Tuesday, February 05, 2019

The Hotchkiss School: MacLeish meets Milton

MacLeish attended the boarding school Hotchkiss and excelled there in academics, sports, and poetry. Later on, as both public life and private poetry grew in importance to him, he could perhaps reach back in memory for inspiration, especially since he had written at Hotchkiss a winning essay on Milton's hard choice between public and private:
At such a time, MacLeish could not but have reflected back on his Hotchkiss essay on Milton. In Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, Scott Donaldson (2016) informs us of this essay on John Milton by the 17-year-old MacLeish, an essay on Milton's dilemma, which was also MacLeish's dilemma. It was a "dilemma that was to confront him time and again in his career: how to reconcile the demands of private poetry with those of public service" (Donaldson). In Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art, and Ideas Inside Henry Luce's Media Empire (2010), Robert Vanderlan had earlier linked Milton and MacLeish. The connection would be hard to miss, of course, as readers can see that even from "a very young age MacLeish was already trying to sort out his conflicting feelings about the relationship between art and the rest of the world." Attention was then drawn by Vanderlan to the youthful poet's essay on John Milton: "During his time at Hotchkiss, [MacLeish] . . . wrote an essay on John Milton. The great poet had been called away from his art to serve the cause of Cromwell, a decision MacLeish depicted in these terms: 'His pen, which once had traced the sweetest poetry, was turned to work any scribbler could have done'" (Vanderlan 32). Donaldson draws readers to see the same hard choice. In concrete detail, he shows that "MacLeish focuses on the choice the great English poet had to make between his art and his country, 'between the dream which had become himself, and the duty which was calling him from off the road.' Milton chose to do his duty, to give up the artistic career that had already produced such brilliant work as 'Il Penseroso,' in order to become a pamphleteer and treatise writer for the Puritan cause and Oliver Cromwell's government." Donaldson then quotes the same words as did Vanderlan about Milton turning "to work that any scribbler could have done." In this process, Donaldson adds, Milton's "sight was taken – his sword was fallen from his hand" (Donaldson). When "the Stuart kings returned to the throne, Milton was left 'sightless, friendless, and alone.'" He had, however, made the right decision, MacLeish insists, "for not only did he serve when needed, but Paradise Lost lay ahead" (Donaldson). Vanderlan had made the same point, citing MacLeish in arguing that "Milton had been correct in his choice, for his active engagement with the world prepared him for the greater poems to follow. 'Now there gathered in his brain the threads of the great realities of life and death,' he concluded, and it was this that enabled him to write Paradise Lost (Vanderlan, 32). Donaldson does the same, pointing to – and extending – what he calls MacLeish's flight of rhetoric: "Now there gathered in his brain the threads of the great realities of life and death, and exalted by the scenes of noble beauty in his sightless eyes, he wrote his epic through the hand of one who did not know the greatness of the thing he wrote" (Donaldson). Vanderlan argues that negotiating "the line between art and a broader engagement with the world became and remained the animating question of his [i.e., MacLeish's] intellectual life" (page 32).
I hope someone can read this passage and make sense of it. I don't have the Donaldson pagination, and that might confuse quite a few readers . . .

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