Elegy of Fortinbras

by Zbigniew Herbert

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

At the end of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600-1601), Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, arrives in Denmark just in time to witness the aftermath of the tragedy. The bodies of Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius litter the stage; the sight, as Fortinbras says, may become the battlefield, “but here shows much amiss.” Fortinbras’s role in the play is small. The audience occasionally hears of him but only briefly sees him as he brings his army through Denmark to reclaim territories elsewhere. Hamlet, who glimpses Fortinbras as he traverses Denmark, immediately begins to chastise himself for being unlike Fortinbras, who goes to battle “even for an eggshell.” Hamlet has more cause for action and yet has done nothing.

It is this Fortinbras, this minor star in a stellar cast, that Zbigniew Herbert selects to deliver a final tribute to Hamlet. Given that Fortinbras’s perspective and character are so slightly developed in the play, it is somewhat surprising that Herbert elects this nondescript personage to lament the hero’s death. Why not Horatio, Hamlet’s dearest friend? Perhaps the audience knows Horatio so well that it can imagine what he would say. The relatively empty character of Fortinbras gives Herbert more imaginative freedom. Also, Fortinbras will assume the rather major task of cleaning up after Hamlet. If critics are right about Shakespeare’s tragedies ending with intimations of order, Fortinbras is the person who will order a disordered kingdom. It is this cipher, rather than the stars in the cast, that Herbert chooses to give a voice.

Herbert’s Fortinbras delivers an elegy which brings Hamlet’s life into bold and simple relief. The intensity with which Hamlet experienced life was, Fortinbras reveals, incompatible with the living of life. Hamlet was “always twitching as if asleep,” preoccupied by “chimeras.” A too-pure vision of life can cause life to wither—such is Hamlet’s vision. As Fortinbras portrays him, Hamlet was made to live in a different element, one more ethereal, less sullied by the trivia, plodding, and patience that life requires. Fortinbras accepts, unlike Hamlet’s personal advocates, Horatio and Ophelia, that Hamlet could not live: “Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life/ you believed in crystal notions not in human claywolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit/ you knew no human thing you did not know even how to/ breathe.” Even the air seemed to make Hamlet ill. He was too inquisitorial and too impatient for life, and thus he could not find a way to live it.

Fortinbras’s elegy expresses both admiration for Hamlet and a subtle envy. It also expresses some little contempt and perhaps a great love. Fortinbras realizes that, in comparison to Hamlet, he himself appears thoroughly banal. He is soldierly and inelegant, whereas Hamlet is a fashionable melancholiac. Fortinbras is very much aware as he speaks his elegy that the martial funeral rites that he will provide for Hamlet will be gauche, inappropriate to one who was a scholar, courtier, and glass of fashion.

While Fortinbras believes that what he leaves “will not be worth a tragedy” and that the “star named Hamlet” will always outshine him by magnitudes, he also believes that Hamlet took the easy way out: “you chose the easier part an elegant thrust/ but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching.” Fortinbras has the less glamorous job, the almost janitorial task of cleaning up a bloody stage and a bad government, but he takes some pride in his drudgery: “Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project and a decree on prostitutes and beggars/ I must also elaborate a better system of prisons/ since as you justly said Denmark is a prison.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

The version of “Elegy of Fortinbras” described above is a translation of Herbert’s poem by Czesaw Miosz, who, like Herbert, is a Polish poet. Miosz has translated his own Polish poems into English, often in consultation with the poet Robert Hass. In translating Herbert’s poems, Miosz collaborated with Peter Dale Scott, a Canadian who worked in an embassy in Warsaw and appreciated Herbert when his poems were first published in 1956. Herbert lived through both the Nazi occupation and the Stalinist repression, and he had to wait until the thaw to see his poems published.

The elegy is presented as a direct address to Hamlet alone. Everyone has left the stage; only Fortinbras and the dead Hamlet remain. This direct address or apostrophe gives the poem great intimacy. Readers feel as though they are overhearing words meant for Hamlet alone, or that Fortinbras’s soliloquy is really meant for himself. This intimate tone is in very stark contrast to the cool, highly formalized public speech that Fortinbras delivers at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

Fortinbras speaks his elegy in six verse paragraphs. These paragraphs contain no punctuation either between or within them. The weightiness and balance of the language, however, suggest very clearly when and where the reading voice should pause. Song and sense are so powerful in the poem that the notation of punctuation is unnecessary.

The tone and language of the poem are stately, respectful, somber, and even awed, not only by the death of an exceptional creature but also by the raw fact of death. Fortinbras speaks of death with an awareness of both its generic and its particular force: “I could never think of your hands without smiling/ and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests/ they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this/ The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart/ and the knight’s feet in soft slippers.” The figurative language of the poem is genuinely remarkable. That Hamlet’s hands remind Fortinbras of “fallen nests” suggests their vulnerability, a vulnerability which was once concealed by their activeness. The comparison to fallen nests also suggests lost fruitfulness, abbreviated youth, and the actual physical curvature of reposing hands. Fortinbras also remarks that Hamlet’s feet now appear to be in “soft slippers”—so unlike the strutting buskins of tragedy.

Fortinbras’s description of himself is perhaps even more remarkable. Contrasting himself to Hamlet, who left the world by “an elegant thrust,” Fortinbras predicts that he himself will have a longer, harder, lonelier life. The dull but durable ruler is one who eternally watches “with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair/ with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial.” Indeed, Fortinbras seems to be unaware of his own eloquence.

The last figure of the poem is equally evocative. As Fortinbras completes his elegy, he says that he and Hamlet will never meet—neither in reality nor in the words that Fortinbras tries to send to Hamlet. They live on different islands, and neither water nor words can unite them: “It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on/ archipelagos/ and that water these words what can they do what can they/ do prince.” With these words, Fortinbras concludes his elegy, realizing that even to say “goodbye” to Hamlet is impossible.

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