Shakespeare and the ‘Long Arras’

  • Peter Rawlings


In his preface to Rupert Brooke’s Letters from America, James lingers over the spectre of a dead poet he casts as ‘young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching’, ‘virtually’1 meeting ‘a soldier’s death…in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy’.2 Transformed by death into an image, the beatified corpse of the poet seems no longer susceptible to the ‘erosion of time’, or available for that ‘reference’ whose pressure is resisted at Concord (The American Scene 571):

but he is before us as a new, a confounding and superseding example altogether, an unprecedented image, formed to resist erosion by time or vulgarisation by reference, of quickened possibilities, finer ones than ever before, in the stuff poets may be noted as made of. (Preface, Letters from America 749)

The allusion to The Tempest—‘the stuff poets may be noted as made of”3—like those to The Merchant of Venice in the musings on the American War of Independence (The American Scene 570), are part of a general tendency James developed for recruiting Shakespeare in the proximity of the unutterable. What James construed as the unassailable enigma of Shakespeare’s life and work evolved into a necessary constituent of the grammar of obscurity and secrecy that generated his fiction and shaped his personal anxieties about the possibility of present and posthumous forms of exposure.


Private Life Private Part Heterosexual Marriage American Scene Early Republican 
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© Peter Rawlings 2005

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  • Peter Rawlings

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