Hamlet's shield

In the book of Saxo Grammaticus, where the story of Hamlet (née Amlethus) is first told, Hamlet survives the act of his revenge. First he pins his false uncle’s men drunken beneath their festival tent and burns the palace around them; then he finds his uncle’s bed and there, with a needless fillip of cunning, first warns Claudius (née Feng) that Hamlet is come for his revenge, then kills him as he rises with his own sword – while his uncle fumbles to draw Hamlet’s, previously riveted through for the seeming-mad Hamlet’s own protection.

This bloodyminded Hamlet’s first act as king is to command his story – from the murder of his father through the accomplishment of his splendidly premeditated revenge – all to be painted on a great shield for him to carry.

Here were to be seen depicted the slaying of Horwedil; the fratricide and incest of Feng; the infamous uncle, the whimsical nephew; the shapes of the hooked stakes; the stepfather suspecting, the stepson dissembling; the various temptations offered, and the woman brought to beguile him; the gaping wolf; the finding of the rudder; the passing of the sand; the entering of the wood; the putting of the straw through the gadfly; the warning of the maiden after the escort was eluded. And likewise could be seen the picture of the palace; the queen there with her son; the slaying of the eavesdropper; and how, after being killed, he was boiled down, and so dropped into the sewer, and so thrown out to the swine; how his limbs were strewn in the mud, and so left for the beasts to finish. Also it could be seen how Amleth surprised the secret of his sleeping attendants, how he erased the letters, and put new characters in their places; how he disdained the banquet and scorned the drink; how he condemned the face of the king and taxed the queen with faulty behavior. There was also represented the hanging of the envoys, and the young man’s wedding; then the voyage back to Denmark; the festive celebration of the funeral rites. Amleth, in answer to questions, pointing to the sticks in place of his attendants, acting as cup-bearer, and purposely drawing his sword and pricking his fingers; the sword riveted through, the swelling cheers of the banquet, the dance growing fast and furious; the hangings flung upon the sleepers, then fastened with the interlacing crooks, and wrapped tightly round them as they slumbered; the brand set to the mansion, the burning of the guests, the royal palace consumed with fire and tottering down; the visit to the sleeping-room of Feng, the theft of his sword, the useless one set in its place; and the king slain with his own sword’s point by his stepson’s hand. All this was there, painted upon Amleth’s battle-shield by a careful craftsman in the choicest of handiwork; he copied truth in his figures, and embodied real deeds in his outlines.

Remember that a knight’s shield was as good as his name – the means by which he would be known in battle and in travel, known both to friend and foe. Having become king, Hamlet desires that his story shall protect him and that he shall be known by his story. Both terms of this resolution come to pass in an unexpected way. Soon Hamlet falls into the hands of Hermutrude, Queen of Scotland – wise, clever, beautiful, proud, unwed. So impressed is she with his story – with the more than human cunning of his revenge – that she decides first to spare his life, and second to wed him – he the only accepted and the only surviving of her many suitors.

The shield itself is of course invisible in Shakespeare, though I cannot call it absent. By his story Hamlet enters the company of kings – so Fortinbras hails him; by his story Hamlet is known, when Horatio tells it before the confused witnesses of Hamlet’s end in a Hamlet ending; and by his story Hamlet is saved – saved from England and returned to Denmark that he may end – in the Spartan phrase – with his shield or on it – but not without a shield.


Bourgeois is a curse word. When I read the word bourgeois, I generally stop reading. When it slips out, I forgive it. But when the author persists in repeating it, as if they have just made a discovery, I leave.

Yet I am not sure that I disbelieve in the bourgeois. At times I almost see a class of people – a very large class of people – who have in common a quality that only bourgeois names: they contrive to live in their time as its living posterity. They are free in their judgments and free in their indifference because for them anything that really happens, happens in the past. Then the feeling passes, and once again I see people whose characters are separately conditioned by their particular situation and occupation – not by some class oversoul.

