Sneers for Fears - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
December 12, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
— William Blake

I should be careful about what I say. This is my living, and it's a business with a certain skittishness about political talk. But it has to be said, and I'll let the chips fall: radio is a medium ruled by a tyrant.

This tyrant is a terrific organizer, sure, and certainly consistent, you have to concede that, and I don't know what we'd put in its place. But it does outrage some defiantly human part of ourselves to know that there's simply no stopping it.

Time's the tyrant, and it drives us on, relentlessly, inexorably, to the next new thing.

But when I first heard Bryn Terfel sing Gerald Finzi's Shakespearean song "Fear no more the heat o' the sun," I suddenly developed a backbone and put on the brakes. Time could just go on without me. It was an act of temporal disobedience, a sit-down strike against Time's endless horizon of delights.

Here in this song, this single grain of sand, was the world of Cymbeline, Shakespeare's romance about a legendary British king in Roman times. And there, behind the song, were treasures enough to detain and delight us for an hour, a day, a lifetime: of character, of conflicting emotions, of family secrets masking an indecorous humor trapped in tragedy.

On the radio, to dive deeply into such things is to outrage Brevity and Efficiency — Time's enforcers. But this medium on your desk or in your hand owes Time no debt — or at least enjoys a lower interest rate — so let's break the surface.

In Act IV of Cymbeline, two brothers, country bumpkins, sing a heartfelt elegy on the death of a strangely delicate young man they'd just met. He'd wandered into their woods. They barely knew him. But as a congenial fellow soul, his sudden passing pained them. They sing:

"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."

These are already prodigious sentiments. But look closer yet (don't worry, there's plenty of oxygen in our tanks). Consider that lovely line, "Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust." The image and the rhyme are apt enough. But what if we learn, as in Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography, that in the poet's own country slang, a golden lad was a dandelion, and a chimney-sweeper was a dandelion gone to seed? Then we're at the cellular level, and not a hair on our heads is at rest.

"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."

Shakespeare feared upsets of the social order, and was never a champion of the people. But reference to an Ultimate Leveling was safe enough, and here he makes the point perfectly clear (and perfectly) that in death, even absent any posthumous concerns, the advantage goes to the common man.

Yet, looking still deeper, we find that the two rustics are anything but common. They sing these lines to a man they don't know is actually a woman, their sister, a princess and decidedly not dead (thanks to one of W.S.'s patented sleeping draughts). Princes in the cradle, they were spirited out of their father Cymbeline's court for their protection during a Time of Troubles.

What I can't provide here is Finzi's unearthly melody. For that, listen at the bottom of the page, or open in a new window.

But the song alone can't convey this extensive web of meanings, or the comic subtext. These two shepherds with the wool thoroughly pulled over their eyes manage the spiritual heavy-lifting of making death a downy comfort. Serious business. And yet they're as touchingly hilarious as a Red Skelton hobo. Oh, the things they know! And the things they don't.

"Fear no more the lightning-flash.
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone.
Fear not slander, censure rash.
Thou hast finished joy and moan…"

This is part of Shakespeare's sleight of hand, to ignore decorum, to mix the unmixable, and to make us realize that the resulting slurry, however unappetizing it may sometimes be, is the very stuff that makes us human.

And then to dawdle here, hanging with an Anglo-Saxon king, an Elizabethan poet, and a 20th century melody master simultaneously, is to hold off time at the barricades, and make a sweet chaotic nuisance of ourselves. All this in only one grain of sand. Think of its neighbors. Think of the beach, and all the beaches. Time is toast.

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