Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

“This is the hardest class you will ever take,” the kids were told. And the course filled up within minutes.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018
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Auden knew what he was doing.

Kids are lazy little buggers who opt for easy courses, right?

Wrong.

Some time ago I wrote about W.H. Auden‘s syllabus during his time at the University of Michigan in the 1940s, a copy of which had been sitting in my files for decades. I can’t remember how I found it in the archives of the Rackham Graduate School, but occasionally I would run across it again, take it out, and stare at it, as at a marvel.

The reading list for his course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” included: The Divine Comedy in full, four works by Shakespeare, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe Brothers KaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Also, nine operas. (Auden loved opera – and assigned three of Wagner‘s Teutonic masterpieces.) That’s more than 6,000 pages total. For a single course.

At the University of Oklahoma, three brave men – Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English – decided to team-teach a year-long course, modifying Auden’s syllabus a little – to include, for example, Milton.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take.”

The result, according to Mark Bauerlein writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

I sat in on a class in October. McClay lectured on Inferno. The atmosphere was genial but focused. You can tell after five minutes whether a class has an esprit de corps — no sullen faces, no eyes drifting to windows and cellphones, even the bad jokes get a laugh. McClay slid from Augustine to Bonaventura to Jesus, Jonah, Exodus, and the prodigal son before taking up Paolo and Francesca, and then the suicides, sodomites, murderers, and frauds in Dante’s torture zones.

The historian was game.

After class, about half of the students and I headed over to the dining room at Dunham College, one of Oklahoma’s graceful new residential colleges, for lunch. There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature.

The English prof was game, too.

“This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript of 4/14 from John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “On my way out the door of higher ed and toward opportunities, both teaching and otherwise, elsewhere, one of my thoughts – in line with the program described here – is one way to revive the humanities might be to make the whole enterprise an honors curriculum or honors college within larger institutions. That would allow for a recuperation of the rigorous and seriousness that has long been lost within college and university humanities courses and it would also raise the value of a humanities degree as a credential. The implicit message would be “real college for real students” and it would be mark of distinction to have taken the more difficult and selective course of study, even if you went on to purse a “practical” career after that. It would be a sign to “practical” employers that a graduate had really hit the books during college and not taken the easy way out. Young people will work very, very, very hard at things that ultimately don’t matter as much as curricular education – i.e. athletics. So maybe foregrounding the aspect of difficulty might tap some kind of competitive spirit. ‘Auden College: No Pain, No Gain.'”

The Devil and John Milton in Chalfont St. Giles: did my residency inspire a poem?

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018
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Was R.S. Gwynn was with us in Chalfont St. Giles, in spirit at least? He sent a short poem, “Near Milton Cottage,” obviously inspired by the recent posts on my all-too-brief stay at the only extant Milton residence in Britain.

Sam denies it: “Actually, I’ve never been to Chalfont St. Giles. This was inspired by a trip to a Marks & Spencer (my first) near Salisbury. There’s really nothing in the U.S. like these stores – a sort of cross between Trader Joe’s and Macy’s, but on a smaller scale. I could have spent half a day in this one, sitting on sofas, trying on jackets, eating free cubes of cheese. I saw at least a dozen kinds of sausage I’d like to have tried. How Satan got in there, God only knows, but he does seem to prefer hanging with the upper middle class.” Marks & Spencer upper middle class? We think not. Try Harrods for that.

Sam Gwynn

He continued: “I did use the meter of ‘L’Allegro,’ by the way. It alternates full trochaic tetrameters with catalectic ones. The rhymes on the odd lines were fun, especially pitchfork and which pork. I’ve rarely used trochaic. It has a tendency to be lead-footed if you’re not careful.”  Wish I had his breezy facility. 

Here goes:

 

Near the Milton Cottage

Satan shops at Marks & Spencer
With a trolley heaped with cake,
Shedding, like a swinging censer,
Whiffs of brimstone in His wake.

Everything there sports one label
(At a fair though upscale price).
Swarthy stockboys shout in Babel,
Keeping picnic things on ice.

