Thursday, December 23, 2010

Milton up to Paradise Lost

I wanted to write a post on the poetry of John Milton contained in the Complete Poems in English (the distinction made because Milton also has a body of poetic work in Latin and Italian) up to Paradise Lost.  I wanted to do this because a whole post on all of the works of Milton would tax the patience of my readers.  So, I decided to split it up into three portions of which this is the first.  I speak primarily here of On The Morning of Christ's Nativity, Comus, and Lycidas.  The other, largely topical material, while executed with the grand poetic skill we come to expect from Milton, left me a bit cold.  The feeling reminded me of reading Allen Ginsberg's political poems ("Yes, I'm sure whatever the CIA was doing in Central America 35 years ago was repulsive.  Yes, I'm sure it probably has something to do with current global politics.  Yes, I'm sure I should be interested.")  I could go on to point out more parallels between those two important poets of their days, but then I would want to punch myself in the mouth, so I won't.  Although I should add that even in the minor works, Milton's execution is impeccable.

But, I find I am already starting on the wrong foot.  I do not feel I am waxing hyperbolic when I say that Milton's poetry is some of the most beautiful and talented composition in the history of the English language.  I merely meant to introduce by stating that I think there are three key texts prior to Paradise Lost, not coincidentally, an opinion that seems to be shared by the syllabus of the Yale lecture series I'm working through on Milton.

Actually, I don't have a lot of original input on On The Morning of Christ's Nativity aside from a bit of gushing.  I am amazed that such a dynamic poetic work on the theme of the current season is so buried in our culture.  I suppose I could make an argument here about poetry in our culture, the survival of Shakespeare (who wrote entertaining plays) and the obscurity aside from academic lip service of Milton, and even the floundering of the arts in an educational culture of bare testing producing an increasingly nihilistic society.  But I'm finding myself remarkably non-committal today.  I'm sure my Inner Analyst will be chewing on this all night.

I could imagine a family tradition with our hypothetical child (I think Laurie and I have settled on Dalton Browne Mathers for our hypothetical son) of rising Christmas morning and listening to father read On The Morning of Christ's Nativity aloud to the family, father being quite oblivious to the fact that he is the only one not thinking of opening presents.

Comus (which isn't its actual title.  Much like what happens with symphonic pieces, it is a nickname that has emerged over time) is a remarkable little play.  I was reminded very early on of a statement by Philip K. Dick who said words to the effect that a good sci-fi/fantasy writer tells a great story without cramming their beliefs in there.  He said that the reader ought to be able to read and enjoy the piece without being able to discern the political or religious or any other belief system of the author based on the material they've just read.  He added that he didn't do that and, in fact, didn't know of anyone who did aside from Ray Bradbury.  Of course, applying such a rubric to Comus would be absurd.  The entire point of the piece seems to be to explore ideas.  For me, one of Milton's most attractive features is that he does not shy away from exploring different facets of ideas and, in his lifetime, had room for change and growth.

The play also reminded me of a particular director I worked with back at Shakespeare Orange County who insisted, whenever a question of this type would arise, that there is no subtext in Shakespeare.  I remember many months of bickering and bantering over this point.  I remember asking if he thought there were no neuroses before Freud.  He outright denied any Oedipal undercurrents in Hamlet's relationship to Gertrude.  But I remember his concept finally clicking for me when the highly and vocally atheistic actor playing Hamlet asked a few questions about the scene where Claudius is praying.  The actor asked if Hamlet might really not be hesitating for this reason or that.  The director said sternly, "No, Hamlet is afraid if he kills Claudius now, Claudius will go to Heaven.  You need to figure out a way to make that real onstage."

And he did.

I say all of this because of the question of how we are to interpret Milton's play.  In the Yale course I'm iPodding through right now, the professor presents a thought experiment of thinking of Comus as Shakespeare, The Lady as Milton, and Sabrina as Spenser.  Shakespeare is the secular, satyr-godlike poet (bear in mind, this is to Milton's Lady, not my own judgment on Shakespeare by any means) arguing greatness in leading away from the "pure path" Milton would eventually pursue.  In other words, had Milton inclined more toward The Bard, we might not have Paradise Lost or, in other words, Milton's epic poem may have gone a more secular thematic route.  But the epic poetry of Spenser freed him from the paralysis he experienced in the shadow of the greatest poet in the English language.  It's an old story for great artists in the shadow of great artists in recent memory.  Think of The Lady as Brahms and Comus as Beethoven. 

