Archive for August 20th, 2017

John Milton, William Shakespeare on the Great American Eclipse: “disastrous twilight sheds on half the nations…”

Sunday, August 20th, 2017
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For those of you who don’t have funky little glasses, here’s what it will look like.

The Great American Eclipse is coming tomorrow, and the Book Haven finally succumbed to the craze.  We’ll be picking up our funky little glasses later today. But what did our greatest bards have to say on this occasion? Hint: nothing good. Both saw eclipses as dire omens, and Shakespeare, at least, spoke from direct experience. Our friends at the Folger Library in Washington told us so.

So here goes:

William Shakespeare

England experienced a total solar eclipse in 1598, and Shakespeare would have seen it, since the path of totality tracking arced from Cornwall in the southwest up to Aberdeen in Scotland. And he had a lot to say about it, according to the Folger Library:

1. An eclipse as an ill omen

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon
portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of
nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds
itself scourged by the sequent effects.”
—Gloucester in King Lear (1.2.109)

2. The physical darkness of an eclipse as a metaphor for psychological darkness

“My wife, my wife! What wife? I have no wife.
O insupportable! O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that th’ affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.”
—Othello in Othello (5.2.121)

3. An eclipse as that which mars beauty

“No more be grieved at that which thou hast done.
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.”
—Sonnet 35

John Milton:

John Milton may have missed his own personal total eclipse in his lifetime, but he had quite an imagination, and wrote about them. He may have been writing with a thought to Charlemagne’s son, Emperor Louis, who was so perplexed by the five minutes of total darkness (probably the eclipse of May 5, 840 A.D.), that he died shortly afterwards, some say of fright.

So what did Milton think? Context is all.

1.

The fall of Lucifer is compared to an eclipse in the opening of 1667’s Paradise Lost. For the eighteenth-century writer Edmund Burke, Milton’s description of the fallen angel who still retains traces of his heavenly glory was the most sublime descriptive passage in all of poetry.:

                                            He above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a tower. His form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruined, and th’ excess
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new-risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs. Darkened so, yet shone
Above them all th’ archangel; but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows
Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride
Waiting revenge. Cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold
The fellows of his crime , the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss), condemned
Forever now to have their lot in pain.

2.

In “Samson Agonistes,” the poet likened his own experience of blindness to eclipse:

Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own;
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more then half.
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, [ 80 ]
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!

3.

In “Lycidas,” the death of the eponymous hero is due to the building of his ship during an eclipse:

The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play’d.
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in th’eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

Take note! All you writers lay down your pens tomorrow! Who knows what evil will be wrought by what you write!