Of course I accept the existence of the strict-sense bourgeois, the medieval burghers – I accept that the world I live in is descended from the one they created. But trying to understand the world in terms of class makes me uneasy (and not only because if there were a bourgeois, they would not be the masters but the helots of our capitalism, pressed between the entitled poor and the empowered rich). No, there is a brink ahead; its name is Marx. I feel the same way when I try to understand the world in terms of markets – there is a brink ahead; its name is Mises. But the Marxist case is more uncomfortable than the libertarian, because libertarian ideas pass on libertarian credit. Marx is the philosopher we agree with under other names. When You-Know-Who is mentioned we throw salt over our shoulders and intone: “He was wrong in his conclusions but right in his basic approach,” or “He was wrong about everything, but at least he cleared away old ideas that were even more wrong.” But folk magic will not protect you if you look into the forbidden books. To read Marxists, to follow principles familiar to you and found among all educated people of good will – to follow these principles step by step plausibly to inhumane conclusions, is to realize how untenable the compromise is. You cannot chain up the devil indoors; you must serve him or put him out. Either social class is a valid principle and deserves to be applied far beyond its present polite limits; or social class is an invalid principle, and any current idea which depends on it should be recalled and melted down. But what else is there? Whenever I ask the question I feel a tense quiet like the party when the parents’ car pulls up early – because if Marx was just wrong then somewhere all the old grave solemn words are waiting to return.

(If you substitute psychology for economics, Freud for Marx, cognitive psychology for libertarianism and neurosis for class, the above essay contains another.)


I write poetry but I will not call myself a poet. My experiments in poetry are more a kind of tinkering than writing. The way meter, phrase, caesura, and alliteration complex in poems fascinates me like an exhibition watch or a vivisection. I try to follow the meshings and articulations; to test my understanding, I try to build or animate for myself. But prose has never failed me; I turn thoughts and scenarios into poems not because I must, but because I can. And for the subtlest and most difficult thoughts, I turn to prose first.

In writing about poetry it seems obligatory either to defend or diagnose Modern Poetry. Admittedly, I have a strong distaste for hermeticism in poetry. I am indifferent to whether poetry be accessible—inaccessibility no more blames good poetry than accessibility excuses bad poetry—but I resent hermeticism, not because it is elite, but because it is the ape of elitism. A secret society imitates how an elite looks from the outside, substituting loyalty for merit and ritual for sympathy. (That is, an elite is the only true secret society). When poetry has a hermetic seal, I am content to leave it shut.

But I resent the synecdoche of "late 20th century academic English-language poetry" for "modern poetry." There is too much to generalize about, and I do not want to generalize or judge. I want to ask a question: "If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?" It seems to me that all poems now must answer this question; and that most of them answer "no."

The two forces which pose this question are recorded music and photography.

The force of music is evident. How can poetry be invented in a world that reveres songwriting? It has the flavor of a bull session: "You know how there's that piano piece, right— Song Without Words? Well how about a song without music?" Remember how uncertain the boundaries of poetry and song have always been. Much that is read as poetry was written as song or chant. And modern singers are wonderfully adept at setting poetry to music. Browning's "A Toccata of Galuppi's" is a miracle of poetry, music frozen on the page; but here the poem is turned into a song. If they can do that, they can do anything.

It is not even cheaper anymore to be a poet than to be a songwriter. If you add up the cost of your Moleskines you will have saved little over the cost of a laminate guitar, an electronic tuner, a digital recorder, and a copy of Guitar for Feckless Morons. Three chords will get you far; if you can type, you can fret. If your poem cannot be set to music, why not call it prose? What give a special name to prose with whitespace? Why elevate a typographic distinction into a literary one? And if your poem can be set to music, why should anyone pay attention if you cannot be bothered to take the extra step?

The force of photography is subtler, but equally strong. Music only vanitates the form of poetry; photography displaces it. The urge to preserve, embody, and share an experience, which poetry satisfies, photography satisfies just as well and much more easily. Indeed I largely credit my own interest in poetry to my near indifference to photography. Poetry is intensely osmotic. Doggerel is not inept poetry, but dry poetry—squeezed from a mind already drained of what poetry should absorb. Photography is a valve on the same vessel. If you would be a poet, leave your camera behind.

Poetry will go on losing to music and photography. It has already lost; yet I do not give up on it. Poetry has been cornered before and survived. Writing relieved poetry of its responsibility for history; printing relieved poetry of its responsibility for education (textbooks of math and grammar were once written in verse, to aid memorization). Recording and photography are relieving poetry of its responsibility for contemplation and confession. What is left for it, I do not know.

I am not looking for poetry's savior; poetry is not languishing, the question has been answered many times. But each poet who has found an answer has found only a particular answer, not a general one. None has established an answer that imitators can borrow. This might be taken to point the importance of originality; but that is spiteful. Imitation, both imitating and being imitated, is necessary: an art where only genius is adequate is not worthwhile for anyone, geniuses included. An art where every achievement is unique, where nothing can be built on, is an unnecessary art.

"If poetry did not exist, would anyone invent it?" Because I cannot answer this question, I am not a poet. I will call you poet if you can.