Posts Tagged ‘Martin Evans’

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.

Oxford does it right: The Merton Record arrives on our doorstep

Monday, November 17th, 2014
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IMG_20141111_145704We shouldn’t have been surprised. When we were contacted by the Merton College at Oxford about republishing our obituary on the late great Milton scholar, Martin Evans in The Merton Record, we offered our enthusiastic  support. The Welshman was an amazing man and an amazing Miltonist, and it was a privilege to study Paradise Lost with him.

We made Editor Helen Morley promise to send the finished product.

When the envelope arrived from Oxford, we were pleased to find a model of this kind of academic publishing: 200 perfect-bound pages with writing that matches high production values  – and it was delightful to be a small part of it. (Also noted: it has a review of Stuart D. Lee‘s A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a professor at Merton for many years.)

From my republished piece on Martin:

Evans coined the phrase “Miltonic moment” to describe the point of crisis just before the action changes dramatically, looking at once backward to a past that is about to be transcended or repudiated, and forward to a future that immediately begins to unfold.

His first reading of Milton marked a Miltonic moment of his own: “I fell hopelessly in love with the poetry. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read,” Evans said.

Yet Evans is remembered for being a powerful mentor as well as a revered scholar.

IMG_20141111_145734The poet and scholar Linda Gregerson of the University of Michigan, his student in the late 1970s, recalled, “He was immensely generous, both personally and intellectually, able to convey deep learning with extraordinary clarity. He always took a deep delight in ideas, and was just opinionated enough to make things fun.” She recalled him as “impish, with a brilliant, irreverent sense of humor.”

“He converted many of us to a lifelong inhabitation in the world of Milton studies. It’s a formidable world in many respects, not nearly so genial as the world of Shakespeare studies, for example. But Martin imbued it, and us, with a durable sense of joy.”

You can read an earlier Book Haven post on Martin here – or about his 400th birthday party for Milton here. Or here’s a treat: go here and you can listen the the Milton scholar himself, at Milton’s birthday party (which was also a celebration of his own anniversary at Stanford). Hearing him read the last words of Paradise Lost is absolutely delicious.

(See? “Lycidas” is evidently still on my mind after my post yesterday about Derek Walcott.)

lovesongsPostscript on 9/19: Martin Evans’s influence was wide indeed. I just received this note from music scholar and author Ted Gioia: “I spent a lot of time with Martin Evans, both inside and outside the classroom, and learned a tremendous amount from him. My next book (on the history of love songs) is a better book because of what Martin taught me about Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio, Castiglione, etc. Because of him, I read The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis and a number of other books that prepared me (in ways I never could have anticipated at the time) to write a study of the evolution of the love song.”

evans1

“It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read.” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

 

“A durable sense of joy”: Master Miltonist Martin Evans (1935-2013)

Friday, February 15th, 2013
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A great scholar, perhaps an even greater man. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Martin Evans died Monday morning at his home.  It’s a great loss for Stanford, and a great loss for Milton studies.  My obituary is here.

One of the intellectual highpoints of recent years at Stanford (and there has no shortage of them) was the 400th birthday celebration for John Milton, including the 10-hour marathon reading of Paradise Lost.  The event became a very intense baptism into the brilliant world of Milton studies – a world whose most eminent scholars include Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Stanley Fish, and others.  And, of course, Martin Evans, too.

Stanford’s Jennifer Summit, Canada’s Liz Pentland looking on. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Martin, my genial host for the event, insisted that John Milton was the most learned poet in the English language, bar none.  No surprise that  I was so inspired by the caliber of minds I met at the event – and by Martin, most especially – that I attended his classes for a quarter to hear the master-teacher firsthand.  I was not disappointed.

From the obituary:

Evans coined the phrase “Miltonic moment” to describe the point of crisis just before the action changes dramatically, looking at once backward to a past that is about to be transcended or repudiated, and forward to a future that immediately begins to unfold.

His first reading of Milton marked a Miltonic moment of his own: “I fell hopelessly in love with the poetry. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read,” Evans said.

Yet Evans is remembered for being a powerful mentor as well as a revered scholar.