Although I'm not sure I believe that the Yale professor really meant to suggest that this was his interpretation or one that one ought to adopt.  I think he was using it as a key to discuss that aspect of Milton's anxiety (or neurosis.)  I, personally, tend more toward the simpler interpretation that Comus represents the temptations of the easy "beauty" to be found in the carnal, which the Lady resists and is then allowed to pursue higher aspirations, the more elevated world of art if I might be so pretentious, represented by Sabrina.

There would be difficulty in trying to produce the show to a contemporary audience.  I have difficulty imagining presenting the brother's argument that the virtue of chastity will protect the lost, lonely girl in the woods in such a way that it wouldn't get a laugh.  More seriously, any post-Woolf production of this Miltonic play would require tremendous Theater of Cruelty commitment to guide an audience past the surface rape fantasy to the truths underneath.  In short, I think it would be an extremely difficult piece to produce today.  I would add that the theater would do well to do more extremely difficult pieces.  Your local Civic Light Opera production of Seussical is probably not going to catalyze your transcendent soul.

Lycidas, it will probably not surprise anyone to know, was both difficult and healing for me.  As many of you know, my best friend died suddenly over this past summer.  Having had this experience at this time, and I'm serious about this, I think I've come to find that the best advice I can give someone who is mourning a loved one is to read the Harvard Classics Library.  It has helped this uncouth swain immeasurably.

Scholars make much of the mixture of Christian and Pagan figures in the poem.  I don't have much to add aside from how astonishingly brazen Milton tends to be.  Having recently taught a class on Puritan history, I am astonished to think that this man called "The Puritan Poet" writes about loss of faith in a universe that would kill a man in his prime, in support of divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, in opposition of censorship (kind of), in support of regicide (although I hasten to add that I am not so dense as to miss the political aspect of the British Puritans at that time), and, as we'll see later, giving Lucifer very troubling arguments which are never properly addressed by the opposing party.  Still, this man was undeniably a Puritan and undeniably a Christian, which may require some on either side of severe dogma to reassess their rigid definitions of both.

On second thought, it occurs to me at this point that I may very well be recasting Milton in my own image at this point.  So, let me wrap up the Egghead stuff by saying that all of Milton's surviving poetic works in English are simply masterful.  If you have never read Milton, you are missing out on perhaps the greatest craftsman in the history of English literature and the emotion I feel toward you is very close to something resembling pity.


  1. Lycidas is the first of Milton's poems that I truly loved. Others are curiosities. And I haven't gone back to read his nativity poem which everyone seems to love, but which left me rather blank. I should do that. But I can't escape the fact that when Milton is ostensibly writing about one thing (say the Nativity or the death of a young poet/priest) he is really writing about something else... mostly himself.

  2. Yes, and I think his honesty in that is part of what I appreciate so much about his work.

  3. P.S. I meant to cut the Chesterton quote after "Swift." The last sentence had no import on my point.

  4. Odd -- this is the 2nd time a comment has disappeared almost as soon as I posted it. I added a postscript to correct something and when the 2nd comment posted the first disappeared. Anyway, here was the comment with the unintended bit dropped:

    I had to leave right when I finished typing that... my thought wasn't done.

    I actually really admire the multiple levels on which his writing works, and how -- as with Areopagitica -- the rhetorical image and the logical argument are at odds or at least a counterpoint. His means of expression is extremely complex and entirely composed. It's a marvel -- I have no qualms calling the man a genius and I am in awe of his work.

