Monday, October 07, 2013
A story of Will
This old Shakespeare anthology--maybe twenty years old--just won't go down. Just won't.
Two years ago, I had three. One departed when I left the office and gave away a ton of books just to get myself out cleanly. Another I kept. That one is abiding comfortably, I'm sure, in one of the jumbled boxes down here in the basement, each book waiting patiently for the library to get painted and reassembled.
And then there's this red one, a third, which I couldn't give away--believe me, I tried--and would cost, I'm sure, an arm and a leg to send, should you or someone else on the receiving end of this missive want it. Not long ago, I burned some of my own books, factory seconds with despoiled covers I got free and kept for a couple of decades. I'd also tried to give those away and couldn't, had a whole box around for almost two moves, and just decided that if Melville could burn Moby Dicks when they wouldn't move, I could incinerate a botched bunch of Still Lifes. So I did.
Maybe six or seven, and then I couldn't go on. I'm not lying.
But Shakespeare is Shakespeare. This heavyweight sat in the garage for the last sixteen months, collecting serious dust. There it sat with the rat poison and a couple of cigar boxes of leftover nuts and bolts. I could get it out to the garage, but I couldn't get rid of it.
Once upon a time my sister couldn't toss a foot-long crucifix a Roman Catholic client of hers gave her, even though she--my sister--had the strange feeling that the crucifix didn't belong to her, a lifelong Protestant. Just couldn't throw it away because you don't just throw out the cross.
I know, I know--Shakespeare isn't Christ, but still.
What's haunting about William here is that two Siouxlanders I really respect told the very same story about themselves when they remembered heading off to college--both of them to Calvin College, by the way, Grand Rapids, Michigan. My old friend, Frederick Manfred, the novelist--may he rest in peace--used to love to tell my students that when he went off to college in the 20s, he packed along just two books, the only two books he owned--the Bible and Shakespeare.
And then there's Arlin J. Meyer, long-time professor of English at Valparaiso, who spun the same yarn--and I have absolutely no reason to believe either of them were pulling my leg. When Meyer left the farm just outside of Sioux Center, Iowa, he took along the only two books he owned--Shakespeare and the God's own Word.
Humble means?--you darn right, humble means. Two books, lugged along to college by two farm boys from Iowa way back when, packed along because those two books were that incredibly precious.
And I'm tossing this one?--all the plays, all the poems, everything? Sacrilege.
Once upon a time, years ago, my ancient high school English teacher moved me up to a front row desk because I was yakking with the guys in the back. The class was reading Shakespeare's sonnets--well, some of us were. Suddenly, there I sat at the front of the room, so I got it into my head to answer questions just to spite the old schoolmarm who may well have known the bard personally--or so we thought. So I did: I answered every question she asked from right there beneath her nose, every question.
Then, something strange happened. I liked the poem. Seriously.
"Shall I compare the to a summer's day"--that was the offering. And when we got to the end, the spite had left the building.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Epiphany. I was, back then, high school-hot on a cheerleader from our biggest rival, and that last rhyming couplet just blew me away because he was right, this Shakespeare guy. He was right. Here we were in some podunk Wisconsin high school, reading this goofy poem in some strange version of the English language, and he wasn't wrong. We were reading about his guy's lover and thereby--get this!--thereby fulfilling this guy's sweet talk. Amazing. The man's love would not and could not be contained in time and space. 'Twas eternal.
That was the first moment in my life when I couldn't help but think that there was something eerie to this literature thing, something even bridging the eternal.
"Shall I compare thee" is Shakespeare, and somewhere in this red brick of a book I'm sure I'd find it respectfully and thoughtfully footnoted.
But I can't burn it, I can't toss it, can't drop it off in some countryside ditch like a cat that won't stop peeing on the carpet. I can't imagine it languishing in some landfill. Think of those two giant Siouxlanders getting into old cars, each with a suitcase holding a couple of shirts, a pants or two, some socks and shoes, a toothbrush and a winter coat--and a Bible, and Shakspeare. That's it. And I'm throwing this one away?
I can't do it. Couldn't do it last year, can't do it this. Just can't.
Is there a pound for books? even big fat ones? This isn't just anybody. It's Shakespeare.
Woe and woe and woe.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:34 AM