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Installment Eleven

[ Dan’s note: I’m aware that back in January, in Writing Well Installment Ten, I promised a ‘Part Two” on the discussion of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, and I’m confident that someday we’ll get to that. But time has passed and focus has shifted and for now I’m going to write about “Teaching Will,” but I do so knowing that there’s more to be said in the future about Wood’s book and excellent insights.)

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TEACHING WILL

In this installment of our Writing Well conversation I’m going to discuss the grammar-school education of William Shakespeare and how that education was reflected in his plays and writing style. To this suggestion, I would hope to hear some of you here who most want to be writers shouting out – “Whoa! What does Shakespeare’s schooling have a damned thing to do with my wanting to learn to write better? That was . . . um, carry the one, ummm . . . almost four hundred and fifty years ago. How can knowing about his childhood education help me?”

Well, good question, Grasshopper. And it’s true that if we could clone William Shakespeare back to life today, he couldn’t possibly grow up to be the man and writer he was four centuries and more ago, since we couldn’t reproduce the environment in which he flourished. (Remember that silly but enjoyable novel by Ira Levin, The Boys From Brazil, and the movie based on it some decades ago? Old-time Nazis and neo-Nazis had preserved some of der Führer’s DNA and managed to get him cloned, born, and adopted into an American family. The Nazis tried to “replicate” Hitler’s childhood by getting the baby placed in a family with a more-or-less absentee weak postal clerk father, an unpleasant and domineering mother, etc., but still there were a few things missing – such as the entire beginning-20th-Century world around young Adolf, a World War I in which he could fight, be gassed and disillusioned, etc. But still, it was a fun movie – mostly interesting because the aging Sir Laurence Olivier got to play Nazi-finder Simon Wiesenthal only two years after he’d shaved his wonderful silver hair to play the mad Nazi dentist-war-criminal Christian Szell opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man.”)

But I digress.

The point is that the boys from Brazil couldn’t create a successful new Adolf Hitler, despite the cloning, because too much of the new Hitler’s environment was different. The kid with his startling patch of lank black hair falling on his forehead and his emotionless pale Hitler eyes was spooky enough – and was almost certainly a sociopath just as the original Hitler was – but he wasn’t Adolf Hitler. I mean, he couldn’t even speak decent German. (Come to think of it, the original Hitler couldn’t either because of his barbaric Viennese accent.)

So what’s the use of learning anything about William Shakespeare’s education? It’s not replicated anywhere in the world today and even if it were, the fact that the wider world doesn’t offer the 16th Century environmental factors any longer – just England’s wrenching changeover from Catholicism to Henry VIII’s and then Elizabeth’s militant new Protestant faith was a huge and constant factor in young Shakespeare’s life and thinking – guarantees that we couldn’t get the same educational outcome, even if we started with a cloned Shakespeare baby. Certainly there must be more pertinent and helpful issues that we could discuss to help the writers and proto-writers here. A good Installment on rejection letters and what they mean, perhaps.

But let’s try this first. One never knows what one will find.

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We first learn that William Shakespeare received no formal education above grammar school  through the mockery of one of his contemporaries and competitors, poet and playwright Ben Jonson, and secondly through Shakespeare’s own frequent mentionings of grammar school lessons, rules, rhetoric, and learning in his own plays and poems.

But those who think that we know nothing of Shakespeare’s early life and education (many of whom because they promote some theory as to what other person “actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays”) are mistaken:  we know exactly when and where Shakespeare went to grammar school (the room still exists and is still used as a school), who his teachers were, where they were trained and what their philosophies were, and what books he studied from.

Jonson, who had spent many years mocking Shakespeare before learning to worship him, helped create the image of the Bard as a poorly schooled but naturally gifted poet with “small Latine and lesse Greeke” who committed constant, egregious faults in both logic and word choice in his (Shakespeare’s) almost adolescent rush to spew out words. (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was a special irritant to Jonson and the younger playwright returned to mock and attack that play many times over the decades.)

But the animus hardly seemed personal. As Will Shakespeare had the habit of doing with most people, he befriended Jonson – Shakespeare was an expert at putting his potential enemies at ease – and the tale goes that once both men were drinking at the expensive Mermaid Tavern (Jonson because he had the money for it, Shakespeare, notoriously cheap, because he knew the owner, William Johnson, and received a good discount there), and the drunken Jonson jotted down the beginning of his own epitaph –

                                    Here lies Ben Jonson
                                    That was once [ or perhaps one’s son]

--- to which the somewhat-less-drunken-than-his-interlocutor (as was also his habit) Shakespeare immediately added –

                                    Who while he lived was a slow thing
                                    And now being dead is no thing.

But Jonson, who’d attended the prestigious Westminster School, was a snob about education and constantly mentioned Shakespeare’s mere grammar school education. One contempory described Jonson as “frequently reproaching him [Shakespeare] with the want of Learning, and Ignorance of the Ancients.” (quoted in Chambers, Shakespeare: Facts and Problems, Volume 2, p 264). But, as we’ll see, even Jonson’s charge of Shakespeare having mastered “small Latine and lesse Greeke” is off the mark; while it’s true that Shakespeare left school before his peers had begun any serious study of Greek (and he would tend to read even his beloved Ovid in Golding’s translation during his adult and writing years), young Will’s mastery of Latin, as recent biographer Peter Ackroyd has pointed out – “would rival the knowledge shown by any undergraduate of classics in a modern university.”

Indeed, it was grammar school in Statford-upon-Avon that gave young Will his Latin grammar and it was that grammar that gave Shakespeare the playwright his distinctive rhetorical tone in English.

#

In his endlessly quoted “Seven Stages of Man” from melancholy Jacques “All the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It (the speech in which the Bard added “puking” to the verb section of the English lexicon by describing the infant “Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”), Shakespeare described the second stage –

                                    Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
                                    And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
                                                            Unwilling to school.

All sane schoolboys learn to creep like a snail, unwilling, to school but those first days of school must have been (just as they are now to the yet-to-be-jaded schoolboys) very exciting to young Will.

Shakespeare first started school at age six. No, wait . . . some scholars insist it was at age five. Well, we’re certain that he was there by the Year of Our Lord 1571, when Will would have been seven.

Will’s school, the King’s New School on Church Street (free-spelling borough scriveners at the time referred to it as “Kynges ffree Schoole” or “ free scole”), would not have been open to any girls nor open to most of the boys in town, but Will’s father, the glover John Shakespeare, was an alderman and the school was open to all sons of the burgesses. So in a real sense, Will was a member of an educational elite. In Shakespeare’s day this “petite” or Petty School met in what borough records call “the chapell” – that is, the loft above the Gild Hall and just behind the Guild chapel. Shakespeare attended school just a few yards from where his father met with the other aldermen in the section of the hall they called the annexe.

Let’s join him on one of his schooldays:

Six- or seven-year-old Will will leave home a little before six a.m. on summer mornings, a little before seven a.m. in the dark days of winter. Turning left from his home, Will must pass his father’s glove-making building (called the Workshop) on Henley Street, turn right at the market cross, and continue on past the pillory at the top of Sheet Street. Then he will walk or run further down Chapel Street and turn again behind the row of half-timbered alehouses that still stand on Church Street. (We can only imagine what wonderful things, dead and alive, that he and the other boys and stray dogs will find a-morning in the garbage heaps out behind those alehouses.)

Finally he and the other snail-paced but shining-faced boys will climb the stone staircase behind the Gild Chapel. (It is in this very chapel that Will’s dad, John Shakespeare, had been in charge of “lime-washing” – that is, covering over the beautiful religious murals there after the new regime in London and Canterbury had sent out the injunction to “extinct and destroy” all such remnants of papistry so that “there remains no memory of same.” But one would think that the starkly white-washed walls would constantly remind everyone of the murals underneath. That defacing lime-wash is not a bad metaphor for the psychological process most of the dutiful Queen’s subjects were undergoing in their attempts to forget and renounce the religion that had been the official religion for their dads and granddads and great-granddads.)

“Dad,” by the way, was a Welsh word for “father” and living on the borderlands with that strange and vowel-challenged nation, young Will would have known and used “dad,” but never to his father’s face. Boys in the 16th Century said “sir” when speaking directly to their fathers. And they removed their caps while doing so. (One of the first public uses of “Dad” we can find was, of course, in one of Shakespeare’s plays.) At any rate, Dad has paid 4 pence for young Will Shakespeare to be enrolled in the register of this schoolroom starting around 1571.

Will isn’t carrying any printed schoolbooks with him on this early morning walk to school since he has none yet. Books (except for his blank writing book) are too expensive for most people to own here in the 1570’s (although John Shakespeare and his wife are proud to own a few) and no one trusts them to mere schoolboys until the latter days of their education. For the most part, Will and the other boys won’t be reading from the schoolbooks even in the school room. Usually they listen. We know that they will be drilled every second day to recite the previous day’s lesson and readings “without booke.” This wasn’t and isn’t a bad way to increase memory skills. In truth, we’ll soon see that most of the effort of Will Shakespeare’s grammar school instruction was to “train his ear” and further discipline and sharpen that already sharp memory.

Things that young Will is hauling with him to school this early morning (or at least that he will fetch from a cubby once he arrives) – at least for his earlier years in school -- includes his hornbook. This is a thin wooden tablet that supports a paper protected by thin horn. On the horn are printed the alphabet, the vowels, some syllables, and the Lord’s Prayer. While the hornbook would have stayed at school most days, Will will definitely be carrying -- in his whining schoolboy’s leather satchel --  his knife for sharpening quills (and, of course, for carving his name or initials anywhere he can get away with it) and the quills themselves and his glass of ink. He also hauls candles with him (in the winter) and some fuel and his ink horn (to receive the ink from the glass) and his writing book and half a squire of paper. (I have no idea what a squire is, in paper terms, but my guess is that it takes four snivels of paper to equal a squire.)

Trudging (or skipping, we don’t know which it is this day and odds are good that it depends  upon the day, the season, this schoolday’s demands, and young Shakespeare’s mood this particular early morning) up those stone stairs to the schoolroom loft of the Gild Hall, young Will finally enters the big schoolroom with its white-washed walls (but no heretical murals beneath this white-wash) and many chamfered oak beams overhead in the form of heavy rafters and on both sides as bracing for the walls. The beams boast bright, painted roses and hearts: the red rose of the House of Lancaster intermixed everywhere with the white heart of the House of York, symbolizing the Tudor-era reconciliation that has settled the ancient feud between those two royal English families.

How many times, bored while slower students recite or while waiting (patiently or impatiently) after finishing his own work, will young Will Shakespeare study those painted hearts and roses? We can only guess. What is he thinking about while he sits and daydreams as only a bored schoolboy can daydream? We can only imagine.

The big room is high and airy, a sort of well-ventilated, high-ceilinged attic, and has two rows of windows, one set looking down on the interesting Church Street with its many alehouses. For instruction and other meeting purposes, the huge room has been subdivided by partitions but the longest open section is where young student Will (and upwards of 40 or 41 other boys) will receive instruction from the schoolmaster and his assistant – called an usher – six days a week (halfdays Thursday and Saturday), from six or seven a.m. until five each afternoon, for almost the full year.

The boys sit on benches and the benches are hard. And, as mentioned, the boys will sit there for up to eleven hours a day with only a short break for a mid-day meal. The schoolmaster teaches the older boys, who are said to be in the Upper School, while the usher instructs the younger students, who are said to be in petit school, in the same room. So no matter what the older boys are reciting or listening to and taking notes on, always in the background is the usher’s drilling of the youngsters on their basic grammar, vocabulary, and accidence.

It’s often pointed out that this was an age before the first real dictionary, but even for that laissez faire era of spelling, there’s strong evidence that the grown-up William Shakespeare was a miserable speller.

We have only one fairly reliable extant example of William Shakespeare’s own handwriting – the so-called ‘Hand D’ in the suppressed play called Booke of Sir Thomas More in which Shakespeare contributed just a scene or two – but even in that short example, the grown up grammar-school Will turned into Playwright Shakespeare spelled “ffraunc” for France, “Jarman” for German, “graunt” for grant, “scilens” for silence, and “afoord” for afford. This was about par for the course for a minimally literate citizen during Elizabeth I’s reign, but perhaps a little below par for a famous playwright.

