Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Horatian Mash-Up

Thespis, they say, discovered the Tragic Muse,
An unknown form, presenting his plays from carts,
Sung and acted by men, faces smeared with wine-lees. (faecibus)
Aeschylus, after him, introduced masks, fine robes,
Had a modest stage made of planks, and demanded
Sonorous speech, and the effort of wearing buskins.
Old Comedy came next, winning no little praise,
But its freedoms led to excess, to unruliness
Needing legal curb: the law was obeyed, the chorus,
Shamefully, fell silent, losing its rights of attack.

Horace, Ars Poetica

As we discovered reading Horace last year, he's more our contemporary than most. Here, a group of Flamenco dancers, using swarm technology, take a kind of satyr's chorus to the bank.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A bit of philology

I knew that Whewell had coined the term scientist, but this story of how it came about was new to me:
It was June 24, 1833, at the meeting of the recently-founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. William Whewell (pronounced “who-ell”), a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former professor of Mineralogy, had just finished a speech opening the conference. When the applause died down, the members were shocked to see a frail, grizzled man rise slowly to his feet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the celebrated Romantic poet, had written a treatise on scientific method decades before. Coleridge had hardly left his home in Highgate for the past thirty years, yet he had felt obliged to make the journey to attend this meeting.
At that time, the practitioners of science were known primarily as “natural philosophers.” Coleridge remarked acidly that the members of the association should no longer refer to themselves this way. Men digging in fossil pits, or performing experiments with electrical apparatus, hardly fit the definition. They were not, he meant, “armchair philosophers,” pondering the mysteries of the universe, but practical men – with dirty hands, at that. As a “real metaphysician,” he forbade them the use of this honorific.
More here.
As ever, poets steer the tongue..

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Liquid Texture:" Epic Evanescence in P.L. Book 6

A long-ish post -- I hope it begins to tap into larger themes that have preoccupied this blog from the start.

As noted a while back, Book 6 thrusts us into territory that we've only glimpsed before in Paradise Lost. The epic/mock epic battle of the immortal angels poses a challenge Milton must have thought about for a good long time: how to present a battle scene that can draw upon the potent epic voice of Homer and Virgil, and include the many standard features of war poetry that accompany that voice -- the brave talk and repartee, the dual of two great fighters, the glory achieved in death, the clash of weapons and the strategies of generals in battle -- how to present this in Heaven?

The other day we looked at this depiction of Satan in the midst of the strife:

long time in eeven scale [ 245 ]
The Battel hung; till Satan, who that day
Prodigious power had shewn, and met in Armes
No equal, raunging through the dire attack
Of fighting Seraphim confus'd, at length
Saw where the Sword of Michael smote, and fell'd [ 250 ]
Squadrons at once, with huge two-handed sway
Brandisht aloft the horrid edge came down
Wide wasting; such destruction to withstand
He hasted, and oppos'd the rockie Orb
Of tenfold Adamant, his ample Shield [ 255 ]
A vast circumference:

In this "raunging" we see the physical dominance of the Homeric warrior in motion; we can almost feel the weariness of fighters, who, after a long day under the hot sun battling their enemies, sense that things can go either way, and then see their leader stand forth to do even greater deeds.

Milton is telling it here just as an ancient epic poet would, full of thrust and parry, the arduous heat of battle and the suspensful uncertainty of outcome. Yet we know, because Milton has made it clear from the beginning, that the rules here are different. These armies are self-organizing, require no leaders, and consist of vast ethereal beings who cannot be killed. Here are Satan and Michael:

two broad Suns thir Shields [ 305 ]
Blaz'd opposite, while expectation stood
In horror; from each hand with speed retir'd
Where erst was thickest fight, th' Angelic throng,
And left large field, unsafe within the wind
Of such commotion, such as to set forth
Great things by small, If Natures concord broke,
Among the Constellations warr were sprung,
Two Planets rushing from aspect maligne
Of fiercest opposition in mid Skie,
Should combat, and thir jarring Sphears confound.

Instead of seeming stymied by these complications, Milton makes a virtue of poetic necessity. After preparing the scene above, he vividly describes how Michael "shar'd" Satan with his sword:

deep entring shar'd
All his right side; then Satan first knew pain,
And writh' d him to and fro convolv'd; so sore
The griding sword with discontinuous wound
Passd through him, . . .

We experience the direct horror of epic warfare . . . but only for the length of this clause; rather than ending in death, it marks the end of pathos with a comma, before moving on, as Milton's verse relentlessly does, with "but":

. . . but th' Ethereal substance clos'd [ 330 ]
Not long divisible, and from the gash
A stream of Nectarous humor issuing flow'd
Sanguin, such as Celestial Spirits may bleed,
And all his Armour staind ere while so bright.

Before the reader or Satan can revel in the anguish of his war wound, it's closed -- indeed, we sense as we read forward that the immediately preceding verb:

passd through him

is now capable of an entirely different reading. Instead of penetrating guts, the sword is merely splicing air. Our attention is steered from Satan's innards to the matter of a stain on his Armour. Odd indeed, and more oddness is to come.