Stabbing goodies with His pitchfork
— Capons, capers, casual clothes—
He slows down to ponder which pork
Sausage most excites His nose.

Loosed upon their shops by Milton,
Now, midst sprats and Mozart tinned,
He unveils a putrid Stilton
To remind them how they’ve sinned.

He wolfs down endangered species,
Grills with Amazonian wood,
Chips the poles for ice with ease;
He’s got a credit line. It’s good.

Satan, consummate consumer,
Thrives in both the boom and bust.
See Him give a housewife room!
Herself ahead, He swells with lust.

Is He Tory? Is He Labour?
Are His economics planned?
Do thy best to do thy neighbour
In this green and pleasant land.

“Paper? Plastic?” croons the checkout.
Satan smiles and answers, “Both.”
Mrs. Bean now sticks her neck out
From a slow queue bagged by Sloth:

“Sinful Satan,” cries the woman,
“Are Your actions ever Green?”
Satan nods and smirks to someone,
“Let’s recycle … Mrs. Bean.”

How John Milton wound up blind and in disgrace in Chalfont St. Giles (and how he was inspired to start Paradise Regained).

Saturday, March 24th, 2018
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The “First Court” at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Milton would have walked it every day that he was here as a student.

Today I made my sad farewell to John Milton at his cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, but I expect it is an au revoir and not an adieu. Tonight, I am staying a few blocks away on the night before I head for Heathrow – with John Dugdale Bradley and his gracious wife Jan, who will comfort me in my sorrow. 

In my previous post, I mentioned how Milton’s Quaker friend, Thomas Ellwood, meant to greet the poet on his arrival here, as he fled the London plague and royal disfavor, but the government blocked Ellwood’s plans. Here’s the story in Ellwood’s words:

The “Great Gate” at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Some little time before I went to Aylesbury Prison, I was desired by my quondam Master Milton to take a House for him, in the Neighbourhood where I dwelt, that he might go out of the City, for the Safety of himself and his Family, the Pestilence then growing hot in London. I took a pretty Box for him in Giles-Chalfont, a Mile from me; of which I gave him notice: and intended to have waited on him and seen him well settled in it; but was prevented by that Imprisonment.

But now being released and returned Home I soon made a Visit to him, to welcome him into the Country.

After some common Discourses had passed between us, he called for a Manuscript of his which being brought he delivered to me, bidding me take it home with me, and read it at my Leisure, and when I had so done, return to him, with my Judgment thereupon.

When I came home, and had set myself to read it, I found it was that Excellent POEM which he entitled PARADISE LOST. After I had, with the best Attention, read it through, I made him another Visit, and returned him his Book, with due Acknowledgement of the Favour he had done me, in Communicating it to me. He asked me how I liked it, and what I thought of it; which I modestly but freely told him: and after some further Discourse about it, I pleasantly said to him, Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost; but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found? He made me no Answer, but sate some time in a Muse: then brake off that Discourse, and fell upon another Subject.

After the Sickness was over, and the City well cleansed and become safely habitable again, he returned thither. And when afterwards I went to wait on him there (which I seldom fail|d of doing, whenever my Occasions drew me to London) he shewed me his Second POEM, called PARADISE REGAINED; and in a pleasant Tone said to me, This is owing to you: for you put it into my Head, by the Question you put to me at Chalfont; which before I had not thought of.

If you want to see the “pretty box,” I refer you to an earlier blogpost here. The photos here revisit Milton’s student days at Christ’s College, Cambridge. John and I visited yesterday with Cambridge graduate student and Stanford alum Michael Gioia (our first visit to Cambridge as a guest of Girton College here) – all the images make a splendid finale to this U.K. visit. All photos by John Dugdale Bradley, a Cambridge (and Stanford) alum himself.

From the First Court towards the Great Gate…

I sleep where Milton slept: my first night at the poet’s cottage in Chalfont St. Giles

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018
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Milton meets MacBook. In this room he slept and wrote.