Still, the language isn’t settled yet here in the 1570’s, in vocabulary, spelling, or usage, and young Will’s teacher and usher don’t and won’t pay much attention to the boy’s spelling of English words. It is his Latin they care about.

But right now we’re with Will as he and forty-one other boys settle down – about as much as they’re going to settle down – for the 7 a.m. arrival (evidently it’s winter, and the boys’ candles have already been lit on their plank tables) of the schoolmaster. (The usher has arrived with the boys and is hovering like the buzzard-scarecrow he is.)

The boys stand and bow. This master is wearing a leather jerkin, a flat cap (think graduation day), and a round cloak or sort of cassock of silk and woolen (called “mockado”) and he carries with him a sort of noble presence and gravitas. When the schoolmaster – one Simon Hunt in the earlier years, a certain Thomas Jenkins in the Upper School years -- calls out our boy’s name, young Will shall answer “adsum.”

After the first days of their first year, the boys aren’t exactly awed into silence and good behavior, even by so evidently humane, sensitive, and intelligent a teacher as Thomas Jenkins. We’ll soon see in Shakespeare’s own send-up of a classroom lesson from that most perfunctory of all his plays, the royally-commanded-to-be-written The Merry Wives of Windsor (which has that loosest of loose women and Falstaff’s occasional bawd, Mistress Quickly, in attendance, misunderstanding everything)that there were puns, bawdry, and burlesque in the classroom – or at least the kind of schoolboy attempts at wit where William, called upon to give the Latin genitive case plural, manages horum, harum, horum to summon up “whore” and can snigger out hog for hoc and substitute fuckative for vocative.

One clue from history that the boys, at least of the upper class, weren’t awed into obedience by the glory of their schoolmaster was the 1571 recording in the Stratford record books that teacher Simon Hunt (teaching the upper benches then) had made a payment of 7s 11 dtowardes the repayringe of the schole wyndowes.

Why would the schoolmaster have to pay to replace the school windows? Probably because he’d been a victim of what then was called “barring out” – i.e. on pre-set days, the boys would get there even before the usher and bar the door against their master. Yes, here it is in the town notes – the payment is for “a wyndowe broken at the shuttinge of [their] Master forthe.” It was indeed a barring out . . . the little bastards (7-year-old Will included).  Luckily for Simon Hunt, the law provided for the teacher sueing to dun the parents of the students when windows or other expensive items were broken through a barring out. The Tudor era and Elizabethan England were one endless round-robin of lawsuits.

Once the schoolmaster and his fluttering usher were barred, the boys would go nuts, trashing things in a manner rarely seen in reality even these days (except in every movie or TV scene involving a classroom, where – for some reason known only to scriptwriters – they think that kids devolve into shouting, screaming, standing on desks, and, this is essential to the scene, hurling spitwards and paper airplanes as soon as the teacher steps out of the room. Of course, I only taught elementary school for 18 years, but I know that if my class had ever behaved that way, even once, even with a substitute, the 30- or 40-somethings would still be out in the hallway copying definitions.)

But I digress.

Young Will knew heavy discipline in school (and almost certainly knew physical punishment, including heavy caning), but he also knew the joys of student-created chaos. As Park Honan, one of the best of Shakespeare’s modern biographers put it – “William knew a festive, topsy-turvy world of inverted authority in school and his comedies were to explore the more subtle and complex inversions – and deep releases – of antic mishaps.

But Shakespeare, even as 7-year-old Will, also is learning that after the chaotic joy of antic mishaps was over, someone always had to pay the bill. That ultimate bill-paying will be evident in every tragedy he will write and in most of the comedies as well.

#

Well, there you go. ‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee used to say in the Letters section of all my Marvel comics.

Doesn’t this help you immensely as a writer? Don’t you feel that this little bit of Bardography has already helped you take a huge forward step on the road to Writing Well?

What do you mean you want your money back? (Although charging money for these wonderful Writing Well Installments isn’t a bad idea.)

But before we adjourn due to the referee’s call of  gibbering irrelevancy, let me ask you this:

If you’re writing for publication (or trying to), what has formed your writing style? What are you doing, formally and informally, to hone and improve that style? What is your plan to make your style more distinctive? Are you aware of the specific elements from your education, formal and informal, that are shaping that style?

James Wood explores style and the development of style on pp 182-212 of How Fiction Works, but even his explanation falls on deaf ears for the majority of would-be writers who think they have a personal style, but who are producing just tics of echoes of style, usually based on influence from other writers . . . mostly influences of which they aren’t consciously aware.

Wood’s first comment on style, his section 99 on p.182, introduces the idea of a writer (or even a good reader) needing a “third ear”:

Nietzsche laments, in Beyond Good and Evil: “What a torment books written in German are for him who has a third ear.” If prose is to be as well written as poetry – the old modernist hope – novelists and readers must develop their own third ears. We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful (“she writes like an angel”) is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing “beautifully” as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.

This last point is especially interesting to me since I do tend to follow reviews and critical essays (in approved sources, of course, such as the NYTimes or New York Review of Books or The New Yorker) about the reigning writers in my field, and the high praise of the “beautiful writing” of some of these praised authors does indeed prove that the trendy reviewers are deaf, dumb, blind, or all of the above. They have no clue as to what “beautiful writing” is, only that it should belong to the writer they’ve singled out for praise. The result has been that at the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st,  we have legions of trendy authors being praised for “unique style” and “beautiful writing” when – sadly – most of those authors wouldn’t recognize a beautifully written sentence if one hit them up the side of the head with a shovel.

Where, then, do we find a system that will help us all recognize beauty in writing and real quality in style?

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In looking for some of the roots of Will Shakespeare’s style, I’m following an old habit of searching inductively rather than deductively. During my 18 years of being a teacher and creator of curriculum, I decided not to rely on modern education’s system for creating and testing curriculum – i.e. deriving teaching styles from some theoretical cosmic principles and then testing them via “research” that always seems to include some very shaky methodology.

Instead of beginning with theory or these cosmic principles, I began by looking at men and women in history who were world class in their achievements – in writing, in science, in music, in art, in athletic endeavor, in politics – and then studied them in hopes of finding some common elements in their education. Elements that I could adapt in the curricula I was writing (either for my regular sixth grade class or, later, for a district-wide gifted-talented program.)

In one case I asked myself: which generation of American leaders proved itself to be the most superior in terms of their intellect, creativity, leadership, and ability to express themselves in speech and the written word?

An elementary student could probably answer that question in an instant. (At least a pre-1970 student could have.) The Founding Fathers generation.

What was the common element of their educations? Well – primarily a form of individual tutoring.  That’s not too helpful in planning modern curricula and teaching methods. So one looks at what they were being taught and trained to be and then the inductive search pays off big time. From Franklin to Hamilton to Jefferson to (at a lesser degree) Washington to John Adams to most of the other Founders who brought the United States of America and its still-powerful dreams of freedom into being, the men had been taught to become philosophes. (No, not “philosophers,” but philosophes – the Enlightenment ideal of the single man who could and would be the master of rhetoric, literature, languages, sciences (from astronomy to botany), architecture, art, music, farming, geography, and anything else that deserved being studied. Thomas Jefferson may have best embodied the philosophe ideal in that generation, but most of the other Founding Fathers were Renaissance Men in the old sense of that term. It was a time when one individual, with the proper intelligence and temperament and self-discipline could become a master in fields that today are made up of specialists-only.)

Looking into the common goals, ideals, and pedagogic methods that formed the Founding Fathers led me to huge understandings in how to create what they today too-cutely call “multi-disciplinary” courses and curricula. Behind it all, of course, had to be that generations ideal, taken from the classical Greeks, of areté – nothing less than excellence in all things attempted.

At other times I looked at families that turned out the most world-class competitors in some field of creative endeavor.

Study the N.C. Wyeth family, all of whose children turned into not only world-class artists but concert pianists (Henrietta) and so forth, down to the third generation. What’s to be learned there? Well, old N.C. Wyeth, the patriarch, taught the kids at home, but this isn’t your local evangelical family’s “home schooling”, almost always pursued so that the parents can religiously indoctrinate their children and keep them from being polluted by outside influences at school. (It’s true – I’m no fan of home schooling. I’ve seen its negative side-effects far too often. I don’t really care how many national spelling bees home-schooled kids win. I’d rather have another Will Shakespeare who can’t spell for sour owl poop, but who’s learned to think.)

N.C. Wyeth simply knew that he was the best possible teacher for most subjects for his children and grandchildren. For those areas where he knew he wasn’t the best (as in music or rhetoric or writing), he brought in tutors who were the best. Most of what I learned in my years of inductive searching into the education of three generations of the Wyeths (the famous Andrew was, of course, N.C.’s rebellious son) flew in the face of almost everything that’s a given in modern educational pedagogic theory.

Discipline was there, of course, and in degrees that no public school teacher today can imagine. There was no corporal punishment – N.C. believed in love and imagination and celebration and filled his children’s lives with these things (the Wyeths, under grandfather N.C. overdid it on every holiday, to the level of the aging N.C., dressed as Santa Claus, actually coming down from the icy roof through an open upstairs window) – but if Henrietta showed up one minute late to her music lesson, her music tutor was ordered by N.C. to send her away in shame and to cancel the lesson that day. 99% of life is showing up, but old N.C. knew that to the winners in the agon of life’s competition, showing up on time is necessary. And they need to feel shame when they willfully fail.

There were some little incidental pedagogic tidbits to be pondered in turning out a world-class artist:

When little Andrew was about five, he showed a great aptitude in drawing with charcoal. Andy preferred charcoal sketching to any other medium and was far, far ahead in that area of his daily instruction from his father. So N.C. simply prohibited young Andrew from drawing with charcoal for a  year – perhaps it was two years – until his other strengths and control of other media caught up.

Imagine telling today’s parents or school boards that this is a productive instructional approach.

It was, of course, and Andrew Wyeth later explained why. (Although it upset him at the time.) All our lives, through all of our education – formal and then self-education – when given a choice, we do what we do best. (This is why I gave up studying mathematics after my freshman year in college.) We’re human – we want to excel, so we concentrate on our strengths. But N.C. Wyeth understood that to be world-class in something so demanding as art, the young artist must continue to develop across the full spectrum of media, methods, tools, and techniques. No one wants a major world artist whose strength is only in charcoal drawing. (But this is precisely what we have the equivalent of in our arts and literature and music today. These mono-talents are lucky that those who review them in the modern era usually have no fully developed talent.)

Does any of this make any sense, my friends and fellow writers?

Has anyone ever taught you style in writing? You’ll see as we go here that I taught my regular catch-as-catch-can sixth graders something about style – helping them write “in the style” of a few dozen writers (ranging from Jean Shepherd to Edgar Alan Poe to, yes, Shakespeare himself) – and the result was that, in district standardized holistic testing, my motley and random assemblage of 25 or so sixth-graders scored, on average, better than the district’s high school seniors being tested on the same holistic writing standards. (My best sixth-grade writers scored on the college and post-college level in writing.)

The single difference seemed to be that I’d exposed my kids to various writers’ style in various forms and genres of writing, helped them see what made those styles distinctive, and had them practice writing in those styles before suggesting they create their own styles.

Some of you may have MFA’s in Creative Writing for all I know – I work with groups of adult students where that is common – so I ask you again: Who taught you style in writing? Who helped you develop that third ear that James Wood described so beautifully? Who taught you first to read (and then to play) the musical scores of choosing the right word rather than the almost-right word, of not only seeing and hearing but feeling the patterns, repetitions, and echoes in your prose, and of how to judge how “the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality”?

Or are you just faking this stuff and hoping to God that these absolutely necessary skills – as necessary as the media and techniques that Andrew Wyeth might have ignored for a lifetime if N.C. hadn’t taken his charcoal pencil away – will somehow magically appear and adhere out of your general reading?

So if you’re interested in continuing, let’s return to see what young Will Shakespeare was learning and why it served him rather well as a writer and poet.

