There has been no poet more influential on me than the self-proclaimed poet laureate of England, Mr. John Milton (1608-1674). It’s unfortunate that Milton is often overshadowed by Shakespeare in English studies, but it would be difficult not to be at least partially overcast by such a long shadow. Milton was acutely aware of the “problem” of Shakespeare in developing his own grand style, just as the Victorian and Romantic poets who followed him where conscious of Milton’s shadow over them. John Keats, for example, is famous for having remarked that “life to Milton” would be death to himself and to his own poetic career. This is the problem with antecedent genius. Another’s genius can prevent you from writing. Your muse becomes your gorgon, and you turn to stone. This is what happens to Milton in his poem, “On Shakespeare,” as he apostrophizes the bard’s literary powers:
“…thou our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving” (ll. 13-14)
It’s funny to imagine a marble bust of Milton within a poem about Shakespeare. Milton’s point is made nonetheless. I confess that reading Milton for the first time certainly had a similar effect on me. I’m sure many of us could speak to an experience in which we were dumbfounded by the power of another’s language. But why is it that discovering unknown possibilities in language should turn us to stone? Perhaps because we seem to be hardwired to reverence artistic achievement in a way that is composed and dignified. Perhaps because we don’t know exactly how to bring artistic achievement fully into our realm of experience. Perhaps because experiencing artistic achievement actually is, in some way, always debilitating. Or perhaps we don’t remain stone for long. Only for a moment.
There are two of Milton’s poems that stand out as having reached beyond the genius of Shakespeare and therefore profoundly impactful: his pastoral elegy Lycidas (1638) and his great epic Paradise Lost (1667/1674). I’ll say a few words about Lycidas, although it would truly deserve more time than I’m able to give it here. Paradise Lost deserves its own post entirely.
Milton wrote two major pastoral elegies: Lycidas and Damon. The first is written in English, the second in Latin. The first is held up as one of the finest poems in the English language, the second is rarely read, even in its English translation. The first is written about a fellow Cambridge student named Edward King, with whom Milton had limited interaction, and the second about his best friend, Charles Diodati. There’s a way in which Milton’s distance from King, as opposed to his closeness to Diodati, enabled a superior poem. A level of removal from tragedy, in this case at least, does not turn a poet to stone.
To set the poem up, Milton writes, “In this Monody the author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drown’d.” A monody is a single melodic line. A sort of solo. This is the first of many references to music in the poem, as Milton seems to want to merge poetry with music in this work. Whether or not the poem is a monody is up for debate. The poem is certainly interrupted by many voices, but all these voices are framed by a single “uncouth” voice—the diffident, poetic voice of a young John Milton, revealed at the end to be a “swain” or shepherd in line 186. What’s tricky about this poem is that all of the actual figures of the situation at Cambridge are reimagined in the pastoral mode as shepherds, satyrs, and other familiar figures of Roman poetry and pastoral painting. “Pastor” means shepherd in Latin, and so pastoral art, literature, and music concern the rustic world of shepherds and their activities within an idealized natural setting or locus amoenus (Latin for “pleasant place”). King is called Lycidas in the poem. He is a young shepherd who has died “ere his prime.” The main anxiety of the poem is twofold. The first is the unnatural death of a young man, a child gone before his parents. The second is the manner of death. Because King drowned, his body was never recovered. Therefore, the very person elegized in the poem is physically absent, unable to be shown to the mourners, adorned with flowers, and lowered into the ground.
Like so much of Milton, the lines surrounding this situation are stunning, even deceptively simple at times:
“Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed* of some melodious tear” (ll. 10-16)
Other lines are frightening, as when Milton, taking the occasions to consider his own mortality, imagines the decapitation of another poet:
“What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself, for her enchanting son
Whom Universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His goary visage down the stream was sent” (ll. 58-62)
Or the strange choice of the word “beaked” in this section, which calls to mind the threat of nature:
“He ask’d the Waves, and ask’d the Fellon winds,
What hard mishap hath doom’d this gentle swain?
And questioned every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked Promontory” (ll. 91-4)
There’s no passage more frightening than Milton’s condemnation of the Church of England and even Cambridge itself in the part their corruption played in King’s death. At the end of the section, Milton imagines God’s final intervention at the end of days in these cryptic lines:
“But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more” (ll. 130-1)
But there are also passages full of tenderness. Milton’s catalogue of flowers decorating the bier, for instance, grows out of a long poetic tradition and is the best example of such a passage in English. But it is his final token of consolation at the end of the elegy that is perhaps the most moving. He will later reuse this ending in Paradise Lost:
“And now the Sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the Western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his Mantel blue:
Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.”
Here the poet finishes his song. And here Milton finishes his poem. The ending is, in a way, surprisingly secular. Previously, Milton had already envisioned King in heaven attended by angels. But here, we have a promise of the fresh woods of life and the certainty of more fruitful pastures in the years to come. How ironic that a setting sun should warm us. Does it have the power too to change us from stone to flesh?