Yesterday in Cambridge I was missing a dear friend who died recently. I went into Heffer’s Bookshop (best crime fiction stock of anywhere that I know) and my attention was caught by a book on one of the tables at the front: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. I’d heard it mentioned on Radio 4. As I turned over the pages I came to Melvin Bragg’s choice: Shakespeare, Sonnet 30 and these words sprang out at me: ‘For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.’ They so perfectly captured how I felt. Was there anything that Shakespeare didn’t know about the human heart? Here is the whole poem:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
And you can go here to hear it read by Kenneth Branaugh: . Sublime.
These days famous writers are celebrities and details of their marriages, divorces, tax problems, even dentist’s bills are regularly splashed over the media. It seems tough to me that they should be regarded as public property, when writing is such a private and solitary activity. And how much does it really add to our enjoyment of their work? Precious little and maybe reading about the author is sometimes a substitute for reading their work. These thoughts were stimulated by a book I’ve just finished reading about perhaps the most celebrated writer of all: Lois Potter’s biography of Shakespeare, which was published last year. Not much is known about Shakespeare. The historical record is scanty and even patchy. We don’t know what Shakespeare was doing before he began his acting career in London, why he stopped writing, or what he died of and there is very little evidence of what he was like as a man. Lois and I been friends for a very long time. She was my tutor in my long-ago undergraduate days and hosted memorable play-reading evenings. Her book draws on a lifetime of scholarship and I don’t think you could have a more thoughtful and judicious guide to Shakespeare’s life and times. I read it with huge enjoyment. I was fascinated by her account of Elizabethan drama at the time when Shakespeare came on the scene. It was much more like modern day screen-writing with its collaborations and script-doctoring than I had imagined. I very admired the way she draws on a huge range of historical and literary sources to give a densely textured sense of the context of Shakespeare’s life and work, never presenting even the most intelligent speculation, her own or anyone else’s, as fact. Maybe Shakespeare lived most vividly in his work and perhaps if we knew too much about Shakespeare the man, we’d be disappointed. But in nay event Lois’s biography has done what the best biographies of writers do. It has sent me back to the plays and the sonnets.