Thursday, April 22, 2010

One of Milton's Sources of Knowledge of the World

According to Verity, Milton relied heavily for his knowledge of geography upon Peter Heylyn, who wrote Microcosmos: a Little Description of the Great World. in 1621.  It was later expanded to become the  Cosmographie of 1657.

From WP:
At college, where he was dubbed 'the perpetual dictator’, Heylin had been an ouspoken controversialist. He subsequently became an outspoken preacher and one of Charles I's clerical followers. He was a prolific writer, and a keen and acrimonious controversialist against the Puritans. Among his works are a History of the Reformation, and a Life of Archbishop William Laud(Cyprianus Anglicanus) (1668).
He was the writer of the "Cosmographie", an attempt to describe in meticulous detail every aspect of the known world in 1652, the geography, climate, customs, achievements, politics, and belief systems. It appears to have been the first description in print of Australia, and perhaps of California, Terra del Fuego, and other territories in the New World. He objected to the name "America" as it placed undue glory on Amerigo Vespucci, and recommended "Columbana" or "Cabotia" as more indicative of the true discoverers, Columbus and Cabot.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Guarding the issue: Divine Children and their defenses

In a preceding post, ("The Air Jordan of English Poetry") we looked somewhat closely at an instance where a poetic hairball of allusions seems to have gone astray, and asked:
Has a bastardization of myths taken place here? ... The divine stories have wandered, or gotten torn from, from the original springs of inspired speech. They've gotten polluted, contaminated; there's no clear stream.
I don't want to convey the impression we're accusing Milton of nodding, although the blind poet might readily be forgiven if he did happen to slip on one or another bit of arcana. But moving from a description of the passage to an initial effort at interpretation, I wish to argue that Milton knows very well what he's doing here, and that the "mash-up" of gods, mortals and fabled gardens from various literary tributaries here suggests larger thematic and poetic concerns. After all, consider what's at stake: the stable continuity of divine and royal houses through the survival of the children.

Look at where in the text this happens: Milton is about to describe our and Satan's first view of our forebears in Paradise. Before getting to this, we go on a detour through four major ancient myths involving divine or royal children protected or unprotected by gods or kings: Proserpina, Daphne, Dionysus and the Ethiop line of Abassin Kings.

The series begins with the daughter of Demeter who was raped by Hades -- the god of the Underworld, brother of Zeus, took her, made her his queen, and later allowed Demeter to share her -- accounting for the birth of the diversity of seasons. Daphne was about to be raped by Apollo when she became a laurel. Dionysus, born of a woman then re-born of Zeus, had to be hidden from the wrath of Hera; of the Abassin kings, we have no myth, just the tale of their high secret garden at the headwaters of the Nile.

In other words, we are reminded at this crucial juncture of a world in which helpless children must be hidden, concealed, protected -- from other gods as well as from men and beastly predators. Dynasties are fragile, and children in this world are defenseless unless a wise and nurturing divinity, or a concealment or strategic defensive position, protect them from harm.

We've seen that Paradise is also a high place, protected by thorns and bramble, but the dangers here are not those of overpowering force. Adam and Eve are not defenseless babes. They are lordly, serene, and, though naked, fully capable of defending themselves, like David before Goliath, or Daniel in the lions' den. They are unexampled among pagan children of gods, since they were made to take care of themselves: sufficient to have stood, tho' free to fall. Angels surround them to ward off bad spirits, but bad spirits can and will gain access. The entire burden of defense is placed upon the children of God, because they have free will.

In light of Milton's portrait of the first couple, the preceding fables of hidden gods, including Ammon and Zeus himself, serve a key function. They offer a vision of a contrasting fallen world, in which even the highest deities and royal progeny are subject to the vicissitudes of force and desire. Only here in Paradise are found first-born children who are equipped to handle all comers. The ancient fables, Milton's web of allusions suggests, spoke of a world of mere nature, a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog and devil-take-the-hindmost world, in which the linear order of generations goes astray, bloodlines and families are muddled or disrupted, and nations share (or blend) gods as children share crayons. The series of allusions end in fruitless confusion when, at the very secluded (and very legendary) source of the Nile, we are driven to question the purity of our sources, the authority of their genesis. For Milton, so much depends upon beginnings. The passage turns out to concern the purity of the memory of origins and of poetic filiation as well as royal and biological generation.

