Caliban in England
dreamed before 1995, probably around 1966-7, by Theodore Weiss
For years that now seem at least as long as my life, I have been charmed by The Tempest. With every reading its spell has grown stronger. And it has become an ultimate statement for me of the magical nature of things: the last, best proof that, with pathos or feeling potential everywhere, the pathetic fallacy is not altogether fallacious. Above all, through a kin sympathy for Caliban, my thoughts and feelings collected around him. A character who could speak as he did--
Sometimes a thousand twangling instrumentssurely exceeded Prospero's fierce denunciation. Such speech persuaded me that Prospero had failed--if Shakespeare had not--to understand the true nature of Caliban and to treat him as he needed and deserved to be treated.
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again--
Indeed, beyond his expressiveness, Caliban's descendentalism, his absorption in the delicious minute particulars of nature, he a kind of shaggy pre-imagist, wholly won me. As did his complicated relationship with Prospero and Miranda, one, as I saw it, made up of equal parts of hate and love. Thus increasingly Caliban attracted me as a character perfect in his person and his circumstances for a dramatic monologue. Perfect also at embodying our human condition, our earthbound yet haunted estrangement; taught speech, what, except for inspired moments like Caliban's above, has our communicating, with nature or with our fellows, come to? What have we done with language but, cursing, abused it, denied it and ourselves? Notwithstanding Browning's brilliant if idiosyncratic treatment in "Caliban on Setebos," Auden's odd, customarily perverse portrait in "The Sea and the Mirror," and other explorations of Caliban, I felt certain that he remained a multidimensional treasure trove waiting to be unearthed.
But a basic dilemma presented itself. The rowdy pair, Trinculo and Stephano, had spoken of what sport it would be, and more importantly what profit, to take Caliban back with them to Naples as a sideshow. However, exposed and rebuked as they are, they are hardly in any position to carry out their fantasies. And though Prospero claims Caliban as his own, he--or Shakespeare--says nothing of Caliban's disposal once Prospero and the others leave the island. Is Caliban taken or forsaken? In short, Shakespeare--whether by oversight or by insight (a creature like Caliban, wild if partly tamed, lost between beast and human, what future could it expect among so-called civilized men?) considerately enough left both options open.
Long and hard I pondered the two possibilities; for the obvious, if different, benefits derivable from both, the two versions seemed just about equally appealing. But, captivated by the isle's natural and magical delights, as well as by the advantages supplied by unity of place and time, I cast my poem's lot with Caliban's being left behind. One could ascribe it either to the commotion inevitably attending the ship's hectics at departure or to Caliban's panic, his hiding away in some fastness of the island for fear of the bobbing, sail-crackling ship and the treacherous sea, and also of forsaking the only home he knew. Fear especially after encountering several new representatives of the world he would be going to. Obnoxious as those examples proved to be, would they not counterweigh whatever entanglements Caliban had with Prospero and Miranda?
And there Caliban was, except for his fantastic memories, alone on his island, left to try to understand what had happened. Had Prospero and Miranda and then the troublesome strangers really materialized or was it all a preposterous show, a low jinks, an intricate dream staged by Setebos to put Caliban to excruciating torments? Torments poignant far beyond the island's extremest nips and pinches; let Caliban toss on the rack of his own rampant imagination as tantalizing riches indeed poured out of the heavens of his thoughts.
So my poem proceeded. And as it became ever more engrossing, not only devouring my days, but stealing into my sleep as well, more and more I fitted into Caliban's hairy, horny, yet ultrasensitive skin. Thus one late night, when the fever and exhilaration of the unfolding poem was exceptionally strong, I had a most prodigious dream--Caliban's I hasten to say, not Bottom's, but perhaps they are not so different after all? I was in the middle of the other option. And exultantly I lived it: the ship's tumultuous passage, the briny heave of the waves, a landlubber's seasickness in stormy hours, his abuse by the sailors, and his near death. And, finally, the arrival at that stinking, brawling city, Naples by name. Actually another island, England, but how antipodal to Caliban's: a terrifying jungle of jangling noises, snarling people, creatures, and infernal devices they called machines waiting to devour one. Were these the cloudcapped towers Prospero had described, merely one more riches-battering dream or, rather, an overwhelming nightmare?
