Thursday, September 24, 2009

A procession of voices

Lycidas has been fraught with strong responses from readers since it first saw the light of print. Considered by many to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest English lyric (it's been called "the high-water mark of English Poesy" and, "the most perfect piece of pure literature in existence,") it also has met with lively displeasure from other distinguished readers: was detested for its artificiality by Samuel Johnson, who found "the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing" and complained that "in this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new." [From "Lycidas" in Wikipedia.]
(A comment all the more provocative as it concerns a poem whose final, crucial word is "new.")

What's clear is that the poem seems to leave large areas of itself open to multiple, uncertain, and highly varying readings, despite innumerable learned readings by academics and men of letters. Some of these cruxes are famous, especially the notorious "two-handed engine."

Others, less renowned, still remain problematic, even on the basic level of deciding who is speaking. For example:
It was that fatall and perfidious Bark [ 100 ]
Built in th' eclipse, and rigg'd with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.
Does the "uncouth swain" make this charge? Or is it a continuation of the reported speech of Triton (who is here speaking for Poseidon), a reported speech which itself encompasses the answer of the winds, brought by sage Hippotades? Here's the entire passage:
But now my Oate proceeds,
And listens to the Herald of the Sea
That came in Neptune's plea, [ 90 ]
He ask'd the Waves, and ask'd the Fellon winds,
What hard mishap hath doom'd this gentle swain?
And question'd every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked Promontory,
They knew not of his story, [ 95 ]
And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
That not a blast was from his dungeon stray'd,
The Ayr was calm, and on the level brine,
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play'd.
It was that fatall and perfidious Bark [ 100 ]
Built in th' eclipse, and rigg'd with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

Clearly a key word here is "listens": this is a poem that in the act of being sung is listening to other voices, here staged as a kind of coroner's inquest. The culminating apparent accusatory speech, involving perfidy, eclipse, and dark curses (more reported speech: who did the cursing?) depends even for a basic sense of its bearings upon whom we believe we have been listening to.

Navigating this text would appear to require a finely tuned aural compass, along with whatever else we bring. Here we appear to be listening to the poet as uncouth swain, reporting the speech of the winds as reported by Hippotades (perhaps in turn to Triton?) - culminating in a charge of a mysteriously cursed bark voiced by one of these speakers (but who?) -- presenting a further note of murky Miltonic mystery.

This ambiguity of speech and speaker is both underscored and resolved at the end of the poem, when the voice we've identified as the shepherd-friend of Lycidas flows into the voice of the poet, now separate, distinguishing his voice from that the "uncouth swain." This is the "asymmetric frame" we mentioned last time - asymmetric because there is no similar introduction of the swain at the outset of the poem. The question of who is/was speaking comes to the foreground even as the final notes of the poem mark the moment when the voice we thought we were listening to resolves itself into a narrator, who describes the swain, who narrated the poem we have just heard.

Whatever else we are dealing with in Lycidas, it seems there's more, as we heard in Il Penseroso, "than meets the ear."

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