The poet and scholar Linda Gregerson of the University of Michigan, his student in the late 1970s, recalled, “He was immensely generous, both personally and intellectually, able to convey deep learning with extraordinary clarity. He always took a deep delight in ideas, and was just opinionated enough to make things fun.”

Poet and Miltonist Gregerson

She recalled him as “impish, with a brilliant, irreverent sense of humor.”

“He converted many of us to a lifelong inhabitation in the world of Milton studies. It’s a formidable world in many respects, not nearly so genial as the world of Shakespeare studies, for example. But Martin imbued it, and us, with a durable sense of joy.”

It made me almost regret not being a Roundhead, and left me wishing I did not feel quite so strongly for Charles I.

Back to the 400th birthday party, when I wrote (you can read about the whole thing here, with Humble Moi at half off the lefthand side of the screen at the tale-end of this video, here, to prove I did, really attend the event):

Canadian Miltonist John Leonard made a convincing Satan. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Although those attending the event were invited to wear costumes, none did. And there was no prelapsarian nudity. ‘Everyone will be wearing clothes,’ promised English lecturer Alice Staveley, another organizer of the event. ‘We’re all fallen readers.’

“It’s another decision Milton would have approved. He was, after all, a Puritan. In America, however, the word ‘Puritan’ carries a lot of cargo. Evans insisted that English Puritans bear little resemblance to their dour American counterparts. For one thing, Milton ‘loved music, loved wine,’ Evans said. ‘Puritanism,’ in the American sense, is one of Milton’s many bum raps.

“The influential novelist, poet and critic Charles Williams ticked off the charges leveled at the purportedly proud and scornful Milton, rebutting his foes who maintained ‘the pride of his Satan was his own pride, and he approved it.

‘They argued over his Arianism or his Calvinism. They confined his instrument to the organ. They denied him cheerfulness and laughter (he who, it is said, used to sing while he had the gout!). They gloomed over him, as (they supposed) he, in his arrogant self-respect, gloomed over the world,’ Williams wrote in The English Poems of John Milton (1940).

“But in today’s world, so far from Bread Street and the blind prophet, Milton has few champions as unflagging as the redoubtable Evans.”

A half-century Milton legacy. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

While speaking with his former students in the last few days, one story impressed me, in particular.  I met Angelica Duran at the event several years ago, but I didn’t know her backstory until I spoke with her several days ago.  She was a first-generation Chicana graduate student when she was at Stanford, from 1994-2000, and also a single mom of two very young children.  At one point, she was going to drop out for a quarter because she was in a tailspin over her conflicting duties and overwhelming workload.  Martin told her if she took time off, she most probably wouldn’t be coming back.  “Let’s look at your schedule,” he told her.  He inspired her with his own stories about growing up in hardship as a child in Wales. She went on to become director of religious studies and associate professor of English at Purdue University and editor of the Concise Companion to Milton. Oh, and she’s still a mom, too.

Well, as his former student Dennis Danielson of the University of British Columbia, who is editor of the Cambridge Companion to Milton, Martin Evans was “not ashamed of his affections.”  Here’s part of the talk Danielson gave when the Milton Society of America named Martin as a prestigious “honored scholar” for lifetime achievement – part tribute, part roast, “that’s the way he liked it,” said Danielson.

Near the end of the quarter, after we had all got our sea legs, we had some excellent discussions, and there was a moment at which Martin expressed a magisterially-delivered opinion about the beginning of Book 11 of Paradise Lost—with which I found myself in serious disagreement. What could I do? I decided to take a big risk, and what I did was to write my final paper on the very issue about which we disagreed, explaining why I disagreed—in the form of irrefragable scholarly argument, of course.

A week later as I walked out of the quad on my way home I waved a cheerful, slightly nervous hello to Martin, who was riding by in the opposite direction on his bicycle and had no I idea how anxious I was about having stated my disagreement with him. He sailed past me, but then he turned his bike around and rode back to where I was. As usual, he wasted no words, but told me that he appreciated my paper very much, thought I should publish it, and also thought it would form the basis of a good PhD thesis. Then he turned again and without further ceremony pedaled off into the quad. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and I see it as typifying the man’s forthrightness, unselfishness, and magnanimity. What I don’t remember is whether I carried on back to my apartment on the ground or through the air.