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American children in the last part of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st Century are commanded to learn only what is “relevant.” Writers of textbooks, schoolboards, principals, teachers, and educational theorists all have decided that “relevance” is the second commandment of American education (second only to content being multiculturally diverse.) The result has been that studies now show that several generations of American students cannot identify or tell anything about such irrelevant Dead White Males as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington and they think that the Gettysburg Address is a street number.

But the same studies show that almost all American students, by sixth grade, can identify Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. (It’s true that Sojourner Truth was illiterate to the end of her life and somewhat addled by a head injury early in life, so her overall contributions to American life and government were somewhat limited – but she led many slaves and ex-slaves to Canada. And American students who know so little else about the founding, design, philosophy, and early presidents of the United States do know her story. Sojourner Truth, like sex ed, is considered relevant.)

Nothing that young Will Shakespeare learned in his approximately seven years in Lower School and Upper School was relevant to his life.

Will and his classmates were taught nothing about the more recent history of England, turbulent and imperative though that knowledge might be. (The brother of one of Will’s teachers was arrested on his way to Stratford, hanged, and disemboweled for being a secret Catholic. The boys in Will’s class would not even be taught the bright line they must not cross if they were to avoid the same fate.) They were taught nothing about the politics, society, or culture of their nation. They learned almost no geography, no map reading, nothing about the trades or crafts of their fathers (whose skills and trades and standing in the community had bought them the right to attend school), nothing at all about agriculture, nothing about science, nothing about the human body or medicine, nothing about the music that their society so valued, and – to all intents and purposes – nothing about any other topic that might be relevant to them at that age or in their own futures.

They were not even taught the writing, spelling, or rhetoric in their own language of English.

What Will and the other boys learned was Latin.

There may be a few others reading this who – as old as me – can actually remember taking Latin in high school. My guess is that few of you mourned that discipline’s demise any more than I did.

For Will Shakespeare and his classmates, Latin was the alpha and omega of grammar school life. (Had the fortunes of John Shakespeare not taken a turn for the worse in the early years of Will’s adolescence, it’s possible that William Shakespeare would have continued his grammar school education to the higher levels where Greek replaced Latin as the language of choice, and then headed off to Cambridge (as did Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, and Thomas Nashe) or Oxford to pursue more serious readings and studies in Greek.) But grammar school would be all the formal education Will received, so his studies were in Latin. (Note that this would almost certainly have been more than the “small Latine” that Jonson accused him of; in the upper form, it’s probable that Will would have been expected to communicate in Latin even to his schoolmates, while also helping to teach the boys in the lower forms.)

In a real sense, Will Shakespeare’s education was everything that modern American pedagogy avoids and abhors – eschewing all relevance, learning through a dead language, and focusing totally on repetition, rote learning, memorizing, writing in the style of others long dead, and reciting to the exclusion of what modern educators call “higher forms of creative learning.” Indeed, there was very little “creative” about the warp and woof of Will’s long and arduous school days. (On the other hand, for many years I had a cartoon that explained my feeling toward the “creative writing” emphasis that has replaced all study of rhetoric. A little student, perhaps second grade, has his arms crossed at his desk, pencil down, and is growling up at his frowning teacher – “I know this is Creative Hour, but damn it, I don’t feel creative right now!”)

It’s hard for anyone alive today to know, much less explain, the central importance of Latin to so many people, especially educated people, in Will Shakespeare’s day.

Park Honan points out that the sound of language, English as well as Latin, appealed to 16th and 17th Century residents of England far more than did the syntax or vocabulary of that language. The Elizabethans were drunk with the sound of language. Young Will’s endless memory work in Latin would train his ear – including that third ear that Nietzsche knew was so important to the poet or writer hoping to separate the dross from the pearls.

More than just having a nice sound, Latin was the universal spoken language of the world’s teachers, doctors, royalty, heralds, proto-scientists, historians, pharmacists, and poets in Shakespeare’s day. The literary prestige of the language was almost beyond measurement. Perhaps most important and least discussed by today’s historians and literary experts, Latin in William Shakespeare’s day was considered the language of God. The priests of Europe still said Mass in it. Until the era of Shakespeare’s parents, Latin had been the mystical language that invoked the literal physical presence of Jesus Christ, the world’s savior, as wine was transubstantiated into His Blood and bread was transformed into His Body. Latin in the 1570’s still held a latent power even for the vast majority of Elizabethan Protestants who could write and read in no language.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the fact that while Latin was a fixed entity in terms of vocabulary and grammar, the English of young Will Shakespeare’s day was in such violent flux that it was almost unteachable. English had changed so much in the two hundred years since Chaucer’s day that almost no one in Will’s day could understand Chaucer.

By Shakespeare’s day, the French had standardized, dictionaried, and basically tamed their language – in an attempt to freeze it in place so that it wouldn’t be “corrupted” (precisely Dr. Johnson’s primary motive, after being paid, when he created the authoritative English dictionary two centuries later) – to the point that French was being taught in French grammar schools. Even in Shakespeare’s day, there were men of letters who wanted to emulate the French (always a bad idea, in my opinion.) One of these would-be emulators is our old friend Ben Jonson, who regularly got his linens in a bunch over other playwrights’ (including Shakespeare’s) horrifying use of such outlandish words as damp, clumsy, strenuous and puffy. Obviously any language that would stoop to using such mongrel words is well on its way to total corruption.

Marchette Chute, author of Shakespeare of London, explains why this period of linguistic and symantic madness in the history of English served Shakespeare well:

This use of new words could degenerate into complete confusion in the hands of incompetent writers but it gave Shakespeare exactly the freedom he needed. He felt at complete liberty to pick up effective new words and combinations of words wherever he could find them, and a play like Hamlet is so full of them that it would have made a schoolmaster turn pale if he had had any responsibility for teaching his charges the English language. Fortunately, he had no such responsibility, and young William Shakespeare was free to discover the great reaches of the English language as a freeborn and independent citizen.

So with the damp, clumsy, strenuous, and puffy swamp of English out of bounds, it was Latin, Latin, Latin for Will and his chums.

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Sir Thomas More was executed by decapitation on July 6, 1535. The sentence of mere beheading was a gift of leniency from his former friend Henry VIII, since the usual punishment for treason was being hanged, drawn, and quartered. In skilled hands, a slow and terrible process.

Many clues point to the adult Shakespeare feeling certain affinities for More. (Whose books, writings, teachings and name, since the Catholic Church had declared him a saint and martyr for opposing Henry VIII’s divorce, were anathema to any loyal Englishman during the days of Elizabeth I.) For our purposes though, it might be helpful to compare Thomas More studies at St. Anthony’s grammar school on Threadneedle Street in London around 1485 when he was seven (or even his studies at Oxford, which he entered in the autumn of 1492) with Will Shakespeare’s studies in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1570’s. (A good place to start such a comparison might be Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More.)

Although Will’s immersion in Latin, Latin, and more Latin, with the focus on memory and recitation and rhetoric, seems infinitely old-fashioned to us now, it was revolutionary compared to the education of young Sir Thomas More, who was trained in the medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. More’s system of education had not altered much throughout the Middle Ages, while young Will’s curriculum had largely been drawn up by one of Sir Thomas More’s closest intellectual friends – Erasmus.

Erasmus’s impact on European and English education and curriculum is almost beyond our ability to comprehend. What Erasmus had introduced into Shakespeare’s generations of young scholars was a powerful – and not infrequently humorous – form of Christian humanism. Sir Thomas More’s trivium, focusing so heavily on logic, would have made Mr. Spock’s Vulcan education seem touchy-feely trivial in comparison. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that Erasmus’s humanist contributions to the curriculum humanized learning for Will Shakespeare and other bright lads like him.

Some of Erasmus’s thoughts on learning and life (now a central part of Will Shakespeare’s learning) were rooted in the humanist teachings of 15th Century Florentines such as Marsilio Ficino and his protégé, Pico della Mirandola. (Sir Thomas More translated Pico della Mirandola’s biography into English.)

What made Pico profoundly revolutionary – and perhaps led Shakespeare to write 37 of the greatest plays in the English language (or any other language) – was the Florentine’s conviction that human beings were neither earthly nor celestial in nature, neither immortal or mortal, nor basically good or bad, but were, rather, the product of their moral decisions and choices during life. (To understand how earthshakingly revolutionary this humanist philosophy of ongoing moral choice was, one must understand the medieval mind, perhaps through reading and understanding Dante, who showed us a steady-state universe in which everyone in the afterlife was frozen in exactly the same places their characters set them in this life, a universe in which everyone would always inhabit the same hierarchy of moral and mortal pain in this life and the next – but it’s been my observation that Dante has gone a little out of fashion with our elementary and high-school students.)

The bottom line of Ficino’s, Pico della Mirandola’s, and Erasmus’s philosophy underlying the new curriculum was that young minds must be trained for ethical choice. And Latin – its grammar, its logic, its use in rhetoric – was the instrument to tease out that ethical awareness in young minds.

And so young Will Shakespeare immersed himself, however unwillingly at times, in the intellectual and linguistic training that would make him who he became.

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In his section 100 in How Fiction Works, James Wood begins with this single, incredible, ignore-at-your-own-risk sentence:

There is a way in which even complex prose is quite simple – because of that mathematical finality by which a perfect sentence cannot admit of an infinite number of variations, cannot be extended without aesthetic blight: its perfection is the solution to its own puzzle; it could not be done better.

This profound revelation reminds me of an investigation by some mathematicians and “experts” on human intelligence I hovered near the periphery of some years ago. The quandry was that – at that time – the best chess players in the world could still beat the best chess program that IBM had created. The real quandry was that there was no doubt that the computer program could look at the board and project several million of its opponent’s possible moves in a tiny fraction of a second, assign probabilities and values to each of those several million possible moves, and almost instantly propose the best countermove in each case.

So how could a mere human brain equal that?

The answer, it turned out (when someone finally thought to ask the chess master who was beating the cyberpants off Big Blue), was that a human chess master does not see a million potential moves. Nor even a hundred. Nor even twenty. The chess master sees only the best two or three or four moves his high-level opponent might make, and calculates his response based on that.

This is precisely what James Wood and any master writer you might talk to is trying to explain to the novice writer: instead of bashing around in endless successive approximations of the right word, the right phrase, the correct sentence, there is only one way to say it perfectly. Any extension of that sentence, or shortening, creates aesthetic blight.

When Wood chooses a sentence from Virginia Woolf to explain this – “The day waves yellow with all its crops” – he has given you an example of the perfect music.

Any quibbling beyond that point and we become the idiot, impotent, tone-deaf Emperor, struggling in front of an audience for some critique, any critique, of Mozart’s new symphony, finally blurting in his infinitely idiot “review” – “Just too many notes. That’s all.

So I ask again – How are you honing your third ear for this? How are you eschewing the non-musical person’s clunky successive approximations, of crunching far too many possibilities, in favor of choosing from three or two or just one visualized perfect next move?

William Shakespeare appears to have acquired the perfect third ear through grammar-school Latin.

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Will’s first months took him into and through William Lily’s Short Introduction of Grammar, a reef upon which thousands of young educational ships have foundered. In Lily – and with his usher’s drills and demands of recitation – he learned the eight parts of Latin speech and soon followed Lily into examples of Cato, Cicero, and Terence.

Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, whenever he quotes in Latin, he uses common examples from Lily’s grammar-school texts and lessons. This grammar-school drilling and re-drilling assured, as Park Honan points out, “that Elizabethan playwrights would write for audiences reared in a literary culture.”

The importance of a writer and his readership or audience sharing the same educational and literary touchstones can’t be overemphasized. References need to be recognized, their contexts already known by the reader or audience member, for them to be understood. It does no good to be a superbly educated writer with a nation of dunces for readers and theater-goers. The only thing worse, one imagines, is that all the writers become dunces to write for dunces, in which case the “literary culture” is no longer literary nor culture, merely a knowledge of what was on last night’s Tonight Show or Entertainment Tonight. In which case, as Shakespeare’s pedant school teacher Holofernes said in Loves Labour’s Lost, “We are well and truly fucked.”

All right. Holofernes didn’t say that. I made that up.

