The power of poetry

In the last few months I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on Shakespeare: it’s all seemed trivial compared with the important issues that confront us like deciding how England relates to the other countries of the UK, Europe and the world, how we are governed and what sort of country we aspire to be. This week’s awful bombing in Manchester, specifically targeting young people out enjoying themselves at a long-anticipated concert, has been followed by a raising of the security level to critical, the highest possible level.

Ironically this comes during a week in which the UK is enjoying the warmest weather of the year so far, our towns and countryside looking at their most beautiful. Like many people I’ve been taking refuge in early-morning walks, making the most of the peace of Stratford and the River Avon. And as I’ve been walking, Shakespeare’s words have come back to me. It is usually supposed that he immersed himself in the natural world during his childhood in Stratford-upon-Avon, knowledge that he repeatedly brought in to his poetry and plays throughout his career.

I often find the mood of the sonnets rather gloomy, even self-indulgent, but Sonnet 18 is more optimistic than many. It’s a celebration of the beauty of nature, defiantly life-affirming, bringing comfort even in the face of death. It reminds us of the importance of love and memory. As one of the most beautiful, it’s also probably the best-known and most often-quoted of them.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

We have seen the power of words and poetry to express emotion and meaning very powerfully in the last few days. In Manchester we have heard heartbreaking accounts of the events of Monday night and the despair of parents who have lost their children. It’s been amazing to hear them speak so bravely, and, at a time of their own terrible grief, for them to be able to think about the larger need to bring people together in a spirit of love.

Poets are uniquely skilled in putting feelings into just the right words. At the vigil held in the city the poet Tony Walsh delivered his ode to Manchester, its achievements and its spirit, an uplifting moment during this sober event. The link to the Telegraph report, including both his reading and the text of the poem, are both here.

The photographs and the video on this post were taken today, 25 May 2017, on Shakespeare’s Avon. I hope you enjoy them. Special thanks to James Stredder and, as ever, to Richard Morris who took the wonderful video of the new swan family.

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