Hear not my steps which way they walk

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II scene I)

At this moment I am typing Shakespeare's text into a word processor. Until printed it only exists on a screen, but clearly this space is not the same as the one within our minds as we hear it happening. To retrieve it from being just writing inside a book you will need to read the piece from Macbeth aloud and let it come into being inside your thoughts: it gathers pace, builds, rushes forward. The page is flat, screenlike and uneventful, but the space of thought twists and shapes writing to an active image; it acts like skin to touch; it has that kind of surface. Words merely printed or on a screen cannot realise the impact and effect of words read aloud and heard.

One of the skills involved in writing poems is to discover what will re-occupy that screen of imagination. How does Shakespeare do it? Clearly some words extracted from the text will create big difficulties: Who was Hecate? Tarquin? What was meant by 'sentinel', 'alarum'd'? But imagination does not hear this passage in terms of such problems of isolated meaning. Instead, it watches with a sense of events swept forward by murder's approach. Whatever the word 'sentinel' means in a dictionary, it contributes to, and is joined with, a flow of voice that cannot be stopped. Equally we sense, because these words are spoken by Macbeth himself, that what they produce is also imagined by him, and helplessly; he, too, is swept along. Against his better judgement he aims to convince himself that he can kill. Night is not just the shadow side of the earth, but a place where things, including Macbeth's words, arrange themselves for atrocity. The verb-phrase 'Moves like a ghost' at the end of this quotation makes all previous phrases its tributaries; the murder must happen. The commentary is delivered in a horrified whisper, the whisper becomes a torrent, and nothing can convince like the inevitable.

I once had an argument with a friend about football and poetry: which offered the more aesthetic experience? With scholarly enthusiasm he said football, of course. But it strikes me that the first response on hearing this piece from Macbeth is to punch the air and shout, Yes that's it!—not to stop and wonder who Tarquin was. Response first, replay and tactics later.

In Milton's poem Paradise Lost, the angels find Satan whispering into Eve's ear:

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