Unlike the pagan fables, Milton's tale will sing of how the devil took the foremost. But not without the understanding that it didn't have to be that way.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dante, Milton and Proserpina

Not that faire field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flours
Her self a fairer Floure by gloomie Dis
Was gatherd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world;
Milton's linking of Eve to Proserpina in Book IV immediately prior to our seeing our "general mother" for the first time might awaken echoes of another unfallen woman, Dante's Matilda. In Purgatorio 28, he says to the mysterious virgin who wanders amid the earthly paradise, preserved inviolate at the top of Purgatory:

Tu mi fai rimembrar dove e qual era
Proserpina nel tempo che perdette
la madre lei, ed ella primavera

Thou makest me remember where and what
Proserpina that moment was when lost
Her mother her, and she herself the Spring.

It would require a dissertation to explore the differences between the earthly paradises of the two poets, their visions of unfallen, free humanity, and their uses of the myth of Dis and Proserpina at this very juncture.

One thing is clear: Dante the poet and pilgrim is given a glimpse of Matilda upon successfully completing the journey through hell and purgatory, and being crowned ruler of himself by Virgil. He is fallen man recovering a vision of human innocence, and its loss, at the moment it returns within himself. Milton's reader is given a vision of human innocence, poised on the brink of the Fall. The two poets stand in contrast -- the Italian, seeking salvation for himself, regards the figure of Matilda and remembers retrospectively the tale of Proserpina; the English poet looks at the fair prospect of Eden and of Eve from a time before human liberty was lost. The two poets and their modes of narrative, one prospective, the other retrospective, are as different as can be, but each outdid himself in evoking the daughter of Demeter, the "fairer Floure."

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Air Jordan of English Poetry

A review of Nigel Smith's book, Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? notes that Milton's sentences tend to be other than short:

Milton's most characteristically impressive sentences can fill an entire page. Milton is the Michael Jordan of English poetry. You can't believe it's possible for anyone to remain airborne for so long, and the breathtakingly bravura suspension culminates in a verbal slam-dunk like "So never more in hell than when in heaven" or "sweet reluctant amorous delay" or "Again transgresses, and again submits."
He's not a poet for the sound-bite century. Consider the famous passage from Paradise Lost, describing Eve in Eden, which is one of the culminating exhibits in Smith's celebration of Milton. The 20-line sentence contains 20 proper names: Enna, Prosperin, Dis, Ceres, Daphne, Orontes, Castalian, Nyseian, Triton, Cham, Ammon, Lybian Jove, Amalthea, Bacchus, Rhea, Abassin, Amara, Ethiop, Nilus, Assyrian.
Look at the relevant part of the sentence in Book IV:

Not that faire field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flours
Her self a fairer Floure by gloomie Dis [ 270 ]
Was gatherd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and th' inspir'd
Castalian Spring, might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive; nor that Nyseian Ile [ 275 ]
Girt with the River Triton, where old Cham,
Whom Gentiles Ammon call and Lybian Jove,
Hid Amalthea and her Florid Son
Young Bacchus from his Stepdame Rhea's eye;
Nor where Abassin Kings thir issue Guard, [ 280 ]
Mount Amara, though this by som suppos'd
True Paradise under the Ethiop Line
By Nilus head, enclosd with shining Rock,
A whole days journy high, but wide remote
From this Assyrian Garden, where the Fiend [ 285 ]
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living Creatures new to sight and strange:

The wealth of allusion -- a profligate overflow of names, references, mixed and mingling traditions (Cham, or Ham, becomes Ammon (Amun) and Libyan Jove) -- leads to a wild goose chase after a classical myth in which Amalthea protected her "son," Dionysus, from "Stepdame Rhea." Oddly, while footnotes identify some of the references, none points out that there doesn't seem to be a myth in which Amalthea is protecting Dionysus from Rhea. I dare you to find this myth, I've looked*. There are tales of Amalthea protecting Zeus from Cronos, and tales of the Nyades protecting Dionysus from Hera, but here, amid the welter of the narrator's river of names, several stories have gotten commingled, losing their original clarity and distinction.

