‘Hang there, my verse….’

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I write this between events at the 58th Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival. In a couple of hours the Shakespeare Centre will be buzzing with the sound of local poets gathering to read their work to each other. This year there will be a special guest appearance from Roy Macfarlane, the Birmingham Poet Laureate.

But last Friday, special attention was given to the work of primary-school children. They had been invited to write poems in response to the opening of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Some of these were then posted on the railings of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

The idea was inspired by Orlando in As You Like It, running through the Forest of Arden and hanging his verses in praise of Rosalind on the trees, and speaking a truncated sonnet as he does so:

‘Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love;
And thou thrice-crowned queen of night, survey
With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above,
Thy huntress’s name that my full life doth sway.
O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witnessed everywhere.
Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she.’ (3.2.1-12)

I’ve always loved Orlando’s energy and his unabashed expression of his feelings for Rosalind. He’s in love, and he wants the world to know it.

The young poets, whose work was selected and ‘published’ on the railings, packed into our largest public space, The Queen Elizabeth Hall with their proud family and friends. They then heard their poems read by actors David and Ali Troughton and John Partridge. The result was a compelling, at times amusing, occasionally moving and totally charming evening of verse.

Most of the poets expressed admiration of the new theatre, and imagined how pleased Shakespeare himself would be: ‘The curtain is up. / On the new stage my plays are seen / And enjoyed by all, even the Queen.’ Or, ‘I travelled to see the big tower, / It looked like it reached the clouds.’ Or, ‘The R.S.C. Theatre stands big and bold / It’s in with the new and out with the old.’

But not everyone agreed. One brave lad spoke his mind boldly:

‘Would Shakespeare approve of the big ugly tower?
Unlike the planners that had all the power.
What has happened to the beautiful architecture?
Replaced with a blob, subject of many a lecture.
Alas, poor Royal Shakespeare Theatre I know you no longer,
You have been ruined by those much younger.’

Thus do we all continue to find in poetry a freedom of expression which might otherwise remain silent.

The Poetry Festival continues on Sunday 3 July at 7.30pm with ‘These our actors’, a Shakespearian celebration of actors and acting devised by Stanley Wells and performed by Alexandra Gilbreath, Henry Goodman, and Scott Handy. Box office (01789) 292176. Proceeds from this event will be shared with the Actors’ Benevolent Fund.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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