ENGL 220: Milton
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ENGL 220 - Lecture 6 - Lycidas
Chapter 1. Introduction: Using Comus to Introduce Lycidas [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: The best way, I think, to introduce the central issues of this wonderful poem, Lycidas, is to return to Milton’s Comus. So yet once more – and I promise this will be one of the last times that we look back at Milton’s mask – but yet once more, let’s look at Comus. Now you will remember that the mask Comus was everywhere concerned with questions of the power of – well, the strangely intertwined questions of the power of chastity on the one hand and the power of poetry on the other. The two brothers in the mask engaged in that philosophical debate about the force, or the strength, of virginity. The Second Brother, you’ll remember, had taken what I take to be the perfectly reasonable position, the cautious position, that the Lady is in danger – that she’s a sitting duck, in fact, out there in the dangerous forest. According to the Second Brother, it’s virtually impossible for a single, helpless maiden to pass uninjured in this wild, surrounding waste. Now the Elder Brother, we remember, hastily dismissed his brother’s pessimism, and then he insisted that the Lady’s virginity was fully capable of protecting her from any such physical attack.
Now to the extent that this discussion is actually about the virginity of the Second Brother and the Elder Brother’s sister, it seems, I think, to border on the ridiculous; but the debate, I think, we have to take seriously. It’s an important one for Milton, and it’s important because it touches on a lot of more consequential questions. I’m thinking of the general problem of the abstraction of virtue, an abstract notion of virtue. Think of all the questions that all of us at some point or other tend to associate with virtue. Is virtuous behavior repaid with some kind of ultimate good? Are we rewarded for our virtue and for our virtuous deeds? Are we recompensed in some way for all of those sacrifices that we make in the name of virtue? These are questions that Milton will never stop asking and that he will never stop attempting to answer. The position that Milton – this is how I like to read it – the position that Milton would like to be able to take on this question of virtue’s reward is formulated by the Elder Brother in Comus. I’m thinking of the passage near the bottom of page 103 in the Hughes. This is Comus, line 588 – the Elder Brother. The brother says:
Virtue invariably protects itself. Virtue is invariably rewarded with glory and evil – and this is the flip side of the coin – evil is always punished. In this amazing image, it’s gathered like scum in some eternal cesspool where it’s self-fed and self-consumed – problem solved! The Elder Brother continues, though, “if this fail” – by which he means, if virtue does not in every single instance triumph over evil, then this is a world whose heaven, whose pillared firmament, is rotten to the core, and whose base, or whose very foundation, is nothing but stubble. If virtue fails to triumph over evil, then what? Then this simply isn’t a world worth living in. That’s what I take the Elder Brother to mean here.
These are unquestionably strong words, and I think it’s impossible for us to overestimate the weight of these words. The speech is more than just a pious bit of optimism like a lot of the speeches, in fact, that the other brother has given us. We have to confess that it’s more than that. This speech is a challenge. The Elder Brother is challenging God to see to it that some kind of justice is actually effected on this earth; and so I’m going to be placing a particular amount of pressure on this passage because this is the first expression in Milton of a very particular kind of argument: a religious argument, and it’s one that becomes central to all of Paradise Lost. The speech of the Elder Brothers is a theodicy. Theodicy is the term coined by the eighteenth-century philosopher Leibniz, and he applied this term theodicy to just that kind of philosophical sentiment that’s implied by its etymology. The theodicy is an account of the justice (the dike) of God (theos). And so, to use the words with which Milton would begin Paradise Lost, a theodicy is an attempt “to justify the ways of God to men.”
