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.