For those who survived Lily (including Will), students moved on to Leonard Cullman’s Sententia Pueriles (“sentences for boys”), which provided lists of Latin adages to serve as fodder for actual conversations. Shakespeare mentions this book more than two hundred times in his plays.

Let’s stop here and look into Sententia Pueriles. If your third ear is developing, you’ll immediately hear a famous Shakespearean character’s voice in it:

Deferto neminem                                           Accuse no man
Multitudini place                                             Please the multitude
Pecuniae obediunt omnia                                All things obey money
Felicitas incitat inimicitias                                Felicity doth raise up enemies
Somnus mortis imago                                     Sleep is the image of death
Tempus edax rerum                                       Time is a devourer
Tempus dolorem lenit                                     Time doth assuage grief
Animus cujusque sermone revelatur                Each person’s mind is discovered by his
                                                                    speech

Good, I see from your bright eyes and eagerly upthrust hands that most of you immediately heard the old-fool wise-moron voice of the Shakespearean character evoked here. But for those few of you who still look blank, we’ll add another clue.

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the’ opposéd may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy,
For the appeal oft proclaims the man.
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell! My blessing season this in thee!”

Okay – I see that the rest of you have it. This is, of course, Polonius giving his son Laertes some last-minute advice before Laertes departs for France in Hamlet.

Actually, I’m not sure the rest of you have it after all. In the kind of study I love, done about a decade ago, researchers found that about 70% of Americans quizzed about this famous avalanche of advice said that it was from the Bible. Of those who managed to name the Shakespearean play it was from and the character – Polonius – the vast majority still thought that it was from a wise man giving wise advice.

Polonius is a long-winded old fool. When he accosts a reading Hamlet and demands to know what the prince is reading and Hamlet responds “Words, words, words!” the response is also a prediction of what old Polonius will be vomiting at him. (By the way, if you’ve ever been curious as to what book Hamlet is reading in that scene, be curious no longer: it’s the tenth satire of Juvenal and Hamlet’s “Words, words, words” is a dismissive review of it.  That book was one of Will’s grammar-school texts.)

Polonius is long-winded old fool and Hamlet (and Shakespeare) treated him as such, but how richer the humor at the old fart’s expense to know that the court advisor’s “wise advice” to his grown son, repeated now for more than four hundred years (often as if it were the passing on of profound Biblical wisdom), boils down to Sententia Puerlies, “sentences for boys.” A basic grammar-school text. But just as the fact that Shakespeare mentioned this book more than two hundred times in his plays informs us of the impact it had on him – we cannot fully hate something that’s been so important to us – so do we see the same ambiguity of love and hate in Hamlet toward Polonius. True, he stabs the old man to death through the curtain of the aras, thinking it was Claudius hiding there, and seems to have no compunction at his mistake (“I’ll lug the guts into a neighbor room”), but Hamlet earlier advises the Player King to “mock him not” when he sends the actors off with Polonius.

But I digress.

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Will Shakespeare had no “creative writing” time at his school. His teachers would have laughed at the idea that there’s some innate creativity – much less such a complicated thing as “style” – already in a young child, just waiting to get out. (Come to think of it, it is a laughable idea. Just one that dominates all our “language arts” curricula today.)

Instead of “language arts” or “creative writing,” Will studied rhetoric, both spoken and written. In Latin.

I don’t know what you’re studying to form and improve your writer’s sense of style, but when Will Shakespeare was nine years old he was deep into studying inventio and dispositio, elocutio and memoria, pronunciato or action and delivery. These principles formed the basis of his writing for the rest of his life.

Every day, Will and his classmates were required to consider the quis, the quid, the cui, the causa, the locus, the quo tempore, the prima sequela: “That is, who speaks in that place, what he speaks, to whom he speaks, upon what occasion he speaks, or to what end, where he spake, at what it was, what went before in the sentences next, what followeth next after.”

As Jonathan Bate has written – “Though Shakespeare studded his works with adages and sententiae, classical allusions, and occasional Latin tags of the sort that Jonson so loved, one suspects that it was this latter mode of reading that really attracted him. Always attend to the speaker, the context, the motivation for the speech. Do not assume that there is a disinterested truth, that the words of the speaker are those of the author. This is the dramatist’s way of working.”

Well, that was the dramatist’s way of working. Today neither students nor their would-be teachers can seem to separate the argument of argument from their own opinions, nor their opinions from their selves. Young writers, up to adulthood, including most modern novelists and playwrights, don’t understand the quis, quid, cui, causa, locus, quo tempore, or prima sequela of their characters, since most writers today create characters that are, at best, transparent masks of themselves. The opinions today which writers (and playwrights and screenwriters and TV writers) and their puppet-characters express must be presorted, pretested, pre-accepted and politically correct. The audiences today, presumed too dull to sort things out on their own, must be in on the joke before the joke is told, since that way everyone seems smart. It’s the literary and dramatic equivalent of everyone being given the answers to the dumbed-down test before the test is given, so that no one feels inferior.

(Oddly, a couple of years before Katrina wiped a certain chalkboard temporarily clean, the New Orleans Police Department tried just this approach. It seems that more than 60% of their police recruit applicants, many of them members of drug and street gangs there and thus part of the city corruption, couldn’t pass the simple fifth-grade-level entry test. The NOPD allowed the applicants to retake the tests. The same number failed. The police department then started intense tutoring to the test – still 60% failure rates. Finally the “tutors” just handed the applicants the answers to the test, to take home and memorize or write on their wrists. Close to 60% still failed. In the end, the police department did the brilliant thing and just did away with any written test as a requirement to be a New Orleans police officer.)

But I digress.

Eventually Will began writing little epistles, letters, in Latin, basing his style on the great Roman masters such as Cicero and Terence. All these letters were exercises in rhetoric and rhetoric’s purpose was to make the boys aware of the persuasive use of words for the purposes of argument. It meant learning how to arrange and order your speeches: exordium, narration, argument in favor, arguments against, refutation, exemplification, testimony, conclusion.

As Jonathan Bate explains, “It meant honing your metaphors and developing elaborate figures of verbal symmetry – syllepsis, antimetabole, zeugma, threefold amplifacatio (otherwise known as tricolon).”

A pregnant pause here. You may not be too familiar with syllepsis, antimetabole, or zeugma, but all of us today are up to our dumb donkey ears in amplifacatio. This tricolon is the politician’s smooth answer in threes – “Well, Judy, there’s three reasons for that part of my healthcare policy . . . blah, blah, and blah.” Why is it always three goddamned reasons? Why not six? Why not nine? Why not one , for Christ’s sake!? Why always three?

It’s always three because politicians, as our last students of rhetoric, learn early to think in amplifacationed tricolon and after a while they (and we) can’t escape it. Rhetoric, as Will learned young, is, above all else, a way to organize one’s thoughts even as one is expressing them. As I’ve quoted E.M. Forster more than a few times – “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (emphasis mine)

Or as Bertrand Russell explained it – “Language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” And rhetoric is one of the highest and most severely disciplined forms of language and thought-into-prose. But for God’s sake, Obama and all the rest of you out there in the dark listening, let’s eschew the ubiquitoius amplifacatio tricolon for a while and try something else. Try . . . zeugma.

Here’s an interesting example of nine-year-old Will Shakespeare and zeugma:

Early on, in Lily’s Short Introduction of Grammar, Will learned that the rule of agreement should work in Latin when a single verb serves two or more nouns.  This is called zeugma and Will would have seen this example from Cicero:

Nihil te nocturnum praesidium palatii? Nihil urbis vigilae? Nihil timor populi? Nihil concursus honorum omnium? Nihil hic munitissimus habendi. Senatus locus? Nihil horum ora vultusque moverunt?”

In Soul of the Age, Jonathan Bate asks us to imagine schoomaster Simon Hunt hovering over little Will as he asks his student to translate Cicero’s extended zeugma. Bate reminds us that Cicero has had the single verb moverunt, held back to the end for maximum impact (and to confuse the maximum number of boys), serve no fewer than six noun phrases, each introduced by nihil, “nothing.” Will’s translation into English will have to give us a repetition at the start of each sentence, but it’s not grammatically possible – in English – to replicate Cicero’s beautiful and prominent placement of those lovely nihils. (The single word that shall summarize Shakespeare’s King Lear.) And English grammar, so clumsy compared to the Latin, will require the boy to keep repeating the verb in order to make sense.

So, Bate says, while imagining Will Shakespeare standing to recite and pausing for breath and desperate thought at the end of each piped-out sentence, the boy’s response would have sounded something like this:

Did the night-guarding of the palace nothing move thee?
Did the watching of the City nothing move thee?
Did the fear of the people nothing move thee?
Did the running together of all good men nothing move thee?
Did this most strong place of holding the Senate nothing move thee?
Did the face and countenance of these nothing move thee?

And then Jonathan Bate writes a sentence that makes me, as teacher and writer, want to weep.

He is less than ten years old, and yet already he is speaking like a poet, seeking to move an audience through the elaborately patterned manipulation of language.

I’ll speak in a minute of my own encounters with children and poetry, and teachers who are ill-suited to teach poetry since they understand none of it, but let’s return now to Bate’s analysis of what this early internalizing of poetic thought is doing to Will Shakespeare:

. . . Both the imagery and the structure are highly memorable. The night guarding of the palace, the watching of the city. The fear of the people, the good men running in the street. The authority of the Roman Senate, the countenance that both reveals and conceals. The sound of the words, the rhythm of the sentences – a whisper of the beat of blank verse? The mesmerizing force of repetition at the beginning and end of each line. All are impressed on his ardent young mind.

“Around twenty years later, he will be hard at work on his own repetitions:

            “So many hours must I tend my flock,
            So many hours must I take my rest,
            So many hours must I contemplate,
            So many hours must I sport myself.

And Bate goes on to remind us that eight years after this repetition, Shakespeare would bring Cicero back from the dead as a minor player in his Julius Caesar, a play in which he – young Will grown and gone into the paying world of language (if not exactly letters) – will raise the standard of the Ciceronian world of rhetoric, of patterned language and repetition and register, to new heights with this speech:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him . . .
Here, under the leave of Brutus, and the rest ---
For Brutus is an honorable man:
So are they all, all honourable men . . .
But Brutus says, he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man . . .
I thrice presented him with a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says, he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honourable man.”

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As far as I can tell as a teacher for 18 years and a national language-arts consultant beyond that, public schools in America have no real system for teaching children how to write – or even read -- poetry. Nor in all my years as a teacher and consultant did I ever come across a public-school teacher who understood poetry. (A few teachers told me that they were passionate about poetry and even went through the motions of writing it, but what I saw of their work tended to be poor, Hallmark-doggerel stuff.) Sadly, I don’t believe it’s possible to teach a subject unless one has a feel for the essence of the topic to be taught, and fewer and fewer Americans have any real feel for poetry.

“Teaching poetry” seems to have been reified to, somewhere around third grade, a teacher triumphantly telling children that “poetry doesn’t have to rhyme!” Teachers seem to think that this is wonderful, liberating news to kids, but oddly enough, some children want to learn how to read and write poetry well. Suddenly they become the person who’s paid a premium price for their first tennis lesson only to hear, “And you don’t need to play tennis with a net! Or with a racket, if you don’t want to!”
 
Yeah, well, thanks a lot. I want to learn how to play tennis with a net. And with a racket. (Which would probably be the equivalent to understanding meter in a poem.) Tennis might just be more fun that way.

Meanwhile, teachers from first grade through high school seem to think that Japanese haiku is the alpha and omega of poetry. It is useful. My first year teaching, I taught it to my third graders. (It goes great with learning what syllables are and how to count them.) Indeed, it’s the very rigid format of haiku that allows children’s efforts to look and sound something like the real poetry it’s based on. But do teachers explain the history of haiku, share the great examples of it across the millennia, and go into more subtle areas of the art such as the necessity of a season being mentioned, however indirectly? (The sound of crickets, for instance, sets a season.) Not usually.

So children go through American public schools with no exposure to quality poetry. (Some is shared at the high-school level, of course, which is the equivalent of allowing a musically gifted child to hear his or her first classical music as a teenager.  And even in high-school, most teachers panic in their effort to be “relevant” to the kids’ tastes and needs – both of which are abominable – so that “poetry” becomes the elevation of rap lyrics to poetic status. This is, both literally and metaphorically, obscene.)

