In college I was introduced to both King Lear and The Winter’s Tale at the same time, and I’ve always thought about them together. This poem attempts to run two crucial moments in each play in parallel—Lear’s discovery that his greatly beloved daughter Cordelia has been executed, and the breathtaking reappearance in The Winter’s Tale of Hermione, the queen of Sicily, believed to have been dead for sixteen years after being falsely accused of adultery.
Is Hermione, as she claims, returning from a hidden retreat, or has she actually been resurrected? Shakespeare lets you play it ambiguously, and my favorite C.S. Lewis poem, “Hermione in the House of Paulina,” says it’s a bit of both. At any rate, the poem maintains that the question Lear asks—laying a feather on Cordelia’s lips and being deceived that it moves and she lives—cannot be answered within the confines of the play. Lear asks for the gods and gets no answer. Leontes, Hermione’s widower, gets an answer from the gods that he does not expect. What answer do we get? And from whom?
Lear cries out in darkness for his love,
parting each cloud to touch the clouds beneath;
he tears apart the gods to find the skies
alone with foolishness upon the heath.
Cordelia, Cordelia, return,
do not die now or ever on that stage.
The feather stirs; O Lear, she lives transformed,
Hermione who heals her husband’s rage.
Into a world with its own mind-blown heaths
and jealous tyrants, healing finds a birth—
we tear apart the skies and find the gods
are ruling and forgiving still on earth.
Behind both god and sky, the master pen
is scripting out each universe at will;
Cordelia dead, Hermione reborn,
which is the final answer? Bend your quill
and tell us that, behind these lifetimes shaped
by godlike powers that art laid in your hand,
there is a power of love surpassing art
who scripts this life we cannot understand.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait is the managing editor of Christian History magazine and an Episcopal priest. Her academic books include The Poisoned Chalice and Christian History in Seven Sentences, and she has also published the poetry chapbook Histories of Us. She lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband and two children.