Now for a lot of orthodox Christians in Milton’s time – and I think we can say the same for a lot of orthodox Christians in our own time – to embark upon anything like a theodicy at all can be considered heretical, or at the very least heterodox. A theodicy can be seen as heretical or even blasphemous for the simple reason that it – think of what it assumes. It assumes that the ways of God are in fact justifiable. A theodicy assumes that God’s justice can be witnessed, that it can be accounted for here on earth. A theodicy assumes that things on earth actually make sense and that God’s ways are ultimately rationally accessible, that they are comprehensible by human beings, and that God can in some way – and this is, I think, the central implication of the Elder Brother here – that God can in some way be held accountable for his actions. To justify the ways of God to men is essentially to put God on trial for the actions that he performs. Of course in the central test case this is what we all care about, for the unfortunate events that befall virtuous people.
Chapter 2. Lycidas: An Elegy [00:07:04]
The next major poem that Milton writes after Comus is Lycidas. You’ll remember that Milton published Comus in 1637. It’s 1637, later that same year, that Milton writes Lycidas. In Lycidas, Milton looks back at the Elder Brother’s theodicy, and it’s almost as if he’s attempting to test its validity. You can figure Milton asking in this poem Lycidas if it’s true: is it true what the Elder Brother said, that virtue is always rewarded and evil punished? Now Lycidas, and this is undeniable, is ostensibly, and maybe more than ostensibly, an elegy. It’s a poem about a death. It mourns the loss of a friend of Milton’s from Cambridge. The young man was named Edward King, and he drowned in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea shortly before he took up orders as a minister for the Church of England. Like so many – and I mentioned this before – like so many of the young men studying with Milton in Cambridge, King was being prepared to pursue a career in the church.
Now, and I don’t think this is unimportant, King was also – it would seem he was also a minor poet, an amateur poet. Like Milton, he wrote verses. There is nothing like a shred of evidence to suggest that Edward King had any talent whatsoever. Nonetheless, the fact that he attempted to be a poet, I think, is important here. Edward King, in fact, seems to have been sufficiently well liked or admired that when news of his death hit Cambridge, a group of his friends organized something like an anthology of poems in his honor. This is on the handout. The title of the book is Justa Eduardo King naufrago, Obsequies on Edward King, Lost at Sea or Drowned. We have no evidence that King was a particularly close friend of Milton’s, but nonetheless Milton – as an ambitious literary figure in college, he was asked to contribute some verses to the anthology, and Lycidas is the product of that request. We shouldn’t be surprised that Milton has to be compelled to write this poem. He’s still in that awkward phase of unreadiness and under preparation.
Now readers have always seemed to have agreed that Milton’s Lycidas is an enormously admirable poem, but for a few hundred years now there has been a controversy over how admirable Milton’s Lycidas is, specifically as an elegy. The poem is obviously magisterial. It’s moving and just about everyone concedes that at many junctures it’s extraordinarily learned – it’s obviously learned, but it’s also very moving. This is the question now: is it properly elegiac? Is Lycidas an appropriate expression of grief over the death of Edward King, and furthermore, does it console others for their grief over Edward King’s death? Now this is a debate that fits into the same category, as far as I’m concerned, as the one between the elder and the Second Brother. This is a debate that will forever and forever be fruitless because it’s unanswerable. Nonetheless, I still think there’s something about this controversy surrounding this poem – the poem as an elegy – that we need to take as instructive; because if Milton’s Lycidas isn’t an expression of grief over the death of Edward King, then just what – this is what we have to ask – then just what is it an expression of?
So let us begin our examination of this question with the consideration of the poem’s form. Now the most distinguishing feature of Milton’s elegy is the fact that it’s a pastoral elegy. It engages the ancient art of pastoral poetry initiated and made famous by the great Greek poet Theocritus, which was later imitated by Moscus and then finally by the Roman poet Virgil in his celebrated pastoral eclogues. You can see on the handout those poems by those classical authors that Milton’s Lycidas is most indebted to. The pastoral elegy is clearly one of the most stylized and most self-consciously artificial of all of the poetic genres. The poet of a pastoral elegy usually represents himself as a shepherd, a shepherd mourning the death of a fellow shepherd, and he often explains that the death of his shepherd friend is exerting a magical effect on the entire natural world. This is called the pathetic fallacy. The trees, the rocks, and the streams are all weeping for the loss of the shepherd-speaker’s beloved companion. It’s at this point in the pastoral elegy – the conventional, stereotypical pastoral elegy – that the poet-shepherd sings a mournful song. He sings a song in which he recalls all of those happy days that he had spent with his shepherd friend in the countryside.