I slept in John Milton‘s room last night. I’m told I was likely the first person to do so in hundreds of years. The sense of incongruity gave an unreality to the event, as I sat in the 17th century chair and worked at the desk next to the fireplace, first plugging in my Apple MacBook Pro with its adapter, and hooking up my cellphone to recharge. The sense of immodesty, too, as I pulled off my earrings, sweater, trousers, for the night, in the room where the Puritan poet spent his days, in royal disfavor after the fall of the Cromwell regime – though the poet was blind when he lived here, so my discomfort was meaningless on more than one scale. A hot water bottle generously provided by my real-life hosts kept me warm in bed, as well as mittens and heavy socks.

The view from the back, where the Milton Garden features the flowers that he loved.

To clarify, Milton’s bedroom doubled as his study, or rather vice versa. In 1665, he fled the plague in London to this refuge in Chalfont St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire, about 25 miles from the city.  His friend Thomas Ellwood had rented a residence for the poet now known as Milton’s Cottage, but he was arrested and jailed when he when he attended a Quaker funeral, and so wasn’t on hand to welcome him. Milton took on the place for a little over a year, a period that was bookended by the plague at the beginning, and the Great Fire that burned half London at the ending in 1666.

He completed Paradise Lost here, in Chalfont St. Giles. But it’s unclear how much work was done in this cottage, with its inexplicable layout of 8 or so rooms, cupboards, and many nooks and crannies. He had already given a draft to Ellwood, but Milton was an endless tinkerer and reviser. Certainly the final draft was finished here, and he began the inevitable sequel, Paradise Regained. He couldn’t leave his tale at this, at the end of Paradise Lost:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Blind, crippled with gout, he pretty much remained in this one room, with the parlor where he may have received guests. He slept in his study, next to the kitchen, where the challenging stairs wouldn’t torture him. He wouldn’t have seen the huge fireplace, about five feet high (parliament could meet in it), or the window that looks out onto the street, but I hope he could at least sense the sunlight, as I did, as it streamed through the small latticed eastern-facing window at the back of the room in the morning.

But perhaps there’s another reason why he slept here – one that captures the imagination more. Maybe he wanted to be close to ink and paper. He claimed he woke up with lines of poetry rolling through his head, and was anxious to take up his quill and write them all down – or rather, to have one of his daughters take up the pen and paper, as he dictated to her.

My Milton cup

Perhaps he fine-tuned lines like these:

More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visit’st my slumbers nightly, or when Morn
Purples the East. Still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

 

John Milton: the dispensable poet? A pitch for the Paradise bard

Sunday, February 4th, 2018
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The original anti-hero

John Milton the dispensable poet? Not so! Simon Hefferover at The Telegraph, insists that “to some of us he is the greatest poet in the English language.

So why is Milton so often left off university syllabi and must-read lists, even among poets who should know better?

“Perhaps as this is a secular age his predominantly religious subjects – not just Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, but also Samson Agonistes – have little appeal,” he writes. “Yet in these works we see, and hear, what Wordsworth meant by ‘majestic’… Sometimes Milton is like an art house screenplay. One should not be deterred by the subject, any more than one should be deterred from reading the King James Bible or the 1662 Prayer Book just because one is not an Anglican. The sheer beauty of the words, and the musicality for which they are chosen, are among the characteristics that make Milton great.”

“To see his breadth, read his English sonnets: they are contemporary (as in his exhortation of Oliver Cromwell), reflective (as on his painful memories of his deceased wife), polemical (notably about religion), humorous (his sonnet defending his pamphlet Tetrachordon) and movingly humble. That last judgment applies to his most famous sonnet, ‘On His Blindness’, in which he promises to serve God dutifully however he can – ‘Thousands at his bidding speed / And post oe’r land and ocean without rest: /They also serve who only stand and wait’.”

Selfish, selfish, selfish…

According to Micah Mattix, writing last week about “Milton’s Morality” over at the Weekly Standard, “Milton’s lines can be both digressive and tight, packed with allusions and neologisms. An exceptional student of Latin and a gifted linguist, Milton coined more English words than Shakespeare, many of them first appearing in Paradise Lost (like ‘terrific,’ ‘jubilant,’ ‘space’ to refer to outer space, as well as ‘pandemonium’).”

