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Cordelia’s Choice

Ye gods, what should I do with such ill news?
My father, once the king, is now insane
And stripped of dignity. What must I choose
To set things right? Yet, pray, why should I fain

Raise up this man who banished me from sight
And left me shamed and tongue-tied, dowerless,
A paupered princess? Still, through bleakest night
In dreams I hear him storming, powerless.

No less than his, my bruiséd heart is broken
For pity’s sake as much as for my own.
He wanted honey in his ear, some token
Of ostentatious love with blandished tone.

I spoke with deep sincerity of right
Affection owed according to my bond.
But peevishly, he took this as a slight
Although no daughter could have been more fond.

Ruled o’er by vanity the king preferred
My scheming sisters’ flattery and lies.
And now he’s homeless, mad, his howling heard
From Kent to France. O gods, relieve his cries!

I’ve married well. I need not be involved.
‘Twas he who in his dotage caused great wrong.
Ensuing that, was not our bond dissolved?
Yet he grows weak while my sure heart stays strong.

Despite rejection can I him disown?
I can’t! My conscience will not brook the sight!
Though destiny is never clearly known
I’m certain now of how to set things right:

I shall return to Britain. When we meet
Our eyes will shine with reconciled love.
Forgiveness given and our joy complete,
We’ll share long lives beneath the stars above!

.

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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18 Responses

  1. jd

    Enjoyed your poem, Brian, for all its technical attributes
    but also for its heartwarming story. In my ignorance I looked
    up the narrative. What I read portrayed Cordelia as too good
    to be true. I had to strongly disagree as I know of at least two
    acquaintances who suffered a lifetime of misery from a parent
    but returned to care for them in their final time of need.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, jd. Cordelia is often portrayed as too good to be true. I wanted my poem to suggest a little bit of her internal struggle and that perhaps she did wrestle with the idea of not returning to help her father. Relationships between parents and children can be very complex indeed. And the ironic last line of the poem is meant to suggest that even when we do the right thing happy endings can be elusive. That is the risk we take when we love.

      Reply
  2. Morrison Handley-Schachler

    Brilliant poetry, Brian, with tremendous feeling. Cordelia is one of Shakespeare’s best female characters. It’s interesting that Shakespeare (whose fellow actors were all male, of course) adapted Geoffrey of Monmouth’s original story in the Historia Regum Britanniae, where Cordelia is a major noble and tragic figure into the tragedy of King Lear, who, I believe dies peacefully and happily in Geoffrey’s story. Otherwise, we could have had a Shakespearian tragedy with a sole female lead role. The last lines of your poem are of course, very much in keeping with what the characters – and perhaps the first Shakespearian audience – are expecting might happen.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Morrison. Cordelia is one of my favorite characters in all of Shakespeare. Yes, the final quatrain is what an audience would have wanted to see. It’s still the ending I want to see! But mostly, I wanted that last line to provide a sucker-punch to anyone familiar with the play.

      Reply
  3. Roy E. Peterson

    Wonderful rendition of the Cordelia condition and one that projects to the modern scene and times of complex familial relationships.

    Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    These are beautifully crafted quatrains, and they give a picture of Cordelia’s interior state that only a dramatic monologue can do. The last quatrain is particularly poignant for readers who know that Cordelia’s trip to Britain will result only in despair, death, and destruction.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Joseph. I hoped to elicit an emotional reaction with that last quatrain and am glad it worked.

      Reply
  5. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, as ever, your poetry inspires me to delve deeper into the subject matter. Lear was always a blank space in my education, but no longer. Thank you for the insight into the Cordelia condition that I recognise in my own family.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Jeff. Cordelia is often seen as an idealized character but I find her to be quite recognizably human. And humane.

      Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    Brian, I am impressed by your correct usage of rare words to give Cordelia’s speech an archaic feel. “Fain” is usually an adjective, but can be an adverb, as here; “ensue” is usually an intransitive verb but can be transitive, as here; “blandished” is very rare as a past participle adjective, although there is no reason in grammar why it cannot be one. The poem sounds as if Cordelia may be stretching language in her distraught thought, but when I look up those words, I see she is a most intelligent thinker fully aware of her vocabulary and logic.