He will be missed.  He is already.

Literary pilgrimages here and there, and Sylvia Plath in Chalcot Square

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
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Mells, Somerset

Okay. I’ll admit it’s a habit. When I travel, I often check out literary landmarks — the place where a favorite author was born, died, wrote, or was buried.  I’ve seen Mikhail Bulgakov‘s digs in Kiev, Elizabeth Bishop‘s glorious hideaway outside Samambaia, C.P. Cavafy‘s modestly exotic flat in Alexandria, Siegried Sassoon‘s grave in Somerset — I even visited Boris Pasternak‘s idyllic dacha in Peredelkino.

Milton scholar Martin Evans shares my enthusiasm.

His journeys to London are sometimes literary pilgrimages — he’s intrigued by the fact that his beloved John Milton and (my beloved) John Donne were both born on Bread Street.  He wants to show you these and more literary coincidences for your next trip.  Hence his new website,  Authorial London.  Please, do not be daunted.  It’s not complicated at all.  It’s  a really easy site.  And if you’d rather read about it than look at it, try Corrie Goldman‘s description of the site and how it came about here.

One passage intrigued me:

Nice man, odd habit (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Readers may be surprised to learn that Sylvia Plath once lived in the same modest house in Primrose Hill in which W.B.Yeats lived many years earlier. In Plath’s time, it was a working class area beset with blue-collar workers and struggling artists. These days, glamorous socialites like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller have been dubbed by the British tabloids as the “Primrose Hill set.”

The website explains that Plath’s apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a bath. “Plath loved it, at least at the beginning,” the website explains. Here, Plath wrote her great social commentary of mental illness, The Bell Jar.

I was among the readers not surprised by this revelation — in fact, Plath moved to this flat precisely because Yeats had been a previous tenant.

I remember a trip to London — oh, over a decade ago — when I was writing a piece for the San Jose Mercury on the British reception of Sylvia Plath (a bare-bones, unillustrated version of it is here; the August 20, 2000 piece has disappeared from the Mercury‘s website).

The article opened:

Yeats lived here, too

IN THE Primrose Hill area of London, where Gloucester Road and Prince of Wales Road wind back on each other in a hopeless bend, one arrives at 3 Chalcot Square, a turquoise door on a five-story building painted the color of raspberry sorbet.This summer, a simple plaque was added to the building’s facade:

Sylvia Plath
1932-1963
Poet
lived here 1960-1961

Question: Why has it taken Britain nearly 40 years to offer this first, minimalist postmortem recognition for the American poet who spent her last five years in London?

One answer: The British hardly see the need for it. When it comes to Plath, one of America’s most celebrated female poets, the British just don’t get it.

Alas, since the painting of the building has disappeared over the years, we are left with these newer images.  The torquoise door remains — but raspberry sorbet?  I think not.

John Milton: Architect of authors’ rights?

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011
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In 1727, Voltaire fixed an image of the hardscrabble John Milton that would prove hard to dislodge: he wrote that the poet “remained poor and without glory; his name must be added to the list of great geniuses persecuted by fortune.”

A few days ago, I mentioned Milton’s famous — nay, notorious — contract giving him for £5 for Paradise Lost. Preeminent Miltonist Martin Evans had told me something about this contract a couple years back, and I wrote him to refresh my memory.  Almost by return email, he pointed me to a December 2010 article by his former student, Kerry MacLennan, on precisely this topic in the Milton Quarterly.  It’s online here.

Far from being a patsy, MacLennon insists that “Milton was an expert navigator in the capitalist landscape around him.”

What’s known:  the contract, signed on April 27, 1667, with printer Samuel Simmons, awarded Milton £5 on signature, and £5 on later retail sale for each of three contemplated editions of 1,300 copies each.  Hence, the real value of the transaction was £20.

Still small potatoes, right?

There’s more:  According to MacLennan, “For a writer to be paid in cash at all by a publisher was not customary at the time: seventeenth-century authors typically provided manuscripts to their printers in exchange for a small number of complimentary copies of the published work.”