    The man, himself, doesn't claim my devotion, though. It's similar -- in reverse -- to a comment I came across the other day in the LibraryThing forums, "Lewis is a giant. People like Hemingway. They love Lewis." Milton is on how many "greatest" lists? But how many people love him? I think that's probably a harder question to answer. I've loving Paradise Lost. But I'm also arguing with the theology and with Milton's general perspective in life. Another comment comes to mind, from Chesterton's Chaucer. Chesterton is speaking of Chaucer here:

    "He was less delirious than Shakespeare, less harsh than Milton, less fanatical than Bunyan, less embittered than Swift."

    I find Milton harsh and he's definitely an egotist. The two together are a hard pill for me to swallow. Milton is a genius, but he lacks charity. This puts me in an dynamic, but odd and somewhat uncomfortable relationship with his work. The sense of awe isn't diminished, however.

  5. Wow, Paul, I really enjoyed this!

  6. I've come to the conclusion that those who are interested in Milton's poetry are also well-familiar with Blake's illustrations, another religious poet, deeply embedded in the British psyche 'And did those feet in ancient times.'

    Not so sure about your perception of an increasingly nihilistic society, people always believe in something even if it's false; Art itself has become a religion substitute in the 20th century, but more often it's just a heavily materialistic or self-centred belief system ever-growing in society. Must take another look at Milton to comment fully!

  7. From the limited philosophical vantage of my 2nd-hand couch it seems Art had become a religious substitute, beginning with the Romantics and progressing in an increasingly materialistic way through the modernists. To post-modernism all is a detached irony and an assortment of contrasting or complimentary playthings. The ironies of Milton, for example, strike me as anything but detached and playful. Today we have an increase in fundamentalism countered by an increase of pointlessness. We believe in our political and social ideologies and in our current running iPod playlist, but put feet to little else. Art is hiding in the corner, collecting dust over there behind all the media products, a quaint relic of a distrusted past.

    Or so it seems to me today.

  8. I think we may be in agreement here and I'm sure I could have been a bit clearer when I made my original statement. I might back it up a step and say that what I meant to characterize as nihilism is not so much a willful decision to believe in nothing on the part of the individuals whose psyche comprise the collected agreement of society, but rather the outpouring of some trends in the intellectual input of said individuals.

    I will include "entertainment" when I talk about "Art" here as the effects trickle down to those whose artistic intake rely entirely on the information nozzle pumped into every house like so many lab mice (apparently I am committing to riding a very high horse.)

    As Nietzschean (or, perhaps, more like Newton Minnow) as throwing around phrases like "the guardians of splendor" may sound, I definitely think that a society "wills" its self in an emergent way. The whole is the sum of the parts.

    Remove any sort of moral compass or aspirations toward a virtuous life and replace it with jocularity, mocking, and a race to the bottom of taboo breaking in the arts, and the result will result in an emergent nihilism. Natura abhorret a vacuo. Where there is no light, darkness will fill the space. Although, perhaps more concise may have been an emergent prevalence of an anarchic "eat, drink, and be merry" or, more to the point, "everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Which is not strictly nihilism although I would add that I'm not entirely sure I see a culture with convictions, but rather one shoving stuff down a very big hole in an attempt to fill it.

  9. A society neurotically stuffing stuff in holes... sums it up nicely.

    If my comments seem more corrosive these past couple days, I apologize. On my way to work this morning. New job anxieties which should subside within the next few days.

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  11. "Art is hiding in the corner, collecting dust over there behind all the media products, a quaint relic of a distrusted past."

    Wow, you have no idea how literally that statement describes my own world. Ask Paul. I have all my art supplies collected in a corner collecting dust, a quaint relic of when art was the chief form of expression of a side of me I no longer trust and so have left in the past....

  12. At one point in my life I distrusted myself at every step. I still struggle with self-doubt. At this point, however, I've accepted that it's more my psychology than any real indication of where I stand before God, and that it's in fact not a sign of trust, faith, or obedience to stifle myself in the name of God. I don't know if this applies to you, but given the way you described it, I thought it might. My thought? Blow off the dust. (Or you could wipe it off with a damp cloth to save the dust floaties, but that's just not as poetically satisfying.) See to your art. Trust yourself. For the love of God, trust yourself. Commit art.