Wednesday, January 09, 2019

John T. Shawcross, Milton Quarterly, Volume 42, Issue 1, March 2008, Pages 69-77

The Milton expert John T. Shawcross, in a thoughtful reaction to the terror of 9/11, published the article 'What is Faith, Love, Vertue unassaid': Some Literary Answers to Our Ever‐Present Evils," in the Milton Quarterly after several years of deliberation (Volume 42, Issue 1, March 2008, Pages 69-77), and I quote a passage relevant to my current interests:
Our current times have brought an onslaught of terror and scandal and crisis all together in one fell swoop, and we can easily be overwhelmed. The questions pertinent to these ever‐present evils have been "answered" (well, that's not the right word, perhaps "allayed"? perhaps "invalidated"?) in literature by faith, though it may be, as one knows, but a chimera, or by no answer, a mere void, a black hole, the nihilism of the nineteenth century continued. I think of Archibald MacLeish's little poem, for one expression of this vacuum that many feel and that he envisioned as "The End of the World":
And there, there overhead, there, there, hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the canceled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.
Though Shawcross as Milton scholar published the above passage in the Milton Quarterly (Volume 42, Issue 1, March 2008, pages 69-77), he simply notes that this (part of the) short poem by Archibald MacLeish might express the moral vacuum that many people feel in our era of terror, scandal, and crisis. He does not call attention to the parallels between this stanza above and the lines from Paradise Lost (Book 1, lines 17-26), though he surely must have recognized the allusions to Milton in MacLeish's wording. Let's take a look at that passage in Paradise Lost to refresh our memory:
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
Shawcross neither quotes nor cites these lines from Milton; I have placed them here for ease of reference. This enables us to see the parallels between Milton's understanding of creation and MacLeish's expression of un-creation. MacLeish's use of Milton is not 'plagiarism' but a re-imagining of Judgement Day envisioned through echoes of Milton, if one will allow me this paradox.

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