Monday, May 19, 2008

"Milton is a great poet, but living with him is hell."

Milton: Testosterone-Driven Poet?

If we take Gary Lynn Taylor's words in the entry heading above at face value, then we can probably agree that he does not boundlessly love Milton.

I've taken the quote from this Shakespearean scholar's recent Time Magazine 'review' of Nigel Smith's new book, Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?

Taylor is the Shakespearean scholar who argues that the poem "Shall I die? Shall I fly" -- found in a collection of manuscripts donated to the Bodleian Library in 1755 by Bishop Richard Rawlinson -- truly comes from the hand of Shakespeare:
Shall I die? Shall I fly
Lovers' baits and deceits,
sorrow breeding?
Shall I tend? Shall I send?
Shall I sue, and not rue
my proceeding?
In all duty her beauty
Binds me her servant for ever.
If she scorn, I mourn,
I retire to despair, joining never.

Yet I must vent my lust
And explain inward pain
by my love conceiving.
If she smiles, she exiles
All my moan; if she frown,
all my hopes deceiving
Suspicious doubt, O keep out,
For thou art my tormentor.
Fie away, pack away;
I will love, for hope bids me venture.

'Twere abuse to accuse
My fair love, ere I prove
her affection.
Therefore try! Her reply
Gives thee joy or annoy,
or affliction.
Yet howe'er, I will bear
Her pleasure with patience, for beauty
Sure will not seem to blot
Her deserts, wronging him doth her duty.

In a dream it did seem
But alas, dreams do pass
as do shadows
I did walk, I did talk
With my love, with my dove,
through fair meadows.
Still we passed till at last
We sat to repose us for pleasure.
Being set, lips met,
Arms twined, and did bind my heart's treasure.

Gentle wind sport did find
Wantonly to make fly
her gold tresses.
As they shook I did look,
But her fair did impair
all my senses.
As amazed, I gazed
On more than a mortal complexion.
You that love can prove
Such force in beauty's inflection.

Next her hair, forehead fair,
Smooth and high; neat doth lie,
without wrinkle,
Her fair brows; under those,
Star-like eyes win love's prize
when they twinkle.
In her cheeks who seeks
Shall find there displayed beauty's banner;
O admiring desiring
Breeds, as I look still upon her.

Thin lips red, fancy's fed
With all sweets when he meets,
and is granted
There to trade, and is made
Happy, sure, to endure
still undaunted.
Pretty chin doth win
Of all their culled commendations;
Fairest neck, no speck;
All her parts merit high admirations.

Pretty bare, past compare,
Parts those plots which besots
still asunder.
It is meet naught but sweet
Should come near that so rare
'tis a wonder.
No mis-shape, no scape
Inferior to nature's perfection;
No blot, no spot:
She's beauty's queen in election.

Whilst I dreamt, I, exempt
From all care, seemed to share
pleasure's plenty;
But awake, care take
For I find to my mind
pleasures scanty.
Therefore I will try
To compass my heart's chief contenting.
To delay, some say,
In such a case causeth repenting.
Taylor's disputed discovery of this 'new' Shakespeare poem was also the subject of a Time Magazine article of June 21, 2005 (1985?), "Shall I Die? Shall I Fly . . . ," in which Otto Friedrich reports on the debate among Shakespearean scholars over Taylor's attribution of the poem to Shakespeare, the sharpest objection being: "Could Shakespeare really have written a poem that is so, well, mediocre?"

I wouldn't venture to say, except to note that a commonplace of creative writers is the proverb that "Every writer has a bad first novel."

