A Rose for Shakespeare

Apr 29, 2014

If you’ve attended high school, chances are good that you’ve read at least one Shakespeare play—and perhaps some of his sonnets, too. 

The "Chandos" portrait is believed to depict William Shakespeare.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Minocqua poet Andree Graveley has a special connection to the Bard’s poetry. A few years ago, she decided to pay homage to Shakespeare by bringing him a rose. As part of this month’s Poets on Poetry series, Graveley tells of the surprising coincidences that led her to the very feet of the poet himself.

Several years ago, on Valentine’s Day, my heart was so utterly broken that I thought I might die from it. Literally. Even though I’m an old English major, that still doesn’t fully explain where the idea came from to read Shakespeare’s sonnets—each and every one. But that’s just what I did, while death read over my shoulder, and I believe Will saved my life that day.

So when a friend later invited me to visit her in Cardiff, Wales, making base camp at her house for forays into the British Isles, the first thing I wanted to do was to take a rose to Shakespeare. My idea was to visit his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon, England and leave the rose somewhere there; I was sure the right place would reveal itself. I even brought a bud vial for water all the way from my home in northern Wisconsin, not knowing if these existed everywhere (they do!).

I was about to travel from Oxford to Stratford after spending a rainy night in a youth hostel within view of the train station. I’d been using a Britrail Pass for my travels, but this particular morning the bus schedule proved the better, so I boarded.  What luck—or perhaps something more inscrutable than luck was afoot. I found myself going through towns that had barely changed since Shakespeare rode through them. There were thatched roofs, and stairs that ended right in the widened streets.

The trip required one bus transfer in a little town called Chippie Norton. While I still had my water vial with me, I hadn’t seen a single flower shop or vendor during my travels. Where would I find a rose? Climbing off the bus in Chippie Norton, I looked up at the shop three feet in front of me and was amazed by its sign: Florist. I went in and selected the loveliest rose in the entire place. Oddly, they didn’t have red, so I chose a lavender one that exuded the extravagance of spring lilacs. This the clerk wrapped in plain brown paper for me.

Only one other person was waiting for the Stratford bus that morning. When it arrived a few minutes later, she took the seat across the aisle from me and struck up a conversation. What was I doing here? she wanted to know. I said I was taking a rose to Shakespeare and rustled my brown package. I suppose I thought everyone took roses to Shakespeare, but she said it was the loveliest thing she’d ever heard.

Then something wondrous happened which made me feel known, even expected. I had come thousands of miles. What are the odds, do you suppose, that this 82 year old woman, the only other passenger for Stratford, was a former teacher of the Royal Shakespeare Company? I doubt that the materialized ghost of Hamlet’s father would have astonished me more profoundly.

This unlikely woman was on her way to the Stratford fish market, a trip she made weekly. “Are you going to visit Shakespeare’s grave?” she asked. I suppose I’d always thought of him living between the covers of a book, not buried. When I replied that I didn’t know where the grave was, she said it was in Holy Trinity Church, about a 20 minute walk from where the bus line ended. As the directions were hard to explain, she resolved to walk me there.

This she did. But I swear she moved more like spirit than aging body, and I had trouble keeping up. “Our swans are all off color,” she twinkled. “They’re mating with the geese.” When we were in clear view of the church spire and she had instructed me to keep to the path along the river Avon, she withdrew and I went on.

You approach the church first through a park and then an ancient cemetery. I picked up a few leaves from a great-grandfather tree in the park and gathered a few  stones, all of which I keep on my writing desk today. The cemetery headstones lean over awkwardly, like so many disoriented residents seated in an old folks home. But Shakespeare isn’t buried there. He’s inside.

The church from the 1200s has several additions, and you enter through the newer, 1700s door, passing a knight’s sarcophagus along the way. Shakespeare’s grave is in the 1500s section, right under the high altar, and you pay an attendant your one-pound admission to pass through into this sanctuary.

There was no line when I approached the middle-aged attendant in his church- grey suit and tie. As I held out my coin, he asked where I was from and I said “near Chicago in the middle of the United States.” I started to say I’d brought a rose for Shakespeare. Then, to the utter surprise of us both, I burst into tears. Sobs, really. You’d think I was the widow.

This dear man put his hand in the center of my back, just where people place it to comfort you, and he escorted me into the empty church, down the long aisle to the very front, me sobbing all the way.

When we got to the altar area he said to me: “Now you’re going to do what few people ever get to.”  He unhooked first one tier of cordoning, and then a second designed to block any closer approach. In this way he led me up a few steps to the very grave itself. Because it was right under the gray slate floor, something I’d never seen before, I almost stepped on it! Stunned, I bent and placed my rose on top of Shakespeare’s grave.

Then it was done. The kind man led me back down from the high altar, refastening the cordons behind us.

A great calm settled over me. I stayed near the spot for several hours, watching other people approach. They all became hushed, reverent. I remember sun scintillating  through stained glass windows. No one else brought a rose.