Witte, Phillip A.: Essay on Hyam Plutzik's "Horatio"

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Fiction, or Imaginative Truth: Poetic and Dramatic Modes in Hyam Plutzik's Horatio
by Phillip A. Witte


The name Hyam Plutzik is familiar to any student of the English Department at the University of Rochester, especially those with an interest in creative writing. Two of the creative writer’s most frequent haunts bear the name: one is the Plutzik Reading Series, which each year brings several acclaimed poets and novelists to campus for intimate readings with an audience of students, faculty, and community members; the other is the Hyam Plutzik Library of Contemporary Writing where, in the Jarold Ramsey Study, the Department’s creative writing workshops meet to discuss students’ own poems and stories. 

I was one such student: in my final semesters, my concentration was poetry. I finished a creative thesis shortly before graduating in 2010. Subsequently I moved to New York where, for the following year, I pursued the other of my two greatest literary fascinations by exploring the Downtown theatre scene, while poetry receded to the background and thus continued a pattern. Throughout my undergraduate term my interest swung like a pendulum between poetic and dramatic projects as if the two would have little to do with one another, and I have continued to fret over them as if I had to make a choice to pursue one to the exclusion of the other. Which was the more useful to me personally? Which mode held the greatest pleasures and deepest truths? Such was the climate of my thinking in July 2011, when I first read Horatio. This was my first acquaintance with the poetry of a man whose name was a kind of byword signifying the strong tradition of poetry and literature at Rochester: his final and most expansive work, the one which earned him his highest recognition in the form of finalist status for a Pulitzer prize. Since reading it, and in the course of the present writing, the map of my personal literary landscape has begun to change.

At the very end of Hamlet, as he succumbs to the king’s poison, the prince makes a final request of his friend: “Horatio, I am dead, / thou liv’st. Report me and my cause aright / to the unsatisfied.”1 After an initial protest in which he proclaims his desire to die at Hamlet’s side, Horatio accepts the charge. In Horatio, a long poem in three parts, Plutzik imagines and explores Horatio’s undertaking in retrospect: the poem is narrated by Horatio fifty years after the prince’s death, describing encounters over the course of Horatio’s long life in which he has seen Hamlet’s story change, becoming rumor, intrigue, and myth in many versions, none of them the truth as Horatio knew and promised to establish it.

Horatio engages a field of questions about the relative uses and methods of poetry and drama. The poem’s theme is the dissemination and protection of history--specifically, the true history of a man’s life. It asks whether a true history is possible, or even desirable, which in turn asks what, exactly, that history is--how do we make it? how do we preserve it? Horatio explores these questions of history by taking as its “historic” source material the play that is perhaps the greatest edifice of English drama. Hamlet is, in part, a play about players, performance, antic dispositions, and all of these are devices employed by the prince in pursuit of a certain truth. In Horatio, Plutzik brings the dramatic mode to task as a method in the pursuit of truth. While the scenes that it recalls carry a dramatic flavor, Horatio’s monologue is poetic; it cannot be dramatic, for it has no audience. This is not to say that poetry occurs only when drama fails for lack of audience, for poetry requires a commitment no less strenuous but of an entirely different kind, which involves only the self.

The quest on which Hamlet sets him, to “report my cause aright to the unsatisfied,” inevitably fails, but in that failure Horatio finds a new quest; he finds that the first question answered is--not always the first question asked. And so he learns that answers, in whatever order they are discovered, can lead to new questions, while any unanswered questions need not paralyze us.

Once again, what makes Horatio, which is unequivocally a monologue, a poetic not a dramatic one, is the fact that Horatio as the solitary speaker in this poem has no audience. Horatio as character in Hamlet has an audience when he says, at the very end of the play,

[HORATIO]        give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause;
And in the upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’inventors heads. All this can I
Truly deliver. 2

Fortinbras, whom Horatio is addressing here, is not his audience but his scene partner. The audience is sitting in the house. The passage sounds remarkably like the prologue to Hamlet, if it had one, and the sole purpose of a prologue is to enjoin the audience’s attention by offering no more than a tiny piece of the story, while promising more to come. This exchange is the essence of what is dramatic, the performer’s promise to reveal in exchange for the audience’s confident expectation of its delivery, and this confidence must persist for as long as the desired something is withheld. Neither the audience nor the performer can come first in this relationship; it must be fully collaborative, for the promise and the attention are each supplied on condition of the other’s being fully tendered. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s Player says to the hapless duo: “I recognized you at once--as fellow artists. For some of us it is performance, for others, patronage. They are two sides of the same coin, or, let us say, the same side of two coins.” An audience is “the single assumption which makes [the Player’s] existence viable,” without which the Player might as well be “pouring [himself] down a bottomless well.”3 Conversely, without a performer to receive their attention, an audience ceases to be, becoming merely a gathering of humans.

Whereas the dramatic mode necessitates committed collaboration among a multitude (where as few as two persons can be a multitude), the poetic depends on the solitary individual’s commitment to himself. A performer lacking an audience is not therefore a poet; he is merely human. Transformation from merely human to either performer or poet requires a full commitment to the undertaking as performer or as poet. It is easy to forget the difference because of the frequent overlap in terminology via metaphor, that is, the use of terms like “dramatic” to describe what is poetic, yet one must always attend to what is meant. For example, Robert Frost was referring to the sentence whether it occur in poetry or prose when he wrote that

A dramatic necessity goes deep into the nature of the sentence. Sentences are not different enough to hold the attention unless they are dramatic. No ingenuity of varying structure will do. All that can save them is the speaking tone of the page for the ear of the imagination.4

Here, the dramatic is a relationship between a speaking entity--the “speaking tone of the page” or text--and a listening entity--“the ear of the imagination.” The speaking tone, like the “ear of the imagination,” must be supplied by a reader. Without the act of reading to imbue them, poems are nothing but marks on a page. Robert Pinsky makes the point this way:

Poetry . . . has roots in the moment when a voice makes us alert to the presence of another or others. It has affinities with all the ways a solitary voice, actual or virtual, imitates the presence of others. Yet as a form of art it is deeply embedded in the single human voice, in the solitary state that hears the other and sometimes recreates that other. Poetry is a vocal imagining, ultimately social but essentially individual and inward. 5

The italics are mine, not Pinsky’s; the highlighted phrase describes a state which only can be achieved by reading. Poets, I think--and I have heard several of them say so--write for no audience but themselves, but the act of creating verbal utterance conjures a listener where none exist otherwise. 

Horatio challenges us to consider the poetic and the dramatic as different modes employed by artists in pursuit of understanding, each with its different means, methods, and outcomes, but to do so without ascribing any greater value or efficacy to the one or the other. There is no value comparison between a poem and a play on the grounds of form; I'm not certain where value can be measured except comparatively, on a personal basis, with regards to pleasure and understanding afforded by the experience of one work as to another. 

Consider where Horatio begins. I mean the question in two ways: literally, what happens in the opening lines?--but also, what incited Plutzik to write the poem? The latter cannot often be answered of poems, but sometimes it can at least in part, when as in this case the piece invokes another piece of literature with which we are familiar. Horatiois one of countless works made throughout the last four centuries that adapt a Shakespearean source. Kenneth Gross, Shakespeare scholar and one of my own mentors at the U of R, offers a generous survey of such works in his essay “Telling Stories: A Note on Horatio,” and he describes these works as having “sought both a ground and an opening in the original plays.”6 In Hamlet’s dying request, Plutzik found a knot of questions, such as: How would Horatio go about the task? where would he begin? what troubles might he encounter on the way? who are “the unsatisfied?” what satisfaction do they seek, and to that end, what have they come up with on their own? how would Horatio confront them?--and many more questions besides, but ultimately: What did Hamlet’s request mean? Answers to these questions would not be found in the text ofHamlet, which is why, for Plutzik, they constitute an opening in Gross’s terms. The play is the ground, or background, from which the search rises, its world and material, but not its limitation. The reader of Horatio must be familiar with Hamlet because some knowledge of Shakespeare’s play as history is part of the problem out of which Horatiotakes its course. Plutzik indicated so much himself in an undated set of notes to a lecture reading that he gave sometime before he finished the poem, where he claims that he is “Indeed using Hamlet as if it were historical fact.”7

So in terms of its literary context, Horatio begins at the end of Hamlet. In its own terms--that is, in its opening lines--the poem begins at the end of its narrator’s life: “It is fifty years since the prince Hamlet died.”8 Further, such as the poem is in a sense an account of Horatio’s life since Hamlet’s death, the poem also begins where it ends. Horatio’s lifelong quest has failed: “A friend one time gave me a task to do / and I did not do it,”9 he says near the end of the poem, so now he sets out on another, entirely different quest, an investigation of self. Some of those questions that motivated Plutzik to write the poem pester Horatio also, so his purpose here is not merely another attempt to tell the story of Hamlet. Rather, he is trying to understand why he has failed, and asking this question causes him to reconsider what Hamlet meant by the request. He entertains the morbid possibility whether Hamlet, confronted with the catastrophic scene for which he, Hamlet, was largely responsible, merely wished to prevent yet another innocent death, and that of a loyal friend, on his account:

        Ah, dear friend, I see the trick
That love put in your soul in your agony
In that last instant as the red sands ran.
The poison was at my hand; you sensed my purpose.
And when I spoke, you knew my resolution 
Was staunch for dying. There was but one appeal
Could stay my will: a final cry for succor,
That I be guardian of your honor and name.10

At the same time, Horatio reasons that Hamlet would never wittingly consign Horatio to live on for his (Hamlet's) sake when Hamlet himself could not live; the good prince would never “condemn a friend to the hateful prison he fled.” 11 Thus he finds an intended paradox in the charge: seeing that Horatio wished in a fit of passion to die for him, Hamlet instead urged Horatio to continue life for him, and that this was an empty charge made with no expectation of its fulfillment, indeed a trick played in order to save Horatio--that Hamlet actually hoped his friend would see through in time--time enough for Horatio's grief to subside, so that he may discover life for himself, instead of dying young for another so needlessly.

Horatio, of course, imagines all of this logic. He has no way to know what Hamlet really meant. But it is a fiction he can believe in, and therefore is a potentially liberating discovery. On the one hand it seems Horatio’s tragedy that his life has largely passed before he comes to this realization; an old man, he can no longer even make the circuit of his lands. He has lived his life in a needless, futile pursuit, and although now he might be free to live more purposely for himself, there is little life left for him to do so. Yet on the other hand, it is never too late. Even a moment of purposefulness outweighs a lifetime of wasted energy, and the joyful relief of this understanding is felt in the poem’s final lines:

The parkland that stretched from the wall was gracious with moonlight
With occasional great trees that threw long shadows,
For the moon was low in heaven. Who can explain
From what fugitive grace the heart will take its ease?
Or find the shy spring from which joy flows?
Bird, though my ears were at first closed to your mercy,
The night was doubtless already sweetened by your voice,
For your first note carried a mid-note's richness--
A violet poised on the knowledge of its own ascension.
You sang for a time in the shadows at the head of the stairs
As if to yourself, and fluttered over the stage
To a new perch in the dark and sang there,
And traversing the moon's edge flew to the height
And sang, while a great stag came out of the woods,
Broad-antlered, approaching slowly on the moonlit field,
And looked around him like a king and re-entered the dark.
Bird, you brushed my sleeve as I came to the stair.12

It may seem odd that, while I proposed to discuss the beginning of the poem, I have mostly been talking about the end, but because the confluence between the beginning and the end is so central to the poem’s power, it is necessary to consider both at once. So you will excuse me now if, by shifting my attention to the ending, I now proceed to discuss the poem’s opening section.

The Prologue recalls a scene between Horatio and Bernardo that occurs the night immediately after the bloody events at the end of Hamlet. It implies a setting-out: “‘And you, Horatio,’” Bernardo asks, “‘What will you do?’ / ‘Fulfill a dead man's final wish,’”13 Horatio replies. A doubling occurs on multiple levels: first, there are two Horatios, the young and the old, and both are setting out, albeit on two different quests. Bernardo, literally speaking of Hamlet in the Prologue to the young Horatio, is also (unbeknownst to him) speaking of the old Horatio here:

“At last, after a sum of meaningless days,
He took up the gage, and now, the new ghost, 
He finds that the first question answered is--self.”14

The poem is Horatio’s investigation of self through retrospective analysis of things seen, heard, and done in his lifetime. “I myself am my own mystery,”15 declares Horatio in the first section of part III (“In the Castle at Forstness”), bringing to mind a note of Milton's Satan struggling for his own measure of self-knowledge in Paradise Lost. Bernardo's reappearance at the end of the final section affirms its confluence with the poem’s opening: the ancient Horatio takes a break from his writing to step out into the night air on the castle wall where he sees--“Bernardo! / You stand there while we wait a midnight bell-- / And there, when we speak of the dreadful deeds of a day!”16 In this line, especially the use of present tense in “we speak,” the poem leaps back in time even as it continues its forward march: Like the pseudo-prologue at the end of Hamlet, in its last lines Horatio invites us to reread, to make the story over again, which will at once be a move forward in time through the new telling and backward in time to the beginning of the story. 

Between this overlapping opening and closing scene is the account of Horatio’s encounters, all of which are potentially dramatic, but he fails to participate in them according to the needs of drama. That is, he fails to enter into the necessary exchange with his potential audiences, instead demanding gratis their attention to his version of the historical truth. I will say more about these failures in a moment, but broadly speaking, the series of instances follow a pattern. No amount of persuasion can make an audience give their attention when they see no hint that sparks their individual desires; neither can a performer achieve any utterance of lasting impact if he does not seek to know and try to entertain the desires of his audience. Failing this, Horatio fails as a dramatist all his life, but in the end he finds a different success as a poet.

The poetic mode and the dramatic mode are each the asking of a question or a number of questions. Some questions are answered before others, no matter what order they are asked in. It is only at the end of his life, facing death, that Horatio begins his account of his failed enterprise: his account gives no satisfaction to assuage his grief of failure, but he does learn a few things about himself in the upshot, and this is of all the value in the world to Plutzik as poet as it is to us as readers. While we feel his tragedy in sympathy with his grief over the loss of his friend, which he relives through his perceived failure to carry out a deathbed request, what do we care that Horatio fails in a pursuit that we, at least, realize is impossible? This is the value of fiction, that it can answer a question, any question, and allow us to move forward even while other questions remain unanswered. It makes little difference in what specific direction we move, so long as it is forward.

As a young man setting out to establish the true story of Hamlet’s role in the bloody events at Elsinore, Horatio unconditionally believes in the crisp reality of a phantom. The truth of Hamlet as he has it is, to the rest of the world, a jewel irrecoverably lost. So married to this nonexistent jewel, Horatio spends his life pouring himself down a bottomless well, just such an audience-less player as Stoppard’s fears to become. Horatio, however, doesn’t see that the jewel is lost; believing that he holds it tight in his fist, he would hold it up for the world to see and know, not realizing that what they actually see is the empty hand of a raving, obsessed old man. 

Because they cannot see Horatio’s version of Hamlet, the other figures in the poem--the ostler, Faustus, the Parisian Count and Countess, Carlus--each conjure their own, and each such a one as suits and is a product of the respective sphere in which these characters thrive. Thus, one after another, Horatio contends with the Hamlets of vulgar hearsay, of academic ostentation, of high-society intrigue, and of political muscling. Each in their sphere, these Hamlets serve their authors’ purposes that are limited to that sphere. For the ostler, Hamlet’s is a racy tale fit for travelers’ entertainment, which is always mixed with his business efforts. Faustus finds gleaming pedagogical prizes waiting to be dug out of the story’s objects as symbols. The sultry Countess looks through the tale to see a lusty enticement not in the dead prince but the living Horatio. Carlus, the new king’s advisor, sees only a mad regicide in the prince, and an annoying political liability in the now-old Horatio’s doggedness to vindicate him. 

Horatio wants to obliterate these (as he sees them) false Hamlets and replace them all with one, the true Hamlet, to exist forever in all worlds. This is impossible because if, for example, Horatio and the ostler were to share a common view of Hamlet, it would have to accord with both of their worlds, in other words their worlds would have to become one, to some extent; the only way to accomplish this would be for each to step out of his own private world and together make a new one. This is what happens in the theatre: performers and audiences alike leave their known and separate worlds behind to enter into a shared space where together they undergo a drastic transformation, an accomplishment which requires the willing participation and extreme effort of both parties. Not only is Horatio failing to elicit that participation from his interlocutors, he is unwilling to make that effort himself.

In “Faustus,” the second section of the first part (“What a Wounded Name”), Faustus offers a useful piece of wisdom, before his pedagogical furor becomes overbearing and then ridiculous in one of Plutzik’s characteristically flavorful metaphors, mixing caricature with the darker tones of the scene: “As I looked at him, I frankly thought I saw / A cuttlefish waving a thousand arms”17. This is the doctor of German legend who receives treatment most famously in the plays of Marlowe and Goethe. According to the legend, Faustus (Faust in the German) sells his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. His damnation somewhat undermines the doctor’s credibility in Horatio's mind. Nevertheless, his words apart will always have some merit to us as readers, as they must as well for Horatio, so strongly do they rise in his recollection. Faustus muses on the famous “to be or not to be:”

‘To be’ or ‘to become’--do you get the meaning?
What is this Not-To-Be (the obverse of Being)
But only Becoming, a synonym for this life,
Fluid, changing, the thoughts of a child or a woman--
While Being’s eternal, synonymous with Not-Being
In the vulgar sense, that is, with Death?

And further:

If Being and Becoming are the horns
Of our friend’s [i.e. Hamlet’s] dilemma--a lovely cuckoldry--
And, as I said, Becoming means this life,
Profuse in its vanity and brief as grass,
Then Being must imply some higher state.
Therefore the alternative lies not
As between Being--life--or Becoming--death--
But rather as between the higher life,
The philosophic, where man takes on eternity,
Is one with Idea; and the opposite:
This petty life of circumstance--dead kings,
Tedious councilors and lecherous queens
And ghosts in the cellarage. We know the choice
Lord Hamlet made.”18

That choice was for Becoming: in Shakespeare’s play, the prince’s entire universe is “the petty life of circumstance,” and two dead kings--his father and his uncle (the one is dead, the other he wants dead)--are the lodestone and engine of his action. Horatio, on the other hand, would make the other choice for Hamlet: he wants Hamlet to Be as an interminable Idea. But Horatio fails to make a necessary separation. He wants the Idea to be indistinguishable from the man. Unfortunately, men are “brief as grass,” they die; ideas, on the other hand, have their being in imagination, and can be eternally remade, with the right effort.

Horatio’s devotion to historical truth manifests in his pursuit of a bodied idea, which is a contradiction in terms. He may finally concede this at the end of the poem, which is at once a tragic resignation and a liberating discovery. What we as readers of both Horatio and Hamlet may surmise is that while the historical truth of Hamlet is neither possible nor desirable, there is rather an imaginative truth in Hamlet that we can and do perpetuate, have done so for centuries, and will continue to do. Hamlet the man is, we know, a fiction, and in fiction’s purpose may lie whatever we hope to find when we speak of truth. The cardinal rule of any fiction is that in order to be usable it must be repeatedly remade (and therefore change): the poem reread, the play performed again in a different city by different actors for a different audience. Thus the pursuit of imaginative truth drives us to action, and whether we choose poetry or prose or drama or science does not matter; what matters is attention to our experience and to the questions we ask of it. So we write, read, conduct our research, and create institutions that make these pursuits possible, to give them arenas, to support the lonely quester after a jewel that won't exist unless he create it. Hyam Plutzik agreed: in his application for a Ford Foundation grant in 1954, he wrote: “Once . . . I thought of poetry as being in some sense antagonistic to science and philosophy. . . . Now I see that though the three disciplines do have exclusive methods, and in part exclusive areas, they actually cover the same ground. The matter of poetry, the matter of science, and the matter of philosophy are complementary facets of the same world. To blur one of them is to spoil the jewel.”19

“It is fifty years since the Prince Hamlet died,” begins Horatio, and as I write this essay, it is nearly so long since Professor Plutzik lost his battle with cancer. This was a man whom I cannot hope to know, and yet so far I have seen his fictions--those of his own making and those whose making he shared with others--working wonders on many fronts.

Brooklyn, New York
September 25, 2011

  1. Hamlet 5.2.281-2 (The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Greenblatt).
  2. Hamlet 5.2.321-9 (The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Greenblatt).
  3. Tom StoppardRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 1994.
  4. Robert Frost. “Preface to A Way Out.” Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. New York: Library of America,1995.
  5. Robert Pinsky. Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 2002.
  6. Kenneth Gross. “Telling Stories: A Note on Horatio” (Unpublished). p. 6
  7. Plutzik Papers, University of Rochester
  8. Hyam Plutzik. "Horatio." The Collected Poems. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1987. p. 125
  9. Ibid. p. 190
  10. Ibid. p. 191
  11. Ibid. p. 192
  12. Ibid. p, 211
  13. Ibid. p. 126
  14. Ibid. p. 126
  15. Ibid. p. 190
  16. Ibid. p. 211
  17. Ibid. p. 140
  18. Ibid. p. 137-38
  19. Ibid. p. xii. (Quoted in the foreword by Anthony Hecht.)