So we have in the pastoral elegy a generic form that’s highly predictable. Not only now, but, I think, on some level it has always struck some of its readers as ludicrous. We’re not being merely churlish, I think, if we want to ask why someone would want to write a poem in such a form. As you can imagine, it had long been out of fashion in Milton’s own day. The pastoral genre in fact even for Theocritus, its inventor, was always highly artificial. Theocritus knew no more about shepherds or sheep or shepherdesses or nymphs and satyrs than you or I know and later urban poets – and Theocritus was an urban poet –later urban poets like Virgil or Milton (Milton our Londoner) knew even less than Theocritus, we have to assume. It’s almost as if the entire point of a pastoral is that it is set in a world that neither the urbane poet nor the urbane reader has actually any real experience with.
Another way into this problem: let’s look at the comments that Dr. Johnson made about Milton’s Lycidas in the eighteenth century. This is reading from the packet assigned for today, and I’m going to ask you to do what you can to get through the biography of Milton in the packet, as well as the notes on Milton’s poetry that we have from Dr. Samuel Johnson. Make sure you all have done that by the midterm. Okay. Famously, Dr. Johnson couldn’t bear this poem, Lycidas – Dr. Johnson, the greatest of all literary critics of the eighteenth century. Because Milton’s poem is probably considered to be the most important elegy written in any language by any poet, Johnson’s assessment of it has become famous for being one of the most wrong-headed evaluations ever made of a work of literature by a great literary critic – but inspired wrong-headedness, which is what I take Dr. Johnson to be guilty of, is invaluable. And so I want to quote Dr. Johnson here, and this is on the handout.
Now I have to say, although the last word is obviously incredibly powerful and sort of wonderful, it doesn’t have quite the punch that it does – it didn’t have quite the punch in the eighteenth century that it has for us now. Disgusting really means literally for Johnson merely “distasteful.” These are still strong words. There has to be something more here than merely Johnson’s massive blunder as a literary critic. Johnson tells us that Lycidas is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion, for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. It’s difficult to imagine that as an expression of genuine grief over the death of a genuinely close friend would take the form of a poem so learned, so filled with remote literary allusions and obscure opinions. Johnson obviously has a point here.
But we have to remember that King himself was a poet, or thought of himself as a poet. He was a poet who died before he could take up his career, and it’s not unlikely that – he wasn’t married – that he was also a poet who died while he was still a virgin. King’s death provides Milton with an occasion on which Milton is able to write the most personal poem that he has yet written and perhaps that he will ever write. He gets to ask all of those questions that are most pressing to him, John Milton. What if the virginal Milton were to die before he was able to take up his career? What if he died before he was able to fulfill his promise as a poet, before he could publish or make public his talent? The very structure, in fact, of Milton’s poem here is what Dr. Johnson would be obliged to call a remote allusion. The poem is based most closely on Virgil’s Tenth Eclogue. This is the poem in which the speaker grieves over a death by imagining a procession of mourners at the funeral. This really provides the central rhetorical base for Milton’s Lycidas. The speaker of the poem mourns the death of the shepherd-poet Lycidas and describes this parade, this procession of mourners who make their tribute to the deceased.