Has a bastardization of myths taken place here? That is to say, the chain of names -- Nysa, Triton, Cham, Ammon, Lybian Jove, Amalthea, Bacchus, Rhea -- could be subsumed under some such rubric as "stories of children of gods and where they were hidden from those who would do them harm." But the profusion of names, the mutation from a son of Noah to a North-African version of Zeus, leads to a confusion of stories that leave us ultimately with a less than clear and distinct idea of who derived from whom, and where, and how, etc. The divine stories have wandered, or gotten torn from, from the original springs of inspired speech. They've gotten polluted, contaminated; there's no clear stream.

This touches upon the question of allusion and its role in Milton - a very large subject. Shaw pointed us to Poets Haunted by Poets, a piece in the New York Review that raises some interesting aspects of allusion, which I'll try to tackle in a future post.
*The closest locus classicus seems to be Diodorus Siculus, according to Verity, but even here, discrepancies abound. In Diodorus the role of Amalthea, for example, is given to Athena.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dreams of the Library in the West

From On Bones and Libraries, a meditation on Libraries by Colin Dickey -- the totalized book of Jerome, the illimitable books of men:

Every librarian, every book collector, finds him or herself between these two mythical places—the Perfect Library of God and the Infinite Library of Babel, the one transcribed by Jerome, the other by Borges.  

via wood s lot, one of the great transcultural blogs.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Rembrandt's Eve and Adam

Here's the image discussed in some detail by Prof. Rogers in his 14th lecture:

"It's as if they crawled out of the pages of the famous thirteenth chapter of the first book of Hobbes' Leviathan."

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Playing with God

An interesting conversation with two Jesuit astronomers about science, faith, and certain compatibilities of -- and incitements to -- both is here. One can listen or read the transcript. Here's a sort of Twitterized summary.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Who himself beginning knew?

If time permits, when we get to Eve's account of her memory of her beginning, we might want to compare it with that of Adam. Adam's description of his first moments is found in Book VIII, beginning with line 253:

As new-waked from soundest sleep 
Soft on the flow'ry herb I found me laid...
Structurally, they come before and after the central accounts of the War in Heaven, and the Creation of the World. We'll want to look at some ways in which the two accounts, while superficially similar, may be seen to have interesting differences -- not unlike their descendants ever since.

(I'll develop this post in more detail later.)

The New Yorker reads Mason, Malouf and Banville

Mussy notes this New Yorker piece, in which Daniel Mendelsohn reviews three recent fictions working with classical Greek materials: John Banville’s “The Infinities,” David Malouf’s “Ransom,” Zachary Mason’s “The Lost Books of the Odyssey."

Among Mendelsohn's fine observations noted:
The first adjective in the first line of the twelve thousand one hundred and nine that make up the Odyssey is polytropos, which means, in the context, “clever”—literally, “of many turns.” Both are apt modifiers for the poem’s hero, who is subject to many detours and is also Greek myth’s preëminent talker, fibber, and plotter. If the Iliad, set during a war, keeps showing us men’s bodies, either in frenzied action or stilled by death, the Odyssey, set in war’s aftermath, can be described as a poem about the mind—a celebration of the intellectual and verbal qualities that we might need to survive in a world uneasily settling back into the forgotten habits of peacetime. And a quality of mind that the Odyssey admires extravagantly is the ability to tell a good story. It’s easy to forget that nearly all the famous adventures we associate with Odysseus—the encounters with the Cyclops, the witch Calypso, Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters—are narrated not by the poem’s invisible narrator, the “I” who invokes the Muse in the first line, but by Odysseus, about himself. At a certain point in his voyage, he finds himself on an island inhabited by refined, pleasure-loving natives called the Phaeacians, and, one night over dinner, he tells them the story of his homecoming thus far. This takes up four entire books of Homer’s poem—which is to say that much of the Odyssey is a kind of epic performance within the epic, a long flashback in which the “poet” and the hero are one and the same person.
Which adds resonance to some of the parallels we've noted between Milton's Satan and Odysseus.