And then the heart-rending moments of meetings. Especially that one when I-Caliban, going through my paces as an entertainment in a sideshow, see entering the tent a lovely woman and a delicate yet vivacious child. My heart leaped as though it must break out of my body. "Miranda!" fairly flew to my lips. But she, after the shadow of a frown and a moment's puzzled took, smiling, joined in her child's amusement. And I locked my cry away. For how could I let her know that this outlandish "it," face smeared with paints, in gaudy-colored, multilayered, stinking rags, crawling and scampering as the stage-master bid, was Caliban?
Finally--most overpowering of all--the explosion of a longbrewing plot in which Prospero and Miranda are imprisoned by their enemies, planning their death, and I am called upon--as I call upon Ariel and the other elements--to save them. With the last moment Learish enough, as Prospero, seeing me, dies on the dagger-point of recognition! Having such extremities in sight, is it any wonder I chose the other course?
I woke, the crackling atmosphere of my dream's electricity still much upon me. For it had been as though I had lived, however briefly, in the very real, local circumstances of an Elizabethan episode. Or at least at the center of a rehearsal or performance of one of Shakespeare's plays as he himself was putting it on. Once or twice in the past, during a moment of absorption in a class occupied with a Shakespearean play, for a moment indeed, the curtains parted and unheard-of riches--the actual, contingent Elizabethan world, its sizzling, beehive hubbub--stormed around me. The sting was there, and the heavenly nectar. For a moment. Then the curtains clapped shut.
And except for an after-tingle and flitting, quickly fading shadows, little of my dream was left. The question of moment is what bearing did that dream, however powerful and luxuriant it may have been, have upon the poem I wrote. Still I am confident that, like the numerous cities of Troy, each one built out of and buried in the others, my dream sent shoots of energy through the final version, ensured it a resonances life behind its life-the poem would otherwise have lacked.
The whole matter of dreams and of the extent of their impact on one's writing is, of course, a fascinating but elusive one. I usually dream very little, at least consciously. The explanation for this which I have, if tentatively, arrived at is that, in a busy writing life, I, through insistent poems, usually claiming my dreams, consume them before they can reach my sleep. But perhaps, more honestly, for my dreams' very repetitiousness, I scarcely apprehend them.
However, I do know that sometimes when I have set a fairly, ambitious poem a-sail, most of all when I have lived with it a good while, as with the Caliban, the poem invades my sleep. And in that luxurious stage between sleep and wake, with only a thin cover of sleep upon me, my nose sticking out, something fundamental that I had been groping toward comes clear or the poem, a snag in it untied, takes a sudden, urgent surge forward. In such semi-sleep the mind and its powers are free, without distractions outside or in, to exult in themselves to the full. Cleaving through doubts and other obstacles, the mind enjoys its magnificent magic realism and a cogent logic all its own. At these blessed moments the poem in its making feeds the dream even as the dream feeds the poem, a seemingly boundless rain of riches.
*The Pathetic Fallacy is a old phrase putting down the idea that nonhumans are conscious; it asserts that humans project their own feelings and abilities on nature. Given the last decade's research into animal intelligence, the phrase sounds hollow these days; but you still hear it.
I wish I could include "Caliban Remembers", the poem Weiss ended up with; but it's fully 20 pages long, too long to present here without raising copyright issues (and straining my eyes). It's in Weiss's Collected Poems (TriQuarterly Books, 1995, Evanston, Ill.) and in Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams, (ed. Roderick Townley; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), from which this dream-account was taken. It's online, too; Google Caliban Remembers.
The poem's powerful, but I have to admit... I wish Weiss had taken literally his dream's dare, and written us that fierce Elizabethan verse-play (too? instead? God, what a hard choice!) How I long to see our monster-hero try to rally a spirit-army who he cannot bind but may (perhaps) persuade through the shared pain of long servitude. He'll fail to save his former master (or himself?)--but how close he'll come! And perhaps, with luck, save the woman he loves... and loathes.
Between dream and poem, I'd side, in the end, with the dream--this shaggy, melodramatic monster that Weiss abandoned on the isle of his notebook, choosing instead to sail back to the Venice-England of a tasteful, unified, modern, introspective, respectable poem.
And not Weiss alone. Our dreams are always Caliban. And the few who bring him back at all put him in the freak show. Who among us has the guts to admit that we're our Calibans, our melodramatic monsters? That we're our dreams.
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