So look at line – I’ll run through some of the essential sections here. Lines seventy-six to eighty-four. We have the god of poetry, Phoebus Apollo himself, who makes an appearance, and he chides Milton for being so concerned with earthly fame – more on that later. Line eighty-eight, the next section: Triton, the herald of the sea. He tries to make sense of Lycidas’ death. He asks the gods what has happened to Lycidas and who exactly was responsible for the sinking of Lycidas’ ship. In the next line four lines, we have Camus; the god of the river Cam appears. He represents Cambridge University, the alma mater, where Edward King and John Milton had been students. And finally at lines 108 through 131, we have Saint Peter, he of the pearly gates. Peter bursts onto the scene. Without question he’s the most terrifying of all of the mourners, and he gives an angry, powerful, vitriolic speech about the terrible state of England – the terrible state of the Church of England and, as a consequence, of the terrible state of England in 1637.
So the structure of this poem is unquestionably Virgilian, but the sentiments that are voiced in this poem are unquestionably Miltonic, and we will recognize them. Who but Milton could speak the poem’s famous opening lines? Turn to the beginning of Lycidas.
Milton is lamenting, once again, that Milton has been compelled to begin writing. Edward King had died, and the editor of the Edward King Memorial Anthology has pressed Milton into service. What could the young poet do? Bitter constraint and sad occasion are forcing him to write, even though, of course, he’s not yet ready. The laurels and the myrtles that he addresses here are, of course, the traditional plants classically associated with great poets; but for Milton in this passage, importantly these plants simply aren’t ripe yet. Their berries are still harsh and crude. They haven’t yet had time to develop. Milton is telling us that he is himself in the process, still in the process, of maturing. He’s not yet up to the task of a great poem yet. The only fingers with which he’ll be able to hold his pen and write this poem are his forced fingers rude.
Now you’re right: you’re right if you have the [laughs] feeling that you’ve heard a lot of these same ideas before. Milton’s nearly twenty-nine years old when he writes Lycidas. He’s making exactly the same disclaimer that he had made in Sonnet Seven. You remember Sonnet Seven, “How Soon Hath Time,” the sonnet that he had written on the sad occasion of his twenty-third birthday. Milton had claimed there that he seemed to have all the outward appearances of an adult male, of a man, but “[an] inward ripeness doth much less appear.” His poetic talent, his poetic promise, his poetic ripeness – it hasn’t yet burgeoned or made itself manifest.
Well, this is six years later. Six years later when Milton writes Lycidas, he’s employing the same fiction of unreadiness and filled with all of the same anxiety of under-preparedness. As in Sonnet Seven, Milton writes the first verse paragraph of this great poem, Lycidas – the first fourteen lines – in essentially the form of a sonnet. The lines have distinctly a sonnet rhyme-scheme, but look closely. It’s not a perfect sonnet in quite the same way that Sonnet Seven was. Look at line number four, which is so clearly – simply by looking at this, you can tell it’s deficient in the number of syllables. There are only six syllables here rather than the conventional ten. It’s this line, “And with forc’d fingers rude” – this is called a broken line or a half-line, and this broken line has been read, I think, rightly as Milton’s indication to his reader that he’s not even up to the task of writing a sonnet at this point. Anything he writes is going to be forced, compelled – and with his forced fingers rude he violates the formal prosodic, the metrical, scheme of his elegy at its very opening. Just like Edward King who died before his prime, Milton has to write this poem before his own poetic prime and so it is with this deeply apologetic, intensely hesitant beginning that John Milton opens what many consider to be the greatest poem in the English language.
The fact that the death here in Lycidas is the death of a young, virginal poet at the very outset of his career, as you can imagine, resonates in a lot of powerful ways. The very idea that a figure so virtuous could have been dealt such a tragic and early death strikes Milton, or Milton’s speaker here, as the rankest injustice. It’s this sense of injustice that keeps pushing this elegy in the direction of a theodicy: an attempt to justify the ways of God. Milton has to justify or at least understand this seemingly incomprehensible and unjustifiable event. It’s this drive to theodicy that accounts for the poem’s most painful moments.
