When I think “humanities moment,” this song from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest pops into my head. It’s almost too fitting: “Full Fathom Five” is such a momentary diversion in the play—a random and beautiful intrusion to the plot. The song seems interested in how we process death—something I have been doing a lot lately. These are the words to the song:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

A tree spirit named Ariel uses this song to get the attention of Ferdinand, a prince who has recently crash-landed on the island Ariel shares with a magician named Prospero. At this moment, Ferdinand believes that his father, the king of Naples, has drowned in the storm. The prince thinks he’s the only survivor, and Ariel sings to him, to get his attention, but also to offer a kind of consolation for his drowned father.

The image the spirit describes—a human body mutating and transforming into coral and pearls, is one of the most beautiful images I have never seen. You have to imagine it: when you see The Tempest on stage, you hear Ariel’s description, but this otherworldly transformation is something that can only really exist as a poetic description (or maybe really good computer graphics).

The other thing about the song that strikes me is its futility: try using these lines on someone grieving the death of a parent and see how far they get you. At the same time, this moment tries to give voice to forms of life outside of humanity as it attempts to explain something precious and important, not just about life, but art. Death is inevitable, and imagination, though it can never make up for that fact, does fascinating things when it tries.

The last thing I’ll bring up is the way this song, which makes visible a new and strange transformation, becomes visible in other media: Julie Taymor interprets the song in her 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest; Jackson Pollack has a painting named “Full Fathom Five,” and Beck, back when I was a teenager, titled his break-up album Sea Change, an allusion to the weird expressions we give to grief. These artworks show us that, while a human body can’t really transform into coral and pearls, one poetic moment can transform into another.

– Philip Gilreath (Ph.D. Student)