Poetry Speaks: Jason S Polley’s Selection

On Shakespeare, Proust, Loss, and Longing
by Jason S Polley

The equally sonorous and reflective opening two lines of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 30”, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, / I summon up remembrance of things past,” cannot help but conjure Marcel Proust’s inimitable seven-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu, a title that has been translated to English in two main ways. The more direct translation remains In Search of Lost Time­—a translation we might render more poetically as In Search of Time Lost (but I’ve never come across this title). The other (perhaps more popular, precisely because of the overt Shakespeare allusion) English translation of À la recherche du temps perdu, one I suspect most readers are aware of, is Remembrance of Things Past.

Just as we’re—in my classes at least—never far from Shakespeare (Hamlet alone, I’d argue alongside Harold Bloom, contains a quotation suitable to any [edificatory {or self-aggrandising!}] occasion), we’re never, as literature majors, too far from Proust. Even more than I recall my readings of the 1000+ pages of Proust’s first two Remembrance volumes, titled Du côté de chez Swann and À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, and translated as Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove (the latter of which totally sanitises the more sexually suggestive literal translation: In the Shade of Young Women in Flower), what I recall is the people I know who have read or are reading or know they must ultimately read Proust’s mastertext. Former profs, fairweather grad-school friends, ex-students, literate acquaintances; they all want to answer Proust’s clarion call to Remember. Readers: Proust, before death, I, we, must—and this because of, meaning not in spite of, the loss we’ll experience upon concluding this literate-lifelong longed-for coded homosocial text.

Which brings us back to Shakespeare, whose love sonnets, scholars only more recently posited (thus finally officially disseminating an open secret), were directed to the Bard’s male lover. “Things Past”, in other words, are not always what they seem or seemed. As Prince Hamlet the theological scholar himself says, “Seems? Nay madam, I know not seems.” Literature, like us, with our series of “exits” and “entrances” upon the “stage” of “life,” to quite clumsily appropriate from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, literature, I repeat, does live alternate public and private lives. Shakespeare seems to say as much in “Sonnet 30”, where “sweet silent thought” and “sorrow’s end” basically just bookend lack, woes, wastes, moans, and grievance. But these woes and moans, these grievances, are softened, are cancelled even, through connection, through a “dear friend”. Don’t we, in fact, lean into and even live literature in order to locate and linger alongside dear friends—old, new, square, queer, brown, black, and white alike?

Marcel Proust passed away in 1922 while still proofing the last three volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu. Yet he, like Prince Hamlet, indeed like Shakespeare himself, lives on in us. Whether we long for his sweet, silent thoughts, or we long for the longing that preceded the loss of that longing, his words, his remembrances, live (and long) on.  

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Jason S Polley is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by JSP.]

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