After many years of trying, I did find a way to teach sixth-graders to think and write in a poetic manner, but the curriculum required a type of formalized deconstruction of regular prose writing and the filtering of it through a poetic translator not too dissimilar from young Will’s translation of Latin before kids could get a taste of what poet’s do and how they think. The curriculum was difficult, but it allowed students to sound like poets when they wrote. The harder goal, of course, is to help them think like poets.

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I would suggest that the best novelists and short story writers in the modern era have worked, as Shakespeare did, in that interesting and dangerous boundary area between poetry and prose. The vast majority of published writers and would-be writers today, of course, have no sense of poetry, no understanding of poetry, no music in their language, and sport prose styles – while praised – that more resemble the sound of someone moving bricks with a snow shovel than the cadences of poetry. Their models tend to be other (often bestselling) modern writers who have shoveled their own bricks to success.

James Wood in How Fiction Works writes (section 105, p192):

Listen to the operation of an intensely musical ear in one of the greatest stylists of American prose, Saul Bellow, a writer who makes even the fleet-footed – the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths – seem like monopodes. Like all serious novelists, Bellow read poetry: Shakespeare first (he could recite lines and lines from the plays, remembered from his schooldays in Chicago), then Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, Hardy, Larkin, and his friend John Berryman. And behind all this, with its English stretching all the way back into deeper antiquity, the King James Bible. A river, seen as ‘crimped, green, blackish, glassy,’ or Chicago as ‘blue with winter, brown with evening, crystal with frost,’ or New York as “sheer walls, gray spaces, dry lagoons of tar and pebbles.’”

Wood then goes on to quote Saul Bellow’s beautiful passage of a character observing his plane’s take off from New York, and surprises us – or at least me, who’s read and reread Bellow for many decades – with the absolutely true observation: “Bellow had a habit of writing repeatedly about flying, partly, I guess, because it was the great obvious advantage he had over his dead competitors.

Take that, Dickens! Take that, Melville! Take that Milton! Take that, Will Shakespeare! None of you ever described flying from an experiential point of view and I just did! Nyah, nyah, nyah!

Which poets can you recite from memory, writer? Failing that, tell us which poets have helped infuse your work with musical language. It’s interesting to me that besides the Bellows, Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, DeLillos, and Roths who wrote so brilliantly in that dangerous zone between prose and poetry, my generation also had the Michael Ondaatjes, Cormac McCarthys, and other stylists for whom style was all and who sometimes actually got away with creating a “novel” with no story worth mentioning but acres and acres of breathtaking style. The interesting thing to me was that Bellow, like Shakespeare, was the better poet and stylist even with a tale to tell.

I apologize for repeating a passage here (as I begin the discussion of repetition), but we need to hear again part of  James Wood’s first paragraph about style:

We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.

Patterns, repetitions, echoes – a way to judge the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective that can seal a sentence into eternal perfection. We’ve seen how Latin rhetoric began to create that “third ear” in that mass of waiting psycholinguistic talent that was the young Will Shakespeare, but where is it to be found today?

Repetition.

Some of my greatest battles with editors and copyeditors have been over use of repeated words or phrases or sounds. Modern copyeditors working for publishing houses just assume that a word or phrase repeated within the same sentence or with a few lines of itself is a mistake and must be changed, eliminated, scrubbed out. But judicious repetition is the seat and meat of real poetry. It’s certainly a deliberate part of my style. I’ll be fighting the battle against no-repetition-editing for as long as I write and publish.

Recently I reread A Farewell to Arms, one of the early novels in which Hemingway sailed closest to the wind of pure poetry. I’ve shared the novel’s opening paragraph before in Writing Well, even, I believe, with Joan Didion’s discussion of it in an essay she did in 1998, but it’s important that we look at the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms  again – preferably with awe, as I did last week:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees were dusty and the leaves fell off early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

In her 1998 New Yorker essay “Last Words,” Joan Didion cited this opening paragraph not only as an example of near-perfection in prose but as the centerpiece in her argument that the Hemingway estate – the widow Mary Welsch Hemingway made the decision – was profoundly wrong and immoral in choosing to print such posthumous Ernest Hemingway books as True At First Light based only on the writer’s notes and rough drafts. Mrs. Hemingway said that she had kept her husband’s prose relatively intact and in its original form “Except for punctuation and the obviously overlooked ‘ands’ and ‘buts” . . .”

Obviously overlooked “ands” and “buts”?

I hate to think how many of the “ands” in Hemingway’s opening paragraph to A Farewell to Arms would have been dropped, edited out, and “tidied up” if some copyeditor other than Ernest Hemingway or Maxwell Perkins had had his or her way.

This paragraph was part of my Writing Well curriculum – one of the scores of pieces of writing or full stories that my sixth-graders studied in great detail (and then attempted to emulate) – and my eleven-year-olds discovered, as Ms. Didion did, that there are one hundred and twenty-six words in this astounding paragraph, of which twenty-four are repeated “the’s” and fifteen are “and.” There are, the kids discovered, four commas.

Joan Didion wrote – “The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of ‘the’ and of ‘and,’ creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of ‘the’ before the word ‘leaves’ in the fourth sentence (‘and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling’) casts exactly that it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.”

When the kids understood – literally heard – the poetry and chant-liturgy and could feel the repetition of “the’s” and “and’s” created and shaped by both the presence and (more importantly) the omission of commas, I casually asked the sixth-graders why Hemingway, who was going to write about his deserter-character’s flight from war, after all, kept focusing on the trees and the leaves.

A couple of students, sharpened by the hidden indicators of seasons in haiku, suggested that the falling leaves showed the season and were put there to make us sort of nervous about the approaching winter – that is, the coming winter in the character’s life as well as in the valley. Another student said simply, “I think the soldiers the guy watches marching past so proudly are going to fall just like those leaves.”

I’ll admit to you here that, as a teacher, I lived for such moments.

Didion answered the greedy, shallow cynicism of Hemingway’s survivors (publishing everything he left behind and had asked specifically not to be published) by writing –

“Well, there you are. You care about the punctuation or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You care about the ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t.”

Notice the careful and powerful repetition in Didion’s own phrasing?

Let’s look – no, let’s listen – no, let’s feel – the sarcastic force of Marc Antony’s repetition in his little piece of rhetoric that swayed the crowd of plebians from applauding the murder of Caesar (and applauding and approving Caesar’s murderers) to loving and mourning Caesar and calling for the conspirators’ deaths. It took only a few hundred words. This time we’ll add bold to the repeated phrases and perhaps you can hear Antony’s emphasis – at first slight, but with increasing ambiguity finally resolving itself into outright sarcasm:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him . . .
Here, under the leave of Brutus, and the rest ---
For Brutus is an honorable man:
So are they all, all honourable men . . .
But Brutus says, he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man . . .
I thrice presented him with a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says, he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honourable man.”

#

A digression.

After I’d have my sixth-graders find the cadence and repetition in Hemingway’s opening paragraph to A Farewell to Arms, I would ask them – as part of my effort to show them how close some of the finest prose comes to pure poetry – to recopy that paragraph in line and stanza form. The exercise is illustrative. (It is, of course, readable as pure poetry.)

Then I’d ask the kids to tackle the much harder task of shuffling and rearranging Hemingway’s words to put the “In the late summer of that year . . .” poem into iambic pentameter.

Too challenging for sixth-graders, you say? I mentioned earlier how easy it is to teach formal haiku – proper number of syllables per line, inclusion of inferred season and all – to third graders. I used to do it when I taught third grade, then fourth grade. Kids love finding syllables and then finding stressed and unstressed syllables and, after a little teaching, they’re very good at it.

Pentameter is a small step from haiku and after a few examples and attempts, they get quite good at producing lines in pentameter. Iambic pentameter is just a matter of setting a short syllable before long syllable, unstressed syllable before stressed syllable. Small groups of syllables are called “feet,” and pentameter has five feet. Iambic pentameter is thus nothing more than five pairs of short-long/unstressed-stressed syllables in a line, ten in all.

(Before the first lessons in pentameter, always early in the year, I got the class’s interest by promising to show them a critter with five feet before the day was done. I let them guess all day as to what kind of critter it was going to be. After a few years of this, I got smart enough to bring in a small cage with a dropcloth over it to hold the critter – and, once revealed, the critter turned out to be Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 18..)

Within a few easy lessons (often after having introduced writing poetry in syllables via the lovely elegance of haiku), seven-, eight-, nine-, ten-, or eleven-year-old kids were writing and thinking in pentameter and ready for Shakespeare.

(Note – one of the more interesting aspects of this learning curve is that it wasn’t always, or usually, the “good readers” who moved most easily and quickly into pentameter and Shakespeare-talk. Iambic pentameter – as with almost all poetic rules and use of cadence and meter,  is a matter of rhythm more than of mere language or vocabulary. Poetry is language as music, and it’s usually students with the strongest innate musical ability, not the early readers (usually girls), who first pick up the beat and rhythm of iambic pentameter and helped me teach it to the others.

da

DUM

da

DUM

da

DUM

da

DUM

da

DUM

Now the kids could speak John Keats as well as William Shakespeare.

Keat’s line from Ode to Autumn reads –

To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells

Which, when set in unstressed and stressed syllable form, and adding the pause (called the caesura, of course, and – luckily – represented in poetic marking with the same double vertical-line II symbol that signifies the pause button on all the kids’ TV remotes) comes out as –

˘

/

˘

/

˘

/

˘

/

˘

/

To

swell

the

gourd,

and

plump

the

ha-

zel

shells

 

. . .or, more simply . . .

To

swell

|

the

gourd,

||

and

plump

|

the

ha-

|

zel

shells

Now all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a huge percentage of his non-prose lines from his plays are within the kids’ grasp. Before allowing them to “be creative” and go attempt writing a word of their own poetry, they were given the honor and privilege to iambic-pentameterishly deconstruct the everloving aspirations out of lines they chose from the Bard. The chalkboards (I was pre-whiteboard) and butcher paper tacked on the various bulletin boards papered the room like Philip Henslowe’s posters for the Shakespeare plays coming soon to his theater.

/

˘

 

˘

/

 

˘

˘

 

/

/

 

˘

/

Now

is

|

the

win-

|

ter

of

|

our

dis-

|

con-

tent

 . . . and . . .

˘

/

 

˘

/

 

˘

\

 

/

˘

 

˘

/

˘

To

be

|

or

not

|

to

be,

|

that

is

|

the

ques-

tion

. . . and all of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 –

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:

Drums or bongos or a guitar or a trumpet do help with the da DUMS da DUMS, of course, although I’ve been known to beat out the stressed-syllable time of these sonnets with drumsticks on a student’s echoing skull. Even the hollowest-headed student thus serves a purpose. The best way to internalize the stressing in a Shakespearean sonnet, however, is with the entire class dancing – paired off and facing each other, male and female, as per the Bard’s dancing days, of course – with every iamb underscored with a flap step. (Kenneth Branagh did this in his staging of the movie version of Love’s Labour’s Lost).

Obviously the sixth-grade (or fourth-grade, or third-grade) girls enjoyed what I called the Elizabethan Iambic Pentameter Two-Step Pavane more than did some of the boys, but since the point was to hit the second part of the iamb (or iambic foot) – that is, the DUM part of the “da DUM!” – with all energy and emphasis possible, literally with one’s foot, the boys actually enjoyed it quite a bit. (For some small, surly reason, the teachers in the rooms downstairs from mine rarely did.)

So we return to the warm-up exercise of deconstructing Hemingway’s opening paragraph to A Farewell to Arms into proper lines of iambic pentameter. By October, my sixth-graders could do it easily enough, pairing the one-syllable words creatively and shuffling around the two-syllables for best da DUM effect.

(When I was trained by New York BOCES experts to become a “resource teacher” for a huge school of 800 kids – literally the teacher-of-last-resort for K-6 kids with learning disabilities (including terminal giftedness) – this tracing-letters-made-of-sandpaper or dancing to stressed syllables, for non-readers (i.e. ones who learned more slowly through visual or auditory input), was called “teaching to modalities.” It works.)

