Beginning where Shakespeare’s play ends, The Sea and the Mirror exploits the ironic vein implicit in the drama. In the Shakespearean work, the magician Prospero is about to leave his exile on an island in the New World. The old man and his daughter, Miranda, had been cast adrift by his brother, Antonio, and left to die. The castaways reach an island inhabited by Ariel, a fairylike spirit, and Caliban, who is half human, half brute. Years later, King Alonso of Naples and his followers, including Antonio, are shipwrecked by Prospero’s magic. His son, Ferdinand, falls in love with Miranda, Caliban plots with other followers to assassinate Prospero, and various other subplots arise. Yet Prospero is reconciled to his brother in the end; Ferdinand and Miranda are married; Ariel, who has been held captive, is freed; and Caliban is left “ruler” of the island.
It is at this point that Auden’s long poem commences. The work begins with the play’s stage manager addressing unnamed “critics.” The manager points out that, although there are reasonable, scientific explanations for many human motives, only art can truly mirror the mystery of life. He suggests in the last stanza of the preface that Shakespeare was a supreme master of this truth.
In the poem’s second section, Prospero bids good-bye to his spirit-servant, Ariel. His learning and the arts of magic now seem futile to him as he prepares to leave his solitude. He knows that he will soon return to “earth”; death is near. The aged magician reveals himself as something of a cynic, but he is critical of no one more than himself. He even forgives the treachery of Antonio. He realizes that his own treatment of Caliban and Ariel, holding them as spiritual slaves, is unforgivable. Still, his mood is thoughtful and even mellow. Although he is happy that he is too old to feel the extremes of romantic love, he can view the love between Miranda and Ferdinand with equanimity.
In the second section, several of the “supporting cast” from the play speak soliloquies, beginning with Antonio. As the ship carrying them moves out to sea, he notes how contented...
(The entire section is 882 words.)