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.

No comments: