I had always heard of William Shakespeare, who hasn’t? His death anniversary, 23 April, was two days ago. In MA, we studied King Lear and I had read Othello earlier. You can watch a short dramatization of King Lear.
There would be a number of posts on Shakespeare. This is a short post that will point to his great and in-depth study of the human character.
I had the occasion to teach Macbeth for a couple of years. You can watch this wonderful and finely produced BBC production. I’m sure you would enjoy it as much as I did.
Macbeth is a fine example of how unbridled greed and ambition can dehumanize a person completely. Empathy, as a human emotion, doesn’t exist in the play. In Act II, Scene II, of the play, after Macbeth has killed King Duncan, he is shaken and nervous. The reply that Lady Macbeth gives her husband is classic:
Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane, You do unbend your noble strength, to think So brainsickly of things. Go get some water, And wash this filthy witness from your hand. Why did you bring these daggers from the place? They must lie there: go carry them; and smear The sleepy grooms with blood.
She is not just cold-blooded but ambition has made her so.
Look at what another human trait can do. In Othello, human jealousy is such a dominant idea that it leads to murder. And then, the downfall. Othello is not the king but he is a nobleman and holds a leadership position. So, interestingly, while Shakespeare is focussing on jealousy as well as insecurity as an important human frailty, he is making another pertinent point. He is clearly stating that leaders or those in leadership positions should not be jealous or insecure.
Shakespeare also imparts leadership skills to those who read him. Hamlet is a fine example of how an indecisive leader can lead to ruin. He reminds us that a leader must always take decisions, even if hard ones. The lines from this play are again too famous, like an aphorism:
To be, or not to be- that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them.
In fact, if we look at King Lear, the frailty is credulity, blind belief in his two daughters that brings him down very badly. However, what is even more instructive about King Lear is that it is also a leadership lesson: leaders should not trust blindly their kin and the ones lower than them.
This was my short tribute to William Shakespeare. I’ll come back to him later in future posts.
My love affair began with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in 1992 as an MA student. In my class, there was just another friend who appreciated the poem. Our professor spoke about opium, fragments and also spoke about the river Alph, referring to the English language. In 1995, I wrote a term paper in M.Phil. on “Kubla Khan”, talking about how all this idea of opium was Coleridge’s way of pulling wool over people’s eyes. In twenty years of teaching—from an adjunct position to a full time tenure—I have never been fortunate enough to teach one of my first loves in life, “Kubla Khan”. But then, there is always peace about how systems and structures go. While talking to my students at coffee shops on campus, over the last five years or so, I sensed that not much had changed. They were still on an overdose of ‘opium’ and ‘fragment’ when I chatted about “Kubla Khan” with them.
This is not an academic paper but just to arrive at a sense of the poet. It is my belief that Coleridge was one of the most original minds among English poets and the one who was most misunderstood.
What this “Kubla Khan” episode throughout history tells me is that if you are much ahead of your time, you are likely to face intense ridicule. Coleridge first published the poem in 1816 with a Preface, which talked about his taking laudanum, getting into ‘a sound sleep of over three hours’ and on waking up, he wrote these lines, whilst he was called away by a person. So, stood the account of the poem. The poem was also subtitled ‘Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. ’ This immediately led to a number of attacks on the poet. The poet’s persona took over, critics talked about how the poem was written under the influence of opium and for around a century, no one really looked at the poem carefully.
It was later found out that the young Coleridge gave personal recitals of the poem and a manuscript from 1797 survives at the British Library, London. The poem, in my view, shows an exceptionally intelligent and competent, twenty-five year old, Coleridge, who is much ahead of his time and writes a poem, a masterpiece that talks about the creative process. It is also my belief that, at this young age, Coleridge was trying to develop a new romantic poetic sub-genre called ‘fragment’ and he was apprehensive about publishing the poem so early, as he feared ridicule.
Coleridge took a full twenty years before he published his poem and that too appending it with a poor defense. And everyone just jumped at him. William Hazlitt, a reputed critic and contemporary of Coleridge, had an unsavoury and an uncritical remark to make. In 1816, he said:
“Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verse than any man in English”.
There were a number of negative reviews and all of them took cue from the Preface that Coleridge had appended to the poem. But in 1821, the respected Leigh Hunt did write a positive review of the poem. In January 1830, writing in Westminster Review, John Bowring had this to say about the poem:
“The tale is extraordinary, but ‘Kubla Khan’ is much more valuable on another account, which is, that of its melodious versification. It is perfect music. The effect could scarcely have been more satisfactory to the ear had every syllable been selected merely for the sake of its sound. And yet there is throughout a close correspondence between the metre, the march of the verse, and the imagery which the words describe.”
Of course, much later, in the twentieth century, there were a number of critics who did put the opium controversy at rest. One such important critic was John Livingston Lowes, who wrote a book length work, Road to Xanadu (1927), on the two poems, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. Also, in 1953, Elisabeth Schneider wrote glowingly of the poem:
The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation’s very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning. In creating this effect, form and matter are intricately woven.
But what often beats me is the fact that, even in my time, young students have often believed that Coleridge took opium and wrote the poem as a kind of an outpouring. So, this also brings me to the role of the teacher in the classroom, the uncritical nature of the student fraternity, or to put it better still, the failure of the academia to inculcate critical modes of thinking into the minds of young students.
