Saturday, April 23, 2011

Pastoral Degeneration

Lo! The sheep are melting!

A summary of the paper I'm writing, on Milton of course:

To Hell and Back: Pastoral Degeneration in Milton's Poems (Workin' title! Want to find something in PL to replace "to hell and back.")

The young Milton is thoroughly "rusticated" by the time he composes "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." The classical pastoral had become his best expressive vehicle, and he continues to work in this Virgilian vein into his 30s, culminating with "Lycidas" (in English) and "Epitaphiam Damonis," his last Latin pastoral elegy. At this point he vows he will lay down the pastoral altogether, unless he can continue it in a distinctly English voice. When Milton finally gets down to the real work of his great poem, Paradise Lost, he has moved away from his earlier dependence on pastoral imagery and builds an epic work, rivaling Virgil's later epic poetry, but, like epic Virgil, Milton still interweaves the reminiscent, soothing tones of the "oaten flute" behind the soaring voice of his universal tragedy. The penetrating literary tradition, found in Milton's dense allusions and similes, is evidence of Pastoralism's strands in the fabric of PL. Finally, as Milton dealt so beautifully with pastorals of fields, forests, and even oceans in his early poetry, Milton must deal with the ultimate pastoral landscape -- Eden. His classical mindset, his constant urge for Virgilian homage, and his Christian beliefs must come together to create a pastoral scene like no other, both in its resplendent beauty before the Fall, and in its completely degenerated form (degenerated, like his use of the pastoral has become) once our "general ancestors" have undone any hope of reclaiming the perfect Earthly landscape.

That's just the summary I wrote up to share with my colleagues.  Now I have to actually write that shit.  Just wanted to say 'hi' to the blog, to confirm that yes I am still reading Milton, and no I am not getting lazy. 

When I came up with that degeneration concept (which I haven't found anything specific on -- yes!), I was thinking of Milton's pastoral lapse and his move to the epic, by fits and starts (some seemingly intentional, some a writer's struggle).  I'm not as interested in what made Milton change his tune, but what happens when you take this degenerated application of a literary type (pastoral elegy) and apply it to Eden, pre- and post-lapse.  The former is almost garishly and sexually generative, the latter is (and I didn't even intend this!) most literally degenerative. Add in all Milton's careful use of words like "general ancestor" and I've got all kinds of wordplay to work with.  I'm still trying to work in something about Hell being a pastoral landscape too, but I don't know if that will fly.

My sources are all antique ones, which I think is okay for Milton studies.  All the newer sources were about "the body," gender, and other such buzzword buzzkills. I wanted some good meaty treatments of the Virgilian aspects of Milton, the pastoral, you know, old timer stuff.  So I'm turning to some dead men who wrote for Studies in Philology and the like, and I will see you in 15 pages or so.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fun with Milton

4/13/11:  Added some more stuff after third reading.

I decided to make a list of fun things and thoughts about Paradise Lost.  Not that the whole thing isn't fun, but some parts are funnier (or more interesting) than others. We are keeping commonplace books, but it's possible that not everything in my notes will stay in the commonplace.

The Whole Poem
Milton only uses the word "providence" three times in the poem.

How many times does he use "orient"?  It gets so old!  I don't think I get too tired of any of his other oft repeated words and appellations ("vouchsafed," "general ancestor," etc.) but "orient" is used almost once per book.  It really catches the ear if you listen to the poem, and not in a good way.

Milton's use of "thunder" in place of lightening.  Thunder is sound.  The word is sound.  Thunder is the word? Whoa.  Pretty cool, JM.

Satan never goes in a straight line.  He bends, wheels, scours the edges of hell, etc.  He also never looks back, literally or figuratively.

Satan sees one thing at a time, God sees everything at once.

Books I and II
Satan rocks.

Book III
God has intensely fresh breath. (l. 135-36)

We're supposed to think the demons are cowards because they don't offer to fly through Chaos (Book II), but the wimp angels don't volunteer for a suicide mission either.  Only The Son takes that on.

God is so boring.  What's Satan up to? (flip, flip, flip...)

Book IV
Uriel is a little light on his feet.  Even for an angel.  He's got technicolor wings and sparkly locks and what not.

Satan is a voyeur.

Gabriel is kind of a jerk. First he tells Uriel "Nobody got in on my watch!" when obviously someone did.  Then Gabe calls Satan a liar when Satan gives more than one excuse for why he fled hell.  Of course he's going to make excuses.  He's Satan, for Christ's sake!

"Myself am Hell"  (l. 75).  Great line. Put that one on your bathroom mirror!

"...into the fold" (l. 187). For some reason that combination of words is beautiful to me.  He uses it twice within a few lines.

Satan turns into a cormorant (like a vulture) and perches on the Tree of Life (l. 194). Creepy stuff!

The circus of animals cavorting around in the garden is garish.  I can't help getting that sick tickle in my stomach when I read lines like "the sportful herd" (l. 396).  I think it even trumps "trip on the light fantastic toe" (L'Allegro) which actually doesn't bother me so much anymore.  The scene gets even sicker when Satan starts turning into one, then another creature.  I love animals, but I guess I always pictured Eden as a North American Paradise, with some nice fawns, bunnies, and robins and stuff.  Elephants and tigers are too wacky.

Satan cusses for real: "Oh Hell!" (l. 358).  He's not saying "O Hell," like "Hail Hell!" or "Hey there, Hell."  He's really saying "OH HELL!" as in, "FUCK!"

Book V
Abdiel is pretty cool.  He's supposed to be the "littlest angel," but he tells Lucifer he's about to meet his maker in a beautiful line (894-95):  "Then who created thee lamenting learne, / When who can uncreate thee thou shalt know."

Book VI
Michael is a kickass angel.  I see why Gabe is his second.

The angels and soon-to-be-demons start hurling mountain tops at one another.  If that wasn't funny enough, when The Son (Jesus) shows up, the mountain chunks scurry away, embarrassed, and resume their places on the hilltops. It reminds me of the Monty Python animation where the monk comes out of the tower and yells at the cavorting sun and cloud, and they amble over the horizon on their chunky legs.

The Son drives a chariot made of eyeballs. Flaming eyeballs. Word.  (Word!)

Book VII
Man.  Old blindy is really starting to lose it in the invocation for this book.  "Dangers compast round," worries of Orphic dismemberment.  But who can blame him in that state? "Half yet remains unsung" (l. 21) at that point, and he had to finish.  The invocation for this book is so long, and I think he had abandoned invocations after the first book.  (He does use apostrophe a few times, as in talking to the poem itself or to the muses again, but not invoking them.)  He sounds desperate.  He needs to muster his strength, to get a second wind from the muses.  His talk of dismemberment also make it seem almost like he knew the finished manuscript would be threatened by fire.

A note on the Orphic stuff:  Until I took Milton, I had no idea that the word "remember" has an important connection to the myth of Orpheus. He was torn apart by Bacchus's followers, yet his head floated, still singing, down the river.  This myth has a lot of significance for Milton and is all over his minor poems, but he actually lays off of it in PL, except for this mention.  Anyway, to remember is to "re-member."  To undo the tearing apart.  This makes it a very different word from "recall."  Something to add to the language arsenal!

Adam asks Raphael about angel sex.  Seriously, he does.  Raphael blushes "celestial rosie red" and describes the act briefly:

Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st
(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
In eminence, and obstacle find none
Of membrane, joynt, or limb, exclusive barrs: [ 625 ]
Easier then Air with Air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure
Desiring; nor restrain'd conveyance need
As Flesh to mix with Flesh, or Soul with Soul.

So I guess angel sex is like mixing up some Kool-Aid, or jumping into a blender.

Book IX
Lots of stuff in this book.  You should read it.

Book X
When Adam is trying to tell Eve that their fate is really not so bad, he says: "Pains onely in Child-bearing were foretold, / And bringing forth, soon recompenc't with joy" (ll. 1051-52).  Pains ONLY in childbirth Eve!  No big deal!  While he's right that these pains are made worth it by a mother's love, he can't imagine all the other pains that would be heaped upon Eve because of her poor, sensitive uterus.  I wrote on "Eve's Labor Pains" last year, and I think I might revisit the topic now that I'm better versed in my PL.

Books XI and XII
I'll come back to these, as I haven't listened to them on tape or reread them yet, and therefore don't have any good or interesting notes.

This poem is great.  I thought my Milton crush might wear off by now, with only five weeks of classes left, but I think I'm going to become a Miltonist.