Thursday, October 16, 2008

Andrew the Marvellous

Dear Everyone:

Okay, you guys signed onto this because you were feeling uncultured? Well, today we make a quick jaunt into the heartland of our culture. Here, painlessly, you get to feel superior to your post-slacker Gen Borg buddies, and get a valuable lead to a major epic poem you might want to look into someday!

Let's set the stage. Clipped from the Web, a bit about Marvell:

Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) was a close friend of Milton's and his associate (after Milton lost his vision) in the office of Latin Secretary in Cromwell's Protectorate. Marvell's poem was the first important criticism of Paradise Lost, published along with a Latin tribute by Samuel Barrow in the second edition of the epic (1674). It is interesting to note how Marvell characterizes his early doubts about Milton's project and just what he later comes to value in Milton's achievement.

And now the poem:

On Mr.Milton's Paradise lost
by Andrew Marvell

When I beheld the Poet blind, yet bold,
In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the Argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent,
That he would ruine (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song,
(So Sampson groap'd the Temples Posts in spight)
The World o'rewhelming to revenge his Sight.
Yet as I read, soon growing less severe,
I lik'd his Project, the success did fear;
Through that wide Field how he his way should find
O're which lame Faith leads Understanding blind;
Lest he perplext the things he would explain,
And what was easie he should render vain.
Or if a Work so infinite he spann'd,
Jealous I was that some less skilful hand
(Such as disquiet alwayes what is well,
And by ill imitating would excell)
Might hence presume the whole Creations day
To change in Scenes, and show it in a Play.
Pardon me, Mighty Poet, nor despise
My causeless, yet not impious, surmise.
But I am now convinc'd, and none will dare
Within thy Labours to pretend a Share.
Thou hast not miss'd one thought that could be fit,
And all that was improper dost omit:
So that no room is here for Writers left,
But to detect their Ignorance or Theft.
That Majesty which through thy Work doth Reign
Draws the Devout, deterring the Profane.
And things divine thou treats of in such state
As them preserves, and Thee in violate.
At once delight and horrour on us seize,
Thou singst with so much gravity and ease;
And above humane flight dost soar aloft,
With Plume so strong, so equal, and so soft.
The Bird nam'd from that Paradise you sing
So never Flags, but alwaies keeps on Wing.
Where couldst thou Words of such a compass find?
Whence furnish such a vast expense of Mind?
Just Heav'n Thee, like Tiresias, to requite,
Rewards with Prophesie thy loss of Sight.
Well might thou scorn thy Readers to allure
With tinkling Rhime, of thy own Sense secure;
While the Town-Bays writes all the while and spells,
And like a Pack-Horse tires without his Bells.
Their Fancies like our bushy Points appear,
The Poets tag them; we for fashion wear.
I too transported by the Mode offend,
And while I meant to Praise thee, must Commend.
Thy verse created like thy Theme sublime,
In Number, Weight, and Measure, needs not Rhime.

What we've got here (it is obvious to me, who's written so many of them) is a foreword, one of those brief praise-essays you find at the beginnings of books, written by somebody with enough celebrity to be familiar to the book-buying public, hinting at personal intimacy and providing a little helpful spin to put the reader in a receptive frame of mind for what's coming.

And what a great intro! Andy really knew his business. He sat down and figured out what Joe Public's knee-jerk negative reactions to the poem were going to be, and addressed ‘em. "Wait... you've written something more ambitious than the Bible? Not possible, man," and "This sucker doesn't even rhyme!" are answered smoothly and with assurance. If you go into the poem with a bad attitude after reading this introduction, then there's something personal going on. Maybe Milton shot your dog.

And the poem itself, Milton's great Paradise Lost – what's that like? Well, here I have a confession to make. I haven't read it yet. Plan to someday. But, like you, I've been busy, and it looks long and daunting, and I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

But here's the very opening:

OF Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos. Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.
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
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great Argument
I may assert th' Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

Ignore the difficulties here, and listen to that voice: deep, resonant, authoritative, trustworthy. In radio, they call this "the voice of God." By his phrasing, Milton assumes a gravitas and authority second only to the Bible itself.

There's a lot more stuff to be said about even this small passage than you could tolerate today. I'll content myself with one brief observation, one brief anecdote, and a teaser for tomorrow's poem.

The observation: Note how at the beginning Milton invokes the Muse. This is a Classical piety; most long Greek poems began this way. Milton, however, was writing a specifically Christian poem, and so the lines "Thou from the first/Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread/ Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss/And mad'st it pregnant" identify the Muse as the Holy Spirit. Note how he pops in "Dove-like" for those Christians who are rather dimmer than most (but still go to church where the Holy Spirit is always painted as dove), so that they'll get it. Craftily done!

The anecdote: The early parts of the poem dealt with Lucifer's rebellion against God and his banishment to the Infernal depths, where he famously declared, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n." Many feel that Lucifer is the true hero of the poem. As Blake observed, "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."

The teaser: That final line, "And justify the ways of God to men" neatly encapsulates Milton's great theme. Tomorrow we hear from the other side.

Fiendishly yours,



Markin said...

Re: [Lucifer] he famously declared, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n.":

The interesting twist being that Achilles (in one of those "long Greek poems" to which you refer earlier) said that he'd rather be a serf in a poor man's house and be alive, above ground, than reign among the dead.

"I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished." -- Odyssey XI 489-491, Samuel Butler translation.

I'm sure commentaries on Milton expound upon this at length. And one can compare / contrast with Emily Dickenson's famous poem extolling the virtues of being nobody at all:

How dreary to be somebody,
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!


Michael Swanwick said...

Boy, that's a brilliant cascade of associations. It makes me wish we had a television show like CONNECTIONS with the poet-equivalent of James Burke.

And in prose, James Joyce took the Odyssey-related story of Odysseus in the antechamber of rebirth looking for the life of an obscure man without suffering or cares and made from it ULYSSES. Though I cannot decide if Bloom himself would be more in sympathy with Emily or her frog.