Hefner agrees: “His choice of diction is always original and therefore arresting. Time spent with the Oxford English Dictionary will soon show how many words he brought into our vocabulary, from the Latin and Greek of which he was a master. He also, as befits a blind man, has a stunning visual sense: when millions of fallen angels draw their flaming swords in Paradise Lost and “the sudden blaze / Far round illumin’d Hell”, Milton depicts a vivid moment with remarkable economy of words. His use of rhythm in his blank verse is intensely musical; his command of the sonnet form is finer than Spenser’s, and no worse than that ascribed to Shakespeare.”

But perhaps Milton’s feelings would not have been hurt at the neglect. Heffer argues that poetry was dispensable for Milton  –  a sideline. He had been the Latin secretary for Cromwell, and composed all the Puritan leader’s diplomatic correspondence. Poetry became his main only after 1658, when he began to compose Paradise Lost. The direction got a little extra omph after 1660, when the government of the newly restored monarch, Charles II, issued a a warrant for Milton’s arrest as a collaborator with the regicidal Cromwell regime. “He decided, wisely, to keep a low profile, that he had the time and the seclusion to write verse. But admirers of Milton know that he was as good a polemicist as he was a poet, and during the 1640s and 1650s wrote several of the greatest works of political argument in the canon. They came from the heart, covering subjects that deeply affected or annoyed him.”

Courageous in front of a crowd…

The upshot: while Austen’s bicentennials pop up regularly, and even Mary Shelley – whose Frankenstein was so heavily influenced by Milton – has been fêted with a bicentennial this year, poor Milton is still in exile, stirring the fire and waiting for his daughters to serve him porridge. “How did a poem that was lauded even by Milton’s enemies as not only above ‘all moderne attempts in verse, but equall to any of ye Ancient Poets,’ as Sir John Hobart put it in 1668, and that was translated in its entirety into Latin in 1690 and used in English-speaking classrooms to teach rhetoric instead of classical texts lose so much ground to both Shakespeare and Austen, particularly in Western countries?”

It should not be so. Given that Lucifer is the unabashed hero of Paradise Lost, in all his grim and serious-minded glory, isn’t it time to take another look at the poet who gave us heaven and earth? “The point of all this mirroring is to show how closely evil resembles good. Poole writes in Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost that Milton “regards evil as disarmingly close in appearance to the good,” and it is only by careful moral reasoning that the two can be separated,” writes Mattix.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley [that would be Mr. Mary Shelley – ED.] praised Milton’s Satan as “a moral being . . . far superior to his God . . . who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture.” The problem is that Satan’s “excellent” purpose is the destruction of “harmless innocence” for personal and political ends. This makes him, Carey writes, “English literature’s first terrorist.”

He sat here.

In short, Satan says all the rightly compassionate things only to the “right” people, who are, of course, his people, and only when his own interests are at stake. He is unflappable only in front of a crowd, courageous only when it is personally advantageous. He acts like a good leader, father, and husband—and even argues with nearly perfect reasoning that he is more morally upright than God himself—all while serving only himself. He is a god of unchecked liberty, and, therefore, in Milton’s view, a god of chaos and destruction.

What is particularly chilling about the character of Satan is the extent to which he believes all his actions, no matter how violent, are not only justified but morally right. As C. S. Lewis put it, “we see in Satan . . . the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything,” particularly his own selfish motivations. Satan wants the freedom to do as he pleases, but it is a freedom that always comes at the expense of others’ liberty.

There you have it. Read the Heffer article here. And the Mattix article here.

How a Stanford engineer made Milton’s home his own.

Monday, January 22nd, 2018
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Milton’s Literary Garden:  all the flowers he wrote about are here.

The stampede towards STEM is not irreversible, and not everyone who begins in science and technology stays there. Some are saved by literature in the end. Take John Dugdale Bradley, a Cambridge-trained Chartered Chemical Engineer and a Stanford MBA who now finds himself a later-life a champion of John Milton – the writer the Stanford’s late Prof. Martin Evans called the most learned poet in the English language. 

He began as a neighbor

But the Stanford graduate began as a neighbor first. He and his wife moved to a cottage a few minutes away from Milton’s Cottage in Buckinghamshire. As he visited the cottage regularly, he got to know the man whose spirit still haunts it. From small beginnings he gradually became more involved in saving this literary jewel. Now as a Trustee he is leading the effort to raise a $5 million Endowment Fund to generate income to operate, preserve and enhance the cottage, museum, and literary garden in perpetuity. This mission includes the dissemination of Milton’s legacy and his eloquent promotion of all the freedoms we enjoy today. He spoke at Stanford recently, and so the Book Haven invited him to tell us about the cottage in a guest post.

Where Milton wrote “Paradise Lost.”

In 1665, John Milton fled London’s Great Plague with his wife and daughters. It was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England. He sought safety in a small, rural, secluded cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, about 25 miles northwest of the heart of London. It is the only Milton residence that survives today. Within these walls he completed Paradise Lost and was inspired to write its sequel, Paradise Regain’d. These late, great works ensured his enduring poetic legacy and universal recognition as one of the world’s greatest writers.

In the study, Milton, who had become blind, completed Paradise Lost by dictating to his wife or daughters every day. Here are rare first editions of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained on public display along with the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost and some 200 translations into many languages.

In the museum’s old kitchen, displays many of his other works including Areopagitica and Lycidas, the romantic poem lamenting ‘a promising young life cut short’ in tribute to this college friend Edward King of Christ’s College Cambridge.

The parlour where Milton received his guests and where he encouraged debates on the issues of the day contains his parliamentary works including the ‘Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’ [published in support of and shortly after the execution of King Charles I] and a Proclamation from King Charles II calling for Milton’s most controversial books to be handed in and burnt. Other works are about divorce and ‘the Irish question.’

Where Milton received guests and (we hope) kept warm.

Alongside the cottage, is a registered Grade 2 literary garden is filled with most of the trees, shrubs, plants and herbs mentioned in Milton’s works. The garden is worth a visit in its own right.

As well as early editions of his best-known poetic works, including LycidasParadise Lost and Paradise Regain’d, the cottage includes a treasure-trove of his iconic prose writings, many of which focus on freedoms in government, religion, speech and the press.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both revered Milton, and so the Puritan poet found a significant place in American history; his thinking and writings (particularly Areopagitica) influenced the development of the U.S, Constitution and later the First Amendment dealing with freedoms we all cherish – freedom of thought, of speech and of the press as well as religion.

And an unknown American may have inadvertently saved Milton’s Cottage for posterity.  Rumour has it that the building was to be sold,  to be shipped to the US and rebuilt there, beam by beam – so incensing the locals that they clubbed together to purchase Milton’s Cottage on behalf of the nation and keep it firmly on British soil.  That was back in 1887 and it has been in the care of a charity and open to the public as a museum ever since.

Milton’s Cottage has no permanent endowment, however – a state of affairs that the current Board of Trustees is determined to address.  We have therefore launched Paradise Maintain’d, a new endowment fund that is seeking to raise $5 million to protect and preserve this unique literary landmark in perpetuity.  Once we reach our target, the income generated will cover all of our annual core and maintenance costs as well as fund new initiatives to increase public engagement with Milton’s work.

To find out more, please visit our website here.  US donations are tax deductible: contact endowments@miltonscottage.org for further information.

Oh! And more news! The Book Haven will be visiting the Milton Cottage on site come March, when I will be honored with the inaugural residency. More from the Milton Cottage then!

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!

 

 

Geoffrey Hill and the “unwitting travesty of the ‘authentic self.'”

Friday, July 1st, 2016
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Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: “It terrifies me.”

Geoffrey Hill is gone. The 84-year-old English poet’s death was announced on Twitter at 2.49 a.m. on Friday by his wife, the librettist Alice Goodman. “Please pray for the repose of the soul of my husband, Geoffrey Hill, who died yesterday evening, suddenly, and without pain or dread,” she wrote. You can read more about it here, in The Guardian or in the New Statesman here. Many thought he was the greatest living poet in the English language.

