Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker


This is Shakespeare’s sonnet 114:

Or whether doth my mind, being crowned with you,
Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
Oh, ’tis the first, ’tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up.
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is ‘greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup.
If it be poisoned, ’tis the lesser sin
That mine eye loves it and doth first begin.

For years, I have been in the habit of buying newspapers in foreign languages, whether I understand them or not. Intelligible words leap out, and with the newspaper I bought on the Greek island of Paros, I had better luck than I might have: having memorized the Greek letters of fraternities more than ten years ago when I was a student journalist meant I could phonetically sound out some words and so make primitive sense of the topic at hand. I am not, by nature, paranoid. Pursued at times by rashes of anonymous, heavy-breathing callers, occasionally thinking someone has called my name in the street, the persistent hang-ups on my voicemail, these things are insignificant. Careful introduction of this subject with friends indicates, they, too, experience these events, or events like them. In the back of the Greek paper, in the classifieds, I found something familiar. It was Shakespeare’s sonnet 114, in English, with the word “plague” bolded and enlarged. Past trips have included Venezuela, Colombia, St. Croix USVI, Greece, Ecuador, Sweden. I buy newspapers wherever I go. Since my first trip in 1995, I have seen this sonnet in newspapers from around the world. It is not always there, but it is often there. When I first noticed this, I guessed it was behavior on the order of the notices of thanks to St. Jude. I would go to Hotalings, on 42nd Street (it closed last year), and spend hours flipping to the back of newspapers from around the world. One issue it would appear, the next not. Usually I found it on the cheapest day of the week, though that’s hard to prove: Wednesdays, for example, in some parts of the US are the most expensive days to advertise as that is the day that the grocery circulars are distributed. In New York and other large cities, Sunday is the most expensive day. Who knows what affects the price of classified ads? But in general, the sonnet seemed to appear in the smallest editions of a newspaper, the one with the fewest ads, which would mean it was the least desirable edition of the week and therefore cheaper to advertise in. There was no condition of nationality: I found it in newspapers from 33 countries. No magazines. Who knows how many publications that are small and local it appeared in? There was no condition of politics. Conservative, liberal, communist, progressive, it appeared in them all. The end of this semester at the university I attend, like all of them, is usually marked in part by a flurry of posters advertising parties, benefits, year-end gatherings, ceremonies, stuff for sale, apartments for rent and the like. This year, the sonnet appeared, in Bookman typeface, the word “plague” bold and larger, taped all over campus with masking tape. I did not take it personally. But what is it I do not know? Is this a threat? There is the idea of poison, of ingestion. Should we fear for the water supply? Is this the work of an apocalyptic cult? Of well-meaning religious fanatics? Is a secret cabal preparing to fulfill the prophecy of Tom Clancy and unleash a horror upon the planet so that they, the enlightened ones, can survive in an unpolluted Eden?

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Grant Barrett