Sunday, September 19, 2010

reading Lycidas

Thinking about Lycidas over the past few days, rereading the poem again & again. Thinking about Emerson in 1833, on his first transatlantic crossing, the ship caught in a gale & no-one on board knowing whether they were going to be alive or dead an hour hence, fishing the poem out of his memory: "I remembered up nearly the whole of Lycidas, clause by clause, here a verse & there a word, as Isis in the fable the broken body of Osiris."

Edward King, "a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637." "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" And who would sing for Milton, were he to drop dead at 28, author of a handful of minor poems? "So may some gentle muse / With lucky words favor my destined urn..." And who would sing for the 30-year-old Emerson, all his works yet to be written?

Ruskin, in Sesame and Lilies, seizes upon Lycidas – "a book perfectly known to you all" – & gives it an early & still unsurpassed "close reading":
Now go on: –

'Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast.
Blind mouths –'

I pause again, for this is a strange expression; a broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly.

Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look close at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character, int he two great offices of the Church – those of bishop and pastor.

A 'Bishop' means 'a person who sees.'

A 'Pastor' means 'a person who feeds.'

The most unbishoply character a man can have is therefore to be Blind.

The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed, – to be a Mouth.
In both instances, an immediate laying hands on a text familiar from childhood. (A nineteenth-century phenomenon, this easy assuming of familiarity with Milton's minor poems?) I didn't read Lycidas, I suspect, until I was in my mid-twenties. My students are encountering it, for the most part, for the first time – unless they've read it in another college course. What's lost in the university teaching of canonical poems when students (& for that matter their instructors) don't have that from-childhood familarity with the text? (More importantly, since there's no turning back the cultural clock, what's gained?)

Samuel Johnson hated Lycidas. One of the best "bad review" lines ever: "Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author."

For Johnson, the poem suffered in the first place from being a pastoral, "easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." (Keeping in mind that "vulgar" and "disgusting" meant something rather different in 1779 than they do now.) Its pastoral frame, its allegory, its "inherent improbability" – its lack of shall we say realism – mean that the poem "will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour." And Lycidas's "grosser fault" lies precisely in Milton's Renaissance humanism: its mingling of the "awful and sacred truths" of Christian religion with the "trifling fictions" of the classical pastoral. If Lycidas is praised, Johnson concludes, it is because the "blaze" of "reputation justly acquired" "drives the eye away from nice examination."

We could say, I think, that Lycidas just isn't the sort of poem Johnson likes; (and – moreover?) that it violates his criteria of aesthetic valuation, criteria which include a certain "smoothness" of texture, a certain realism, and above all an ironclad decorum: one simply oughtn't higglety-pigglety mix together classical nymphs & singing shepherds with Christian pastors, regardless of the etymology of "pastor" itself.

(Discuss, perhaps, in relation to Michael Thurston's "review" of Black Life?)


Norman Finkelstein said...

I teach Lycidas at least once every year or two, when I do the English major poetry survey (I also usually do some of the sonnets and a few chunks of Paradise Lost). The strange locutions that Ruskin likes and Johnson dislikes are one of the great features of the poem; overall, the defamiliarization takes place not only on the lexical level, but in terms of grammar (of course), genre expectations, you name it. I like to present the poem as a kind of visionary theater, with different figures, including the poet, coming on and offstage and having their say. Pace Johnson, I don't see it as primarily allegorical, despite the obvious figures. Unlike Spenser, the allegory is subordinated to the high prophetic mode.

Steven Fama said...


I imagine "Lycidas" may be tough to teach, with its now-archaic language and rather stiff overall point (the friend is dead but watches now over the shore so don't be upset about it.

On the other hand, just reading it again, I flipped over

. . . freakt with jeat

a phrase that would not be out of place in any number of the better hip-hop tunes (thinking of, say E-40s word-inventions).

And of course the closing line (blogger may screw this up, there is no line break here):

To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.

is wonderful both for the flipped adjective / noun at the end and its optimism.

Thanks Mark.