Look at line fifty. This is where Milton asks the ocean nymphs where they were when Edward King’s boat was lost while crossing the Irish Sea: why didn’t you do anything? “Where were ye Nymphs, when the remorseless deep / clos’d o’er the head of your lov’d Lycidas?” If you loved Lycidas so much, how could you let him die? No sooner has the speaker asked this question – and you see this rhythm, this dynamic, appear continually throughout Lycidas – he asks the question, and then immediately he acknowledges the inadequacy of the question. Look at line fifty-five: “Ay me, I fondly dream! / Had ye been there – for what could that have done?” The nymphs, of course, are powerless, and worse than that, [laughs] the nymphs, as we know and of course as John Milton knew, are merely fictions. This is all made up. It’s folly to think that we have about us protective spirits who might actually keep us from harm.
Why after all should we expect the nymphs to have helped poor Lycidas? Not even the muse Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, was in a position to avert a human tragedy like this. Calliope hadn’t even been able to save her son, the poet Orpheus, when the terrifying Bacchae had torn his body limb from limb – when the terrifying Bacchae had sent his head rolling down the Hebrus River all the way to the Isle of Lesbos. If you’ve read L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, you know that the image of the great mythological poet Orpheus is always a loaded one for Milton. This is a myth that has and will continue to haunt Milton all the way up through Paradise Lost.
Chapter 3. A Review of the Great Poet Orpheus [00:26:44]
Let’s have a little review of the career of the great poet Orpheus as we get it certainly in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Orpheus was the poet who had attempted to bring his wife, Eurydice, back from the underworld, and he did that by charming Pluto with his song. The attempt failed and, saddened by Eurydice’s death, Orpheus spent the rest of his life avoiding the company of women. He kept himself solitary and chaste. He devoted himself to poetry. He sang songs of such beauty that the entire natural world would move and dance in response. This is the story of Orpheus that we have received up to this point in Milton’s poetry. This is the story of the empowerment of the poet, his empowerment through his experience of a terrible loss. Clearly this is a myth that Milton is identifying with very strongly here.
But the subject of Lycidas isn’t the empowerment of the poet. It’s about the untimely death of a poet. And so when the figure of Orpheus appears in this poem, it’s the second half of the Orpheus story that Milton is forced to tell. Orpheus devotes himself to his beautiful poetry, and he keeps himself sexually abstinent. He rejects all of the advances of the women who are attracted to him but Bacchantes, the female followers of the god Bacchus, are enraged by what they take to be his coyness. They drown out Orpheus’ music with the hideous roar of their howlings and their screamings and they tear him limb from limb. The chaste poet was unable to pass uninjured in that wild surrounding waste. This violence was so terrible that not even his mother, the muse Calliope, could save him.
Orpheus had provided Milton with a paradigm of the poet, the poet whose discipline and whose abstinence nourished and strengthened his poetry. Orpheus in a lot of ways seemed like the perfect model of a poet because he had the power to do something with his poetry. His verse actually had a physical impact on the world. The rocks, the woods, and the trees danced in response to Orpheus’ music. In Comus, the Lady had identified with Orpheus as she described to Comus what her speech about virginity would do if she were actually to deliver it. She would bring all of Comus’ magic structures down around his head. It’s just this Orphic power that Milton, like the Lady, was always anticipating for himself. He’s been waiting and waiting for his season due so that he can ripen into a powerful Orphic poet.
How then can we justify the ways of God to men? How can we justify the fact that the abstinent Orpheus, the virtuous Orpheus, was so brutally assaulted and without any aid from the higher powers? It would seem that the Elder Brother and his sister were way too optimistic in their assessment of the protected status of the virtuous poet and the protected status of the virgin, the favored role of the poet. Virginity does nothing. Virtue does nothing. Poetry does nothing. All of the self-discipline and all of the self-denial in the world can do nothing – this seems to be one of the implications of this poem – can do nothing to protect the poet from an untimely death.
It’s at this moment that the poem reaches a remarkable climax, and I have to say that this is actually only one of the poem’s remarkable climaxes. This poem has amazing ebbs and flows throughout its entirety, but without question this is one of the most intense personal moments in the elegy. Look at line sixty-four. Here we have Milton asking himself all of those questions, all of those vocational questions, that this fact – the fact of Edward King’s death – seems to open up for him:
I think these lines at this point – I’m going to read them again. They’re too important simply to have been read once:
At this point in our reading of Milton, I think these lines have an amazing impact. We’ve spent a couple of weeks now reading Milton’s declarations of the importance of the shepherd’s trade. This is the vocation of poetry in this pastoral lexicon. You remember he’s written his father in “Ad Patrem” that the trade, the vocation of poetry – it may be homely and slighted in his father’s eyes, but it was of course worth all of Milton’s time, all of Milton’s uncessant care and investment. And now Milton’s in the position of asking, “What for? What’s this all about? Look what happened to Edward King. What’s the point of all of this study, all of this work, all of this self-denial if I could just wind up” – this is a good question – if I could just wind up dead tomorrow? And now that I’m thinking of it, why deny myself sexually? Why deny myself physical gratification if I could just instead sport with Amaryllis in the shade or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?” And Milton’s asking in these lines not simply about actual erotic entanglements – although I think that’s there, a relation with women – but it’s a question about erotic poetry as well. Why can’t he write love poetry, secular poetry, instead of this much more disciplined, much more difficult mode of sacred and prophetic poetry that he seems already to have wedded himself to? What’s the point of making life so hard for himself?
Chapter 4. Lycidas and Milton’s Letter to a Friend [00:33:27]
Look now, and this is on the handout, at the letter that Milton had written to his friend, Charles Diodati. This letter was written at nearly the same time that Milton was writing Lycidas. He wrote – and this too is in the packet – he wrote:
And we would read – can you imagine getting such a letter? Milton may well blush at this extraordinary confession. He is courting poetic fame more shamelessly at this point in his career than he has before and perhaps that he will after. The death of Edward King is really forcing him to question the point of his pursuit of greatness, of poetic fame, and all of his ambition. The poem continues at line seventy:
It’s the pursuit of fame, the noble pursuit of fame, that spurs us to scorn delights and to live laborious days. Fame spurs us to pursue the abstinent life of the poet. It’s the guerdon, the reward, the prize of fame that we’re continually anticipating will burst out someday in a sudden blaze of glory. But as soon as we hope to find that guerdon, the golden ring, comes the blind Fury with the abhorred shears – ouch! – and slits the thin-spun life. The blind Fury here is the mythological figure Atropos; this is the Fate that cuts the slender thread by which our lives dangle. Milton lends a special horror, I think, to this image of a blind Fury, and I hope you will agree with those critics – I didn’t make this up – who find embedded in these lines something like a figurative intimation of castration. Like the furious Bacchae, the furious Atropos emasculates the man who dares to aspire to poetic greatness. With the abhorred shears she cruelly punishes the virgin poet for his failure on the one hand to use the sexual body that God has endowed him with, but you also have the image here of the poet’s death. You have the image of the cutting off, the castration, of the power of generativity. All poetic potency, all power to assert oneself in the world, can be severed and that’s it.
I don’t think that the critics who see here an image of castration are just imagining it, because there is such a weird and such a persistent interest in the human body, and especially in the poet’s body, throughout this poem – Milton’s focus on the body, on the entire realm of the corporeal. I’m hoping that it feels a little strange to you and it seems strange, I think, when you consider what is obviously here the Christian context of Milton’s Lycidas. Orthodox Christianity teaches us to put aside our concerns for the body when we consider our death. The Old Testament prophet had said, “All flesh is grass,” an important verse for the new dispensation of Christianity. The only thing that matters is the salvation of the incorporeal, the bodiless soul, but Milton is so unorthodox, or at least heterodox, in his insistence on the importance of the body in this poem.
Look at the verse paragraph that begins at line 132. Oh, this passage! Milton asks the Sicilian muse – this is the muse of pastoral poetry – asks the muse to help him strew the flowers over the hearse, to strew with flowers the casket in which Lycidas’ body lies. The body of Lycidas, even in death, is of an unusual interest to our poet. The speaker employs – this is an amazingly physical, and I think it’s even a sensual, language as he catalogs the flowers that he imagines will cover Lycidas’ body. Line 135:
Okay: maybe the Elder Brother in Comus was wrong. The virgin’s body can’t – you remember that amazing counterfactual fantasy – the virgin’s body can’t, perhaps we’re acknowledging here, can’t be transmuted into spirit or soul. But we can still tend, and we can nurse, the dead body. We can lovingly care for it and ornament it here in our very corporeal way on earth. It’s an intensely erotic passage, this image of decorating King’s tomb with flowers. And it’s at the height of this vision of our floral decoration of Lycidas’ hearse that the speaker is suddenly caught up short. Look at line 154. We read line 154 and we realize we have been had. We have just – we’ve been sucked in. We have just participated in one of the biggest cheats that poetry can offer. “Ay me!” he says as he realizes, of course, there will be no flowers. There’s not going to be a hearse. Why not? There’s no body! There’s no body to decorate. What have we been thinking? Lycidas was drowned. His remains are unrecoverable. This is a terrible moment of realization on the part of the speaker.
Milton’s confronting here the awful fact that Lycidas’ bones – they’ve been hurled to the four corners of the sounding seas. They could be anywhere. And as if that weren’t terrible enough a realization, he goes on to envision an even more grotesque end for Lycidas’ body. He conjures – surely this is indecorous. This is wildly inappropriate, I think, in such a pious poem. He conjures the indecorous image of the dead Lycidas under the whelming tide visiting the bottom of the monstrous sea. It’s that word “visit” that gets me every time. It’s so inappropriate and ghoulish, I think, in this already sufficiently ghoulish context. First of all, it’s like a parody of the epic journey to the underworld that we have in so many great classical texts, and it forces us to think, at least for a moment here, of Lycidas as some ghastly underwater visitor: a skeletal, monstrous version of Jacques Cousteau peering into the unknowable monstrous, mysterious depths of the bottom of the world.
This intensely intimate focus on the human body is out of place in a Christian elegy and this, of course, Milton knows. It’s because the investment in the bodily world is so great here that Milton ultimately turns to the Christian vision, the more familiar Christian vision, of a bodiless afterlife. This is how this logic goes – we are all familiar with this: our body remains to molder in the earth or welter in the ocean (where’ere), but our incorporeal spirit rises to heaven where it can enjoy an ethereal, a bodiless, world of eternity. And so Milton concludes Lycidas with this standard vision of Christian consolation. On some level this is textbook Protestant or Catholic Christianity.
This image of the afterlife is founded on the orthodox figure for eternity. The body stays to the earth while the soul, like the day-star, rises to the sky. But when you look a little more closely at this conclusion, I think you realize that Milton’s heaven is almost as invested in the human body as Milton’s earth had been. The heaven imagined here is able actually to supply us, in fact, with a better body than the one we had down here. When the speaker writes that the day-star “… yet anon repairs his drooping head,” we are reminded of Orpheus. We have an image here of the reconstituted, repaired body of Orpheus whose gory, severed head had been sent down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore. It’s as if Milton can’t let go of this most un-Christian attachment to the human body. I think it’s fair to say that Milton can’t really imagine or fully invest himself in the Christian heaven until he can fully corporealize it and imagine it bodily. This is exactly, of course, what he will do in Paradise Lost. Everyone in Milton’s heaven has a body, even God Himself. God Himself in Paradise Lost is nothing but body. His body is the universe itself.
