Shakespeare's Last Drink

Uploaded by ShaunTraynor01 on 07.05.2011

Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and, it seems, drank too hard,
for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.
These words are from the diary of John Ward, Vicar of Stratford, (1648-79) and they form
the basis of my poem, Shakespeare’s Last Drink.
The story goes that Shakespeare, Michael
Drayton, Ben Jonson - probably the most famous poets, writers, dramatists of their time - did
indeed have “a merry meeting” and I have placed that meeting – true to local legend
– in the Bell Inn in Welford Upon Avon, just a few miles from Stratford, walkable
- along that river’s bank.
After that (very) merry meeting and indeed late into the night
- in my poem – Shakespeare walks home alone; maybe a bit befuddled.
As he walks, he gathers
around him bits of his life like a shawl .. at first for comfort, the comfort of remembrance,
then his thoughts approach distress...
But let’s begin at the beginning, let’s set
the scene:
It was one of those misty April nights as if the whole sky were waiting,
the hedgerow was heavy with bullace and coltsfoot; plague hung on every tree’s branch and breath.
In The Bell at Welford Drayton sipped a glass of Rheinish wine,
Jonson was already at the pints;
they talked ....
of posterity, the price of folios; anticipated Shakespeare,
'He'll be here in a minute.'
But when he came, a change was marked; that day, in a strange silence,
he had visited the grave of his son, had recalled the lines of Constance,
I have heard you say that we shall see and know our friends in
heaven, if that be true I shall see my boy again?
Returning home after a little shopping, he tidied up his part of the house,
and went out for the last time.
That night his friends were veritable halls of mirth,
the landlord took some good London teasing and Shakespeare, drinking little at first,
gradually imbibed the spirit of the company; his tankard was handed down to him;
it had been washed in unscalded water. In merriment the chimes at midnight came.
On his way home he felt ill, a touch of dysentery, but for a moment the sky cleared and there
was the moon ? he remembered Sidney, With how sad steps,
O moon, thou climb'st the skies; How silently, and with how wan a face.
He smiled and his thoughts replied, How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here shall we sit, and let the sound of music Creep in our ears... but sadly
not with Sidney, he affirmed.
He thought of Drayton's lines in requiem, The widow world of all her joys deprived,
and other of his verses. He thought of Taylor, 'the water poet', Ben's
latest protÇgÇ and then, involuntarily, chanting faint hymns
to the cold, fruitless moon.
The skies had closed over again.
Trying to get home – and there were still some miles to go –
he thought of his mad mistress, his withered salad days,
and of his will, twice written, once in verse, and once in Stratford...
To a wife, a 'second best bed', and to the world?
A tempest; an end to revels.
Within his mind he conjured out of air and into thinner air
his actors, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
and allowed them to dissolve, an insubstantial pageant
He felt, suddenly, frightened, ill and old and tired.
In that anxiety he buried and re-buried all that he knew, buried it certain fathoms
in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound...
depressed, he drowned his book.
So, to that session of silent and perambulatory thought,
he summoned up a remembrance of things past, and with old woes did newly wail
his own time's waste:
Your monument shall be my gentle verse, Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse, When all the breathers of this world are dead...
Yet, on the streets of Stratford, his soft, wet boots hardly woke the sleeping
Behind him on the path, a breeze had sprung up from off the Cotswolds,
bringing with it rain and traces of snow, putting paid finally to the moon.
No-one saw a wise swan shift into the darkening reeds.
At home he pondered on whether to light a fire,
went to bed damp, wrapped in liniment.
A day later, he died.
A short local ceremony marked his passing; and from Gerard Johnson's workshop a few months
later, a little Latin:
Stratford had done with him.
The world waited.
In years to come, a lifetime, more, there in that small town a bell did ring and
canon roar, and actors in fantastic garb,
with hautboys, flutes and clarinets, guitars,
did sound and play,
Let beauty with the sun arise to Shakespeare, tribute pay.
The Latin may be translated: "A Nestor in judgement, a Socrates in genius, a Virgil
in art. The earth covers him up, the people mourn him, and Olympus has him."

6 refers to the David Garrick led Stratford Jubilee celebrations of 1769

So you have heard my poem, my story-telling; looking at the dates, the Vicar of Stratford,
John Ward, would have known Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna when she was in later age,
in the (then) small town of Stratford. They would have shared family knowledge - and if
anybody was well placed to say how her father died, it was surely Susannah - she was married
to a doctor, the family doctor.
Ward would have been privy to all of this and so his
diary entry really does have the ring of truth.
Local legend? The Bell at Welford?
For me
to write this poem, I had to choose to enter into an acceptance and belief and begin from
there. It is interesting that the website of the Bell Inn in Welford does mention a
long walk home!