Halcyon days

Walking the dog one evening last week, after dark and in a drizzle, I was surprised to find a number of young families leaving the park as I entered it. The night was fairly warm, but now that the dark comes early, it is not often hazarded by more than a runner or two. That evening the light rain added a further deterrent. As I crossed the ring road, however, and followed a path that turns right to run beneath a row of lamps, I found even more families, and Toby pulled me between them. They were speaking German. Almost all the children were carrying paper lanterns, for the most part home-made. Between the two baseball diamonds, where they had gathered beside the path under their umbrellas, someone was holding a pony by its bridle. As I passed, I asked a couple pushing a stroller what the holiday was. "Saint Martin's Day," the father told me. "A fine old German tradition, come all the way to Park Slope."

It was strange to find an unsuspected ritual near to home. Though I've lived in Park Slope more than half a dozen years, I had no idea that people here brought lanterns to the park once a year after nightfall, nor that they did so with so much enthusiasm that they were willing to brave rain and hire a pony. Fortuitously I had heard of Saint Martin; I even knew that his saint's day had recently passed. I'd just begun reading Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1, and in that play, Joan of Arc promises her aid to Charles, the future king of France, in these words:

Expect Saint Martin's summer, halcyon days,
Since I have enterèd into these wars. (1.2.131–32)

Saint Martin's summer, the notes at the back of my edition explain, is "warm weather in late autumn, St Martin's Day being 11 Nov." The explanation stuck in my mind because it was 11 November when I read it. The celebration in Prospect Park came a day or two later—maybe the English and the Germans honor him according to different calendars. The week was indeed mild for late autumn, as Saint Martin and Joan of Arc augured. When Peter and I bicycled into the city on Sunday afternoon, we had to shed both our jackets and our sweaters. But I'm straying from Shakespeare, whom I mean to talk about somehow. "Halcyon days," the notes further explain, are named after the halcyon, a bird thought by the ancients to make its nest on the sea around this season of the year, and to "charm the waves to a calm" while it brooded.

In graduate school, when I was a youth drunk with the breath of my own significance, I read several of Shakespeare's plays and wrote about them in a notebook, in a hermetic style, believing myself to have pierced through to their true drama, which was, as I then saw it, a war between the characters for possession of the poetic power in the words that formed them. I stopped after a handful of plays, because I had a dissertation to write. More than a decade has gone by since then, and now I'm at the age where one wonders if one will ever get around to achieving certain ambitions. I still want to read Shakespeare's plays and take notes on them. This time I want to read all of them, in the order he wrote them. I gather that a fair amount of guesswork has gone into the order that scholars have established, so I'm not going to be strict about my sequence. As I understand it, for example, there's some evidence that Henry VI Part 1 was written after Henry VI Part 2 and Part 3, but I'm starting with Part 1, as the first of many acknowledgments that I'm reading as an amateur, not as a scholar. Another such acknowledgment is my choice of edition: John Dover Wilson's New Cambridge Edition. As best I can suss out, it's respectable but superseded. Wilson, however, is very companionable as a writer of notes, and the books themselves, hardcover duodecimos from the 1930s and 1950s with typography by Bruce Rogers, approach in size and style my ideal of what a book should physically be. Also amateurish will be the schedule I keep.

2 thoughts on “Halcyon days”

  1. Thanks for the background on St. Martin's Day.There's a scene in "35 Shots of Rum," the recent film by Claire Denis, where children with paper lanterns are briefly seen walking along a beach in Germany. Now I think it must be a St. Martin's celebration.

  2. My wife and I started a similar project last year and made it through the first two Henry VIs (It was sooooooo hard to be patien with Pt. 1!). It wasn't long before other reading called us. But it's a worthy enough task I think I'll take your reading as inspiration and pick the plays up again—as soon as I finish Eudora Welty.

Comments are closed.