This was not a royal work commissioned for an aristocratic audience.  Paradise Lost was a “risky speculative venture,” dependent upon “small press runs on speculation, displayed in bookshop windows, and awaiting discovery by readers with the interest, impulse, and either the cash or credit to buy them.”  In short, this contract marks the beginning of the decline of the aristocratic patronage system, to be replaced by a capitalistic, republican framework for writers.

MacLennon reviews Milton’s contact and determines that Milton was entitled to a share of the epic’s earnings — nearly two centuries, remember, before the advent of the term “royalty.”  She finds that while £20 might be slim pickings for the poem canonized as the most famous single poem in English, “recharacterizing the payment as a royalty of between 2.6% and 5.1% should extinguish any lingering indignation on Milton’s behalf.”

“I propose that we consider the likelihood that Milton was the architect, indeed the author, of the contract for Paradise Lost, as much as he was the creator of its poetry … Milton’s father’s professional skills as a scrivener may have directed him how to anticipate, and circumvent, contractual loopholes and trapdoors.”

She concludes:

The contract for Paradise Lost champions and models the rights of artists to manage and control the commercial aspects of their creative production. But rather than writing a pamphlet on the rights of authors, Milton’s polymath mind instead invented, and left us, a template.

(Paradise Lost images provided, of course, courtesy Gustav Doré.)

Hey writers, you’re one in a million! Literally!

Saturday, February 12th, 2011
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Working for peanuts

For writers, the subject of remuneration for our humble services is always a subject of endless fascination, at least for us.  So I was naturally intrigued by an interesting article in on the McSweeney’s website, written by a young colleague.

The article reminds me of what a great career I might have made by, say, becoming an airline stewardess.  Or perhaps an insurance actuary.  Or even an aromatherapist.  The upshot:  writers don’t make much money.  As the article reminds us, “never have, never will.”

The statistics it cites make me wonder:  Do the numbers mean anything?  And who collects these little suckers anyway?

The witness in the dock appears to be the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And they get their numbers … where?  Nobody talked to me.  One obvious source might be IRS reports.  But the professional identifications on the IRS forms are not supported by anyone else:  for example, are there any penalties for identifying yourself as a writer on your IRS form if 75 percent of your income in fact comes from waitressing tips?  And does the bureau’s statistics for writers include, say, advertising copywriters?  Does the category for authors include faculty members, who constitute a substantial percentage of today’s authors, yet are likely to list their profession as “professor” rather than author?  In any case “authors and writers” are not interchangeable – many writers are not authors, and vice versa (cookbook authors, for one).

According to the bureau, as of 2005, 185,276 out of 216.3 million American adults claimed those titles.  That makes us less than one out of a million.  I can’t believe that.  I, personally, believe I know more than 185,276 writers.  Look at my Facebook page.

Here’s another reason why I question what the bureau’s numbers:

In May 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual wage for authors and writers had risen to $53,900, up $3,100 from the medium income average for the past decade. In 2008, 70 percent of writers and authors were self-employed and in 2009, the upper quartile of writers earned $75,740 or more.

But technical writers might be making a whole lot more than this; a starving poet considerably less.  For every Dan Brown there’s a hundred self-published authors writing on their lunch breaks at Costco.  Again, who calls themselves a writer?  Who an author?

Moreover, many, many writers are supported by a spouse or a family income.  A low level of income may not reflect their penury, but rather that they have the freedom to write what they please on their own timing.

The Census Bureau also has  some dismaying news:  it estimates the number of writers and authors will increase by 20,000 by 2018.  With reservations, I concur with Nicolás Gómez Dávila that “literature does not die because nobody writes, but when everybody writes.”

In any case, when everyone writes, no one will make any money doing it. Tim Rutten has already panicked about the influence of the HuffPo/AOL acquisition and the effect that “the merger will push more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.” As Frank Wilson writes over at Books Inc., what we really need are plumbers.  Really.

As for John Milton’s famous £5 for the first edition of Paradise Lost, I remember that there’s a story behind that.  Can’t recall what it is.  Martin Evans told me, and perhaps I will check back with him.

In any case, check out the intriguing article at McSweeney’s here.