Hill’s death returned me to his 2000 Paris Review interview with Carl Phillips. I’m still reading it. Meanwhile, a few excerpts below; the whole thing is here.

INTERVIEWER

What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.

HILL

haecker

“Inner exile”

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification. …

INTERVIEWER

Robert_Southwell

Poet and martyr

Do you see yourself as a kind of martyr figure, in terms of your being a poet, and in the context of what we’ve said about people not understanding issues of difficulty or possibilities for intelligence?

HILL

No, absolutely not. My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment. The very fact that they lived ennobles the human race, which is so often ignoble. I also have to admit that I contemplate them to in some way exorcize my own terror of terminal agony. I can go with them to the point where my own emotional endurance can go no further.

***

hillbookAgain, taking a long, historical view, I can understand why I was impressed by Eliot’s contempt for the “inner voice.” I would still maintain that a considerable amount of the very unsatisfactory stuff that is being written now is unwitting travesty of the “authentic self.” The particular tone of the unsatisfactory changes from period to period, the unsatisfactory poetry of the age of Pope is not quite the same sort of creature as bad poetry in the age of Tennyson, and bad poetry in the age of Tennyson differs from the bad poetry of the present time. A great deal of the work of the last forty years seems to me to spring from inadequate knowledge and self-knowledge, a naive trust in the unchallengeable authority of the authentic self. But I no longer think that the answer to this lies in the suppression of self; it requires a degree of self-knowledge and self-criticism, which is finally semantic rather than philosophical. The instrument of expression and the instrument of self-knowledge and self-correction is the same. There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest example of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It’s probably true of the very greatest writers. I think it’s true of Dante and Milton, and I think it is true of Wordsworth. It’s a quality that these poets possess supremely. The rest of us, even the very best of us, possess it to a lesser and differing degree, but I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life.

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Keats on Milton: “life to him would be death to me,” or, a bad case of mimetic envy

Friday, January 1st, 2016
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keats-milton

Famous marginalia seems to be all the rage right now – so I thought I’d start the year with this one, John Keats‘s mark-up of his edition of John MiltonParadise Lost. The relationship of Keats and Milton was a fraught one, marked by imitation, rivalry, and rejection  – a classic case of what René Girard would call “external mediation,” where the target of envious admiration exists outside the daily sphere of the desirer. After all, Milton had died well over a century before Keats was born, so it was clearly a one-sided relationship. Sometimes those are the easiest kind. You get less back-talk.

"What was he really like?"

Bad case of mimetic envy

The history of this particular set of marginalia is such a complicated one that a whole book has been compiled on it: Keats’s “Paradise Lost” by Beth Lau. It’s an opportunity to read Milton’s masterpiece over Keats’s shoulder, so to speak.

In his review of the 1998 book, UC-Irvine’s Hugh Roberts writes: “Only Spenser and Shakespeare rival Milton as ‘precursor poets’ for the English Romantics, and the relationship with Milton is arguably the most interesting, as it is the most fraught with ideological and other tensions. From Blake’s assertion that Milton was ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it,’ to Shelley’s musings on the ‘strange and natural antithesis’ by which Milton’s poem had become an ideological prop to Church and State conservatives, to Keats’s ultimate conclusion – after trying to out Milton-Milton in his Hyperion – that ‘life to him [Milton] would be death to me,’ the Romantic poets made themselves unruly disciples, self-consciously reading their master’s epic against the grain.”

milton2One Milton scholar, Martin Evans, credibly claims that Milton is the most learned poet in the English language. I suspect Keats thought so, too. Here’s own reaction, a poem on discovering a lock of Milton’s hair, is not one of his best efforts, but insightful nonetheless:

Chief of organic numbers!
Old Scholar of the Spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears,
For ever, and for ever.

Read the whole poem, “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” here. And happy new year.

Geoffrey Hill on “the poem as selfie”

Monday, June 2nd, 2014
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Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: “It terrifies me.”