    As several other commenters have remarked, her dilemma is one of particular interest today. It is not just the stresses of modern life that tempt adult children to abandon the bond with parents because of actual or perceived mistreatment. There is a brand of false counseling that encourages persons to avoid anything that might cause them discomfort, even if it is such a universally acknowledged bond as duty to parents. Your poem is therefore quite timely. The hope expressed at the end goes beyond what nearly all such children would say; still, I think it’s good to acknowledge the hope, as well as to recognize (in the reader’s knowledge of the Shakespeare tale), that the worst may occur. In actual experiences, whether the child makes a loving or a selfish choice, the situation rarely turns out so good or so bad–but it does notably mark one’s life.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you so much for this comment, Margaret. You’ve given me much to think about in terms of language and relationships! I appreciate your in-depth analysis of the language I used. Yes, I was deliberately going for a Shakespearian feel which you explain well. In addition to the word choices you noted, I used inverted syntax in “him disown,” the accented “bruiséd,” the apostraphe’d “o’er” in the hope of at least capturing some of the linguistic flavor of King Lear. The themes, too, hence the poem’s ending invocation of “the stars above” since the stars (as well as the pagan gods) are repeatedly shown to dominate men’s fates. And the reference to “Kent” is something of an Easter egg since Kent is a character in addition to being a place name.

      I’m especially glad you see the contemporary application of Cordelia’s dilemma here and its concern with the destruction of the family. That she is torn between helping and not helping — and that this is dilemma is quite understandable in her case because she was treated so wretchedly by Lear. In the end, she goes with her conscience and heart and helps him only to face the worst possible ending as a result. But, even though the setting of the play is pre-Christian Britain, there is an almost Christic goodness, unselfishness and forgivingness to her that has appealed to audiences through the centuries. We get the sense that despite her tragic ending, she made the right choice. She is loved. There is a reason we weep with Lear when she is killed.

      Reply
  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, you have done what you do so well, and the way you have climbed inside the head of Cordelia and spoken from her heart is admirable. Although the language has a Shakespearean feel, you have made Cordelia’s voice accessible and relatable. I love the rhymes ‘dowerless / powerless’, and although you have afforded attention to the authenticity of the rhymes, your skillful employment of enjambment gives your words a conversational feel that draws the reader in. I also love the happy-ever-after touch everyone craves having read King Lear. I’d like to think such an ending is possible in real life… something I hope for myself.

    I was lucky enough to see the great Derek Jacobi play King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden back in 2009, and your words have brought that wonderful experience back… only I’m smiling instead of handwringing after your insightful and beautiful poem. Thank you very much!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Susan, I’m very grateful for this comment — especially since it’s not easy to climb inside the head of anyone let alone a fictional character! And I’m especially pleased that you liked this poem because I consider your various poems on Shakespeare’s women to be the gold standard. If memory serves you’ve done incredible poems on Lady Macbeth, Portia, Ophelia and others. But Cordelia as a Shakespearian character is one of my very favorites even though her goodness is obviously idealized. I fully understand your personal desire for that happy ending and I hope very much that you do find it. But probably not by channeling Cordelia! I think most fall in somewhere in between Regan and Goneril on the selfish/villainous side of the spectrum and Cordelia on the too-good-to-be-true side.

      I’m quite envious that you saw Derek Jacobi as Lear. Along with Hamlet, it’s probably the most iconic role that a Shakespearian actor can aspire to. I’ve never seen a live production, only an old film version with Orson Wells, a new version with Ian McKellan and (maybe you and Mike will appreciate this) a bizarre resetting in Texas with Patrick Stewart as “John Lear” a cattle baron. Anthony Hopkins played Lear in a recent movie but I haven’t seen it. I would wager that his performance was magnificent so I will now have to seek it out. Thank you for commenting, Susan. You brought a smile to me as well!

      Reply
  8. Paul Freeman

    ‘A paupered princess…’ Love it!

    I have the Anthony Hopkins ‘King Lear’ recorded, with Florence Pugh as Cordelia (Emily Watson and Emma Thompson play Regan and Goneril), and feel tempted to give it a watch after perusing this monologue in verse, Brian.

    Thanks for the read.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Paul. That’s quite a cast! Now I have to see the Hopkins version! Ordering from Amazon today.

      Reply

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