Sunday, January 1, 2017
Every Reader’s Poets: Milton
This is the sixth of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) non-scholarly readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.
Even considering the long term continental drift of literary focus away from poetry and from pre-twentieth century authors, Milton is a classic little honored by actual readers. Of course, there was a time when Paradise Lost shared a shelf in many British homes with the Bible and perhaps another title or two, but that was when many people not only accepted the poet’s theology but also were capable of swinging with the cadence of his iambic pentameter.
The fact is that Milton would be remembered had he never written a line of verse. His prose essays, notably those in defense of press freedom and divorce and in opposition to the monarchy, are eloquent as well as striking the modern reader as right-minded. He was sufficiently active in the tumultuous politics of his age that he was named Secretary for Foreign Tongues (primarily requiring him to draft diplomatic documents in Latin) under the Protectorate, and he found himself in trouble after the Restoration.
Though his greatest work is in long poems such as Comus, Lycidas, Samson Agonistes, and his masterpieces Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, he may more easily be approached through the rapid tetrameters of his youthful lyric “L’Allegro,” portraying “the happy man” as opposed to “the thoughtful one” characterized in “Il Penseroso.” The contrast of the two poems implies a dominantly formal interest; as the author seeks to display his technical skills in a show-piece.
The bipolar opposition is invoked in the poem’s first thirty-four lines which dramatically evoke melancholy with all the special effects of a fantasy or horror film. The Stygian cave is by itself insufficiently thrilling and is succeeded by an “uncouth cell” in the obscurity of Cimmeria. This dark vision suddenly vanishes, however, to be replaced by the cheering appearance of Euphrosyne.
Hence loathed Melancholy
Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn
'Mongst horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy,
Find out som uncouth cell,
Wher brooding darknes spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings;
There under Ebon shades, and low-brow'd Rocks,
As ragged as thy Locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
But com thou Goddes fair and free,
In Heav'n ycleap'd Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as som Sager sing)
The frolick Wind that breathes the Spring,
Zephir with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a Maying,
There on Beds of Violets blew,
And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew,
Fill'd her with thee a daughter fair,
So bucksom, blith, and debonair.
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and Wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrincled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Com, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastick toe,
Euphrosyne or “high spirits,” one of the three Graces, is born either the offspring of Bacchus and Venus or, in an equally original but more imaginative version, she is conceived as miraculously as Christ when Zephyr blows across fields of flowers, impregnating Aurora. Her birth produces a variegated rush of phenomena associated with high spirits, concluding with the delightful phrase which became enough of a cliché to appear in American popular song “trip the light fantastic.” For a moment it seems nearly as though life itself could be a blithe and glorious dance, though the poem’s companion piece “Il Penseroso” opens by banishing “vain deluding joys” in favor of “divinest Melancholy.” Taken together, the poems balance the dualities they engage and highlight the profound ambivalence of human experience with such accomplished music that his own skill becomes the principle theme and the beauty of the work guarantees the ambivalent rightness of things.
The masterful display of Classical references and the virtuoso versifying, though literary and artificial, articulate deep emotion. Milton also employed Classical pastoral conventions in “Lycidas” his elegy for his deceased college classmate Edward King. One passage describing the appropriate funereal bouquets constitutes a veritable garden on the page in tribute to his drowned friend.
return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow'rets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamel'd eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak'd with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well attir'd woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
Nature here is animated and can respond to the pastoral muse in individual ways: the “wanton” wind, the stars that “sparely” gaze, the “forsaken” primrose. The Christian god appears diffused into all creation, the recipient of virtually pagan devotion. The poet’s grief is projected onto nature where it is not merely ameliorated but fundamentally challenged by the glory of the blossoms represented in the beautiful lines of verse. The loss of life inherent in all of nature, then, is redeemed through aesthetics. The glory of god is evident in the charms of the creation and of the poet’s art alike.
Paradise Lost was composed after the restoration of the monarchy which prompted Milton to go underground when a warrant was issued for his arrest. He escaped the worst of consequences through the efforts of influential friends and a general pardon, but the poem was dictated by a blind and penurious poet. This grand epic is the basis of Milton’s reputation, though critics like Samuel Johnson (who had little sympathy with Milton’s politics) found it tiresome. Its Christian apologetics are complicated by its compelling drama. Blake notoriously said that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and Satan never appears a grander figure than in his self-reflective insight at the opening of Book IV. He addresses the sun.
O thou that with surpassing Glory crownd,
Look'st from thy sole Dominion like the God
Of this new World; at whose sight all the Starrs
Hide thir diminisht heads; to thee I call,
But with no friendly voice, and add thy name
O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav'n against Heav'ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov'd ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
I sdeind subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome, still paying, still to ow;
Forgetful what from him I still receivd,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and dischargd; what burden then?
O had his powerful Destiny ordaind
Me some inferiour Angel, I had stood
Then happie; no unbounded hope had rais'd
Ambition. Yet why not? som other Power
As great might have aspir'd, and me though mean
Drawn to his part; but other Powers as great
Fell not, but stand unshak'n, from within
Or from without, to all temptations arm'd.
Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand?
Thou hadst: whom hast thou then or what to accuse,
But Heav'ns free Love dealt equally to all?
Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe.
Nay curs'd be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
Book IV, ll. 32-75
Milton here formulates the dialectic between ego-loss and illumination. Lucifer cannot understand what the “grateful mind” appreciates, that “by owing [one] owes not, but still pays, at once.” The paradoxes of the gospel are all implicit there: in death is life, humility is exaltation, giving is getting, the most real is the utterly imaginary. Satan willfully remains in darkness; his pride is his captor, and thus hell, and, presumably, for others heaven, is a condition in his own psyche. [ 55 ] He has chosen to refuse the grace-filled rain of “Heav’n’s free love” (68) and, like many a suffering mortal, condemns himself to despair. To Milton, of course, Satan’s options are those of every soul.
Devout and thoughtful Christian though the author was, Milton’s spirituality is meaningful to all. Though the knowledge cannot readily ward off suffering, people regularly alienate themselves from Ultimate Reality, Atman, or enlightenment by their own choices. Egoism is only the most yawning pitfall. Truly open eyes will find the cosmos a marvel with or without an anthropomorphic overseer.
The reader of “L’Allegro” can admire Milton’s technical abilities. “Lycidas” displays the same skill as well while adding the profoundly felt emotional content of an elegy for a beloved friend. Milton’s crowning achievement, the poem in which he encoded a comprehensive philosophy (including, according to many critics, veiled references to his unapologetic resistance to the king) rewards those susceptible to beauty and imaginative enough to transpose seventeenth century theology into more modern and universal terms.