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Geoffrey Hill, who turns 82 this month, is on a roll. His first Collected Poems of 1985 was less than a fifth of the length of Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 – that’s an unusual degree of late-life productivity. “It is a bumper harvest later and richer than anybody dared hope for,” writes Daniel Johnson over at Standpoint. Hill is now the Oxford Professor of Poetry; his lectures are available as podcasts. Johnson is the founding editor of Standpoint and former literary editor at The Times.His excellent article, “Geoffrey Hill and the Poetry of Ideas,” is a must-read for any user of the English language … or any language.

A few excerpts:

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._National_Memorial_Stone_of_Hope_at_Dusk

“Monumentality and bidding.” He passed the test.

As I entered, the Professor of Poetry was reciting: not verses, but extracts from Lincoln‘s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King‘s “I have a dream” speech. He went on to explain that his theme was “Monumentality and Bidding” — terms of art taken from one of his heroes of prosody, Gerard Manley Hopkins — and that his argument was that enduring, not to say great, poetry and prose must combine these two qualities. Monumentality speaks for itself, but by “bidding” Hopkins meant speaking directly to the reader and keeping his attention, “making it everywhere an act of intercourse” — “social intercourse”, Hill interjected with a wry smile. … The great speeches of Lincoln and King, a sonnet by Hopkins, the music of Purcell: each was analysed minutely, with frequent reference to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was all of a piece and, in its endearingly idiosyncratic way, “Hillian”.

***

hopkins

Not a “selfie” kind of guy.

In his March Oxford lecture, he scandalises the audience by questioning the most revered of the war poets: “To say that [Wilfred] Owen wrote two of the great poems of the 20th century, in ‘Sensibility’ and ‘Spring Offensive’, but that some of his poetry, even some of the most loved, is a bit sloppy . . . well, if one had a career to lose it would lose one one’s career, I suppose.” If language is, as he believes, the last repository of meaning, “it is essential to apply the most rigorous technical demands to these sanctified objects of public worship.”

This leads Hill to the gravamen of his charge against much of the poetry of today: “It is public knowledge that the newest generation of poets is encouraged to think of poems as Facebook or Twitter texts — or now, I suppose, much more recently, as selfies.” The mention of such an improbable neologism from such a source elicited an embarrassed titter from the audience, as if Hill had caught his academic peers indulging a secret vice. “The poem as selfie is the aesthetic criterion of contemporary verse,” he continued. “And, as you know, in my malign way I want to put myself in opposition to this view. That is to say, the poem should not be a spasmodic issue from the adolescent or even the octogenarian psyche, requiring no further form or validation.” Hill came back to the theme in his vindication of Hopkins, whose sonnets did not, he expostulated, deserve the condescension of posterity: “I do not think that they are Hopkins’s selfies.”

The underlying reason for Hill’s rejection of poetry as pure self-expression is that he sees such narcissism as beneath the dignity of his calling. He preaches, rather, what he has practised ever since his youth: a poetry of ideas. It is this determination to place ideas at the heart of his work that sets him apart from even his most celebrated contemporaries. Disputing Auden‘s claim that “art is a product of history, not a cause”, he argues that the true poem is “alienated from its existence as historical event”. To capture the realm in which it exists over and above history, he proposes the notion of “alienated majesty”, the invisible repository of ideas, values and faith. “Alienated majesty signifies a reality, however, even if not an actuality.”

***

brokenFor Hill, we who are privileged to dwell in the land of Shakespeare and Milton are in danger of squandering our most precious inheritance: our literature, and especially our poetry, which is the enduring source of our national identity. “The writing and criticism in depth of poetry is an essential, even a vital practice,” he told the Oxford audience. “We are in our public life desperately in need of the energy of intelligence created by these pursuits.” Only poetry and its rigorous criticism can discern “how the uncommon work moves within the common dimension of language”. Politics is no less dependent on language than poetry, but it is a great deal less attuned to the uncommon work. Poets, if they could only raise their sights from their navel-gazing, could and should be the unacknowledged legislators of our hearts.

***

For Hill, a poem must be “at once spontaneous and exacting” and “simultaneously wild and strict.” He said, “This is a quality which somehow must be brought back into English poetry this century, or English poetry will die.”

 

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth it.