Though I was always a bookish child, two things happened shortly after my sixteenth birthday which fixed my course toward words and writing. The first of these was discovering that the British Poet Laureate was paid in wine. That I immediately decided this was the job for me was probably down in part to the flippancy of adolescence, but I think it also appealed to the noble disdain of youth that one’s life should be traded for mere money. (I have long since stopped writing poetry, but it is certainly useful to a budding author to think of being unpaid as a positive virtue.) The second important event was the gift of two volumes of poetry, one by T. S. Eliot and the other by W. H. Auden, from my mother, given on my first visit to the Middle East and first read when we were driving through the Jiddat al-Harasis desert in southern Oman.
Eliot and Auden are perhaps first and foremost metropolitan poets, steeped in the tortured urbanity of Bloomsbury and Vienna and Manhattan, but they are in important senses also desert poets, and this is how I first knew them. Both writers are urgently concerned with the prophetic voice, that ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness’ which is both divine and disregarded, the ultimate voice of authority and yet unheeded by most who hear it. In the Abrahamic tradition this voice always comes from the desert, which is a symbol at once of its status as miracle and its isolation. Eliot sensed that this voice was in danger of disappearing, fragmented by the onset of secularity and modernity, and sought to recapture it in its evening hour.
Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
This voice, supressed by the noises of urbanity in the middle sections of The Waste Land, returns to have the last word in the final section, ‘What the Thunder Said.’ Auden, on the other hand, was writing in the 1930s during the rise of the fascist demagogues, where ‘In the nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark.’ He was torn between deep suspicion of this voice and his unparalleled and effortless talent for conjuring it, and he eventually settled on a form of private revelation, where the prophetic voice was turned inwards to speak to matters of personal experience rather than public affairs. In his instructions to the poet following the death of W. B. Yeats, he struck a new note.
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Both poets understood that the loss of authoritative voices and totalizing philosophies also deprived the poet of the ability to speak to and for the broader public. Auden’s later retreat from the public and political into the private lyric set the course for postwar poetry, but the fraught choice between the dangerously messianic power of language and the abandonment of the public remains a touchstone in my reading and teaching of literature.
This relationship between language and the desert, however, works both ways. Just as the voice coming from the desert has a prophetic air, so the text taken to the desert acquires a sacred feel. My current project began with the decision of most nineteenth-century expeditions to Africa to take with them Shakespeare as their only reading as they explored the Dark Continent, bearing the Complete Works like an ark of culture out into the wilderness. Of course they took Shakespeare with them because they enjoyed reading him, but they also took him as a kind of ritual act, one which confirmed his sacred status by bearing him into the most unexpected places, turning his into the voice in the wilderness. This ritual spoke to the nineteenth-century belief in Shakespeare’s universalism, his Genius which meant that the beauty of his works would stand the test of all times and places. And, like my own desert reading in Oman, their isolation with these volumes gave them a particular experience of reading Shakespeare, one perhaps foreign to that lifelong Londoner but one nevertheless where the stakes of literary experience were raised to their highest level.
We’ve all played the game of choosing books to take to a desert island, and while there is always someone who misunderstands (trying to bring encyclopedic books or ones that will help them off the island), most intuit that this is really a challenge to think of what are the key constituents of human culture, from which we will be cut off and which we can’t live without. Travellers to East Africa, from Burton and Stanley to Teddy Roosevelt and Che Guevara, were agreed that Shakespeare was the must-have book when cut off from the world they knew; the debate over why this was the case, however, was far from settled and went right to the heart of the rethinking of European culture as it spread across the globe.
This, however, was only the beginning of the story. East Africa would not sit passively by and allow itself to be a blank space in which other people performed ritual sanctifications of their idols. Instead, Shakespeare was soon everywhere in East African life, featuring among the first books printed in Swahili in the 1860s, passing into local folklore, acting as the backbone of a thriving Indian theatrical scene in Mombasa at the beginning of the twentieth century, being performed and translated by freedom fighters and independence leaders. And while most of these readers shared with the explorers their love of Shakespeare’s works, they quickly showed that they had no intention of reading them in the same way.
Having found a few leads on this story, I returned to East Africa, where I grew up, to rediscover how in the last two centuries it has served as a laboratory for testing claims about human culture. The resulting book is bursting with stories about reading in unexpected places and how it changes what we read, but at its heart is always the question of whether there is anything that is beautiful and significant to everyone—whether, in a sense, in a world deserted by shared values, there is any voice that can speak to us all.
Edward Wilson-Lee was raised in Kenya by conservationist parents, studied English at University College London, and completed a doctorate at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the past few years he has spent extended periods in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. He now lives in Cambridge with his wife and son, and teaches Shakespeare at Sidney Sussex College. Shakespeare in Swahililand is his first book.