A digression within my digression.

When I was getting my Masters in Education at Washington University in St. Louis, I worked an extra summer job as an equipment manager for a retired, elderly, brilliant teacher – I’ll call her Mrs. Smith -- who taught summer classes to illiterate adults. My job was to set up the World War I-era equipment – huge, heavy, bulky ancient-looking machines – such as the controlled reader and (biggest and clunkiest of them all) the tachistoscope. The ancient machines, infinitely superior to modern computers for their purposes, forced beginning readers to move their eyes ahead of the words in a line, forced them to read words and lines at an every-quickening pace, and – most important – forced them to REMEMBER.

Memory is two-thirds of everything relating to thinking and reading, and my job as Mrs. Smith’s technician was to flash rectangular boxes containing 7 to 9 numbers on the screen at speeds up to one-five-hundredth and then one-thousandth(even one-two-thousandths)  of a second. The eye and brain can see and remember at such rates, but learning how to do so was a skill.

At the end of the summer and of the class, Mrs. Smith would take me and the ten or twelve adult illiterates (now no longer illiterates, but reading after two months of three-nights-a-week course under this incredible instructor) a block to a St. Louis railroad crossing. The trains came through there at 60 m.p.h., freight cars flashing and rocking past in a blur, and our job was to read the 10-digit numbers stenciled in a small box onto the side of each car. Up to twenty cars. And then to recite the numbers to Mrs. Smith after the train had passed.

Mrs. Smith remembered all of them. And so, by God, did several of the students after that summer of nightly controlled reading exercises and getting our brains tachistoscoped. Even my mess of a memory improved.

But that’s not the digression within my digression.

Another graduate student I knew that summer had a better-paying but, I thought, infinintely more tedious summer job.

This guy was hired to work for a team that was researching human infants’ response to language. The methodology was simple to the point of seeming simple-minded. A baby, one-month old to six months old, would be brought in by its mother and be parked in a little cushoned baby seat on the floor in front of a 16mm Bolex movie camera while the mother sat about three feet away on a couch and talked to another woman. (The same other woman in all cases. That woman’s questions and responses were basically scripted.) There was professional sound equipment linked to the film camera. (It was deliberately a film movie camera rather than TV video – this in the summer of 1970 when video equipment was available. But they wanted a frame-by-frame film study.)

The graduate student’s job was to go frame by frame through the film of the baby, who was essentially being ignored by its mother unless the little boy or girl fussed too much, and to compare the baby’s facial expessions and body motions – based on categories on a long and elaborate chart – with the dialogue going on between the kid’s mother and the other woman. (The sound the student worked with was visual – i.e. the kind of varying oscilloscope bar the way a soundtrack looks on the sidebar of film with a sound track. The student had to look for certain motions and expressions on the baby’s part, frame by frame, through thousands of film frames.They were hunting for these almost-newborns’ reaction to language.)

This student’s daily work was far more boring than mine, but the results of that research were fascinating. Turns out that the babies did react to language – primarily to the sound of their mothers’ voices (fathers tested received no similar response) -- and that the babies moved their entire bodies in response to hearing their mothers talk. Often the movements of the different infants were similar and they almost always keyed off several specific tones, words, and intonations of the two women’s voices. Essentially, the babies – whose verbal capacities at that age consisted of gooing and gurgling and who were just beginning their basic facial expressions – were doing a  . . . “language dance” is the only term for it really . . . with their bodies.

They were using their hands, arms, legs, and torsos to take part in the human conversation. (The adult women, involved in their conversation, took no notice until a baby started crying or fussing to a certain extent.) When the conversation between the two women lagged (especially when the mother had little to say), the baby relaxed . . . the language dance ceased. When the conversation started up again, especially if the mother’s voice became animated (spikes on the film’s visible audio track), the baby’s language-dance intensified in specific ways.

Our species seems born to enter into a language dance that becomes mostly verbal (with some use of facial expressions, hands, arms, and body, depending upon the culture) at an early age and continues until our death. These babies were eager to get in on the conversation before they knew what a single word meant or that there were words.

My elementary students learning the structure of poetry, stressed and unstressed syllables, the iambic pentameter of ten syllables per line (and how to convert even Hemingway’s – or any other writer’s, including their own -- short-word prose to that form) was, I think, a nice step onto the dance floor of this lifelong language dance.

And it prepared them to hear Shakespeare and Keats when they were ready for that experience. It began the development of their all-important third ear.

#

Of the eight “figures” of grammatical repetition, variation, and elaboration that Lily’s Grammar would offer eight- or nine-year-old Will Shakespeare, the final and richest form was synecdoche.

Most of us have just recently learned how to pronounce that term (rhymes with Schenectady) because of a bad and self-indulgent movie by Charlie Kaufman titled “Synecdoche, New York.” To Will and the young Latin scholars, synecdoche was defined as the substitution of the part for the whole and their illustrated example from Lily’s Grammar was “Aethips albus dentes.

Literally this translates as “Ethiopian,” “white,” and “teeth,” and Jonathan Bate tells me that Aethiops is nominative singular and dentes is accusative plural. The conventional meaning would have been simple enough – a black man with contrasting white teeth – and as a dumbhead freshman in high school, trying to hide behind the not-insignificant bulk of a fellow student named Judy so that the tryannical teacher Mrs. Lane (who had the exact proportions of a five-foot-tall howitzer shell) wouldn’t notice me, I probably would have answered that the adjective (albus, “white”) had to be accusative plural to agree with the dentes, but noooooooooo . . . here the albus adjective has to be nominative singular to agree with the Aethiops rather than with the Aethiop’s gleaming teeth.

Why this breaking of the rule? Synecdoche. This is a dirty, lousy, widely used Latin trick that stupidly, wickedly, sneakingly attributes the whiteness to – and I quote Lily and Bate – “the whole Ethipian or Black Moor.”

(Side note—remember Romeo’s first reaction to glimpsing Juliet at the Capulets’ masqued ball? I won’t stop to look it up, but from memory I recall his cries that she doth teaches the torches to burn bright, that she is like a snowy dove trooping among crows, and – perhaps most pertinently – she is like a jewel in an Aethiop’s ear. Even at his most maturely poetic – and he wasn’t  quite there yet, not fully, with his Romeo and Juliet, save perhaps for Mercutio’s Ur-Hamlet rant of Queen Mab madness– William Shakespeare never ventured far from his Lily’s Grammar.)

Jonathan Bate makes the point that the little school in Stratford almost certainly didn’t have books giving dozens of classical or arcane uses of such rhetorical figures, but they weren’t necessary. Young Will’s teachers – whom we’ll discuss in a moment – and Will and the other bright boys would have taken these rhetorical forms such as zeugma and synecdoche and run with them. Besides, Cicero and Horace and Plautus were there in the classroom to help them run.

Synecdoche became one of Shakespeare’s favorite figures of speech; it appeals to a playwright’s instincts, as Bate and others point out, because it makes for an immediacy, establishes a vivid connection even to less literate (or illiterate) playgoers, and it creates its own dramatic solidity within the larger solidity of the play.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

A simple example of schoolboy synecdoche, but a world-renowned and infinitely repeated one. More to the point, try expressing the same idea – “sleep comes hard to the president, CEO, or king burdened with all the responsibilities and decision-making of leadership and sovereignty” – in any other sentence of eight words. Seriously – try it as an exercise and feel free to use whatever other rules of grammar or rhetoric you wish.
If you’re an elementary teacher, feel free to teach the concept of synecdoche (it’s easily grasped and, again, it’s not just the top readers who will get it first) and then turn them loose on a Keat’s poem or a Robert Frost poem or a passage from Shakespeare – not to explain all the meanings and themes which are almost certainly above the kids – but just on a snipe hunt for synecdoches hiding in the woods and marshes. They’re there. They’re beautiful. Once captured, they can be displayed in gilded cages and queried a bit. Most, when prodded, will unpack their plumage, if not their hearts.

#

A necessary detour here within the interruption of our paused digression:

My earlier citing of Hemingway stays with me like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. What would William Shakespeare (of any age beyond his earliest childhood) think of Hemingway’s prose if Shakespeare could look forward a mere four-and-a-half centuries?

I mentioned that I recently reread A Farewell to Arms, but in that same week I also reread To Have and Have Not and The Sun Also Rises. My reaction was that A Farewell to Arms was a compilation of brilliant lightning-flashes-in-the-night vignettes that failed as a coherent novel; To Have and Have Not, for all its interesting set pieces and fashionable ‘thirties political attitude, was a sad, mean-spirited mess; and The Sun Also Rises – with so many of its supposed strong pieces at the time (the fashionable characters of Brett and Mike which Fitzgerald was to do so much better, the fashionable and mean-spirited anti-Semitism toward Robert Cohn) now decayed to mere period pieces – is somehow still fresh and powerful.

Mostly what one gets out of rereading Ernest Hemingway is the unshakeable conviction that Hemingway was, because of his style, one of the greatest writers of the short story the English language has ever had, but whenever he moved to longer forms – even the novella The Old Man and the Sea that he was so proud of (and so proud of keeping short) – he failed. But his The First Forty-Nine Stories alone probably bought Hemingway the immortality he so wanted.

But what would Shakespeare, who knew neither the short-story nor the novel formats, think of Hemingway’s style?

First of all, I suspect that Shakespeare would have intuitively and tacitly agreed with Harold Bloom’s comment on style –

A great style is itself necessarily a trope, a metaphor for a particular attitude towards reality.

In agreeing with that, Shakespeare reading the opening of A Farewell to Arms would have understood the force of personality behind Ernest Hemingway’s attempt to impress his tropes and metaphors on an entire era. And Shakespeare also would have understood at once that the era this Hemingway-writer saw was one of brutality, violence, and a shattered little-boy’s dream of something that should have been more noble.

But the style itself . . .

Hemingway based his prose style on three poetic elements: repetition, elipsis, and parataxis.

Shakespeare, whose own style as a poet made wonderful use of repetition and elipsis (literally the leaving-out of seemingly essential elements of the telling), would have understood those elements of Hemingway’s prose at once. That parataxis may have given him pause.

If one looks up “parataxis” in the dictionary, the definition will be something like –“n. the placing together of sentences, clauses, or phrases without a conjunctive word, as Hurry up, it’s getting late.” But of course it’s something a little more complicated than that in its application to poetry and prose.

The modern critic Angus Fletcher once summarized parataxis as a syntactic parallel to the symbolic action of literature:

This term implies a structuring of sentences such that they do not convey any distinctions of higher or lower order. ‘Order’ here means intensity of interest, since what is more important usually gets the greater share of attention.

Fletcher also said that parataxis has been related to “the piecemeal behavior of young children or primitive peoples” and is not slurring either children or primitive peoples in saying that. We think of the child’s behavior and the child’s speech and what is lacking is not affect – although many readers and beginning writers make the mistake of thinking that it’s lack of affect that forms the parataxic center of Hemingway’s or Raymond Carver’s prose – but emphasis. Thus we can hear the little child saying, “We went to the store today. I bought ice cream. I like ice cream. My mommy went away to live with a man. My daddy will buy me ice cream now.”

It’s also appropriate that Hemingway’s style is so dependent upon parataxis since one of the first great narrators of an English-language novel to use parataxis was Huck Finn. Hemingway always liked to say that “American literature began with Huck Finn.” Was he citing the title or the character? Either may be a true statement.

Those writers who’ve attempted to imitate Hemingway’s (or Lawrence’s or Carver’s) poetic use of parataxis in short fiction and novels learn immediately that the syntax required carries one immediately out onto the thin ice over parody. Hemingway discovered that himself, of course, and part of the staggering beauty of The Sun Also Rises is watching how terribly and magnificently close Hemingway skates to parody without breaking through. In his short stories – “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or “Big Two-Hearted River” or “Hills Like White Elephants” or “Old Man at the Bridge” – the parataxis and syntax were perfect to the purpose and parody there would come only later, from others . . . and much lesser and more jealous others, including, sadly, Hemingway himself.

I can’t guess what Will Shakespeare would have thought of Ernest Hemingway’s prose, but I have no doubt whatsoever that Shakespeare would have seen (and heard . . . and felt) the parataxis, repetition, and elipsis in Hemingway’s poetry as the metaphor of a future age for a particular attitude toward its own reality.

