This week’s Featured Poem has been chosen by Amanda Brown, Criminal Justice Projects Manager, who remembers reading it at school – and has since worked through its intriguing treatment of the subject of remembering in many of her Get Into Reading groups.
About a hundred years ago, when I was at a girls’ grammar school, I was taught English Literature by Miss Lewis. Somehow, we discovered that Miss Lewis’s name was Stella, so that’s what we all called her – not to her face, of course! That would have been unthinkable. Stella was ancient – at least fifty. She was a tall, angular woman whose clothes were severe but – I now appreciate – classically elegant. She wore long, glinting necklaces and dark lipstick. She was very fierce – no messing about in Stella’s lessons – and utterly passionate about literature. We loved her lessons despite being scared of her, because, through her teaching, we shared that passion. When we discussed Middlemarch, it was as if each of the characters had been invited to the classroom to join us. We knew them personally. Awful to reach the end of the book – wasn’t there any more?! And Othello – we were desperate to step in and help, to tell him the truth. Oh – the pity of it!
One day, we read together Sonnet LXXI. Stella’s voice was low but compelling. How could we not mourn for him when he was dead?! That opening line, with the word ‘dead’ echoing insistently at the end! We heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell and shuddered, picturing the worms at their grim work in the grave. Vile indeed! We knew all about the soft caress of a lover’s hand (or so we thought, based on our lunchtime assignations with boys on the cinder-track between our school and theirs. Classy!) You wouldn’t forget that, could you? Especially not if that same hand had written exquisite verses, just for you. No, you couldn’t forget. In fact, we decided, everything in the poem which seemed to demand you forget, would actually have the effect of making you remember. “Do you think so?” asked Stella. “Is that what he’s saying – remember me?” We insisted he was. She nodded in agreement.
I’ve read this sonnet in Get into Reading groups. It casts its spell every time. “Do all Shakespeare’s sonnets have a secret message?” asked one man. “Talk about manipulative!” exclaimed one woman. I would have come across this extraordinary verse sooner or later, I’m sure, but I’m grateful to Miss Lewis for sharing it with me.
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.