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April is poetry month! It is also the birth-month of the bard, William Shakespeare, who was born 456 years ago.  Although the exact day of his entrance upon the scene is a bit unclear, Shakespeare enthusiasts have assigned today’s date, April 23rd, as the most likely day and thus it is celebrated! Happy Birthday to the Bard!  However, as you may have guessed, that is not why we are here.

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The other day, I wrote that poets don’t seem to write poems about plagues (although this could well be a misapprehension born out of writers’ fondness for disguising their actual subject by appearing to write about something completely different).  This is true of Shakespeare too, and yet he certainly had ample experience with pestilence since the Black Death struck London in 1592, 1603, and 1606.  In fact, three of his greatest tragedies, including King Lear, were (probably) written during quarantine.

Indeed, squinting anew at the language of these plays reveals a fascination with darkness, lesions, pathology, and contagion hiding behind the mask of purity which could be (and undoubtedly has been) the subject of many works of literary criticism and scholarship.

Yet to my ears, the most pure plague poem from Shakespeare is really a poem which is unabashedly about death and how it brings an end to all want, anxiety, political strife, pain and anxiety (even as it ends all pleasure, learning, longing, and love).  The poem was (probably) written a half decade after the 1606 outbreak in London [I apologize for all of these words like “seems” and “probably” but we don’t have a lot of certainties about Shakespeare’s human life].  It takes the form of a valedictory song in Cymbeline, that strange and impossible-to-characterize late work which dates from Shakespeare’s final years as a writer.  After reading Cymbeline, Lytton Strachey opined that it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that [Shakespeare] was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams.”

Perhaps there is truth in this analysis, for the song is very melancholy and yet also very beautifully poetic.  We are including it here as a tribute to poetry month, and a tribute to Shakespeare, and a tribute to all of the dead. Yet it is is imperative that you not let the lugubrious gloom get you down (not from the poem nor from the situation we are in).

But enough of my blather, from Cymbeline Act IV Scene 2 here is Shakespeare’s sad song.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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