‘After Reading ‘Antony and Cleopatra’’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is a short three stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These stanzas are consistent in their rhyme scheme, following a pattern of ABCB DEFE GHIH.
This poem is a reaction to the play, Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. It was first performed in 1607 by the Kings Men.
Summary of After Reading ‘Antony and Cleopatra’
After Reading ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ by Robert Louis Stevenson describes a speaker’s passion for the ancient world and humankind’s unquenchable desire for “hopeless things.”
The poem begins with the speaker describing his own life, and that of everyone else alive today, as being like a hunt. This hunt is endless and hopeless, in that no one will ever reach the thing for which they are truly craving. Humankind might reach back to the past in an attempt to connect with it, and the way in which people lived, but one will never reach it. Still, this desire is without end and will drive one on with “horn and strife.”
In the second stanza the speaker attempts to break down this unnamable passion and desire into base images that convey these emotions. He speaks of the sounds of the roaring sea as being a source of the power that humankind seeks in the modern world. It, along with the bright reds of a fire, and the white of the moon, convey what all are looking for. They are representation of true strength and a full, well-lived, life.
The poem concludes with the speaker stating that there is no way he can be swayed from the emotional path he is on. He knows now, even though others have protested, that he would rather die today in “Cleopatra’s arms” than live out the rest of his life.
Analysis of After Reading ‘Antony and Cleopatra’
As when the hunt by holt and field
Drives on with horn and strife,
Hunger of hopeless things pursues
Our spirits throughout life.
As the speaker begins the first stanza of this poem he is still wrapped up in the chaotic world of passion, intrigue and desire of Antony and Cleopatra. He has been consumed by the deeply violent and fulfilling way in which the characters live. The speaker’s wish that he too could live such a life comes through clearly as one reads through the poem, and is solidified in it’s final lines.
In the first lines of the poem the speaker is describing, through disconnected and vibrant imagery, what is was like, and what it would be like, to live as Antony and Cleopatra did. At the same time, he is contrasting their full lives to the life of a modern man who is consistently pursued by an unquenchable desire for something he cannot define.
This need, that is so hard to name, is like a hunt which is driven on through the country side, past “holt[s],” or animals dens, and “field[s].” This pursuit is carried forward by all those behind, “with horn and strife.” In this metaphor man is both the hunter and hunted. He may run from the world that he is living in, in pursuit of “hopeless things,” but he will never catch them. This hunt goes on “throughout life,” consuming one’s “spirits.”
The sea’s roar fills us aching full
Of objectless desire—
The sea’s roar, and the white moon-shine,
And the reddening of the fire.
In the second stanza the imagery is broken down even further, in an attempt to articulate that interior passion that consumes everyone, not matter who they are or where they’re from. The narrator speaks of “The sea’s roar” and how the sound, sight, and thought of the endless power and depth of the sea fills one with “objectless desire.” There is something, beyond mankind’s ability to put into words, or capture, that all living men and women crave.
This “something” could be a more fulfilling life in which one gets to fight for, and sometimes with, those he or she loves. Perhaps it could refer to the simple freedom that was common in the past, but has slipped out of humankind’s reach in the modern age.
Whatever the desire it, all are touched by it. The speaker attempts to define it in three ways in the last two lines of this quatrain. It is like the power and sound of the “sea’s roar,” as well as the “white moon-shine” and the “reddening of the fire.” These saturated, full, and intense images reach back to the past; to the days of Antony and Cleopatra. They connect humankind today, to the men and women of the ancient world.
Who talks to me of reason now?
It would be more delight
To have died in Cleopatra’s arms
Than be alive to-night.
If the reader has not come to this conclusion by now, the final lines will cement the fact that the speaker feels a deep longing to cast off his life and travel to the time of Antony and Cleopatra. He would truly do anything to live as they did.
The stanza begins with the speaker reaching out to his listeners, and to those that would condemn this desire, and asking “Who talks to me of reason now?” He does not want to listen to anyone that tells him what he wants is folly, nor will he even consider casting off the feelings that have come to him.
In the final three lines of the poem the speaker informs his readers, without hiding behind metaphor or allusion, that he would get more joy out of dying, today, in “Cleopatra’s arms” than living out the rest of his life. So strong is his desire, and perceived connection to the past, that he would be willing to sacrifice himself to become a real part of it.
About Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in November of 1850 and was sickly from birth. His mother passed onto him her weak lungs and he had a live in nurse as a child. He started attending school at seven and when he eventually attended college his performance was poor. He was hoping to become a lighthouse engineer like his father, but did not apply himself to his studies. He was known for his lavish dress and visiting of brothels. Stevenson eventually changed his ambitions and decided to become a lawyer in the hope of appeasing his father, but he never practiced. While studying law, Stevenson also taught himself how to write and his work was published in a number of periodicals.
Stevenson’s first two published books were based on his extensive travels. He was frequently ill and his wife Fanny, who had left he first husband for Stevenson, was often responsible for his care. Treasure Island, his first successful novel was published in 1884, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde followed in 1886. Stevenson was an intensely popular writer and was admired by many including Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway. Stevenson and his family moved to the Samoan islands in 1890 and by 1894 he had become increasingly depressed and died from a cerebral hemorrhage