notion of a life unravelling… It is an important moment in a child’s life, when they first realise the limitations and failings of adults – and when they first become conscious of their own mortality.

I’m sure everyone can relate to the feeling you get when you witness helpless old age, or helpless frailty. It does something to you because you are watching somebody suffer, but also because you are being faced with a weakness that you know is within you also, and that is hard to admit.

I think the word “helpless” is perfect in this situation. The old lady, great-aunt Etty is “helplessly old” and the speaker is “helplessly young”. Etty is limited by her frail body in her movements, and the speaker is limited in her empathy and understanding by her youth.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Dug-Out’ by Siegfried Sassoon

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

We are coming close to Remembrance Day and I have been thinking about some war poets. Sassoon is always among the first who comes to mind, and he is rightly one of best-loved poets of the First World War.

This particular poem stands out for me among Sassoon’s verse because it is not full of obvious rage and it doesn’t have the ironic tone of many of Sassoon’s brilliant pieces. The Dug-Out presents us with a simple image, and uses plain, clear language to describe the poet’s internal suffering after his has witnessed so much slaughter, so many young men dying before his eyes in grotesque, futile circumstances.

In the poem, the speaker watches a fellow soldier sleeping in the dug-out, in the trenches. His legs are “ungainly huddled” and his face is “exhausted” and “deep-shadowed”. As ever, Sassoon does not shy away from showing us the reality of his war experience, and the toll it took on the men. The image of the candle’s “guttering gold” is quite fascinating; it seems evocative of the unimaginably precarious existence these men lived in the trenches. The poet shakes his “drowsy” comrade by the shoulder, but he just mumbles and “turn[s] [his] head”. He does not want to wake.

The final two lines of the poem are just heart-breaking: “You are too young to fall asleep forever;/ And when you sleep you remind me of the dead”. Like all the soldiers to fight in the Great War (and, of course, every war before and since) they are too young to die. Sassoon is begging this soldier not to die, but also not to sleep; his experience of warfare has so affected him that now the image of a man sleeping reminds him of death and fills him with dread.

I am not sure whether the soldier addressed in this poem is actually dead or not, and I think Sassoon intends it to be ambiguous. The poem seems dreamlike to me, the way the speaker shakes the man to wake him, but the man, mumbling and sighing, “turn[s] [his] head”. The piece certainly has a haunted feel to it in my view. It feels like a nightmare where the speaker is trying to stop a friend from sleeping because he’s afraid he will die, but he is powerless to prevent it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae,
the chain of the difficult spine.
Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear, with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.
Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No, no desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.
We looked at this poem in a poetry workshop I went to recently, and I found this a fascinating piece. In it, the poet expresses the notion that the spirit is “too blunt” or vague a thing to create the intricate perfection that is a human baby.”Nothing so unskilful as human passions” could have “managed the intricate/exacting particulars”, writes Stevenson. This statement puzzled me, when I first read it. I think it is true (but also untrue!) and ironic, because human passions are exactlywhat create new life… Of course, something other than human passion is needed to create a baby (and the poem goes into great, clinical detail about “meshings of ganglia” and “neural filaments”) but you still need passion in order for two people to come together (whatever passion that might be — lust, love, or something hateful).The poet talks about “the body’s ignorant precision”. This line really stood out for me, and I think it sums up what Stevenson is saying about the body in this poem. She is presenting the body to us as an unthinking, efficient machine. It is something quite miraculous, and I find it very interesting that she goes into such detail about its inner workings in the medical, scientific language that is so seldom found in poetry. I think Anne Stevenson does this because, although she is praising the great machine of the body, she is also subtly hinting at the coldness or pointlessness of a perfectly working body if there is no passion or love.Any “passion” — any “desire or affection” — is depicted as vague and imprecise in the poem, and incapable or creating anything so useful as the human body. For me, this evokes the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps I’m taking it too far, but this poem reminded me of a person trying to disprove God’s existence by saying how precise the body’s chemical reactions are, and insisting that the “spirit is too blunt an instrument” to be the cause of life. It is not love that creates life, but rather the ignorantly precise and obliviously diligent chemical reactions in the body. It is left to “the vagaries of the mind to invent/ love and despair and anxiety/ and their pain”.I haven’t really come to a conclusion about what Stevenson wants to say in this poem. I suspect her intention is to provoke thought, rather than to offer any definitive argument. It certainly made me think! I am fascinated by the conflict in the poem between the forces of “vague love” and “ignorant precision”. But I don’t  see why they should necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I hope you all enjoy this beautiful poem by Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. Thomas was an anglican priest, as well as a poet, but I think this piece is full of profound wisdom for everyone, regardless of creed.