Here is the poem in its entirety for you:
Kubla Khan BY SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round; And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! as holy and enchanted As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover! And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, A mighty fountain momently was forced: Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail: And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever It flung up momently the sacred river. Five miles meandering with a mazy motion Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, Then reached the caverns measureless to man, And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean; And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far Ancestral voices prophesying war! The shadow of the dome of pleasure Floated midway on the waves; Where was heard the mingled measure From the fountain and the caves. It was a miracle of rare device, A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Abora. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ’twould win me, That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
One way to look at the poem is to look at Coleridge’s theories about the Secondary Imagination in The Biographia Literaria and analyze the poem in that context. I would do a fine textual analysis of the poem another time. It remains one of my favourite poems and I would certainly return to it in a later post. But I wanted to write this blog post to clarify that one should not just look at a Preface or what the author says about the text as gospel truth and relegate the text to the dustbin of history. If we do that, then as William Hazlitt, history will come to haunt us and show us as utter fools.
I was barely twenty four years old in 1995 and I had gone looking to meet a poet who had impressed me a lot. I went to the flat his father had. This was Zakir Bagh, right opposite Surya Hotel, New Delhi. The poet: Agha Shahid Ali. But I was unfortunate. Sometimes, we are. Shahid was in the United States. I missed him. I knew him from his poems, from what he translated, from what he wrote—words in different registers, all imbued with magic. Each word of his was drenched with sensitivity.
I also knew Shahid from a couple of people I knew who were so fortunate to have met him. Abir Bashir Bazaz was my student in 1995. Abir now teaches at the University of Minnesota. He had Shahid’s books endearingly autographed by the great poet.
Amitav Ghosh has written an endearing essay on Shahid and of his impending death:
Shahid had a sorcerer’s ability to transmute the mundane into the magical. Once I accompanied Iqbal, his brother, and Hena, his sister, on a trip to fetch him home from hospital. This was on May 21st: by that time he had already been through several unsuccessful operations. Now he was back in hospital to undergo a surgical procedure that was intended to relieve the pressure on his brain. His head was shaved and the shape of the tumour was visible upon his bare scalp, its edges outlined by metal sutures. When it was time to leave the ward a blue-uniformed hospital escort arrived with a wheelchair. Shahid waved him away, declaring that he was strong enough to walk out of the hospital on his own. But he was groggier than he had thought and his knees buckled after no more than a few steps. Iqbal went running off to bring back the wheelchair while the rest of us stood in the corridor, holding him upright. At that moment, leaning against the cheerless hospital wall, a kind of rapture descended on Shahid. When the hospital orderly returned with the wheelchair Shahid gave him a beaming smile and asked where he was from. Ecuador, the man said and Shahid clapped his hands gleefully together. “Spanish!” he cried, at the top of his voice. “I always wanted to learn Spanish. Just to read Lorca.”
At this the tired, slack-shouldered orderly came suddenly to life. “Lorca? Did you say Lorca?” He quoted a few lines, to Shahid’s great delight. “Ah! ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’,” Shahid cried, rolling the syllables gleefully around his tongue. “How I love those words. ‘La Cinque de la Tarde’!” That was how we made our way through the hospital’s crowded lobby: with Shahid and the orderly in the vanguard, one quoting snatches of Spanish poetry and the other breaking in from time to time with exultant cries of, ‘‘La Cinque de la Tarde, La Cinque de la Tarde…”
Only Shahid could transform the mundane into the sublime. I have always been excited by the moments of sublimity which we experience. As I read and re-read Shahid, I do get insights into the world around me, while being transported into another realm too.
My first exposure to Shahid was through his enchanting book of poems, The Half-Inch Himalayas. “Postcard from Kashmir” passed through my eyes and into my heart:
Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox, my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
But as if this wasn’t enough and yes, with Shahid, if you read as many of his poems, you would find more poems that enchanted you, that transported you into another world, that left such an imprint on you all your life. In the same book, I discovered a love that has stayed with me all these years. “Stationery”, such a short poem, the worlds so deceptively simple and yet so powerful:
The moon did not become the sun. It just fell on the desert in great sheets, reams of silver handmade by you. The night is your cottage industry now, the day is your brisk emporium. The world is full of paper.
Write to me.
And in his book of poems, A Nostalgist’s Map of America, there’s another beautiful love poem “A Rehearsal of Loss”.
Shahid made a number of contributions but perhaps, his greatest should be his ghazals in English. He also got a number of poets to write ghazals in English and got them into a fascinating book, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. He has received unmitigated praise for everything in the poetic realm. Years ago, at a Katha Workshop, Shahid had read a paper, where he spoke about the ‘biryanization of English’. In one of his ghazals, Shahid says:
The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic. These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.
Ancestors–you’ve left me a plot in the family graveyard– Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?
… From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world: You’ll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic. …. I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.
They ask me to tell them what Shahid means– Listen: it means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.
Agha Shahid Ali was exceptionally proficient in the craft of poetry. He has written villanelles, sestinas and canzones, which are exceptionally tough to write. Shahid has written three canzones, more than any other poet.
Once Shahid wrote:
I wish all this had not happened. This dividing of the country, the divisions between people – Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu – you can’t imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: why can’t you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?
The message that Agha Shahid Ali gives me is that of nostalgia, of love, of loss, of living with it and of celebrating one’s own self.