#

I really hate The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It’s the only Shakespearean play that I refuse to read a second time and would go far out of my way to avoid seeing produced.

There’s been a scholarly debate for centuries as to when Shakespeare was ordered to write this play (and complied), with smart money being bet on the square labeled 1597 – between Henry IV, Part I (1596-97) and Henry IV, Part II (1598). But almost everyone across the centuries agrees that Queen Elizabeth I had seen Henry IV, Part I, had liked the character of Falstaff in it (everyone seems to have loved the character of Falstaff in it), and ordered – commanded – Shakespeare to write her a comedy in which Falstaff falls in love.

Everyone who still cares for Falstaff and almost everyone who still cares about Shakespeare (instead of the shapeless, formless, gender- and politics-driven “social energies” that so many academics now claim actually wrote the plays) recognizes The Merry Wives of Windsor as the cynical and sad botch it is. (Feminists love it, by the way, and it’s been produced more in the last twenty-five years as a joyous feminist statement than in the previous four hundred years. It is, when all is said and done, a celebration of castration.)

Many hate this play (for excellent reason), but to date I haven’t found anyone who agrees with me in my firm belief that Shakespeare deliberately botched this play: under royal order to write it – and to prostitute the greatest living character he’d produced to date (Hamlet was still a few years down the road, but still may surrender the laurel to Falstaff for uniqueness and vitality) – Shakespeare decided to show people just how poorly he could write when he put his angry mind to it. More than that, I see the schoolboy Will peeking out all during this awful play, since I believe that Shakespeare used The Merry Wives of Windsor to show us just how terrible and shallow bad writing can be when the full force of rhetorical hyperbole, misquotations, malapropisms, stupid double entendre, and clumsy sexual inuendo are squeezed together into a critical mass of fissionable awfulness. (Ancient Pistol isn’t the only verbal moron in this play with his grand misquotations and clumsy malapropisms – every character except the innkeeper joins him in what might be called Pistol’s Putridness.)

No writer could turn down a royal command. And William Shakespeare spent his entire adult life as a playwright walking the narrowest of tightropes to avoid royal displeasure. (And not just the Queen’s displeasure, of course, but that of any of those idiot royals.) But the Queen’s displeasure was a special case.

Some critics wonder why we can’t find any real trace of “Shakespeare’s politics” in his work. They forget perhaps that Shakespeare had seen what exhibiting one’s politics can do for a playwright in Elizabeth I’s era: Thomas Kyd, Shakespeare’s contemporary and author of The Spanish Tragedy that almost certainly served as the template for Hamlet, was imprisoned and tortured (they began, since he was a writer, by breaking and then re-breaking all his fingers) to the point that Kyd died shortly after being released. Ben Jonson was thrown in the Tower and threatened with death for something he’d written. Christopher Marlowe, a one-time collaborator of Shakespeare’s and the playwright who threw the largest shadow over the Bard’s early work, was murdered –  a knife in the eye in a tavern supposedly over a bill, a “great reckoning in a small room” as Shakespeare was to mention it in a play – but in truth an assassination of a no-longer-useful agent by Her Majesty’s Secret Service who’d employed Marlowe for years.

William Shakespeare knew the price paid for displeasing royalty. So Queen Elizabeth ordered that he write a play about Falstaff in love and so he did – ripping the characters from Henry IV, Part I out of their historical context and dumping them into present day, turning the benign Pistol, Bardolph, and the others into something truly sinister and shallow and silly all at the same time, and taking from Sir John Falstaff . . .  well, everything that had made him Sir John Falstaff.

Whoever that pathetic butt of jokes and physical slapstick is in that “You want it? OK, here, take this plate of dog spittle” excuse for a play, it certainly is not the real Fat Jack Falstaff. (And those cool, with-it academics like Marjorie Garber who say it was Falstaff and that only Falstaff’s “most uncritical critical admirers” say otherwise, obviously can’t discern critical shyte from academic shynola.)

Where was I?

Oh, yes, as part of this Shakespearean I can write as bad as you want schlockfest, we do have the interesting scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor where Shakespeare takes us back in time to his classroom in the King’s New School on Church Street in Stratford. The schoolmaster here is one Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson and poltroon, and it should be noted that Will Shakespeare’s best and most important teacher at that grammar school, Thomas Jenkins, was Welsh. (But it’s hard to believe – or at least for me to believe – that Shakespeare harbored any hard feelings toward Jenkins. The Oxford-educated teacher and humanist had made Shakespeare Shakespeare, and Will knew that. No, my guess is that making fun of the Welsh teacher was just more of the “You want the usual tripe, here it is” content of The Merry Wives of Windsor, since making fun of the Welsh and their accents then was similar to American free-fire zones on blacks, the Irish, Poles, dumb blonds, etc. in our own glorious past.)

What Shakespeare did ridicule throughout his career was overblown pedantry. But this dislike of high-falutin’ rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake was, wonderfully enough, taught with the rhetoric itself by Erasmus-tuned teachers such as Tom Jenkins.

For some centuries now it’s been fashionable to hypothesize that Shakespeare himself became a teacher during his “seven lost years” after he disappeared from Stratford (and his older wife and three kids) but before he popped up (in public records) in London. The theory is – supported by only a few shakey tendrils of misspelled written mention but driven by the stronger theory that Shakespeare moved within a circle of secret Catholic dissidents – that Will became a teacher for a rich Catholic family in the north and no less a worthy than Anthony Burgess incorporated that idea in his biography-novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun. (Of course, Burgess being Burgess, he has the young bisexual Shakespeare fall in love with one of the boys he’s hired to teach, with expected consequences.)

I’ll stay out of that debate. (There comes the sound of huge, collective sighs of gratitude rising up to heaven from the thousands here whose Digression Bags are full to overflowing.) But I will say that I don’t think this schoolroom scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor was written by a former teacher; I think it was penned by a former schoolboy who would rather be sent to the Tower to have his fingers broken than made to rot his brain teaching.

Here is Welsh parson and schoolteacher Hugh Evans attempting to give a Latin lesson to a rather cheeky boy named William. (The presence of Mistress Quickly is an anomaly; since girls and women did not usually study Latin, it was all Greek to her. (sic) Note that in the distorted farce that is The Merry Wives of Windsor, even the complex character of Mistress Quickly – she who gives the most beautiful cockney eulogy ever heard after Falstaff’s offstage death in Henry V – has become a mere cartoon of a bawd.)

EVANS:                                William, how many numbers is in nouns?
WILLIAM:                             Two.
MISTRESS QUICKLY:             Truly, I thought there had been one number more, because
                                           they say, “Od’s nouns.”

EVANS:                                Peace your tattlings! What is “fair,” William?
WILLIAM:                             Pulcher.
MISTRESS QUICKLY:             Polecats? There are fairer things than polecats, sure.
EVANS:                                You are a simplicity ‘oman. I pray you peace. What is lapis,
                                           William?
WILLIAM:                             A stone.
EVANS:                                And what is “a stone,” William?
WILLIAM:                             A pebble.
EVANS:                                No, it is lapis. I pray you, remember in your prain.
WILLIAM:                             Lapis.
EVANS:                                That is a good William. What is he, William, that does lend
                                           articles?

WILLIAM:                             Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus
                                           declined:
Singulariter, nominativo, hic, haec, hoc.
EVANS:                                Nominativo, high, hag, hog, pray you mark: genitivo,
                                           huius,. Well, what is your accusative case?
WILLIAM:                             Accusativo, hinc – [Faltering]
EVANS:                                I pray you, have your remembrance, child, accusative,
                                           hing, hang, hog.
MISTRESS QUICKLY:             Hang-hog is Latin for bacon, I warrant you.
EVANS:                                Leave your prabbles, ‘oman. What is the focative case,
                                           William?

WILLIAM:                             O, ---- vocativo, O.
EVANS:                                Remember, William, focative is caret.
MISTRESS QUICKLY:             And that’s a good root.
EVANS:                                ‘Oman, forbear.
MISTRESS PAGE:                  Peace!
EVANS:                                What is your generative case plural, William?
WILLIAM:                             Genitive case?
EVANS:                                Ay.
WILLIAM:                             Genitive: horum, harum, horum.
MISTRESS QUICKLY:             Vengeance of Ginny’s case, fie on her! Never name her,
                                           
child, if she be a whore.
EVANS:                                For shame, ‘oman.
MISTRESS QUICKLY:             You do ill to teach the child such words: he teaches him to
                                           hick and to hack, which they’ll do fast enough of
                                           themselves, and to call ‘horum’ – fie upon you!

EVANS:                                ‘Oman, art thou lunatics? Hast thou no understanding for
                                           thy cases and the numbers of the genders? Thou art as
                                           foolish Christian creatures as I would desires.

Note – for Shakespeare’s fuller and funnier (yet still affectionate) harpooning of both the Welsh accent and a Welshman’s pedantry, please look up Captain Fluellen in Henry V. (Actor Ian Holm did a brilliant turn as Fluellen in Kenneth Branagh’s film Henry V, although Branagh decided to cut out the later scene where the triumphant Fluellen forces his verbal opponent to eat leeks. That scene, incongruous as it is in the aftermath of the Battle of Agincourt, remains in Laurence Olivier’s 1940’s Henry V.)

#

We know a bit about young Will’s teachers at the King’s New School on Church Street and looking at their background might be relevant to understanding Shakespeare’s education.

When Will first reported to the Lower School in 1571, school master Simon Hunt was teaching the upper benches. Hunt had recently received his BA at Oxford but most teachers start (and stay) poor and his having to pay 7s 11 d “towardes the repayringe of the schole wyndowes” must have been a burden. Hunt left the school in 1575, possibly to become a Jesuit (if he’s the Simon Hunt recorded as matriculating at the University of Douai in the summer of 1575.) Or possibly he stayed in Stratford and pursued a better-paying career, if he’s the Simon Hunt who died and left an estate of some £100 in 1598.

Will’s next two teachers were Thomas Jenkins and John Cottom. Both were also Oxford men. As schoolmasters they received free lodging in Stratford, but one rent-roll record of Jenkins paying a small fee suggests that he might have been the usher rather than schoolmaster in his first years there. By 1574, there’s no record of Jenkins paying rent which suggests that he was a full-fledged master and probably teaching in the Upper School where Will was studying.

Since Thomas Jenkins was master in 1575, it’s highly probable that it was he who introduced Will Shakespeare to Ovid’s Metamorphoses – the book that would be Shakespeare’s favorite throughout his lifetime, as well as the source of many of his characters and plots – and probably was also the teacher responsible for introducing Will to Arthur Golding’s “equivalent version” (translation) of Ovid. We know from Shakespeare’s uses and descriptions, borrowed directly from Golding, in so many of his plays that despite the fact that Shakespeare could read the original in Latin, read some of it in Greek, and read it easily in French, it was Golding’s more descriptive and English-rich version that he preferred.

Another task of Thomas Jenkins with young Will was to drill the boy (all the boys, but the brightest boys the hardest) in controversiae and imitatio: the former was the skill, drilled into all scholars in that era, of being able to argue any topic from opposite views, switching nimbly from one view to its opposite. (I’m not being sarcastic when I ask – Where is that being taught to young students today? Even in formal debate, an all but abandoned area of study, the student will be given one side to argue.)

Imitatio was the process of assimilating many snippets of Latin – the Polonius tidbits from Sententia Pueriles I listed earlier – to produce a coherent text, but it trained young Will Shakespeare in the formal techniques of assimilation from diverse sources. (Note – see my June 2009 Message from Dan to get a glimpse of how Shakespeare assimilated diverse mythical elements, characters, and histories from a dozen sources in his creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

#

Years ago, as I was developing my own Writing Well curriculum for sixth graders, my dear (and only recently deceased) friend, the language arts expert Mildred Gamble, gave me a copy of the 1927 Harvard University Press edition of Walter Rollo Brown’s HOW THE FRENCH BOY LEARNS TO WRITE: A Study in the Teaching of the Mother Tongue.

