Thursday, 19 May 2011

“Past the tyrant’s stroke” - the comfort of Shakespeare

I’ve never seen a production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, but like most people, I know the funeral song from Act IV, Scene 2, which begins: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun…”. The retired actor Paul Williamson opened proceedings at a “Pass On A Poem” event in Chiswick last night by reading it, and reading  it beautifully.

It’s one of my favourite poems, and I’ve thought about reading it myself at one of these get-togethers, but the fact that there are usually professional actors in the audience from a generation that knew how to do Shakespeare properly has always stopped me – rightly, judging by how superbly it was performed last night.

I’ve always found it a tremendously comforting poem. Many years ago, when I finally escaped the clutches of the only genuine psychopath I have ever worked for, the lines: “Fear no more the frown of the great/Thou art past the tyrant's stroke” went through my head for days afterwards. To this day, it’s one of a handful of verses I’ve learned by heart and recite to myself at regular intervals: it makes me feel safe, somehow. 

I’m sure you know it well, but in case you’d like to refresh your memory, here it is:

                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 sceptre, 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 renowned be thy grave! 

Two things. During the interval last night, Paul Williamson told me that someone had suggested to him that “chimney sweeper” was a term for the tall bull-rushes that were once used to sweep chimneys – which seems to make sense. And the last stanza is often omitted by anthologists - no idea why.


  1. I have read Cymbeline twice and it remains a puzzle to me. Whenever I read or hear the name I always feel slightly ashamed. So when I read your post I had another look [The Oxford Shakespeare edition]. It has an eighty-page foreword which presumes that you have an intimate knowledge of the text and is full of technical crit. lit. stuff. I have to read forewords. Then I read your passage. I meet Guiderius and Arviragus [whose real names are Polidore and Cadwal] and their father Belarius [whose not their real father. That's Cymbeline]. Then Cloten who is dressed in Posthumus' clothes and finally the beautiful Innogen who is disguised as a male page called Fidele. And half the pages are taken up by footnotes [which I also have to read] and....enough already! Cymbeline back on the shelf.

    You seem to spend much time at your poetry society. In my experience, these type of "clubs" are usually a front for nefarious anti-social activities. Chiswick is thickly populated with media types [ Marxists, Gays, Masons, Oxbridge Traitors, that sort of thing] and a few posts ago you admitted actually socializing with a self-professed Marxist at one of your gatherings. Was he very old and answered to the name of Eric Hobsbawn [aka Frogspawn]? I have always wanted to meet a sincere Marxist so I could get their "take" on events like the starvation of the Ukrainians and Stalin's massacre of the Russian Officer corps in the '30s, The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and The Katyn Forest Massacre of the Poles and the genocide against various nations inside the Bolshevik Empire in the '40s, the death rates in their KZ-network - the list is long and that is before you get into its manifestations in the Orient. Marxists, somebody said, have a simple childs-eye view of history. That's why they can supply calm answers and why it appeals to students. They are a bit like Lib-Dems in that why - certitude for the thick.
    Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - 06:07 PM

  2. I am extremely impressed that you’ve read Cymbeline once, let alone twice! Your helpful notes have not tempted me, to be honest, as there are at least ten others I need to read first. (I need to be locked up in a German POW camp like P.G. Wodehouse with nothing but a “Complete Plays of Shakespeare” to read.)

    In response to the various horrors you cite, Cynic, Marxists would simply say they had nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism, or that they resulted from a perverted misreading of Marx, or that that they were committed by reactionary hoodlums attempting to undermine the glorious Marxist state. The more hardline would mutter something about eggs and omelettes (as A.J.P. Taylor did when asked about the Soviets crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956). I’m not sure Marxists are thick – but somewhere along the line, like all political extremists, they became morally deranged and began excusing a vast range of evils as a legitimate trade-off in pursuit of achieving one paramount cause. In their case, as in that of the Lib Dems, and now the wonderful, modern, ever so go-ahead Tory party, that cause is “social justice”, which, as far as I can see, means taking money away from productive people and handing it over to unproductive people, whether they need or deserve it.
    Sunday, May 29, 2011 - 07:41 PM