In The Thresher’s Labour Stephen Duck made some disparaging remarks about lazy women and Mary Collier’s Woman’s Labour is a spirited retort. She was a working-class woman from Hampshire and she knew what she was writing about. Women work as hard as men, they have to take care of their babies while at work and they actually work two jobs, one in the fields and the other at home. Duck wrote how men coming back home from the fields are so tired they have to stop at every stile, but women have no such luxury. If men had so many duties, they would think of the way to get rid of them. This is not great poetry, but it’s energetic and it’s hard to disagree with its message. Both Duck and Collier use some unorthodox rhyming (Collier for instance thymes “go” with “you”) and I wonder whether it’s their lack of technical finesse or the influence of their native dialects.
The 9th edition of the NAEL contains a section on “working-class geniuses”, which is extremely interesting. There was indeed a kind of vogue in the 18th-c. Britain for “natural” poets, the people who with immense amount of determination and work managed to get enough education to start writing. Sometimes they even managed to get some kind of patronage, but usually their patrons got bored with them or died, and they found themselves left to their own devices. Stephen Duck, who started life as an agricultural labourer in Wiltshire, managed to learn enough in his charity school and on his own to start composing poetry, attracting the attention of some local clergymen and eventually Queen Caroline, the wife of George II. The Queen gave him a pension and small house, and he pursued his studies and became a priest, but apparently the life in-between the worlds (always treated as a kind of funny curiosity in the fashionable world, with Pope and Swift making fun of him behind his back, and not accepted any more among his working-class peers), he became depressed and committed suicide.
The Thresher’s Labour” was Duck’s first big success, an anti-pastoral poem written by an actual farm hand, who knows that farm work is hard, back-breaking and not at all graceful when you have to perform it, not just observe it. The fragment describes the threshers gathered to work on the corn. They strip and start to work in steady rhythm, like the cyclops working in Vulcan’s smithery. Soon they start to sweat, but there is no chance of a break, as any lull in the work can be heard immediately. They have no chance, Duck writes ironically, to play songs like the shepherds in the pastoral. There are no pleasant landscapes, warbling birds or murmuring fountains, but only heavy and unattractive work, during which one is unable even to think, let alone compose poetry.
“On Mites, to a Lady” asks the addressee whether she had a chance to look through the microscope at the mites on a piece of rotten cheese. One can see them there puffed with pride and probably believing that the cheese is the whole world and they are its masters. Men are just the same, thinking that the objects in the sky are just there for them to please their eyes. Even though Swift made fun of Duck, this realization how all size is relative and only a matter of scale, sounds awfully like something from Gulliver’s Travels.
St Peter continues his speech against the corrupt priests, saying that they are well-fed and do not care; their songs are harsh and thin. Honestly, if I hired a shepherd I wouldn’t look for musical skill first and foremost, but OK, I get, these are not real shepherds, it’s supposed to be a metaphor about how their preaching is hollow etc. And their sheep are hungry, diseased and often eaten by a grim wolf (i.e. they convert to Catholicism). “But that two-handed engine at the door” is ready to strike and deliver punishment, and as the Helpful Footnote informs us, there is a whole critical industry devoted to explaining what exactly that is: St Peter’s two keys? two houses of Parliament? the two-edged sword of the Revelation? Nobody knows for sure, althogh the last option sounds, in my view, the most convincing.
After that, Milton switches back to the pastoral mode, asking the river Alpheus (running through Arcadia, another conventional pastoral topos) to return and bring with it the flowers. We get a long catalogue of those flowers, one more conventional pastoral motif. But unfortunately, while the poet imagines that these flowers are strewn on Lycidas’s hearse, he knows it’s only his dream, because his body is tossed somewhere around the British shores. Maybe it is somewhere around Mont Saint-Michel, “the guarded mount” which was supposedly the place of the revelation of Archangel Michael. “Look homeward angel”, he implores now, asking for his mercy and the dolphins to bring King’s body home, like once they did with the legendary poet Arion.
Finally, a note of solace: the shepherds should stop weeping because Lycidas is not really dead, just like the sun which, although it sinks every evening in the sea, it also comes up every day. So did Lycidas, who is now born to the new life in the next, better world, and the poet imagines him to be transformed into “the Genius of the shore” who is going now to guard it. And then somewhat abruptly we realize everything we have read so far should be in inverted commas, because we learn it was a song of the “uncouth swain” (unsophisticated shepherd), who now, when the evening is near, pulls up his blue cloak and sets out “tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new”.
The ending somewhat rehabilitates “Lycidas” in my eyes: even though I still consider the pastoral genre to be dead beyond all hope of resurrection (unlike Lycidas), these final lines are sonorous and actually rather moving. Reading “Lycidas” reminded me alot about this old joke about a man who saw Hamlet for the first time and then said he was rather disappointed because it’s mostly a collection of well-known sayings. I remembered the last line, but I didn’t realize how many other lines from “Lycidas” became popular sayings, which shows the poem’s reach, I guess.
The huge void that Lycidas’s death created is compared by Milton, in a series of appropriately pastoral metaphors, to a canker in a rosebud or to frost in spring. He asks rhetorically nymphs where they were when Lycidas/King was drowning, namechecking a list of famous historical places in the West Country, near whose shores King drowned. But then he reminds himself Calliope herself could not help her son Orpheus when he was torn to pieces by the Bacchantes.