Next come the angel medics, rushing out to bear their leader off the field -- one thinks of several fallen Homeric heroes -- e.g. the rescue of Hektor, (Iliad xiv.428) -- carried off by comrades after valiant service. But Milton's peculiar alchemy won't leave it there. The battle, the wound, the pain, the bleeding (and immediate return to wholeness) the bearing off are very fine, but look at the utterly unexpected lines the scene closes with:

Yet soon he heal'd; for Spirits that live throughout
Vital in every part, not as frail man [ 345 ]
In Entrailes, Heart or Head, Liver or Reines;
Cannot but by annihilating die;
Nor in thir liquid texture mortal wound
Receive, no more then can the fluid Aire:
All Heart they live, all Head, all Eye, all Eare, [ 350 ]
All Intellect, all Sense, and as they please,
They Limb themselves, and colour, shape or size
Assume, as likes them best, condense or rare.

Instead culminating in an admiring send-off for the fallen hero, the poetry morphs into this mind-blowing disquisition upon the properties of "Spirits," involving an utterly different form of corporeality than the part/whole relations we humans are more or less stuck with. The fusion of "limb" and "limn" teeters on the grotesque, while "all Head, all Eye, all Eare" defies imagining.

Reading the War in Heaven as told by Raphael, then, is unlike other war spectacles. Somehow Milton is capable of sounding the diapasons of glory and heroism, and of instantly transforming their predictable pathos and eternizing glory into something far more imaginatively rich and strange. Readers caught up in the surreality of "all Head, all Eye, all Eare," forget Satan before he manages to get comfortable in his chariot.

Book 6 plays a remarkable poetic game. Milton is having us have it several ways in multiple registers. He delivers the heightened sonorities of classic heroics, yet as we listen they're already dissolving into something whose scope and daring novelty, for want of a better word, cause the lethal scenes we've just been enthralled by to strangely go from the mind.

It's not quite an oscillation: the battle is played for all it's worth, but even as we enter into its stirring spectacle, it's being deflated, obliterated if not annihilated.

Here is the same effect achieved in a single word:

. . . deeds of eternal fame [ 240 ]
Were don, but infinite:

Book 6 is not simply, then, a battle of good and bad angels. Or, perhaps it is, only they are the angels of classical tragedy and Biblical comedy, a war that's riven Western poetry from the moment these traditions were first brought into enigmatic synthesis.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Polkinghorne Interview

… a dark
Illimitable ocean without bound,
Without dimension; where length, breadth, and highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.

Those intrigued by Milton's effort to grapple with the question of scientific authority within a theological frame that posits free will might be interested in this interview with John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist and Anglican theologian.

If working in science teaches you anything, it is that the physical world is surprising. And I was a quantum physicist, and the quantum world is totally different from the world of every day. It's cloudy, it's fitful, you don't know where things are, if you know what they're doing. If you know what they're doing, you don't know where they are.
20th-century science has seen the death of a merely mechanical and merely clockwork view of the world. It came first of all through quantum theory. At the subatomic level, quantum events are not precise and determinate. They have a certain randomness to them. They have a certain cloudiness to them, so that that process isn't clockwork.

. . . So the world is certainly not merely mechanical. And I think, actually, we always knew that because we have always known that we are not mechanisms. We are not automata. We have the power to choose, to act in the world.

. . . 20th-century science has loosened up our view of the physical world. It's no longer a piece of gigantic cosmic clockwork. It's a world in which we can conceive ourselves as the inhabitants and acting in it and helping to bring about the future.

There's a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven't seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you're too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you're too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It's these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

First Edition of P.L.

A bit of Googling turned up the text of the original 1667 edition of Paradise Lost in 10 books, easily readable online here.

Barring several additions and minor modifications, the text is the one we have. But the division into 12 books for the second edition of 1674 (which is now the standard edition) came about by halving two very long books:

The original Book 7 became what we now have as book 7 and book 8.

The original Book 10 became what we know as book 11 and book 12.

Here's a collection of essays that looks at the first edition.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

O'Halloran on Parnell: Joyce Birthday 2011

The program for this year's James Joyce Birthday Celebration includes a talk by Irish scholar Kevin O'Halloran entitled "Charles Stewart Parnell: A Joycean Hero."

Olivia Swaan, a singer and harpist from Dublin, will perform musical selections before and after the lecture.

The celebration takes place Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011, at the Historical Society of Sarasota, at Crocker Memorial Church, 1260 12th Street, between N. Tamiami Trail and Cocoanut Avenue.

Following the program, stay for refreshments and Joyce's 129th Birthday Cake. The celebration is an annual event presented by The James Joyce Society of Sarasota.

For more information, contact Margaret Hoffman: 358-5827.

[Added later]: Shaw Waltz points us to Ricorso, a very rich biographical online source about Joyce.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


Book 6, like Book 5, begins with a dawn:

till Morn,
Wak't by the circling Hours, with rosie hand
Unbarr'd the gates of Light.

Verity notes "rosie hand" in Jonson's Masque of Oberon - a nice version of which can be found at the link.

It might reward patience to look at how this description of dawn in Heaven differs from the earthly in Book 5:

There is a Cave
Within the Mount of God, fast by his Throne, [ 5 ]
Where light and darkness in perpetual round
Lodge and dislodge by turns, which makes through Heav'n
Grateful vicissitude, like Day and Night;
Light issues forth, and at the other dore
Obsequious darkness enters, till her houre [ 10 ]
To veile the Heav'n, though darkness there might well
Seem twilight here; and now went forth the Morn
Such as in highest Heav'n, arrayd in Gold
Empyreal, from before her vanisht Night,
Shot through with orient Beams: