Well-constructed plain lines have always held a fascination for me. From George Herbert to Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, it’s always thrilling to see depth and beauty in what, on the surface, looks plain and simple, be it in a poem or in lines spoken in a play. To write lines like that requires care and attention to the smallest detail, so that every syllable, every letter, is functioning as part of the whole.
Two lines that have always epitomized this for me come from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They occur in Act V, Scene I (lines 117-118). This is where Brutus, on the plains of Philippi, bids farewell to Cassius, his co-conspirator. They are both doomed:
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.
These two unadorned lines, in modulated iambic pentameter, contain 18 words, with 9 words in each line. Symmetry! All the words are one syllable, except for “again” and “parting.” Each line is a grammatically complete sentence, each is cast as a conjecture, and each begins with the word “if.” When we drill down further, it gets even more interesting. There is the middle rhyme – and this isn’t even a poem! – of “again” with “then,” which holds the lines together, reinforced by the sonic repetition of “why” in each line. Then there is a rich network of consonantal links, mainly “M”s and “W”s. There are three Ms and six Ws:
If we do Meet again, why, we shall sMile;
If not, why then, this parting was well Made.
The understatement of these lines, as both men say goodbye, is profoundly moving. It suggests the noble equanimity of Brutus, even during this fateful moment as each Roman goes off to meet his death. It implies a balance and a stoical restraint, both linguistic and moral, that reflect Brutus’s willingness to follow through on the logical extension of his ideas about life, honor and Rome.
It’s the dramatic context, of course, that gives greater power to the lines and creates the option for understatement, but I always marvel over how tightly these two lines are put together and how they work their magic with everyday material.
I wanted to find a video clip of this particular scene on Youtube, so I turned to my friend, the poet David Yezzi, who is also a Shakespeare aficionado. (His longer poem based on Macbeth appears in his latest book, Birds of the Air.)
We came up with two versions of the scene.
Have a look at this segment from the 1950’s film adaptation directed by David Bradley, with Brutus played by Bradley himself and Cassius played by Grosvenor Glenn. It’s around the 2:56 mark in this clip. Apparently, none of the actors got paid for making this film, except for a young Charlton Heston, who played Mark Antony.
Here's another version of the scene. The passage starts at 13:48 or so.
I was looking for the version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1953) with James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius, but I could not find a clip of the exact moment. Here, at least, is the movie trailer with all of its 1950’s Hollywood charm: