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.

John Milton – “L’Allegro” (the end)

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”.

John Milton – “L’Allegro”

“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)

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Andrew Marvell – “Upon Appleton House” (the end)

Marvell writes some more praises of Mary Fairfax: she’s been brought up by her strict parents surrounded only by good and spotless things; “goodness doth itself entail/On females, if there want a male”, writes Marvell, alluding to the fact that she is their only heiress. He chastises all the silly women who spend all their time on studying their face and won’t frown when they see something evil because they are afraid it would give them wrinkles. He optimistically foresees the future when she finds an appropriate husband and exhorts all the woods and groves on the estate to be as superior to all the ordinary woods and groves as Mary is superior to all women. The world in general is “a rude heap together hurled”, but the Appleton estate is the oasis of wonder. The last stanza ends yet with another image: the fishermen, having finished their day’s work, place their boats over their heads to walk home, which makes them look like “antipodes” (if people in Australia walk upside down, they have to put their shoes on their heads, right?) or some very fast moving tortoises.

History wrote a sad coda to this story: Mary Fairfax married the renowned Restoration rake, George Villiers 2nd Duke of Buckingham (the son of the 1st Duke of Buckingham made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers). Apparently she broke off another engagement for him after the banns were already announced. I’m not sure whether it was wholly her choice: Buckingham was charming and handsome, he could have convinced her he wanted to marry her for other reasons than politics and money, but on the other hand Fairfax may have felt the Restoration was coming and a son-in-law who was a favourite of the future Charles II could be of good service for the former Commonwealth general (which in fact he proved to be). The marriage was childless and Buckingham cheated on his wife left, right and centre. After Mary’s death, the estate was sold and went through hands of many owners, most of them northern industrial barons. The present owner, Humphrey Smith (the owner of the Samuel Smith brewing company) apparently locked the house up and now it is standing unused and deteriorating. A more superstitious mind could indeed assume there was some kind of curse over it.

This ends the selection of Marvell in the NAEL and  I think he is my second favourite metaphysical poet after Donne. Even when I am indifferent to his political or religious agenda (or especially when I am indifferent), I can admire the craft of his writing, his striking images and the beautiful way he writes about nature. Even when he pays the usual overblown compliments to his hosts and their daughter, and even when I know Mary Fairfax was a perfectly ordinary young girl, he somehow does not come across as mercenary or sycophantic. In his pastoral poetry the summer day is really hot and the grass feels really cool. A very satisfying read.

Andrew Marvell – “Upon Appleton House” (ctd.)

The poet enjoys stretching on the bank where his temples are surrounded with sedge and fishes pull gently at his lines. But the young Maria (Mary) Fairfax approaches and everything stands at attention; even the setting sun “seems to descend with greater care”. In an extended image her approach is compared to a flight of a kingfisher in the evening: the beauty of the azure bird is the cause of a similar “horror calm and dumb” [which]”Admiring nature does benumb.” (love these lines). The air turns to crystal and stream to jelly, everything trying to fix this moment. Maria is the true goddess of these gardens, she is the one thanks to whom the woods are straight and the river is clear. But Maria hides her beauty in these woods because she would prefer to be known as wise than fair (she is a polyglot but uses her linguistic knowledge to search for wisdom, not for show) and thus she escaped the conventional weapons of love: tears, sighs and compliments.