10 August 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/32

Orpheus x 2

Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's learned Sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, fancy's child,
Warble his native Wood-notes wild.
And ever against eating Cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian Airs,
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes, with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out,
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running;
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony;
That Orpheus' self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heapt Elysian flow'rs, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half-regain'd Eurydice.

John Milton, from L'Allegro, ll 131 - 150

Sometime let Gorgeous Tragedy
In Scepter'd Pall come sweeping by,
Presenting Thebes, or Pelops' line,
Or the tale of Troy divine,
Or what (though rare) of later age,
Ennobled hath the Buskin'd stage.
But, O sad Virgin, that thy power
Might raise Musaeus from his bower,
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as, warbled to the string,
Drew Iron tears down Pluto's cheek,
And made Hell grant what Love did seek.

John Milton, from Il Penseroso, ll 97 - 108

Here is a poetic diptych from John Milton's early life: a paired consideration of ways to be in the world. He refers to them as Mirth and Melancholy; you could also see them as cheerful or pensive, social or solitary, sun or shade, extrovert or introvert; both states have their attractions and beauties. The two poems are balanced against each other, and what occurs in one will re-occur in a different aspect in the other. Both feature Orpheus and his descent to the Underworld to search for his dead love Eurydice, in each case preceded by trips to the theater. According to the common conception of the type you might think that the melancholy, solitary man would avoid the theater, but Milton's conception is subtler and more elusive, having to do with perspectives and predilections rather than such broad stereotypes – though I should point out that it's only in L'Allegro that he explicitly goes to the theater ("I'll to the well-trod stage anon"), where he sees what were then fairly modern works by Jonson and Shakespeare, both of whom are presented in their lighter moods, along with the sensuous beauty of live music; in Il Penseroso he might be at the theater, or he might be reading these works for the theater of the mind – the social aspect of theater-going is elided; there is no "well-trod" in Penseroso. Whether he's seeing it live or in his mind's eye, the Penseroso theater presents the heavier matter of tragedy, and mostly classical tragedy (he mentions Troy, but also Thebes, which suggests the story of Oedipus and his descendants, and Pelops' line, which covers Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their descendants Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra).

Jonson's learned sock refers to the thin-soled light shoe worn by comic actors in the classical world, making this reference to Jonson's satirical comedies itself a witty example of the sort of scholarly learning with which Jonson enriched his plays. Allegro's comic sock is contrasted with Penseroso's buskins (the Buskin'd stage), which are the elevated boots or cothurni worn by the tragic actors of ancient Greece to make themselves look taller and grander – more tragic. Jonson's classical correctness is contrasted with Shakespeare's (alleged) artless profusion; fancy means imagination, so calling him "fancy's child" implies that Shakespeare was sort of a conduit to pure imagination, as unconscious of what he was putting forth as a bird singing in the woods. Of course this is as untrue of Shakespeare as of the bird, but those who value the classical model have always been put off by his profusion and mixture of high and low, which is why his reputation in France has generally been lower than it is in more brooding countries. This view dates back to Jonson himself, actually, and I wonder if Milton got the idea from him and transferred the comparison to classical masters from Shakespeare back to Jonson:

[. . . ] and though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thundering Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread,
And shake a stage: or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone, for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece, or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.

Ben Jonson, To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr William Shakespeare: And What He Hath Left Us, ll 31 - 40

That excerpt is from one of the prefatory poems to the First Folio of Shakespeare's works, published in 1623. Pacuvius and Accius are Roman tragic poets, whose names survive thanks to a mention in Horace's Epistles, though time has not been as considerate of their now-lost works; him of Cordova dead is Seneca, whose plays were better-known and more influential among the Elizabethans than those of the Greek tragedians. In this poem praising his friend, Jonson cannot resist displaying his own learning, and indirectly praising himself while praising his sometime rival.

Back to Milton, and let's pick up with the Lydian airs. The Lydian mode, one of the ways of organizing musical sounds inherited and adapted from ancient Greece, was the mode of seductive beauty, a mood which often elicits condemnations or warnings about the Lotos-Eaters land it will lead you to. Here Milton emphasizes its seductive sweetness, but there are interesting intimations (which find a later echo in the portions of Paradise Lost describing the overwhelming beauty of Paradise) that giving in to this tempting loveliness will unhinge you: your soul leaves you to meet the notes that pierce it; then there is the further erotic charge of many a winding bout / Of linked sweetness long drawn out, followed by references to wanton heed and giddy cunning. Wanton at this time meant primarily wandering or frolicsome, and heed means to pay attention to something, so the meaning seems to be that the music is playfully distracting and absorbing your thoughts, but there is an undercurrent in wanton of its current primary meaning, sexually promiscuous or lascivious, and heed is most often associated with warnings. Similarly, giddy cunning can refer to something sly and circuitous and dazzling  (if you've heard the ornaments in vocal music of this period, you will know what he is talking about here), but cunning of course carries an implication of deceitful, and if you get too giddy you lose your head and get sick. The music untwists the chains that tie / The hidden soul of harmony: it liberates the senses, but perhaps only to take them captive in a different way; perhaps there are dull, sensible reasons why harmony is chained and bound by rules. I sometimes think Milton's insistence on the supremacy of Reason (which, notoriously, led him to place men, whom he saw as more rational, over women, whom he saw as more emotional and intuitive) is at heart a matter of self-preservation: he was so susceptible to seductive, instinctive beauty that in order to preserve a sense of self he had to construct barriers to ward it off.

This luscious description of the Lydian airs segues into the Allegro description of Orpheus: in fact he is not himself singing here – he is brought in to top off the heady description of this music, which is so powerful, so sweet, so overwhelming that not only might Orpheus himself, the ultimate singer, have sung it, but it would have accomplished what his actual song did not: the unconditional return of his dead love. (Eurydice is half-regain'd because Pluto, ruler of Hades, was so moved by Orpheus's laments that he did allow her to return to life – but only if the poet could resist looking back at her until they were out of the underworld. When they had almost made it out he could no longer resist and she melted back among the shades.) The mere mention of Orpheus's story brings in undercurrents of death and dissolution, but its primary purpose here is as a hyperbolic cap to the tribute to music's potentially dangerous beauty. The glancing reference to his tragedy is presented in glowing and apparently retrospective terms: as mentioned earlier, he is not himself singing; apparently his life, as well as his attempt to regain his lost love, are in the past, since he is in Elysium, the portion of the underworld dedicated to the noble and heroic. We know he is there because he is sleeping sweetly (his golden slumbers) on a bed of Elysian flowers. He is awakened by the strains of this music (and again, there is the warning undercurrent: strain is used here in the sense of a piece of music played or performed, but it can also mean pressure or force of a potentially dangerous kind). But this pressure is still sweet, still lovely, half-heard and dreamy among the immortal flowers.

Contrast this with the Penseroso Orpheus. Again, Milton transitions from the stage: this time, we get the noble dignity of Gorgeous (that is, richly beautiful) Tragedy, which glides by, as swiftly as life, in Scepter'd Pall: the scepter is a reminder that most tragedies dealt with rulers and others of high social station, and also of the status of tragedy itself as the sovereign among literary genres. The pall is a cloak or covering, but it often refers specifically to one over a coffin or hearse, and it can also mean to cast a gloomy shadow over something, or to perceive something as casting such a shadow. So with a few brief words Milton has summoned up an image of tragedy and reinforced its traditional status as dignified, royal, somber, and death-haunted. The sad (that is, serious-minded) Virgin referred to might be Tragedy, or the "divinest Melancholy" invoked at the opening of the poem. Melancholy here is more than the gentle sadness the term evokes today; it was considered a physical as well as mental condition (it was one of the four humours that were held to determine personality), and it suggests thoughtful thoughts, conveying a shadowed range from the gently autumnal to the deepest despair.

In Il Penseroso Milton emphasizes its contemplative, pensive side, and its deep meditative beauty. Just as it has its claim on theater in the form of Tragedy, so melancholy has its music. He first seeks the legendary ancient Greek Musaeus (whose name means one belonging to the Muses), and then invokes the other great singer of the Attic myths, Orpheus, whose presentation here is much more poignant than in the golden glances of L'Allegro: this time, he is himself singing, and at the height of both his powers and his anguish, when he is pleading with the King of the Dead to release his beloved. The iron tears are such a vivid and effective detail, suggesting both the obdurate nature of Pluto and the mighty power of the song that could elicit such tears. The wonderfully balanced and rhythmic phrases made Hell grant and what Love did seek sum up the Orphic power with elegant concision. (And this line foreshadows a major theme of Milton's major work, Paradise Lost: the victory of Love over Hell.) The overuse of abstractions can enervate a poem, but Milton deploys them cannily here: among the profusion of specific details, he suddenly strips the plight of Orpheus down to its naked archetypal essentials: Love opposed to Hell. These four lines are some of my favorite lines of poetry. Milton makes a glorious case for the Allegro view, but it's difficult not to feel that his heart is really with Penseroso.

I took these excerpts from John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes, though these two poems are often anthologized and would also be in any collection of Milton's major (but non-Paradise-Lost) works. On my last trip to Moe's Books I came across a handsome edition from The Heritage Press of these two poems that included Blake's illustrations; it's out of print but you can find copies on line. The Ben Jonson poem is from the Penguin edition of The Complete Poems of Ben Jonson, edited by George Parfitt. I actually cannot read these poems now without hearing them as set to music by George Frederic Handel (though in hilariously eighteenth century fashion, his librettist had to add a third section praising Moderation), and I can't hear his setting without picturing the Mark Morris Dance Group performing Morris's version (whose costumes were inspired in part by Blake's illustration) – time and experience enrich (or possibly distort) art with a very personal patina whose accretions cannot be removed. For old time's sake I was going to recommend the first recording of the Handel piece that I heard, by Banchetto Musicale (now Boston Baroque), conducted by Martin Pearlman and with a cast – Nancy Armstrong, Mary Westbrook-Geha, Sharon Baker, Frank Kelley, and James Maddalena – that brings back memories of many concerts in Boston long ago, but it seems to be out of print (indeed, completely invisible to sight; I couldn't find used copies on-line either). There are a number of other fine recordings available; I've heard most of these and all have their beauties. Handel's setting is one of my favorite pieces by one of my favorite composers, but – and I'm slightly ashamed of this, but not too proud to admit it – I do think that the solo "Sweet bird, that shunn'st the noise of folly" goes on about twice as long as it really needs to, and I've thought that every time I've heard the piece, live or on recordings. There is now also a DVD of the Mark Morris group performing L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato; I have it but haven't watched it yet. Locals are lucky enough to have the opportunity of seeing the work live next March, presented in Berkeley by Cal Performances.

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