Listen to the physicality of the rest of the description of Milton’s heaven in Lycidas. This is line 172:
Clearly, the other groves and the other streams are different in heaven. They are different from the groves and streams we have down here, but they don’t seem necessarily to differ, I submit, in their degree of physicality. Lycidas is going to shampoo his hair in heaven much as he shampooed his hair on earth, except in heaven there’s always a difference. It will be a nectar pure with which he laves his oozy locks. And even more important, Lycidas will continue to sing in heaven just as he had sung on earth, except now he can hear the unexpressive – that means “inexpressible” – nuptial song. We remember this song. This is the song mentioned in Revelation 14 that Milton is continually alluding to and we saw him allude to just this passage in Ad Patrem. John the Divine had written in Revelation 14 – you know this:
And it’s virgins who get to sing the nuptial song at the wedding of the lamb that John also envisions. Milton can’t allow himself to embrace the wonderful fiction, that beautiful fiction that had been espoused by the Elder Brother: the fantasy that virgins don’t even die, that their bodies are simply reconstituted somehow [laughs] as angelic spirits. That went too far. It was too pagan, way too unorthodox. But Milton does permit himself the closest scriptural version of that fiction, and that’s John’s image in Revelation 14 of the special heavenly rewards for virgin poets.
Now you also looked at for today the Latin poem that Milton wrote not long after Lycidas. That’s the poem “Damon’s Epitaph,” the “Epitaphium Damonis,” written on the very sad occasion of the death of Milton’s best friend, Charles Diodati, who died the next year, 1638. You remember this is the young fellow that Milton had confessed his desire for immortal fame to. Look at the end of that poem. This is page 139 in the Hughes. This is where Milton imagines – you have to turn to this. He imagines Diodati just as he had imagined Edward King, enjoying at last his heavenly reward. This is the English translation because the poem is in Latin:
Now we recognize the song. This is the song from Revelation of the virgins who could learn and sing the new song before the throne of the Lord, but Milton has obviously taken John’s image here and exploded the implications of its erotic potential. It’s not just that virgins are entitled to sing a heavenly song as Milton is saying Diodati is. The heavenly reward in this poem involves all of the sensuality, all of the sensual experience, that was denied and repressed on earth. This [laughs] – “Damon’s Epitaph” ends with a virtual orgasm of Christian consolation as Milton gives his best friend the most unbelievable sendoff that is possible to give. The heaven in this poem is so far from being the incorporeal – the spiritual heaven of orthodox Christianity that you have an image of an actual orgy, the festal orgy raging under the thyrsus (that’s the phallic wand). Who’s holding this wand? Presumably none other than the orgiastic leader, God himself. There’s no other way to interpret these lines which, as you can imagine, critics simply pretend don’t exist, [laughs] because who can figure out what to say?
In Lycidas Milton doesn’t let himself, thank God, go quite so far as he does in this amazing ending to “Damon’s Epitaph.” In fact nowhere else do we see Milton literally [laughs] bursting out at the seams as he seems to in this poem. But the unmistakable physicality of the heaven imagined in the poem about Diodati gives us some idea, I think, of how to read the end of Lycidas. The corporeality of “Damon’s Epitaph” illuminates we can see the unorthodox direction in which Milton’s Lycidas is tending.
So let me conclude here. Milton has wrenched this poem away from Christianity, and he’s forced it into a direction that we could loosely call paganism. There has been a slippage from Christian spirituality into something like a pagan naturalism, and it’s a world in which all things are physical. All spirits, like the genius loci, are physical, palpable presences in the natural world. The human body, the world of flesh and blood that we all inhabit, has in some way at the end of this poem reasserted itself. In this final assertion of the body Milton, I think, is able to recover his theodicy, his attempt to justify the ways of God here on earth. Milton’s Lycidas’ body is still in some way a physical one. To the extent that Lycidas’ body has been recovered, that it’s been redeemed, Milton is able – perhaps successfully, Milton is able to justify the ways of God to men. He’s able to justify the ways of God to men here on the physical – on this intimately bodily earth.
This is the last thing I will tell you. As you have no doubt experienced, this is a dense and difficult poem, so please reread it innumerable times for Wednesday’s class, and in addition to that do the other readings assigned. Okay.
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