Saturday 24 December 2016

G. Wilson Knight - Shakespearean Prophet

What is this 
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?



I had a particularly inspirational teacher at primary school, between the ages of 10 and 11 - what used to be called Junior 3. Her name was Mrs. Hughes, and she introduced me to so much that has been absolutely central to my life since - literature, mythology, history, art and more.

I remember staying behind after class on our first day - a warm and hazy September afternoon - to fill in a form of some kind. My eye was drawn, I recall, to the pictures on the walls, scenes from myth and legend that I was encountering for the first time - Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Round Table, and the Rainbow Bridge of Asgard, to name but three. Raphael's School of Athens was there too, next to a picture of a man with a crown on his head. It was the crown, not the man, that captivated my mind. He had dark hair, a pinched face, and clenched white fingers. But the crown was gold and round and glowed from within with a light and fire of its own.
"Who's that, Miss?" I asked.
"Richard III," replied Mrs. Hughes.
I nodded vaguely, not yet recognising the name, but I view that episode now as a high and solemn moment - my first meeting with a Shakespearean king.

Years passed, and I forgot both crown and king, until the day I first read G. Wilson Knight, in the seductive lamplight of the Language and Literature Library in Manchester. It was twenty years on, the book was This Sceptred Isle and the words were these: 'Kingship is golden; and gold still exerts imaginative power. It is, after all, solid sunlight, and the sun remains visible king, and nothing, as Keats found when writing Hyperion can quite dethrone him.' I put the book down, stunned and overwhelmed. It all cascaded back - my teacher, the heat, the sunlight, the pictures on the walls - Jason, Arthur, Thor, Raphael, King Richard. There was no gap at all, it seemed, between the 'now' and the 'then'. I felt like I'd never been away, never left the classroom, that I was still there, that I'd always be there somehow. Why? Because it was my home and my truth. It was where I belonged, where I could be most truly myself and come closest to living the life I was created to live. I made a note of the writer's name - G. Wilson Knight.  And that was my last encounter with a Shakespearean king. 'The wheel,' as Edmund notes in King Lear, 'is come full circle.'


G. Wilson Knight (1897-1985), like my young self, was captivated and enchanted by the Crown. Like Mrs. Hughes, he was an inspirational teacher, chiefly at the University of Leeds. He was a poet, an actor, a theatrical director and a scholar of English Literature, best known for his works of Shakespeare criticism, such as The Wheel of Fire (1930), The Imperial Theme (1931) and The Crown of Life (1947).

He was no dry academic. His prose is electric - passionate, poetic and soulful - like a Dostoyevsky book or an El Greco painting in words - burning with spiritual and imaginative intensity. It was the poetry of Shakespeare's plays that obsessed him. Character, plot and theme held a lesser rank in his view. They grew out of the poetry, like the branches of a tree. And what Shakespeare's poetry contains, more than anything else for Wilson Knight, is an articulation of England's royal destiny and essence. 'Shakespeare's royalist thinking,' he writes in This Sceptred Isle (from which all quotations in this essay are taken), 'is, for the most part, patriotic, and his work from time to time spreads its wings in national prophecy. Royalty and England tend to involve each other, and these in turn involve strenuous themes of war and peace, order and disorder, conflicts of personal ambition and communal necessity, contrasts of tyranny and justice, the whole stamped by the chivalric symbol of Saint George and aspiring to Christian sanctions.'

The Crown is the key - the master symbol. It runs 'as a golden thread through Shakespeare's drama, symbolising the nation's soul-life, which is also the greater self of each subject. In Shakespeare's human kings we watch different persons daring to identify themselves with this supreme value; and we can view each personal king as a prototype of national action, as England herself, fulfilling or falsifying her destiny.'

The great image of this sacred royalty which Wilson Knight returns to continually is that of the crowned child - the 'baby peace', the 'Child Crowned, with a Tree in his Hand' - who appears to Macbeth in the witches' cauldron. 'Macbeth,' he says, 'is then further tormented by a vision of future Scottish kings blending, after the union of realms under James I, during whose reign this play was written, into a line of English kings too. This line of kings is descended from Banquo, secure in an integrity which, in the midst of suffocating evil, can yet say:

In the great hand of God I stand, and thence
Against the undivulg'd pretence I fight
Of treasonous malice.

In murdering Banquo, Macbeth tries to cut off Great Britain's future history at its root. But Fleance escapes.'

G. Wilson Knight was not a conventionally religious man. He was vice-president of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain for many years. Yet his books are freighted with Christian sensibility and feeling. He had a profound, intuitive understanding of Christ as ultimate monarch - the King behind the kings - the Lord and Master of the universe. Christ, consequently, is the source and wellspring of Wilson Knight's royalist thinking. Contemporary Britain, I feel, would do well to take note of this, especially when liberal democracy appears to be losing its way so badly, less and less able, it seems, to connect with people and inspire them at the deepest, most essential levels - the levels involving truth, meaning and ultimate values - 'strenuous themes,' as Wilson Knight put it, 'of war and peace, etc ... '

I reflect on Wilson Knight's oeuvre often. When I do, an image comes to mind - my old school, the long corridors, Mrs. Hughes's room - empty now, save for the sunlight streaming through, the rough-hewn altar in the middle, and the golden, gleaming crown lying on top, waiting for someone - myself, perhaps - to touch it, feel it, weigh it, savour it, then draw a deep breath, take the leap of faith and place it on his head. 

But that would be presumptuous on my part. That would be to turn my meditation on G. Wilson Knight - this noble Briton, this maverick, this prophet - into a fictional exploration of my own relationship with the Crown. That can wait. Forever, maybe. G. Wilson Knight, it has to be said, gives voice to the royal and Shakespearean position far better than I can. Let us leave him the last word, therefore, in the hope that his gem-like prose may be rediscovered and that his wisdom and vision might help this country regain her inner spark, reconnect to her inner sources of vitality, and, most importantly of all, restore her relationship with the Divine, from Whom, as with Shakespeare's poetry, all good things flow ...

...  Though we live in an age of rationalism and attempts to raise man as man, with little conscious admission of man as a crowned or crowning being, we go sadly astray if we forget them. In all matters engaging the most immediate and fearful problems of our existence we know that drama, the opposition of parties in Parliament and Court of Justice, is our first guide; but there is always also, as in a work of art, some symbol, some higher fusing power, or its emblem, to unify our opposites, or at least to suggest their unification. If we cannot resolve our conflicts, we must at least imagine a dimension in which they are, or might be, resolved; which perhaps means, in Christian terms, looking forward, or up, to the advent of Christ in glory. Such, then, is the symbolic function of the Crown, not only itself dramatic, but also signifying the resolution and the purpose of the drama within and beyond which it exists.

This is, fundamentally why Shakespeare's work is so royally alive in our time; why it is acted, not only in Britain and America, but in Europe, in India and Japan; and in Russia. Shakespeare's drama, with its fanfares and ceremonial, abounds in kingly ritual; and his people speak, move, act royally. Villains or heroes, it is no matter; it all lies deeper than ethic. We have for long talked of the Crown as the link binding an empire of free communities; that is true, and it is a great conception, herald and pattern, it may be, of a yet greater. But meanwhile we can speak of another, and related, link, which may indeed prove to have some bearing on that greater conception as yet unshaped; a link, or rather a golden thread, putting, as Puck has it in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 'a girdle round the earth'; the golden thread of Shakespeare's poetic royalism which, despite all barriers, yet binds, as does nothing else, the world.

1 comment:

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I've been meaning to read more of GWK, thanks for reminding me - I encountered him via his book on JC Powys, which was excellent, and far deeper than most Lit Crit.