Maya Angelou was a modern-day literary titan. When she died last year, she was rightly celebrated as one of the most important African-American authors of the 20th century, a writer whose reputation and fame was such that she received the ultimate American literary accolade of being asked to recite one of her poems, On the Pulse of Morning, at a Presidential Inauguration (Bill Clinton’s, in 1993). And yet for all her protean output, which included poetry, plays and essays, she was best known for her many volumes of autobiography, in particular the first one, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which was published in 1969 and told the story of her early life in America’s Deep (and still deeply segregated) South before World War II.
As anyone who has read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings will know (and many have read it – indeed, on publication in America it was a best-seller and it has remained enduringly popular since), it is a truly remarkable book. It depicts a childhood so dreadful, so desolate, that even Oliver Twist’s must cede second place to it: Oliver may have been a poor orphan-boy in Victorian London, but Maya Angelou was a dirt-poor black girl in Arkansas between the two world wars, and in addition to the abject poverty that Oliver experienced she encountered both racial and sexual discrimination. Abandoned by her parents, she was sent to live with her grandmother and when she was finally reunited with her mother it only led to tragedy: she was raped by her mother’s new boyfriend, who in turn was murdered, seemingly by several of Maya’s uncles. An extraordinarily sensitive child, Maya wrongly blamed herself and became a virtual mute, unable to communicate with anyone except her beloved brother.
It was Shakespeare who, at least in part, saved her. On returning to live with her grandmother, a kindly neighbour introduced her to books and she gradually discovered Shakespeare. At first, like so many readers she found his work difficult, if not impossible, to understand, but everything changed when she read Sonnet 29:
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Angelou writes simply but beautifully about the profound effect that this one poem had on her; in effect, it introduced her to Shakespeare and to great literature in general, which eventually inspired her to become a writer herself. In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she writes about how she, too, understood what it was to be “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” and how that understanding led her to stop seeing Shakespeare as the proverbial “dead white Englishman” and to start seeing him as someone who could articulate her pain and, in the process, ease it, even slightly.
Her introduction to Shakespeare was in effect my reintroduction to Shakespeare. I had read Shakespeare in school and at a university but I, too, had been guilty of seeing him as unattainably distant, both in time and, even more importantly, in achievement. He seemed so simply, so immeasurably great that it was almost impossible to relate to him as an ordinary human being, one who–being a human being–had inevitably suffered pain and anguish.
Maya Angelou understood that immediately and intuitively and when I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings after the university, she made me understand it, too. That first year after the university, in the semi-great depression of the early 1990s, was a difficult time for me, although I hasten to add that I never experienced any abuse or suffering on the scale that Maya Angelou had suffered. Nevertheless, as is so often the case for those leaving college, I had fallen into what Kenneth Branagh memorably described in Peter’s Friends (an otherwise largely unmemorable movie) as “the black hole”: “You go through school, college, knowing what to do and then you just fall into this black hole.” I was in that “black hole” of utter uncertainty, literally not knowing what to do next, when I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and its incredible account of human suffering and, more importantly, human survival was genuinely absolutely inspirational. Just as Shakespeare “spoke” to the young Maya Angelou, her account of that experience directly “spoke” to me, and motivated me. In time, I returned to the university to complete a Master’s Degree in Shakespeare Studies and, in one form or another, I have studied and written about Shakespeare ever since.
Anyone who loves Shakespeare probably has a favourite sonnet. Like Maya Angelou’s, mine is Sonnet 29. In fact, I would argue that it is probably the world’s favourite sonnet, the single one of those 154, 14-line poems that most completely lives outside of the collection and exists as a sublime stand-alone poem in its own right. It has permeated both classical culture and popular culture. T.S. Eliot quotes the poem in his own magisterial poem about spiritual desperation, Ash Wednesday:
“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)”
Of course, that last line, “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?”, is a continuation of the avian imagery that ends Sonnet 29 itself, “Like to the lark at break of day arising”, and pre-empts the title and theme of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Sonnet 29 also crops up repeatedly in popular culture, including in movies and music. Most notably, perhaps, the entire poem is recited in the magnificent 1950 film noir, In A Lonely Place, when an ageing and rather inebriated actor quotes it to Humphrey Bogart’s disillusioned screenwriter in an attempt to lift his spirits. Less notably, perhaps, it is quoted in Pretty Woman, when Richard Gere’s businessman uses it as part of his attempt to woo Julia Roberts’s prostitute. And in researching this article, I was pleasantly astonished to discover that there is apparently a death-metal band called Deafheaven, which is almost certainly the finest Shakespeare-inspired name for a death-metal band, even if their music, like that of most death-metal bands, may make most listeners wish that they were as deaf as the titular heaven.
So, Maya Angelou clearly recognised something in the poem that much of the rest of the world, myself included, has gone on to recognise, namely that there is something about Sonnet 29 that seems to speak to everyone. Can there be anyone alive who has not known what it is like to be “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”, or at least one of them? Shakespeare has assumed such a central and universal place in our culture that it is easy for us all to forget that he, too, once knew that state of absolute degradation. Indeed, it is likely that he knew it all too well. As a child, he saw at first hand his own father’s fall from grace, from alderman of Stratford to virtual outcast after he had been found guilty of illegal wool trading. As Michael Wood’s recent BBC documentary, Shakespeare’s Mother, showed, that decline in the Shakespeare family fortune almost certainly meant that William himself had to be taken out of grammar school and put to work in the family gloving business, thus preventing him from ever going to a university. Then, as a young man, William not only got an older woman, Anne Hathaway, pregnant, but (rumour and myth has it) he was suspected of poaching deer on the local estate of Charlecote, which may have been the real reason why he left Stratford (and his young family) in a hurry to go to London, rather than any lofty acting or writing ambitions. And even in London, where he found work as an actor and fame as a writer, he was initially derided by the poet Robert Greene and others for being an “upstart crow” and for not being university-educated, which must have reopened some old childhood wounds.
So Shakespeare knew “disgrace” well, which was why he could write about it so well, and why so many people since his time, especially Maya Angelou, have responded to his poem about it so personally and so powerfully. As the young, damaged Maya Angelou knew, Sonnet 29 is not just the work of a universal literary genius but far more importantly the heart-felt lamentation of an ordinary man who had experienced absolute loss, including the loss of his own self-worth, incredible as that may seem to us when we think of the immortal, incomparable Shakespeare. That is why in my opinion Sonnet 29 is not only the greatest of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but the single greatest poem ever written, the literary equivalent of ecstasy (both the drug and the emotion), which reminds us every time we read it that even the greatest writer who ever lived once knew what it was like to be utterly unloved and unwanted.