Harriet Monroe (essay date January 1931)

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SOURCE: Monroe, Harriet. “Comment: ‘Sailing To Byzantium.’” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 37, no. 4 (January 1931): 208-13.

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[In the following essay, Monroe considers ways in which she has “sailed to Byzantium” through her experiences with the theater and literature.]

“And therefore have I sailed the seas, and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.”

Because I am much preoccupied, perhaps rightly, with modern poetry, I must now and then sail the seas back into the past, and find once more the holy city where great poets have built their long-enduring pyramids and towers. That city is full of voices uttering magic phrases, and some of these float into my ears in muffled music of unimaginable beauty.

My own approach to great poetry—oh, long ago!—was through the theatre. Before entering that house of enchantment I was innocent of grandeur. I can remember having been moved, in earliest childhood, by Mother Goose rhythms—the idyl of Bopeep, the grotesque accord of Jack Spratt and his wife, the tragedy of the lady whose skirts were cut round about while she slept on the highway, until she had to weep for her lost identity and refer the matter to her little dog. But that was before the curtain rose on my first play—an event which occurred very early in our family. The theatre was our way of sailing to Byzantium, and I could not have been more than six or eight when Edwin Booth and the other Shakespearean actors first took me there. Their utterance of the richly rhythmed verse was honey on the tongue for me, and it sent me to the printed page whence I could pluck out the lines, and learn some of them by heart, and make them sound their fateful music in my enchanted ears as I said them over to Lake Michigan or to the willow tree in our back yard.

Antony and Cleopatra, for instance—a play I never saw but once, and then unwillingly, and would never risk seeing again, so improbable is it that any actors made of human flesh and blood could suggest the marvel of its splendor. Not only the two principals who kinged and queened it on so large a stage, but also those lesser characters in the great drama whose few words fall like crimson petals into the dark pool of their destiny. Iras, who could say to her mistress, when the hour of doom had struck:

Finish, good lady—the bright day is done
And we are for the dark.

Charmian, who “loved long life better than figs,” and yet, dying herself, praised the queen for dying:

It is well done, and fitting for a princess
Descended of so many royal kings.

And Dolabella, Cleopatra's last lover, whom Charmian loved in vain. And Eros, and Enobarbus, and the cold victorious Octavius. These as a mere background for Cleopatra's royal outbursts of superb hyperbole, and Antony's upheavals of terrible emotion, especially the dying speech which Shakespeare took almost bodily from North's Plutarch. All wonderful, wonderful—made up of gorgeous phrases, lines full of life and color, in rhythms that shake the earth.

All the plays—comedies, tragedies, histories—gave me magic lines. Booth's very princely Hamlet had many of them to say, ending with “The rest is silence.” Lear, bringing in Cordelia dead:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more—
Never, never, never.

Richard the Second, facing his cousin-enemies:

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne!

Prospero asking Miranda:

                                                                                What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?

and confessing:

                                                                                          We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

All of these and many other shining lines so familiar that they are almost new again!

The plays led me to the sonnets, a treasure-trove of beauty—their sad profound searching of life's inadequacies; genius aspiring, loving, frustrate and...

(The entire section contains 71943 words.)

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