Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Shades of Milton...

Artist not Identified
(As Depicted on Wikipedia)

Dr. Timothy J. Burbery, a professor of English literature at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, has posted a request on the Milton Listserve that I belong to, asking for poems that refer to John Milton or his works.

In reflecting upon his request, I realized that Oscar Wilde's 1881 poem "To Milton" was modeled upon William Wordsworth's "London, 1802."

In his Favourite Coat
Photographer not Identified
(As Depicted on Wikipedia)

To Milton (1881)
Oscar Wilde

Milton! I think thy spirit hath passed away
From these white cliffs and high-embattled towers;
This gorgeous fiery-coloured world of ours
Seems fallen into ashes dull and grey,
And the age changed unto a mimic play
Wherein we waste our else too-crowded hours:
For all our pomp and pageantry and powers
We are but fit to delve the common clay,
Seeing this little isle on which we stand,
This England, this sea-lion of the sea,
By ignorant demagogues is held in fee,
Who love her not: Dear God! is this the land
Which bare a triple empire in her hand
When Cromwell spake the word Democracy!

I note in passing that in the lines "This England, this sea-lion of the sea, / By ignorant demagogues is held in fee," there might be an echo of the prophecy of the dying John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's 1594 play Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1, "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England," for the theme is similar: "That England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself." But I digress, so let us return to my point and look at Wordsworth's poem.

Reproduced from Margaret Gillies's 1839 Original
(As Depicted on Wikipedia)

Here it is:

London, 1802
William Wordsworth

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters; altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men:
O raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea,
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free.
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

As in Wilde's, this sonnet begins by invoking Milton. Indeed both do so by calling out to him forcefully: "Milton!"

There's probably no allusion, but I'm reminded of another famous call to awaken the dead:

With great voice, he cried out: "Lazarus, come out!"

That was John 11.43. Was Milton thinking of this in Paradise Lost, Book 1.314ff, where he has Satan call out to awaken the dead: "He call'd so loud, that all the hollow Deep / Of Hell resounded. Princes...." The 'dead' angels, fallen into Hell, from off the burning lake arise, although abashed.

Away from fallen angels and back to our Wilde man, I suggest that his lines 2-4, "From these white cliffs and high-embattled towers; / This gorgeous fiery-coloured world of ours / Seems fallen into ashes dull and grey," imply the mind-made hell of heaven that Milton's Satan exclaims in Paradise Lost, Book 1.254-255: "The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."

Perhaps Wordsworth had a similar thought in telling Milton that "England hath need of thee: she is a fen / Of stagnant waters," implying that England had become a type of Hell, for a stagnant, or dead fen, might recall the "Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death" in Paradise Lost, Book 2.621. But I'm probably stretching my point.

There's a lot more to be said about these two poems, but other scholars have doubtless already said it, and I have promises to keep...

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At 5:31 PM, Blogger Wonderdog said...

I think Wordsworth's superior to Wilde's. Wilde sounds a bit contrived and pretentious for some reason while Wordsworth sounds a note of sincerity and true longing.

Wilde's pic is a bit frightening. Remove it if you can.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

BOO! Hah hah hah! Scared the Miracle Dog.

More seriously, I concede that Wilde could be a bit 'precious.'

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting comparisons. Actually, Wilde is a bit out of touch. Milton left "embattled towers" (a remembrance of L'Allegro's battlements and towers") in Il Penseroso. Probably Wilde missed it, having his mind on other beautiful things. And trust Wild to stick on "high" to produce a piece of over the top Victorian Gothicism. He was such a poetic sampler. I think you are right in the PL echo. More obviously, Wilde is referring to the Renaissance, the Phoenix world returning to ash. (The Christ-Lazarus-Satan-Angels echo makes such sense! Has to be!)And Wilde's "sea-lion", it hardly carries much weight does it...hardly the terrifying Tudor beasts that are carved on furniture in great Elizabethan mansions like Hardwick Hall?Wilde's poem, like its sea-lion and Henry VIII's fleet, sinks dreadfully. One of the most interesting modern poems on Milton is Robert Duncan's "Variations upon Phrases From Milton's The Reason of Church Government". Its a metaphysical study of love's body. I just mention in case it's of interest.

At 4:05 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

... and is there some irony in the title to your post, HDH? Do the poems contain shades of Milton, or are the latter-day poets themselves pale shadows of that great poet?

I do like Wordsworth, though.

And I like Wilde, but not so much as a poet.

FWIW, I think the portrait of Milton is much scarier than the picture of Wilde!

At 5:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Related to the "manners" that Wordsworth wants Milton to give us, the Milton Quarterly currently (as of June 29, 2006) has an article online: Arvind Thomas, Milton and Table Manners:

Milton Quarterly, March 2006
Volume 40, Issue 1, Page 37ff

I don't know how long it'll be online, so download it while you can.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, good comments.

I had wondered about the "embattled towers" but hadn't had time to look into it. Perhaps Wilde was intentionally sampling Il Penseroso as well.

The sea lion bothered me, too. I know that Wilde was thinking of the British lion, but to make it a sea lion is pushing the image a bit. Not quite as awe-inspiring...

Jeffery Hodges

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kate Marie asked:

"... and is there some irony in the title to your post, HDH? Do the poems contain shades of Milton, or are the latter-day poets themselves pale shadows of that great poet?"

Are you talkin' to me? Are you talkin' to me? You must be talkin' to me, 'cause I don't see nobody else around here ... except for Wonderdog and Eshuneutics ... and maybe some other people who might be arriving anytime soon.

Well, I can't speak for Horace Dumpety Hodges, but Horace Jeffery Hodges says, "Yes, KM, the irony and punning that you noted are indeed there."

There's also an allusion somewhere in the entry to Robert Frost.

Jeffery Hodges

At 5:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Hardwick House, there is a portrait of Elizabeth I (a lost marvel) in which she rides the waves on Spenserian "sea-dogs"...Wilde's "sea-lion" is a traditional upper-class heraldic beast (this shows his cultured snobbism) that is to say a lion with a mermaid tail. Unfortunately I can't help seeing barking sealions and fish.

At 5:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Promises to keep...surely it's not snowing in Korea.

At 5:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, my ivory tower is so high that, "Baby, it's cold outside."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:54 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Ooops, did I write HDH? That should have been HSH, for Horace "Smart-a**" Hodges. :)

At 4:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose it'll come as no surprise that I prefer the Wilde, because its subtle satiricism has flown overhead. (N.B. e.g., the only time those high towers would have been "embattled" would have been during the Civil War that brought the corrupt Cromwell into power, etc.)

The allusions to Blake's Milton are so thick that one probably needs to peruse the Bentley or Erdman plates to catch them all, but IIRC that would explain the sea lions and certainly the 'fiery-coloured world" and ashes, as well as the allusion to the departed spirit of Milton himself.

At 4:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ed. This blog has really come in handy as a place of scholarly exchange ... in addition to its other uses.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are still seeking poems referencing Milton, Geoffrey Hill has just published a major long poem in UK based on Comus.

At 3:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for mentioning Geoffrey Hill's Scenes from Comus (Penguin Books [January 2005]).

I found a positive review by Colin Burrow, "Displaced gravity," in the "Poetry Review" section of The Guardian Unlimited (Saturday, January 15, 2005).

Jeffery Hodges

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