Friday, 9 August 2013

Shakespeare - now entertain conjecture of a time

Like most everybody else, I’m caught up in the birth of the royal baby, Prince George – a time for reflection on a myriad of things, what with our elections coming up and the push that will come from parties to become republic or stay with the monarchy.  My wife looks at the news clips, and pines, “what a shame Diana couldn’t be there, they loved their mum,” as she transfers the love and value of her own family.  While I find my thoughts dwell on privilege, duty, ancient tradition, royalty and other lives played out in English monarchs, some of whom were proper bastards.  But then a couple of days ago I’m watching a BBC documentary on Prince Harry, about his role in the army throughout Iraq and in Afghanistan.  I was quite taken by this picture of a modern Royal, an ordinary young man, but a man in a position of influence and he comes across as being a decent sort of bloke.  I admired his obvious liking and acceptance among the troops and his relaxed leadership qualities.  And that then took me to Henry the Fifth, the only play I’m familiar with from William Shakespeare.  Henry V was one of my studies at school, but I know nothing from that.  It’s only now that I understand, wanting to understand, and I discover a language that is so polished and beautiful.  When I read my favourite acts of Shakespeare I feel we are losing our ability to express the elegant English language – well, among the people I know, anyway!  For this post I have to tell you how much I love reciting, ‘Now entertain conjecture of a time’, from the play Henry V.  The act imagines the scene in the camp of the English army on the night before battle with the French at Agincourt in 1415.  King ‘Harry’ reminds me of how I think our modern young ‘Harry’ would be.

Now entertain conjecture of a time
(William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616)

Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp, through the foul womb of night,
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fix’d sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other’s watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other’s umber’d face:
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night’s dull ear; and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers, closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation.
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name,
Proud of their numbers, and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp
So tediously away.  The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently, and inly ruminate
The morning’s danger, and their gesture sad
Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts.  O! now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruin’d band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry ‘Praise and glory on his head!’
For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night;
But freshly looks and overbears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear.  Then mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
And so our scene must to the battle fly;
Where, - O for pity, - we shall much disgrace,
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill dispos’d in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt.
I defy anybody, having read Now entertain conjecture of a time, who then denies any feeling of being taken to the very midst of those English soldiers on the night before their struggle in the battle of Agincourt.  For me, the expression in the poem reflects a gentleness that captures King Henry’s true character and also matches the mood found in the depth of night and early morn.
I’ve trolled back through some of my early work to find something that touches on the feeling of ‘Harry’ walking among his troops.  The closest I come is, Battlegroup.  It’s a feeling more than a poem that I wrote in a quiet, early morning moment.  The pulse is the gentleness before the sheer destruction of battle.
1987.  On HMAS Canberra exercising with a US Navy battle group.  We are coming into position to commence a refuelling run on a tanker - USS Passumpsic. It's pre dawn.  The sky is still dark.  Other ships are stationed all about us.  We move up into position and start refueling.  The feeling is one of powerful technology.  There is comfort and protection from the dark and the cool of the morning in the purposeful progress of these huge pieces of steel gliding easily on the sea.


Early morning light,
out in the Pacific,
steaming south -
south east into a pink cloudy sky,
a light swell rolls us,
alongside ‘Passumpsic”,
embellicled by black,
looped fuelling hoses,
diesels loud in a racing thump
from her high funnel,
orange floods wash a warm glow
over enclosed tank decks,
contrasted with,
striking blue police lamps
picking out station markers,
away astern where ‘Midway’ surrounds herself
with other ships,
a block of dark angles and mastheads,
jewelled with red warning beacons,
blink, blink of aircraft lights,
as helicopters lift from the mass and glide along the sea,
going about the business of war.
                                                        J. O. White

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