Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spring in Botticelli and Milton

 then with voice 

Milde, as when Zephyrus on Flora breathes,

It's possible Milton saw Botticelli's Primavera while in Italy. He surely was familiar with Poliziano's Rusticus -- a poem of country life described as an updated version of Virgil's Georgics and Hesiod's Works and Days -- with which it is often associated. 

Botticelli's painting is understood to be allegorical, with sundry interpretations (here's one interesting example). It's also a literal anthology, with "500 identified plant species depicted," including 190 different flowers. If Emily Dickinson placed flowers and plants amid the leaves of books, Botticelli seems intent on naming Flora, or Chloris, through sheer abundance of example.

Similarly Milton will reel off a litany of floral names, and here, in Book V, the poem is permeated with the names and scents of flowers and herbs, and sounds of birds and water and gentle breezes:

 th' only sound 

Of leaves and fuming rills, Aurora's fan,
Lightly dispers'd, and the shrill Matin Song
Of Birds on every bough; 

For a stupendous virtual reproduction of Botticelli's Primavera, go here. The image is so rich it takes a while to load, then can be zoomed to a remarkable level of detail. A right-click of the mouse allows a full screen image, which itself can be zoomed in and out, or scoured from one edge to the other.

The opening of Paradise Lost V is imbued with the dawn and with spring. Perhaps it's mere coincidence that Hermes makes a cameo appearance both in Milton's garden and in Botticelli's painting. In the Primavera, the god appears on the left. His right hand holds the cadeceus that reaches the clouds; his left rests on his hip inches from his sword handle. 

In P.L. V, he's woven into the initial description of Raphael:

Seraph wingd; six wings he wore, to shade

His lineaments Divine; the pair that clad
Each shoulder broad, came mantling o're his brest
With regal Ornament; the middle pair [ 280 ]
Girt like a Starrie Zone his waste, and round
Skirted his loines and thighes with downie Gold
And colours dipt in Heav'n; the third his feet

Shaddowd from either heele with featherd maile

Skie-tinctur'd grain. Like Maia's son he stood, [ 285 ]
And shook his Plumes, that Heav'nly fragrance filld
The circuit wide

If nothing else, both Raphael and Hermes traditionally are messengers connecting heaven and earth. The conversation between Adam, Eve and the angel will, among other things, depict an intricate and coherent account of that linkage. 

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