Complete Poems Written in English by John Milton
Milton's poems are the first true works of literature contained in the Classics, if we define literature as
stuff I was forced to read in undergraduate English classes. Granted, it's an approximate definition; but it's serviceable, I think.
The assumption that the full range of human discovery -- from philosophy to economics to physics -- could and, given time, would be expressed in
form underlies the Five Foot Shelf. Over the past century of
specialization, this assumption has been almost completely abandoned,
and literature has increasingly been seen as just one of a number of
competing modes of thinking and talking about the world. There's been
much debate about the effects of this development; every few years seem
to bring us a Jeremiah to warn that literature has become too
self-reflexive, too little willing to grapple with
big issues. All of this is contrasted with an earlier, less self-conscious era, when literature wrestled with the angels.
And yet, while reading the poetry of John Milton over the past week, I was struck by how anxious much of it is, how uncertain and groping in its quest for proper material. Here are some lines from an early poem, addressed to the English language:
Hail Native Language, that by sinews weak,
Didst move my first-endeavouring tongue to speak,
And madest imperfect words, with childish trips,
Half unpronounced, slide through my infant lips,
I have some naked thoughts that rove about,
And loudly knock to have their passage out,
And, weary of their place, do only stay
Till thou hast decked them in thy best array;
That so they may, without suspect or fears,
Fly swiftly to this fair Assembly's ears.
Yet I had rather, if I were to choose,
Thy service in some graver subject use,
Such as may make thee search thy coffers round,
Before thou clothe my fancy in fit sound:
He seems, not long after this poem, to have found his
graver subject, in The Passion, but just as this poem is getting somewhere, it's cut off with these words:
Subject the Author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote
it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.
Not long after that comes On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three:
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
That I to manhood am arrived so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits indu'th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven,
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Task-master's eye
Before this week, I had read this poem several times, but Milton's
fear of the subtle theft of youth had never meant much to me -- perhaps
because I hadn't yet felt the loss myself, or perhaps because I had the
retroactive certainty that his
late spring would indeed produce
the greatness that he sought. In the context of his other early work,
Milton's struggle felt far more real, more moving. I came to his odes
-- one embracing Mirth in the face of Melancholy, the other choosing a
deeper Melancholy over simple Joy -- which I had been taught to read as
complementary. I saw them instead as contradictory, as further marks of uneasiness over a proper poetic stance.
All of this indecision was complicated, of course, by Milton's loss of sight, as rendered in his most famous short poem, On His Blindness:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
And so he stood and waited. But of course his great subject did come, not long after this poem was written. And when he did decide to take Man's Fall, it must have seemed that it too had been waiting all along for him. It's now something of a critical truism to note that Satan is given all the best lines in Paradise Lost, but even this fact read differently to me this week. In the poem's second book, Satan addresses his congregation of fallen angels. But before he does, Milton offers this introduction:
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence; and, from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain war with Heaven; and, by success untaught,
His proud imaginations thus displayed:--
Insatiate to pursue vain war and by success untaught. For all his piety, Milton, blind now and still without the inner ripeness he'd first wished for 25 years earlier, must have felt very much like this as he began Paradise Lost.
--CRB, January 31, 2007