Essay on “Eternity though Poetry” (William Shakespeare)

In de voortgang van mijn onverdroten sporenonderzoek naar mijn verleden ben ik ondertussen in de eerste kandidatuur van de Germaanse aanbeland. En we zijn er blijkbaar meteen ingevlogen, want reeds in het eerste jaar moesten we een essay schrijven over een sonnet van William Shakespeare, “Eternity through Poetry”. Mijn kwotering is op het eerste gezicht niet bijster goed (13 op 20), maar ik heb erbij geschreven dat de hoogste kwotering in onze groep (F) 15 was en dat ik op die manier als vierde op twintig uit de bus kwam. De drie die mij voorafgingen waren waarschijnlijk Staf De Wilde (jawel, de beroemde of beruchte Staf De Wilde), Bea De Groote en Monique De Wit. Wij vieren waren ook de enigen uit de groep die al in eerste zit promoveerden.
Let ook even op de benaming van onze groep: F. Als je weet dat die groepen alfabetisch waren samengesteld dan zaten wij, wier familienaam bijna allemaal met “De” begon, reeds in de zesde groep! In totaal waren er dan ook meer dan driehonderd eerstejaars, waarbij de slaagkansen in andere groepen ongeveer hetzelfde waren als bij ons.
Maar terug naar Shakespeare. Want bovendien kreeg ik de vermelding (wellicht van Jo De Vos, toen nog assistent, nu zelf prof) “some good ideas”, waardoor ik aanneem dat de lage kwotering eerder te wijten was aan de (inderdaad) erbarmelijke kwaliteit van mijn Engels. Voor wie niet met het toenmalige middelbaar onderwijs vertrouwd is, wil ik er trouwens even op wijzen dat ik als leerling van de zogenaamde oude humaniora (Latijn-Grieks) enkel gedurende de drie laatste jaren telkens één uur per week Engels had gehad. Ik durf dus zonder blikken of blozen beweren dat ik meer Engels heb geleerd van The Beatles dan van mijn leraars.

The title, chosen by the editor G.B.Harrison, is, as we would expect, a representation of the main idea of this sonnet. This basic idea is already expressed in the very first lines, which are very striking because of the strong emphatic place of “not” in line one. Beginning with the negative is much more powerful than putting the positive statement in front. If one sees that the poet of this sonnet doesn’t seem to appreciate the marble and gilded monuments, because they will not exist long enough, one wonders what he will prefer to them. That’s why we are immediately concerned with “this powerful rime”, in which the two words standing next to the basic word (“rime”) are not at all without significance. “This” could have the meaning that only this poem will survive marble monuments and that poems of ordinary writers will not. Perhaps this idea may be in it, but I would rather say that “this” gives us the affirmation that here we have to deal with a monument for someone (his mistress? his friend? perhaps as we go on, we will find out) but not a monument chiselled in marble, but in words. The word “powerful” intensifies the strength of the emphatic position of these three words.
A simple human question follows; we all wonder: “Why does he say such a thing?” The answer comes in the following lines. First of all (lines 3 and 4) the poet draws our attention to the fact that marble monuments don’t stay bright all the time, after a while they become “unswept stone”. Now this is very strongly put in words! I can’t imagine that a sculptor will call his work, even when it has become dirty, simply “stone”. After all, we can clean and polish the substance and it remains of course a work of art. Shakespeare too must have felt that this was no real argument, so a stronger one follows in the second quatrain. Thus we see that, even when the basic idea is quoted in the first lines, there is still a possibility to put a gradation of one kind or another in the poem.
The next argument is concerned with war (“the sword of Mars” as het puts it in a magnificent way). Shakespeare lived in a time where war was the common “spare-time amusement” and this certainly has touched him very deeply in his poetic heart. He felt the everlasting cruelty of men and, in a certain way, predicted the future by saying that there will always be a war to destroy monuments of the kind sculptors make. But he was quite right when he stated that a poet’s work will not be touched by the destroying power of war. He mentions “nor war’s quick fire shall burn…”. As we all know it is possible to burn the copies (and perhaps not even all of them), but the poem itself will survive in the mind of the admirors of it and when the war is over it will be trusted to paper again and so on, “until the ending doom” as he puts it, of course with a pardonable exaggeration.
In the third quatrain he dwells n this idea of eternity (not without a certain sense of self-satisfaction). His mistress (or another person who is meant by “your” in this sonnet) will survive even posterity, just because he was kind enough to write a poem about her. Well, perhaps it’s selfish, but in love there is always a little spark of selfishness, as Lord Henry (*) would say.
The closing couplet summarizes the whole poem and at the same time brings in a new idea: the poem will last until the last judgement; then – who knows? – it will vanish, but that must not disappoint the person about whom he’s writing, because she herself or he himself will rise up from the grave again, in which in fact his memory has been laying.

Ronny De Schepper

(*) Naast Shakespeare bestudeerden we ook Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” in deze werkgroep.

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