« a $5,000 opportunity | Main | Iraq and Al Qaeda »

December 1, 2003

Ariel's song

Ariel's song, from Shakespeare's last play (The Tempest, 1:ii), seems a premonition of modernism. In traditional poetry, it's fairly obvious what is being described, represented, or signified. But it takes sophistication to notice the formal features of the poetry itself (such as meter, rhyme, and assonance) and any allusions to other literary works. In some modernist poetry, by contrast, what is described is unclear, or there may not be any literal referent at all, but the formal features of the writing immediately draw our attention. Thus modernist poetry can be more or less abstract in a way that recalls the modern visual arts.

Ariel's song is striking because the characters who hear it do not know if it means anything; they cannot see a speaker and may simply be hearing the wind. That it is poetry, however, becomes obvious from the alliteration, rhyme, and powerful rhythmic scheme:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are corals made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Burden. Ding-dong
Hark! Now I hear them--ding dong bell.

The form tells us this is poetry (and very beautiful and memorable), but is it about anything? It conjures up an image, but not one that necessarily connects to the rest of the play. Ferdinand thinks he finds a meaning in it: "The ditty does remember my drowned father." His interpretation may be right, but there is no apparent reason for a voice suddenly to describe his father dead beneath the sea. This is an experience, then, of formal beauty that may or may not have significance or explanation--and that seems characteristic of modernism.

December 1, 2003 1:56 PM | category: Shakespeare & his world , fine arts | Comments


Site Meter