Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadow’s green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy.
—from “Sonnet XXXIII” by William Shakespeare
April is National Poetry Month, partly because last Monday (the 23rd) was William Shakespeare’s 448th birthday, which falls nicely into National Earth Week (April 22nd through April 28th). I like the idea of combining these occasions, imagining the millions of Shakespeare’s books, printed for centuries all over the world, as a biodegradable resource — a kind of lyric mulch for a toxic world. (Remembering being forced to read Julius Caesar in 9th grade, I, like most suffering students, thought of his plays as mulch long before Earth Day was founded. You have to grow into Shakespeare.)
Like most poets, Shakespeare praised nature extravagantly, but headed to the big city as soon as he could, and lived most of his life in foggy London before retiring to the more bucolic Stratford-upon-Avon. Poets and artists may be natural members of the green community philosophically, but in practice as soon as they can afford a ticket, they move to London, Paris, Vienna, Prague, Dublin, New York, or San Francisco, where “green” is mainly celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day. (San Francisco, however, was where Earth Day started, in 1970 — St. Francis being the patron saint of ecology. Who knew?)
Happily, according to some recent surveys, artists of all sorts are flocking into the Tampa Bay area, and not just because of the beaches. Tampa and St. Pete are evolving into “hot” cities in more ways than one: the murals inside our restaurants, and the poems chalked on the sidewalks outside, are looking better and better. I hope this trend continues, though I sometimes think that the longer artists stay in large cities the more bizarre the paintings, and the more indecipherable the poetry. Perhaps it’s the gas fumes.
In any case, Jeanne and I apparently have made the “green” list: in 2004 we were surprised to find in our front yard, tucked below our azaleas, a little green and white sign proclaiming “Certified Florida Yard.” We guess we got it because we don’t have a lawn — it’s either azaleas or philodendrons, which fill our open spaces as fast as frogs, and keep me almost as busy as a lawn might, though of course it’s a lot quieter, which is a blessing for the neighborhood. We left the sign up for a few years, thinking we might get renewal stamps on it, like license plates, but no such luck; so we eventually moved it behind our house, underneath the clothesline. In retrospect, we’re relieved that, back in the days when we had more children than azaleas, they didn’t stick in a sign that said “Certified Dust Bowl.”
It’s pleasant to think of Shakespeare going “green” and enjoying nature in his final six years at Stratford, strolling over meadows like that later poetic William, admiring the daffodils. He was only 52 when he died — one rumor is he caught a fever after a heavy drinking party with fellow writers Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton — and is buried beneath the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, with his wife Anne Hathaway, who died seven years later. The epitaph he had engraved on his tombstone, however — with its charming Elizabethan spelling — still has a Big City edge to it:
GOOD FREND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEARE TO
DIGG THE DUST ENCLOASÉD HEARE.
BLEST BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES AND
CURST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
—Peter & Jeanne will be reading from and signing their latest book, The Shape of Poetry, at Inkwood Books April 26, 7 p.m., along with poets Erica Dawson and Gianna Russo.
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