28 May 2014

Shakespeare ars moriendi

Elsewhere I mused earlier this year about an old Christian practice of preparing for the end of life. Ars moriendi is "the art of dying," and this idea has popped up across the first five centuries of the Oxford Book of English Verse. I suspect that, beginning in the early eighteenth century (where my read through this anthology now has me) this theme will diminish, and then disappear. Oh, no doubt death itself will be a theme; but a practiced anticipation of death, probably not.

Earlier in these sporadic posts about my poetry reading adventure this year, I mentioned the final Shakespeare sonnet in the Oxford Book. Here it is, another serious look at life through the Bard's sonnets:

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
   My sinful earth these rebel powers array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
   Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
   Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
   Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
   And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
   Within shall be fed, without be rich no more:
       So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
       And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

(That second line, "My sinful earth these rebel powers array," is apparently disputable. Alternate readings include - Fooled by these rebel powers that thee array and Why feed'st these rebel powers that the array. I don't see that the alternate readings much change the tone or direction of the sonnet.)

I don't think we would accuse Wm. S. of being morose or puritanical. As noted earlier, it seems he had a pretty impressive grasp of the Bible. Here, we find him in a reflective mood, and I imagine him contemplating weighty matters after another successful run of a new play.

I regret the bifurcation in our modern culture, which seems to separate cultural achievement and classic Christian spirituality. Why does it seem odd for a poet of Shakespeare's range to also sound like a man serious about his eternity?

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