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A Sermon for Shakespeare Sunday

Sunday 23rd April 2006

A sermon by the the Archbishop of Canterbury on poetry and prophesy for the birthday of William Shakespeare. The sermon was delivered at Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was baptised and later buried.

'Poetry' said W.H.Auden, 'makes nothing happen'. It was a typically downbeat verdict, deliberately challenging the ambitious Romantic picture of the poet as 'unacknowledged legislator', and the drab and earnest illusions of Auden's brief flirtation with Marxism. Poetry is not a helpful tool for ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, and it is not in itself a power for change; it does not feed the hungry, it does not (with due respect to Milton) justify the way the world goes, it does not dry any tears. It is, Auden would have said, just what it is, and must be judged for what it is and nothing else.

It seems a fair way from Jeremiah recording the words of a God who says that he will be given 'authority over nations and over kingdoms'; that what the prophet says will both ruin and rebuild societies. Is this just because Jeremiah says what God tells him to, and the poet speaks only out of his or her own inner world? Not so simple. Whatever else the prophecy of the Old Testament is, it is literary craft, balancing its syllables, allowing language itself to play tricks 'in its sleep' (Iris Murdoch's luminous phrase), insisting on metaphor and the polyphony of voices within a single speaker's utterance. Jeremiah above all exhibits these marks of language under acute stress. Hardly has he made his initial protest to God - 'I do not know how to speak' - than he is wrestling with his first vision, an insight contained in a dreamlike pun worthy of any analyst's textbook and his deliberate and outrageous pushing of the language of protest against God to its extremes (God as the lying seducer who abandons his conquests) still has power to shock the pious reader. He cries out in agony that he can neither say what he has to say nor hold it in. Reading this calls for at least some of the skills we need for reading poetry.

Equally, the serious poet is the one who manages to communicate that what's being said is not an individual fancy, a decorative way of getting a message across, but the response to something as imperative as God's word to Jeremiah. The 'how' of saying and the 'what' that is said, cannot be pulled apart. The notion of authority given to the poet, for destroying and for building, is not so quickly to be put aside; reading this calls for some of the skills we need for reading the prophets. Poetry and prophecy are not the same, and it would be wrong to try and understand response to prophecy without the underlying themes of divine covenant and law, which make sense of it. Yet the areas of the human mind and imagination involved in each of them are near enough neighbours for us to ask some similar questions.

And it is perhaps Shakespeare more than any other English poetic voice who particularly raises the question of authority, since he is par excellence the authoritative icon of our nation's literature, with all the ambivalence such a description entails. He certainly did not make anything happen, in one sense; nor did he very much want to. The biographical research of recent years has fleshed out more than we'd really like the picture of a calculating, ambitious businessman, stockpiling food in times of scarcity, accumulating lucrative property, and rather conspicuously leaving next to nothing in the way of endowments for the poor of his town. He did rather well out of the upheavals of his day; we have to come to terms with the mixture of that easy-going charm which clearly marked him in his contemporaries' eyes and a pretty chilly selfishness at heart.

But neither poets nor prophets are the people they are because of well-developed social conscience or innate generosity. They are who they are because they cannot choose; they see what they would rather not see. Shakespeare may have looked at the poor of Stratford with the eyes of a Friedmanite economist, but he could not stop himself knowing what spills out in King Lear: that poverty brutally poses the question, 'What do you need to be human?' Prosperous and powerful people may never get to ask that, and they are the less human for it. Again, he may have systematically ignored and even humiliated his wife, but he could not fail to know things about abandonment and jealousy, which in a Mariana or a Leontes, draw us into a mental world most of us would prefer to ignore. The sonnets may or may not have anything at all to do with Shakespeare's own sexual life; but they are about what he could not help seeing in the obsessions, betrayals, fantasies and the plain happiness of erotic love. I've no idea what kind of human being Jeremiah was; but if he was as compromised and morally uncertain as Shakespeare, it would matter very little. The challenge is not to approve or admire but to learn what he knows.

This begins to give us a way of approaching Auden's remark somewhat differently. Poetry makes nothing happen. But poetry is what happens to certain people, just as God happened to a reluctant Jeremiah. Something is missing in the poet, some habit of self-defence that allows most of us not to know a lot of what we'd rather not know, some inner adjusting mechanism that leaves words and images and sensations where we found them and stops us sensing the frightening weave and crossover of language and impression that gives the world a new shape. Most of us survive by screening out a lot of what comes to us; even the poet - or the prophet - doesn't live constantly by the intensity of those unprotected moments; which is perhaps why many artists, not only Shakespeare, can give the impression of high levels of human callousness or self-interest, as if they are desperately anxious to put some defences at least in place.

But there's no help for it; the loss, the wound, is there, the thorn in the flesh, which will not allow the poet or the prophet to say, 'All right, I've done what I had to and now I can sit back'. It is the weakness, which is fundamentally strength, the absence of some veil or covering, an absence that fixes the poet in unbreakable relation with what's otherwise avoided. For St Paul, the wound he speaks of, which has puzzled twenty centuries of commentators, is whatever in him binds him inescapably to the awareness of the undeserved gift of new creation in Jesus Christ - a dependence which, he knows, believers are never going to find congenial. And that dependence on grace and gift, with its attendant awareness of the pettiness and incapacity of your own resource, is the great unwelcome, life-giving, dreadful and miraculous secret behind all these experiences of being overtaken by an unsought truth. Authority, whether in religious or poetic speech, or both, arises from the acceptance of the wound, the resolve to live with one's own undefendedness so that certain things in the human world are never forgotten or reduced.

And if poetry makes nothing happen, what poetry makes visible is what does change the world. Auden was right, profoundly right, to refuse the tempting image of the poet as hero, the poet as turning the wheel of history in virtue of his intensity of individual experience. It is not the poetic ego that moves things; it is what the poetic lack or frailty of ego allows to emerge, what the poet knows and allows us to know. This is what will destroy and build; this is the strength of what imagination uncovers.

Strength and weakness: at the end, Shakespeare said what he had to say in the lapidary words spoken by Prospero as The Tempest finishes. The visitation of power comes and goes, it is not in the power of the poet. For years, Shakespeare had reinvented his art, mastering and then discarding one style and genre after another until in the last plays he is producing drama not quite like anything before or since, straining language, mixing genre, thinning down character to the point of absurdity, deepening character to the point of impenetrability. Because poetry is what happens to him, he cannot look back and say, 'This is my achievement, and I leave it happily to posterity'. With all that has been said, he has not yet begun to say what he has been 'ordered' to say. It is not so much that words fail him as that he fails words, he has no more power, no more charm or charms, to put a world together in what he says. So before he falls silent he asks - urgently - for our prayers. What he has seen and cannot deny is at last too much for him, and his own fantastic and unique skill will not save him from an ending of despair. But he has earned a right to ask those whom he has taught to pity him and intercede. Because of what he has allowed us to see that we should otherwise have ignored or shrunk from, he has brought into our imagination that compassion he now asks us to show him. In that last moment of anguished dependence, we can hear and answer him, praying for him the freedom and sufficient grace of which St Paul speaks.

© Rowan Williams 2006 

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