The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

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“Advice to King Lear” is a short lyric poem of thirteen lines that are divided into two stanzas. The first stanza has six lines, and the second stanza has seven; the same end rhyme is employed for all thirteen lines. Turner Cassity has made his reputation by writing structured verse. “Advice to King Lear” was included in his 1986 collection Hurricane Lamp. Like many poems in this collection, “Advice to King Lear” is a compressed creation in which Cassity wryly combines the profound past with the seemingly ordinary present. The poem combines the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear (c. 1605-1606) and the bizarre Texas setting in which it is being staged.

Cassity reprints as an epigraph a description from San Antonio: A Pictorial Guide, which states that the Arneson River Theatre is unique because its stage stands on one side of the San Antonio River, but its grass seats are located on the other side. The final comment of the guide notes that “Occasional passing boats enhance audience enjoyment.” This particular setting fits well with Cassity’s use of the ironic. As the title states, the narrator of the poem will be advising King Lear. The first word of the poem is “Unlikely,” which—as becomes evident as the poem progresses—is a definite understatement; the unlikely and the unusual are common in Cassity’s poems. (Other poems in Hurricane Lamp that illustrate this theme include “News for Loch Ness,” “A Dialogue with the Bride of Godzilla,” and “Scheherazade in South Dakota.”) After the “Unlikely,” Cassity contrasts the locale where the play is being staged and the artificial weather that must be created in order to produce King Lear correctly. The San Antonio area is a “semi-desert,” and on the night of the play, the night is “azure.” To create the illusion that there is a storm on stage, the crew must resort to the use of a wind machine. Through it all, “Advice to King Lear” juxtaposes King Lear’s tragedy against the almost silly notion of staging the play in a place where the locale, not Shakespeare’s instructions, dictates the ending.

With King Lear’s situation becoming increasingly desperate, the freak coincidence happens, and “Pleasure craft now part the placid water.” The stage weather has become “glummer” with each succeeding act, but the poet interjects that no matter where King Lear is staged, a “mummer’s still a mummer.” A mummer is an actor, and therefore the opening has been created for something “unlikely” to happen in this particular production of King Lear. Circumstances allow King Lear to alter his fate, if he wishes, and take the advice finally given to him as the “pleasure craft” passes: “Get on the boat, Old Man, and go to summer.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

Cassity structures his poetry in a traditional manner. His subjects may vary greatly, but he adds power to his point of view by compressing his observations into poems that usually employ metered lines and dense syntax. Cassity is a disciplined poet who has been compared with such poets as Yvor Winters and Alexander Pope. Cassity’s technique and socially conscious themes link him with Winters’s formalist school of poetry, and he is like the eighteenth century poet Pope in his reliance on wit and the frequent use of satire. In “Advice to King Lear,” he makes use of his varied poetic strengths without seeming overcontrived.

Since the rhyme scheme is the same throughout the poem, Cassity adds variation by means of alliteration. The first four lines of the poem end with words that end in ure. Each of these words—“azure,” “seizure,” “pressure,” and “foreclosure”—has a strong s sound, which unites the words. The last two lines of the first stanza and the first two of the second stanza have final words that end with ter. Each of these words—“matter,” “stutter,” “glitter,” and “water”—draws its power from the pronounced t sound. Four of the last five lines of the poem finish with words that end in mer. The one line that does not stop with a word ending in mer ends with the word “dumber.” Since the b is silent in “dumber,” the sound effect for all five lines is the same. The sound that is made by the words ending these lines—“glummer,” “mummer,” “dumber,” “drummer,” and “summer”—is the lazy um, which could be described as a trance-inducing sound. Each of the sound choices that Cassity has used heightens the total emotional impact of “Advice to King Lear.”

Cassity does not write easy poems, but there is a payoff if they are closely read. He is never obscure for obscurity’s sake; the reader of “Advice to King Lear” should be somewhat familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear. The correct emotional response to the poem will come out of an intellectual understanding and appreciation of Western literary tradition. It is also necessary to appreciate Cassity’s sense of playfulness in combining literary tradition and rather absurd contemporary circumstances. The charm of “Advice to King Lear” comes from the poet’s dextrous wit. In the end, the winning quality of the poem is its ability to seem sophisticated without taking itself too seriously.