Then Milton starts to wonder what the point of striving for fame is, “that last infirmity of noble mind”, if your life can be snapped short. In the lines alluding to Virgil, he describes the response he got from Apollo who boxed his ears and then tells him that fame is not something that can be achieved in this world, but it’s up to Jove to decide.. Milton then imagines an investigation carried out by Neptune, asking the winds and waves whether they were to be blamed for the shipwreck, but he receives the answer that the ship was built under a bad star and that was the cause of the catastrophe (of course they would have a reason to try to justify themselves, wouldn’t they?) Camus – not Albert, but a mythological personification of the river Cam – also mourns King. Finally St Peter appears in a scene which, I have admit, kind of justifies the whole pastoral convention, because he gets a lot of mileage from the metaphor about priests being shepherds. But St Peter’s point is, King’s death is an exceptional loss because in the contemporary Anglican church there are so many bad shepherds, interested only in material gain and doing as little work as possible. Milton was so proud of this point that when the poem was re-published in 1645, he added a heading to it, claiming that he happened to be a prophet to foretell the downfall of the clergy after the Revolution.
“Lycidas” is an elegy written by Milton for a volume of collected poems written after the untimely death of a young scholar and Milton’s colleague Edward King in a shipwreck. King and Milton actually were not that close, as the Helpful introduction explains, but Milton was affected by King’s death and I can see why. The Helpful Introduction points out the similarities between Milton and King (scholars, poets, King a minister and Milton considering taking holy orders), but even without them this moment when you realize for the first time that people your own age (King was actually slightly younger than Milton) actually can die is bound to have a chillng effect on you. Of course you know it in theory, but the day when you learn about the death of somebody you actually knew from school is when it hits you.
Which is why I find it particularly grating that Milton chose the hoary old model of pastoral elegy to express his feelings. I know, I know, it was all the rage in his times and it has a long and noble tradition dating back to Virgil, but to the modern reader the pastoral is as dead as the luckless King himself. So Milton portrays himself and King as two fellow shepherds, who used to work together tending their sheep (i.e. studying at Cambridge). He begins by addressing laurels, myrtles and ivy, apologizing that he came to pick their berries (ask for poetic inspiration) before they are ripe, just like King who died prematurely. King, who is hidden under the pastoral pseudonym “Lycidas” deserves to be mourned, even though (or especially because) his body was not recovered. Then he asks the muses to start singing and give inspiration to any poet who might be passing by and inspired to write on King. And then he goes into this nonsense about how he and King were raised together on the same hill, worked together from morning till night, played their oaten flutes and watched satyrs and fauns dance. But now Lycidas is gone and the whole nature is going to mourn him – about which more to come.
The poet continues with the list of all the things that bring mirth: country people dancing during the hay-making season and telling stories about Queen Mab and a goblin who works for a bowl of cream. Then somewhat abruptly he switches to the cities and fashionable people living there, which is interesting, taking into account he was anti-Royalist in his later life. But here he describe beautifully dressed knights and barons as well as the ladies, for whose favour they compete, as one more possible source of mirth. The next segues is smoother: courtship leads to weddings, and weddings lead to masques, which in turn lead to the theatre, both that of “learned” Jonson and “wild” Shakespeare. Finally music is a source of joy and is so powerful it could make Orpheus raise his head from his bed in Elysium. The poem ends with the words “These delights if thou canst give/Mirth, with thee I mean to live”.
“L’Allegro” is one of the two companion pieces. The other is titled “Il Penseroso” and together they are a kind of tour de force for Milton, showing how he can use exactly the same metre to write two poems on the contrasting subjects: “L’Allegro” is about mirth, “Il Penseroso” about melancholy. “L’Allegro” begins with a call for Melancholy to fly away and hide herself in Stygian caves or other dark places known from mythology. Instead, he invites Euphrosyne, one of the Graces, the daughter of Venus and Bacchus, or maybe, as Milton suggests, Zephyr and Aurora, a less fleshly pair of lovers. The Helpful Footnote suggests the imagery here is similar to the one on Botticcelli’s La Primavera, and I can certainly see that. Milton travelled through Italy, but did he have a chance to see the painting, or was it locked up at that time in a private room of a Medici? Euphrosyne is going to bring with her joy and jokes and so on. What follows is a series of pastoral scenes: the poet hears the lark singing at dawn, and then the cock crowing and there is a funny line about him stoutly strutting in front of his dames. The sun is rising, he can hear the echoes of the hunt in a distance and various people going about their farming jobs: the milkmaid singing, the mower whetting his scythe and the shepherd – well, of course the shepherd is a pastoral shepherd so he “tells his tale” instead of shearing his sheep or something. Then we get a landscape description: russet lawns, grey fallows, but it’s not all pastoral – there are also towers and battlements. But back to the pastoral theme – between the oaks there is a small cottage with a smoking chimeny where Corydon and Thyrsis (conventional pastoral names) sit at their dinner, so I guess the evening is drawing near.
Botticcelli’s Graces, via Web Gallery of Art (www.wga.hu)
And their alleged father, pursuing not Aurora but Flora.