Millie gave me the book, which she had discovered in her role as a national expert in language arts holistic assessment and education, because she knew that Walter Rollo Brown had been advocating the same kind of curriculum that I’d developed on my own – one based on imitatio of style after kids are exposed to scores of examples of specific sorts of writing by masters – but what she didn’t know was that Brown had taught English at my own tiny alma mater of Wabash College, starting somewhere around 1908. (That same year, Wabash fired a troublemaker of an instructor named Ezra Pound, exiling Ezra from the eden of Crawfordsville, Indiana, -- which Pound had described to his friends as “the Seventh Circle of Desolation” -- into the cultural wastelands of Florence and Rome and Milan.)

Walter Rollo Brown, I learned, had been Wabash’s most famous professor and a nationally known intellectual at the time.

More to the point, Brown had been engaged in an intellectual struggle to the death over the future of teaching rhetoric and writing in America with no less an opponent than the reformer, psychologist, and philosopher John Dewey.

In HOW THE FRENCH BOY LEARNS TO WRITE, Walter Rollo Brown showed how students in France began learning style (in their own language) at a young age by studying examples of excellence in fiction and nonfiction French prose. After being taught to notice precisely the stylistic elements we’ve been discussing here in Will Shakespeare’s education – metaphor, repetition, synecdoche, zeugma, etc. – and to see how the best of French writers folded those many elements into their own style, the French boy was finally allowed to write some simple passages in that style.

This is precisely the sort of learning-by-increments-of-imitation that Will Shakespeare went through (and Sir Thomas More in the century before him) – a curriculum in which it would be common for the schoolmaster such as Thomas Jenkins to give the following assignment:

You will imagine that you are a particular character from classical mythology or history and write a letter in a situation peculiar to that character.

Today I would have you write a letter as if you were Antenor persuading Priam that he should return the stolen Helen to her Menelaus, either because it was just in itself, or because it would be a very foolish ruler who caused many brave men to enter battle on account of the most shameful love of such an effeminate youth as Paris.

You may refer to Erasmus’s De conscribendis epistolis as you write this letter, but I expect you to remain fully within the mind and character of Antenor in both your exordium and narration. Please remember to include pleasing figures of verbal symmetry, as Antenor would have done, including, of course, antimetabole, zeugma, syllepsis, and the politician’s favorite threefold amplificatio.

What may give us pause here on this simple (but interesting) little assignment is that it was being given to nine- and ten-year-olds.

In my own curriculum, early in the school year, after we had studied and dissected and wet our pants laughing at Jean Shepherd’s story “County Fair,” my assignment was:

OK, write your own description of some public event like Jean Shepherd’s County Fair that you’ve been to or seen first hand and make it funny . . . but make it funny this time by using the hyperbole we found in Shepherd’s story, the heavy use of adjectives and lots of subordinate clauses and specific names, and, of course, give us some gross equivalent to little brother Randy throwing up in the zero-g at the top of the Rocket Whip. This is a vignette, not a story – not yet – and it should sound and feel like Jean Shepherd speaking.

Tomorrow we’ll visit the same funny situation in P.G. Wodehouse’s way of telling it with Mark Twain the day after that.

So after World War I and through the 1920’s, educator Walter Rollo Brown argued for American writing curriculum to be patterned after How the French Boy Learns to Write – i.e. first learning what style is and what elements of rhetoric are in it, then carefully studying the style of great writers in French – Balzac, Hugo, Stendahl, etc. – and only then, when these exercises in other’s style are mastered, should the student begin to assemble a style of his own out of these many separate parts.

My students, in the sixth grade writing curriculum I’d developed, studied specific stylistic elements of Jean Shepherd, P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Alan Poe, Richard Yates, Jane Austen, P.J. O’Rourke, John Updike, Henry James, John Cheever, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Nabokov, and about two dozen other strong stylists in English.

By Halloween, when we’d actually begun to write full stories – it was all fragments and deliberate vignettes up to that point – and it was time to attempt a scary story, the kids had analyzed fragments of scary style by Shirley Jackson, by Stephen King, by Henry James, by Edgar Alan Poe, and by a nobody named Simmons (“The River Styx Runs Upstream”). They knew the specific means by which each author had attempted to reach the same goal – i.e. to scare the crap out of us. They were invited to synthesize styles when possible, but in most cases such synthesis doesn’t work since a strong style is a vain and jealous god.

Harlan Ellison was used for his single essay-about-his-dog, “Ahbu,” set in the larger story “The Deathbird” that I cut away. I wanted only the essay “Ahbu.” By the time the class and I get to the part of “Ahbu” where Harlan’s taking his old and ill Puli to the vet to be put down and Ahbu looks up at Harlan in a way that reminds the author of the fellow bandit being executed in Kazan’s and Steinbeck’s film “Viva Zapata” (starring Marlon Brando) and the old revolutionary condemned to death looks at Brando and says, “Emiliano, do it yourself” – and Harlan sees that same request in little Ahbu’s eyes – well, I always have twenty-eight or so blubbering, snot-streaming sixth-graders, all of whom have totally forgotten that they’re supposed to be grown up and filled with attitude  and too cool for words. And then, of course, after the blubbering and talking about the essay-story is finished (and the two or three days of actually studying Harlan’s style to see just how he managed to reduce us to sludge with mere words, the kids always ended up asking me – begging me – if they could write their own “dying pet” vignettes, ala this guy Harlan Ellison’s style.)

This was essentially the curriculum for writing – using the greatest authors in the American English language  – that Walter Rollo Brown was arguing for after WWI and deep into the 1920’s. John Dewey, on the other hand, argued for writing to arise out of the student’s own experience and innate creativity with no rules or examples or exposures to alien style. The style was within each child, Dewey explained. The good teacher could bring it out without polluting the children’s minds with the writing and styles of Dead White Males (or Females).

Creative Hour, in other words. It’s Creative Hour, Tommy . . . get to it.

Walter Rollo Brown lost the debate. John Dewey won. We’ve seen the results of eighty years and more of this “reach deep into yourself for style without studying other writers” American approach to the teaching of writing. To all intents and purposes, American students – up to college level – are all “remedial writers.” They have not a clue as to what style is or where it comes from or how one might create it.

And neither do the majority of young men and women who wish to be writers.

(I mentioned earlier how my “normal” sixth-graders did in district-wide standardized and holistic writing assessment testing – outscoring not only all other sixth graders in the large district but the vast majority of high school juniors and seniors – but it’s not bragging to point out why: these kids had studied writing and style and learned many of the same elements of imitatio that Will Shakespeare had mastered as a boy. The other students, all the way through high school, had been urged to “be creative.” There was no real curriculum for learning rhetoric or writing style.  Learning through imitating models does not, as all artists know, mean that one will be stuck on the level of imitation. Even personal creativity needs templates. All the “original style” of the great writers we’ve discussed in this Writing Well series has echoed (and opposed) the great styles of earlier great writers.)

According to Desiderius Erasmus in the standard textbook on verbal and written rhetoric that Will and the other Upper School boys would have been studying, there was a goal to this careful study and imitation of Latin classics:

In this kind of thing it is best that youth be exercised variously and diligently, because besides the fruit of style, by this means they imbibe the old and memorable stories as if doing something else, and fix them deep in memory; they become accustomed to the names of men and places; moreover they learn especially the power of honesty and the nature of probity, the especial virtues of eloquence.”

#

Will Shakespeare probably did not give too much thought to “the especial virtues of eloquence” on those long winter days in which he went to school in the dark and came home in the dark. The days were long. The work was hard. The expectations – even for the child who would not go on beyond grammar school’s Upper School and perhaps never learn Greek – were high. Will and the other students attended classes six days out of seven, but they were expected to attend church on Sunday and to report on the sermon and Biblical references – in detail – on Monday. In a real sense, school was never out for Will Shakespeare.

Watching his father, the glover, struggle to meet bills in hard times – the same hard times that would end Will’s schooldays – the boy might have been forgiven for feeling some anger at at least two of Lily’s textbook examples they were forced to learn:

Ego pauper laboro      I being poor do labour
Tu dives ludis             Thou being rich dost play.

This grammar-school education in Latin did not immediately click into Shakespeare becoming a poet in English. Nor am I trying to suggest here that it was his formal schooling alone that made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Those who know Shakespeare’s plays and poems see his love and knowledge of nature; he named many hundreds of plants and flowers by their formal and local name and could cite all their medicinal and folklorish qualities. Indeed, Shakespeare’s own herb garden in Stratford after his retirement (it’s been replaced by a pretty, anachronistic, and useless flower garden for tourists now) was so famous that doctors in London sent down for specific herbs to be plucked from it.

Rather than Shakespeare going off to be a teacher after his marriage, a more compelling narrative of his Lost Years – based on more evidence rather than less as the centuries move on  -- suggests that he had to flee Stratford or receive severe punishment and penalties for poaching. Whether the poaching story is accurate or not, Shakespeare’s love of and knowledge of the woods, of game, of hunting, and of animal behavior is all there in his plays and poems.

To read Shakespeare carefully is to study him, and as we learn even a little of him through his plays and characters we can see that he struggled hard for years as a man alone in London. (Stratford was a decent-sized town in the 1560’s and 1570’s, where the average Englishman lived on a farm or in a hamlet with fifty souls or fewer: in the late 1560’s, Stratford (recently reduced by plague) boasted 240 households and a total of about 1,200 people. London, on the other hand, had a population of 200,000.)

Shakespeare’s efforts to turn the Latin eloquence he’d glimpsed in his grammar-school years into a corresponding beauty in English are visible in his early works – both the frequent failures and occasional successes – and the true synthesis of style that today says “Shakespeare” did not really cohere until sometime after he’d written his Henry VI trilogy, Richard III, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and several other of his plays.

Where that magical synthesis was first fully visible can be debated, but it’s there from Richard II (1595) through the amazing output (Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV Part I and II – never mind The Merry Wives of Windsor – and Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V)up to 1599.

Then he was ready for such absolute masterpieces as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra in a burst of a master’s genius such as the world has never seen before or since.

#

What am I suggesting to you, writer?

Not, obviously, that you should buy a copy of Lily’s Grammar to study or that you should seek out a time machine to go back to school in Stratford-upon-Avon circa 1571. (Although that last would be interesting, at the very least.)

Nor am I arguing that a formal, academic approach to studying and practicing style is essential to your evolution as a writer. Such study can be intense without being formal, ongoing without being academic. But there has to be some effort given to analyzing other’s style, as well as your own. Some way of sorting out why and how a very few men and women seem capable of writing the almost-perfect sentence. Some way of showing yourself how to judge the perfect placement of the precisely right word that will seal your sentence with both mathematical finality and poetic truth.

We can imagine a writing ability such as William Shakespeare’s to be likened to one of those magical swords so ubiquitous in fantasy and ancient myth. Those swords – capable of cutting through anything, often capable of choosing their own master and king – are also (sometimes in history, more frequently in fantasy) said to be forged from the iron in a meteor.

That meteor might be compared to raw talent in writing, and where such falling stars will fall is still decided only by the gods.

But we know this: before that iron in the meteor can be turned into true sword of any legend, the raw material has to be extracted, then forged in flame, then molded, then hammered and shaped and, tempered and honed. And before the magical sword is worth a damn to its owner, there has to be instruction on its use – on the ethics as well as the techniques of its use – and such instruction can come only from other great kings or swordsmen.

Prospero, the mature magus in Shakespeare, put it this way:

                        --- I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake; and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d and let ‘em forth
By my so potent Art. . . .

Some sword. Some words. Some swordsman. Some wordsman. Some magus. Some magic. Some grammar-school graduate.

Shakespeare.


Dan acknowledges the following authors and their work for providing the scholarly substance for “Teaching Will”: A.D. Nutall, Shakespeare The Thinker; Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare as well as Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare and Shakespeare and Ovid; Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life; Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London and Ben Jonson of Westminster; James Wood, How Fiction Works;  Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography and The Life of Thomas More; Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human; Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; R. Savage (ed.), Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford upon Avon, 1553-1620; E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, Volume Two.

The scholarly substance was theirs. Any and all mistakes, misunderstandings, misquotings, misconstructions, misreadings, and misprisions were Dan’s.

(Webmaster's Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

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