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Pictures and Poems ; Volume 7

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?

Sonnet 18 and a Day of Flowers in Stratford

For £25 you can buy a ticket that will allow you to see all of the Shakespeare houses in and around Stratford on Avon. The tickets lasts for 6 months and I, for one, think that a bargain. I’m happy to buy one every year just so long as they don’t expect me to step indoors. They (the powers that be in Shakespeare land) are not at all keen on letting you explore and find a feel of the place for yourself. Once through a doorway, under a lintel, over the threshold, you’re suffocated with tour guide: the set speech; all very well informed and presenting everyone as the dearly beloved and as virtuous as a maiden aunt. It’s dripping with deference to the Ardens, the Hathaways and the Shakespeares. It’s a little too much for the largely disinterested (“I came for the day out with friends, I didn’t need to go back to school”), a little too hearty for the quiet explorer, a bit scratchy for anyone who has got past GCSE level and (delivered by guides and actors in RSC cast-offs) altogether as authentic as the plastic loaves and cheeses spread out on oaken boards behind tasselled (keep out and don’t lean over) ropes.

It suits plenty and I’m happy about that but it doesn’t suit me.The gardens are a different prospect altogether. By no means perfect but it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the attempts to turn the glorious herbal bed at Hall’s Croft into a “Four Humours plot”. The four humours being those identified by Hippocrates in the fifth century BC and largely of metaphorical reference by Shakespeare’s time: black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile. They’re supposed to relate to the 4 elements (Elizabethan science was well ahead of this) of earth, air, fire and water, and the over-riding dominant emotions (temperaments) of sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. There’s a powerful and persuasive argument that Shakespeare’s four great tragedies encapsulate each an element, a humour and a temperament. I wouldn’t mind if this idea was somehow developed instead of digging up a superb section of herbal garden and replacing it with a disappointing section of over-worked, cordoned off, neatly in its place and labelled, dullness. My four reactions are sanguine – it’ll get better if it’s allowed to grow, phlegmatic – well I suppose it could be worse, melancholic – this sadly seems to be the way things are done these days, and choleric – why the hell have they destroyed something wild and free for this contained little project of some history Johnny who can’t tell his goose quill from a ball-point?  But ignoring that, and the twenty-first century habit of putting up dreadful willow sculptures, the gardens are truly wonderful.For decades the gardens have been a blaze of colours; all of them variations on the traditional English cottage garden. And long may this continue. Like the plays and the poems you get more than you can possibly take in while presenting a glorious unity at the same time. Masses of juxtaposed colours, shapes, scents and textures sweep in and out of each other. At Anne Hathaway’s cottage this is taken further with the inclusion of fruits and vegetables: runner beans and peas and currant bushes. All that is lacking is a pig or two in the orchard and some bee hives. Instead of these we get the coaches depositing their hungry-for-culture crews who whisk around the gardens, take their selfies through the willow sculptures and line up for the series of mini-lectures that comprise a visit around the houses (none of which is as it was in Shakespeare’s day).But step a turn away from the well-trodden path and you enter orchards that are even more glorious than the colourful beds. Here the glory is in neglect (they’re not neglected but rather allowed to be as they should be) and wildness. Only about 1 in a hundred visitors venture here and birdsong and butterflies  delight the ear and the eye. The trees are knotty and twisted with age, some gloriously ruffed with mistletoe and hanging with fruits of former times: pears, apples, plums, greengages, damsons, sloes, quince all prosper and grow. No mower has been close, the grass left to grow into the hay that pigs would love. I’m lucky with the weather, vast acres of blue sky with the sort of cloud shapes that make you wish you’d brought your watercolours. The sun warms the grass and leaves fuelling the butterflies and bees and drifting the drowsy scent from blade, bough and ripening fruit.Somewhere far away the sound of a primary schoolyard at play – games we played; tig, hopscotch and closer but separate the shuffle of tourists doing the round of garden, house, shop and tearoom. I wasn’t expecting this hidden place, this very Eden just fifty yards from the honeypot. I love Shakespeare. No matter what they do to him in packaging, production, commercialism or historical accuracy the love remains. It’s in the words and you can carry those around with you, hold them in your hand or your head; speak them through your own mouth which must, and does, make them your own. He says it better than we can and seems to have something for every thing we’ve done or felt.

“There Shakespeare, on whose forehead climb
The crowns o’ the world; oh, eyes sublime
With tears and laughter for all time!”*

“He was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature. He looked inwards, and found her there.” **There are more glories beyond the orchards, so many superb places for students and lovers of the plays to rehearse and perform sections, scenes, whole acts, entire plays. Someone (quite pointlessly in my view) has stuck some little quotations on bench and tree and minor sculptors have been licensed to lessen the view. Less is more you curators. Give us flowering borders and rugged orchards and houses we can look round and see for ourselves. We don’t all see Shakespeare the same way nor wish to visit him on the same terms.

I don’t really mind. You can keep the houses for me, (and keep them well). I’m happy to spend the whole afternoon in this overgrown orchard with one who, to me, has always been the object of sonnet 18. I’m surrounded by peace and loveliness. The world is quiet and content. The coach parties are doing their round, the tills are ringing but not for me and my girl. We’re sitting among the summer scents as the present drifts backwards and the words sound finer than ever.

This is close to perfection.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


  • * Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • ** John Dryden