The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
In this extract from Shakespeare’s famous comedy, the Athenian nobleman Theseus describes the peculiar nature of poetic vision. His tone is somewhere between caustic common sense and baffled wonderment.
Theseus has already declared that “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” are “of imagination all compact.” Now he portrays the “poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling.” Perhaps he is implying that the poet’s “fine frenzy” is a calculated performance, or merely a kind of fit. Maybe, however, the poet displays what Plato referred to as enthousiasmos, a divine enthusiasm that takes possession of the poet and grants him godlike power. Plato’s term literally means, “having the god within.”
The poet’s “rolling” eye is in constant motion, never still, always hungry to observe. But what does the poet see? He glances “from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.” He connects the transcendent with the tangible world around us.
It is our imagination that gives a “body” to “forms of things unknown,” making the invisible visible. The “poet’s pen” captures that process in language, giving “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name.” That habitation is in the concrete here and now, in the very scenery that surrounds us—that surrounds you.
So, as you read this extract or say it aloud, Shakespeare’s words mix with the ebb and flow of your thoughts, even as you read the newspaper, drink coffee or stare into space. Shakespeare’s words are made real, even as reality is enchanted.
For Theseus, the poet is something of a trickster, guilty of claiming there is more to life than there is. Not content with seeing “some joy,” the poet imagines “some bringer of that joy” – a god or a goddess in a heavenly palace, perhaps.
The poet makes the impersonal personal, trying to turn brute existence into a momentous drama. He leaps from imagining “some fear” to a specific danger, mixing up a “bush” and a “bear” in a way that seems silly, childish and superstitious.
Theseus represents the voice of reason, doubtful of the poet’s joys and fears, which in the cold light of day appear ridiculous. Under the eye of the midsummer moon, however, every one of Theseus’s complaints could be read as compliments. Ironically, he reminds us why the poet is so wise. After all, who doesn’t want to see the invisible? Who doesn’t want to conceive of magic and mystery?
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.