The Bright Field speaks about those shining moments in life — moments of grace, beauty, inspiration, epiphany — where we fleetingly encounter the divine or feel a deep connection to the universe. This image of the bright field evokes for me various ideas: the moment you see your child’s face for the first time, the moment you realise you’ve fallen in love, or when you read and understand some complicated scientific theory about the universe, become transfixed by Shakespeare or an incredible piece of music… or, of course, when you pray or meditate, and feel a connection to the divine.

The poet confides that he has often seen the sun “illuminate a small field” for a moment, and continued on his way and “forgotten it”. But, says Thomas, he knows that that field was “the pearl of great price”; that moment was something rare and beautiful, to hold on to and spend your life searching for. He is admitting here that he has experienced moments of profound connection to God, but that he has proceeded to move on, without dwelling on it. However, he has now come to realise that he must “give all that I have/ To possess” that moment — that “bright field” — again.

Another quality of these “bright” moments becomes clear as we enter the second stanza; the poem says that life is not “hurrying on/ to a receding future” or “hankering after/ and imagined past”. These lines deliver to me the notion that these bright moments of grace are in fact moments where we are intensely present. These are the moments we are most alive, and when we feel most connected to life, the universe, and/or God. This is as relevant for prayer and meditation as it is for all the other instances I have mentioned where one might experience a moment of exhilarating and glorious connection to the universe.

The poem ends with the beautiful image of the burning bush from the story of Moses. Thomas tells us that life — and these moments — is about “turning/ like Moses to the miracle/ of the lit bush”. Again, there is a real sense of intense presence in this image. I think the way the bright light — which is God, and grace — is described in the final lines is just exquisite: though it had once seemed “as transitory as your youth”, it is in fact “the eternity that awaits you.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Flood’ by Gillian Clarke

When all’s said, and done,
if civilisation drowns
the last colour to go
will be gold –
the light on a glass,
the prow of a gondola,
the name on a rosewood piano
as silence engulfs it.

And first to return
to a waterlogged world,
the rivers slipping out to sea,
the cities steaming,
will be gold,
one dip from Bellini’s brush,
feathers of angels, Cinquecente nativities,
and all that follows.

I think this is a wonderful poem, and a gorgeously beautiful homage to Art in all its forms. It speaks about what might be our world’s most lasting and essential legacy; “If civilisation drowns”, writes Clarke, “the last colour to go/ will be gold”.

Flood is clearly set in Venice, and we can be sure of that with the expressed notion of civilisation ‘drowning’; it is a commonly-known fact that Venice is sinking and will one day be under water. Of course, there is also the mentioning of the “prow of a gondola”, and the Venetian painter, Bellini, which helps to paint this image of Venice. Italy, with its history of the Roman Empire, and so much enlightenment and brilliant art during the Renaissance, is the ideal symbol for Western civilisation. It is also an obvious religious centre, and I think that amplifies this idea of the holiness of art. Gold is certainly a colour that I connect with Italy.

So, the poem talks about what would be the last thing “to go”, should civilisation be destroyed, and what would be the first thing to “return” if we had to rebuild civilisation from its ashes. Clarke’s answer to both of these questions is simple: “gold”. For me, this gold in the poem represents Art (every form of art: painting, sculpture, poetry, music etc). Man needs Art to express what Keats called “our deep eternal theme”; we have a need to express ourselves and our experience of beauty, truth, and all that is sacred. There seems to be a distinct aura of the sacred surrounding the idea of Art (i.e. the “gold”) in the poem, hence the references to the “feathers of angels” and the “Cinquecente nativities”.

