Samuel Johnson – “Lives of the Poets” “Milton”

We kick off with Johnson’s very enjoyable hatchet job on “Lycidas”, which offended a lot of Milton’s fans, both his contemporaries and later. The excerpt begins with a claim that technically “Lycidas” is no good, so whatever beauty there is, should be looked for in the sentiments it expresses – but it has no real passion, because a poet feeling real grief has no time to look for learned images from classic mythology. “In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting”, fulminates Johnson. He proves it by quoting as an example three particularly tortuous lines in which Milton compares himself and Edward to King to two shepherds tending their flocks. Johnson thinks this simile is so distant from the actual lives of these men it’s useless. The whole pastoral machinery of nymphs and ancient gods is dismissed by Johnson as stale. He also finds it irreverent that Milton mixes his metaphors, comparing King both to a real shepherd – well, to as real shepherd as can be found in pastoral poetry and to a shepherd in the spiritual sense, meaning he was a clergyman and thus a pastor. But Johnson admits this irreverence could be an unwitting mistake on Milton’s part. He thinks “Lycidas” is praised only because Milton is considered to be a great poet on the strength of his later works and he delivers this final blow: “Surely no man could have fancied that he read “Lycidas” with pleasure had he not known its author.”


Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapter 19 and 20

Rasselas hears about a holy hermit living somewhere up the Nile and wants to go and meet him. Imlac and Rasselas’s sister decide to accompany him. On their way they pass through a country with many shepherds. Imlac tells his charges that pastoral life was often praised by poet as the ideal one, so they have a chance to check whether it is true. The shepherds in conversation turn out to be rude and malevolent people, oppressed by hard labour and envying those above them. The princess says she does not want to spend a moment longer with them, but she is still loath to think that all the poets were lying, so she imagines a Marie-Antoinette kind of pastoral project, where she would retire to a nice place with some of her BFFs (not that any have ever been mentioned). On their way, they seek shade in a wood and find that it is very well maintained, a kind of English park. They soon reach a palace, where they are greeted by the owner. He invites them and treats them very generously for a few days. Rasselas says that he must be the truly happy man, because not only he but also his servants are happy. Alas! the owner of the palace says that the Bassa (Pasha) of Egypt hates him and envies him his wealth. So far, he’s been protected by his powerful friends, but this can change any minute. He sent his riches to a distant country and he’s ready to abscond any minute, leaving his palace to the rapacious viceroy. All his guests are very sorry to hear that, the princess so much so that she has to retire to her room. The next day they are on their way.

Mary Collier – “The Woman’s Labour” (fragment)

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.

Stephen Duck – “The Thresher’s Labor” (fragment), “On Mites, to a Lady”

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.

John Milton – “Lycidas” (the end)

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.

John Milton – “Lycidas” (ctd.)

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.

John Milton – “Lycidas”

“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.