Be that as it may -- and even though "Taylor himself does not claim to have discovered a masterpiece" in the 'Shakespeare' poem -- Taylor takes issue, in "Milton and Shakespeare: Battle of the Bards" (Time Magazine, May 15, 2008), with Nigel Smith's insistence that Milton is better than Shakespeare, apparently because Taylor believes that Shakespeare has better sound bites, Milton not being "a poet for the sound-bite century" because of such passages as one from Paradise Lost 4.268ff describing Adam and Eve in Eden:
The 20-line sentence contains 20 proper names: Enna, Prosperin, Dis, Ceres, Daphne, Orontes, Castalian, Nyseian, Triton, Cham, Ammon, Lybian Jove, Amalthea, Bacchus, Rhea, Abassin, Amara, Ethiop, Nilus, Assyrian.
Definitely no sound bite, but is Taylor being serious, or ironic? Or possibly both? Read his review, and decide for yourself. Meanwhile, he does make a good point about one difficulty that we face in reading Milton:
Milton makes even smart people feel stupid. Not by accident, either. He is probably the most unrelentingly aggressive poet in English. When Samson says, "My heels are fettered, but my fist is free," he displays the best and worst of Milton. The best is Milton's unsurpassed technical command of English: the double contrast of "heels . . . fettered" against "fist . . . free"; the long vowel in "heels" echoed by "free"; the alliteration of "fettered . . . fist . . . free"; the combination of all three effects in the verse-ending stressed monosyllable "free," so ironically spoken by a blind slave in chains, but also so irresistibly open-voweled, defiant and exhilarating. In some ways, "free" is the single word that sums up what's most appealing about Milton's politics -- his resistance to tyranny, his commitment to liberty. But of course the whole sentence is a threat to beat up someone who disagrees with him -- in particular, someone who refuses to acknowledge his God-guaranteed superiority over everyone else. And this religious fanatic will express his freedom by committing suicide in order to kill thousands of his enemies.
I wouldn't say that Milton makes us feel stupid, though we might feel a bit brow-beaten if we disagree with Milton, for he could be harshly, brilliantly polemical, but Taylor has chosen a pertinant issue here. How do we deal with a great poet who has written such a masterpiece as Samson Agonistes, which seems to justify a man who in our time would fit the profile of a suicide bomber?

Or did Milton really mean to justify blind Samson's ways to man?

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At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Milton is a wonderful poet in so many ways. But he writes for "the fit audience though few." That is, he never puts the cookies on the lower shelf; he never aims for the lowest common denominator. He figures that if he writes over our heads, the problem is not with the level of his writing but the elevation of our heads. He won't pretend to be a middler just so we'll "get it." He'll stick to his elevated style because his subject matter demanded it. And for Milton, it's the poetry that counts, not the average reader's mediocrity. He'll stick to his artistic principles even if only three persons in a century actually understand him.

Knowing that, when I teach Milton, I encourage my students to read heavily annotated editions of his poetry. They need lots of footnotes to get his point. I tell that that needing such help is not a shame, but a necessity given the distance in time and culture that stands between them and him.

To drive that point home, I ask them to imagine all the explanatory footnotes Milton himself would need simply to read a modern novel, The Hunt for Red October, for example. Milton would have countless questions: "What's a submarine?" "What's atomic power?" "What's the Soviet Union?" "What's the United States?" "What's communism?"

In other words, as many footnotes as he'd need to understand a modern novel, they'd need to understand Paradise Lost, and more, because while modern novels aren't normally written at the most elevated level, Paradise Lost is.

Milton's tough, but he's worth it. His poetry repays the enormous effort needed to understand it properly. But if you don't invest the huge effort needed to understand him, you won't love his poetry. Why? Because with literature (as with so many other things) it's hard to love what you don't understand.

Shakespeare is not so elevated as Milton. But because of the great distance in time that separates Shakespeare from us, he is sometimes difficult for modern readers to understand. But with him, the difficulties are almost always with language, with allusions. Once you get that, you get him. And when you get him, it's almost always wonderful. He is easily -- easily -- the greatest natural genius ever to write in English.

Even though he had to produce his work under the strictest deadlines (and therefore couldn't revise it as well as he'd like), it came from his head already brilliantly, beautifully, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Some of it is simply incomparable, like the party scene or the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, where nearly every line is so brilliantly articulated that in time almost every one worked its way so deeply into the English mind that it became a cliche.

Of course, some of his plays were duds, like Cymbeline. Just as you observed about bad first novels, Shakespeare occasionally fails as a playwright. But for him, to fail is to be mediocre, maybe better. Even on a bad day, he never becomes John Webster.

Who's better, Milton or Shakespeare? I don't know -- and I don't know why I'd even want to choose. Why can't I love both pasta and chocolate cake, both silver and gold? who's better, the Celtics, or the Phillies? The question seems impossible to answer. So give me Paradise Lost, Lycidas, the 23rd sonnet AND Shakespeare's First folio.

Throw in Donne, Hopkins, De la Mare and Wordsworth too, if you can.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Michael, I agree with everything that you say, which is wonderfully expressed -- fully formed, I take it, like Athena from the head of Zeus (and unlike Sin from the head of Satan!).

Jeffery Hodges

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