Hello again! After a month, I have returned to contribute my weekly posts for the month of May. Since last I posted, I have visited three countries, taken about two thousand photographs (don’t judge me), and encountered some literature in the process.
So, for the next four weeks, I want to take you on my adventure and point out the places where novels and plays and long ago tales happened to me.
I don’t generally go off on adventures simply because ‘thus and such’ happened in that spot or was written there or about that place. Give me a castle and I’m pretty happy. I can make up my own stories about it. But in my two weeks of wandering, I had some dreams. I had goals. I had stories that were living in my head that I needed to find. And find them, I did, and more besides.
My first stop was Dover. When you think of literature and the cliffs and beaches of Dover (and you paid at least a little attention in English Lit), you are probably immediately going to think of Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’. Clearly, that must be what I was searching for.
Well, it wasn’t. But I did find this:
The White Cliffs of Dover are fantastic, rising sheer and chalky and suddenly. I was thrilled to have the chance to see them. Dover Castle, grand and unyielding on the hills above the cliffs, is filled with shadows and echoes from centuries of political games and medieval grandeur, a first line of defense against enemy attack. But what I wanted was, for once, not the castle – as much as I loved that castle. It was the cliffs. What I was searching for, you might be surprised to discover, was Shakespeare.
What has Shakespeare to do with the White Cliffs? Perhaps you know the passage from King Lear:
There is a cliff whose
high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep
Bring me to the very brim of it,
And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me: from that place
I shall no leading need.
There is a hill called the Shakespeare Cliff that is supposed to be the one described by Gloucester in these lines. This is the famous and most distinctive connection between Dover and Shakespeare.
Actually, no, I wasn’t. The scene that I wanted to experience as I walked along the cliffs was not from King Lear, but from Henry V. And it was, I freely admit, from a film version and not from the play at all.
If you have not seen Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of Henry V, you have missed out on a spectular film. When I read the play, I hear the voices of those actors, particularly the bard-like voice of one Sir Derek Jacobi (just listen to him speak the first bit ‘O! for a Muse of fire!’ and you will be captivated. Or you should be.)
Those of you who have seen it are now nodding and smiling knowingly. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
Jacobi, as the Chorus, walks along the cliffs – these cliffs – , chilled and wind-lashed as he delivers his lines…
For now sits Expectation in the air,
And hides a sword from hilts unto the point
With crowns imperial, crowns and coronets,
Promised to Harry and his followers.
This scene, for whatever reasons, stands out in my mind. It is strange since the cliffs are not actually in the play itself. But because of Jacobi, they are in the play when I read it. After all, Shakespeare’s Chorus also advises us in the Prologue:
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
A play is a visual art, not just a literary one, and when we read the words or watch on a small stage, we are kindly requested by the playwright to build in our minds the armies and castles and battlefields (and cliffs!) to see the story as it is meant to be seen. When I read a book, a really good one, I want to see it in my head, hear the voices, watch the characters play out their roles as if on a massive stage. That’s how I get to know a story.
I climbed those cliffs, stole a pebble as a souvenir, and I will never be able watch that scene in Branagh’s film without a silly grin on my face.
I was there.
*Next week: From Dover to Canterbury, I became a pilgrim twice over.
*For more pictures: My Travel Blog