I just love this piece. It reminds me of what a glorious thing Art can be.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ by Renaud

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi Et regarder les gens tant qu’y en a Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort ou qui r’viendra En serrant dans ma main tes p’tits doigtsPuis donner à bouffer à des pigeons idiots Leur filer des coups d’ pieds pour de faux Et entendre ton rire qui lézarde les murs Qui sait surtout guérir mes blessuresTe raconter un peu comment j’étais mino
Les bonbecs fabuleux qu’on piquait chez l’marchand
Car-en-sac et Minto, caramel à un franc
Et les mistrals gagnants

A r’marcher sous la pluie cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder la vie tant qu’y en a
Te raconter la Terre en te bouffant des yeux
Te parler de ta mère un p’tit peu

Et sauter dans les flaques pour la faire râler
Bousiller nos godasses et s’marrer
Et entendre ton rire comme on entend la mer
S’arrêter, r’partir en arrière

Te raconter surtout les carambars d’antan et les cocos bohères
Et les vrais roudoudous qui nous coupaient les lèvres
Et nous niquaient les dents
Et les mistrals gagnants

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder le soleil qui s’en va
Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort et je m’en fou
Te dire que les méchants c’est pas nous

Que si moi je suis barge, ce n’est que de tes yeux
Car ils ont l’avantage d’être deux
Et entendre ton rire s’envoler aussi haut
Que s’envolent les cris des oiseaux

Te raconter enfin qu’il faut aimer la vie
Et l’aimer même si
le temps est assassin
Et emporte avec lui les rires des enfants

Et les mistrals gagnants

My Translation:

‘Le Mistral Gagnant’
 
(A note about the title: the ‘mistral’ is a well known wind that blows in the south of France. ‘Gagnant’ gives the idea of a wind that is gaining ground — advancing and taking things from the singer… it is difficult to express this with just one word as in French and so I have translated it in the song as “the advancing winds”.)To sit down on a bench, five minutes with you
and watch the people while they’re still there;
to tell you about the good days that are gone, or that will return,
while holding your little fingers in my hand.

Then to feed the stupid pigeons,
and pretend to kick them,
and to hear your laugh that crawls up the walls
and that, most of all, knows how to heal my wounds.
To tell you a bit about when I was a kid,
the fabulous sweets that we nicked from the shopkeepers,
Car-en-sac, Minto, and caramel for a franc.
And the advancing winds.To walk in the rain, five minutes with you,
and watch life going by, while it’s there;
to tell you about the World, while scaring you with my eyes,
to tell you about your mum a little bit.And to jump in the puddles to get her annoyed,
to wreck our shoes, and laugh about it,
and to hear your laugh like one hears the sea –
it stops, then starts off again backwards.To tell you especially about the carambars of the past
and the coco boheres (these are all sweets; so are roudoudous)
and the real roudoudous that cut our lips
and screwed up our teeth.And the advancing winds.To sit down on a bench, five minutes with you,
and watch the sun going down;
to tell you about the good times that are gone, and I don’t care,
and to tell you we’re not the bad guys.That if I’m crazy, it’s only about your eyes,
because they have the advantage of being two;
and to hear your laugh fly off as high
as the cries of the birds fly.To tell you at last that you must love life,
and love it even if time is a murderer;
and takes with him the children’s laughter,

and the advancing winds.
and the advancing winds.

My thoughts:

This is a song that I completely fell in love with the first time I heard it. I was also fascinated by the lyrics, because they have a strange beauty and are full of French slang. I didn’t understand the slang the first time I heard it, but these words have now become very familiar to me, and I think they are so cleverly used in this piece. It is about fatherly love, and it’s so sad and sweet and (I think!) wise.

Lyrics are extremely important in modern French music, and I think that is perhaps why some of the great singers like Brel, Brassens and Gainsbourg have not travelled so well to the UK and elsewhere. It makes me sad because for me these songwriters are poets, just as much as Bob Dylan is a poet, and their lyrics are incredibly rich and rewarding.

I have tried to translate ‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ to the best of my ability, but of course, the lyrics are great in French because of the assonance and the rhyme etc… So you must listen to it, too. My favourite thing about this song, (and I think this is the great appeal of many of Renaud’s lyrics) is how very common slang expressions have been made poetic… I find it quite wonderful.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh