19. (John Milton)

The wryly and slyly passionate William Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral, at the end of the chapter on Milton and his eighteenth-century editor, the classicist Richard Bentley:

Like so many characters in history our first parents may be viewed with admiration so long as they do not impose on us their system of values; it has become safe to admit that in spite of what is now known to be the wickedness of such people they had a perfection which we no longer deserve. Without any reason for it in Milton’s official view of the story this feeling is concentrated only their sexual situation, and the bower where Eve decks their nuptial bed (let not the reader dare think there is any loss of innocence in its pleasures) has the most firmly ‘pagan’ and I think the most beautiful of the comparisons.

                                        In shadier bower
More sacred and sequestered, though but feigned,
Pan or Sylvanus never slept, nor Nymph
Nor Faunus haunted. 

[Quoting Bentley:] ‘Pan, Sylvanus and Faunus, savage and beastly Deities, and acknowledg’d feign’d, are brought here in Comparison, and their wild Grottos forsooth are Sacred.’ ‘These three Verses, after all his objections, were certainly Milton’s, and may be justified though not perhaps admired.’

Surely Bentley was right to be surprised as finding Faunus haunting the bower, a ghost crying in the cold of Paradise, and the lusts of Pan sacred even in comparison to Eden. There is a Vergilian quality in the lines, haunting indeed, a pathos not mentioned because it is the whole of the story. I suppose that in Satan determining to destroy the innocent happiness of Eden, for the highest political motives, without hatred, not without tears, we may find some echo of the Elizabethan fulness of life that Milton as a poet abandoned, and as a Puritan helped destroy.

Thus ends the chapter. Empson, principle among twentieth-century critics against Milton’s God, judged Milton to be a judge himself, admiring him for making out so clear a case, and left agape in horror only at the final terrible error at excusing God nonetheless; the understanding had been so great that the misstep is forgiven. Empson finds here another element of that judiciousness: the comprehension (and the communication) of that beautiful “Elizabethan fulness of life” that he exiled and condemned. He makes a similar point at the end of the full-length Milton study, Milton’s God: The root of his power is that he could accept and express a downright horrible conception of God and yet keep somehow alive, underneath it, all the breadth and generosity, the welcome to every noble pleasure, which had been prominent in European history just before that time.

Writing about Milton at all, without coming fresh off an intense course of reading, feels foolish; he’s rattling around in the back of my head, but these past few days, for whatever reason, I’ve read him with pleasure that I don’t think I’ve ever felt and since the idea behind the blog is at least some of the time to ‘strike while the iron is hot,’ rather than suspend my response until I carry through on more extensive reading, I thought I’d try to make sense of what I’ve read now.  I’ll be mostly avoiding the big poems as a consequence and focusing instead on a poem that I’m sure I’ve never read with any pleasure at all: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.”

The poem is the gateway to Milton’s major, mature works: it’s the first sustained flight he takes from the nest; and maybe because of that I found myself discerning in the basic patterns and habits of flight those motions that Empson’s eagle-eye spots, but that I’d not quite followed, in the epics. That pathos attached to the Gods and pleasures that Milton’s God (and Milton’s higher reasoning) is condemning, abandoning, or destroying.

The stanzas that surprised me most were XIX to XXI:


The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving. [ 175 ]
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shreik the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspire’s the pale-ey’d Priest from the prophetic cell. [ 180 ]


The lonely mountains o’re,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale
Edg’d with poplar pale, [ 185 ]
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flowre-inwov’n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.


In consecrated Earth,
And on the holy Hearth, [ 190 ]
The Lars, and Lemures moan with midnight plaint,
In Urns, and Altars round,
A drear, and dying sound
Affrights the Flamins at their service quaint;
And the chill Marble seems to sweat, [ 195 ]
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.

Thomas N. Corns, in the Blackwell Companion to Milton, distinguishes the Ode from contemporary celebrations of the nativity: only Milton develops the expulsion of the gods into a protracted ceremony based on spectacular punishment. The passage extends from stanza XVIII to stanza XXV, and each deity or group is dismissed with an apposite humiliation. Nymphs are turned off from the locations they haunt like camp-followers stripped and shorn in the rough justice of humiliation….Osiris, in the manifestation of a bull, is blinded by ‘The rays of Bethelehem’. Like an antimasuqe fleeing at the appearance of noble masquers, the creatures of the pagan creeds offer no resistance. There is a certain savage delight in the sadistic reverie about the effortless control exercised by the Christ-child.

I should include here the Osiris bit:

Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian Grove, or Green,
Trampling the unshowr’d Grasse with lowings loud: [ 215 ]
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud:
In vain with Timbrel’d Anthems dark
The sable-stoled Sorcerers bear his worshipt Ark. [ 220 ]

And now to return to Corns: his words make me ask whose is the “sadistic reverie” and who takes most “savage delight.” His critical description is frankly prurient in its comparison of the nymphs to stripped camp-followers. I’m not out to pinion Corns, but since he is so respected a critic of Milton, it seems fair to select him as a specimen; even if he is outlandish in his imaginative zeal for punishment, he does not at all acknowledge a whole course of music that Empson detects throughout Paradise Lost: the plaintive honoring of glories appreciated and mourned in their defeat at Milton’s (and Christ’s) hands. It is like Corns has heard only one motif in a symphony, when the power, the harmony, comes from the interaction between several; some of the essential strands that would play off of one another in the epic are already in the Ode.

The motif he misses is nostalgia, alongside the triumph of the Ode; I don’t think feeling can be inherent in meter or rhythm, but there is at least a distinct potential in the movement of these lines, the coil and release, from trimeter to pentameter, that makes them suitable for harboring nostalgia and triumph at once.  Marvell finds a similar juxtaposition, though from tetrameter to trimeter (stretch and then coil) in the Horatian Ode:

That thence the Royal actor borne
The tragic scaffold might adorn:
    While round the armèd bands   55
    Did clap their bloody hands.
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
    But with his keener eye
    The axe’s edge did try;

The famed Marvellian equanimity in the first quatrain is a matter more obviously of the balance between subjects: poor Charles, Marvell’s foe, gets one pair; he is magnificent even in defeat, and his couplet stretches out accordingly as he paces to his death at his own time; the armed bands, somewhat repugnant in their crass delight at spectacle are given the other pair of lines, tightly clipped and they clap without caring and without themselves recognizing the tragedy that Marvell sees. The second set of lines, though, is all on Charles and here the comparison with Milton is more to the point: these lines both refuse to exalt in Charles’ death and refuse to exalt Charles. One effect of the coiled couplet is to afford Charles a dignity opposed to the tragedy that he assumes in the tetrameter; jaunty by comparison with the couplet that precedes, they do not smack their lips in glee over having reduced Charles thus, but instead they adopt the movement that he has adopted himself; as he walks with sprightly confidence to test the axe with his eye, he throws off the mantle of tragedy, refuses to be clipped, and so walks with a clip. The lines do not exalt, as the crowd does. At the same time, even though they do not smack their lips, they refuse to indulge in any sort of grandiose, lachrymose exaltation; the coil of the second couplet snaps the spell of the first, breaks the tragic spell.

Wordsworth I’m almost certain heard the nostalgia in the movement of Milton’s Ode, when he recovers and modifies it, on occasion, in his own most famous Ode:

The pansy at my feet   55
 Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Wordsworth’s poem is nostalgic, yearning for an origin, but it is ultimately triumphant, and in the stanzas that close it out, embracing what remains rather than pining for what has been lost, we find none of the Miltonic movement at all; no coil—only strident, striving expansion. On the occasions where a pattern of coil and release are established and followed, with various degrees of release from coils variously tightened, the nostalgia is itself a compound of feelings and attitudes: in the lines above, weakness, the incapacity to see things otherwise, yielding the strength of desperation and the force of redress.


Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;  145
But for those obstinate questionings

The precise compound of feelings is something else here, since the content is something else, and even the movement (the nine syllables in the line of release, though Wordsworth might have had a way of counting it a pentameter): but I think that Wordsworth heard, whether in Milton or elsewhere, the suitability of this sort of metrical alteration for a verse that grants nostalgia a place in the triumphant train.

Though critics are quick to take for granted the nostalgia that Milton feels for Eden, I’m not sure it’s as much noticed in his relation to the myths of the Classical world; maybe it’s so obvious as to be silently assumed. All epics, being tales of origins, are tales of loss, with some regret for what is lost; what then makes Milton’s nostalgia any different? Above all, because it is a peculiar double nostalgia, an adult nostalgic for two childhood homes—those of the divorced and warring mother and father. The House of Jehovah and the House of Jove.  Milton, the child of estranged parents, loving both, but siding, alas, with the angry Father–yet not simply siding, and still needing to reconcile himself to the loss. 

The nostalgia for Eden is a bit peculiar; not only because of course Milton never knew it, but because most nostalgia depends upon our having only fleeting glimpses in memory of the original nest; the yearning is not only to recover the nest, but to recollect it more fully. Though Eden was lost, it was not lost to memory; there are plenty of accounts and Milton’s is another, very full. That these accounts conflict or are fantasies is not the point; that it was always a fantasy assumed to be reality made it all the easier to recollect in such depth and breadth.

But one of the main struggles of the Renaissance was in recovering that civilization that had been proclaimed a point of origin: the classical world had been real and its achievements were scattered and lost and all the more fetishized as precious talismans (think of the circulating etchings of Laocoon; think more obviously of the scholarship centering on manuscripts), and so the nostalgia is different from that which might have been felt for Eden.

Milton saw himself as a part of that Renaissance culture. F.T. Prince tells us, or told his readers half a century ago, that “Milton, who carries so great a weight of humanist and religious learning…remains, throughout all the vicissitudes of his century, a man of the later Renaissance.” Even though there would be nine years between the Ode (1629) and Milton’s direct exposure to European culture in his travels abroad (1638), the inheritance of Renaissance Classical learning was of course already with him. What’s more, the poem’s date–1629, Milton’s 21st year, the year in which he stepped into maturity–might be expected to occasion a nostalgic look backwards; his education was Classical as well as Christian, but to devote himself seriously as a poet for his times, and of his times, would perhaps already have meant devoting himself to becoming a Christian poet, and in some sense leaving behind the bounty of the pagans (Neil Forsyth, in his biography of Milton, says that as of 1630, Milton probably had not developed a puritanical antagonism to Laud, but that antagonism would have sprung from a mind already at work on matters of faith). The appeal of pagan Gods, evident now to any child who has read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, is immense; Milton would have grown up absorbed in the culture that fed off of, and fed into, the reality of those Gods, and even if it was easy for him to reject that reality as fantastical and not True, it seems plausible to say the least that he would have nonetheless have regretted having to tear himself away from a poetical devotion to that world, to having to celebrate it being stamped under the heel of Christ, along with Satan. The nostalgia might not only have been cultural—the Renaissance yearning to recover more fully the world of civilization that it took as its essential origin—but also personal: the spaces his imagination could recall as homes.

All of this comes near to other truths: Milton admired the Classical world’s achievements greatly; the Classics lived for him as they have lived for few others; to adequately describe Christ’s victory, the power of the world he conquers and redeems needed put forth in its own full, albeit specious, glory.


The lonely mountains o’re,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale
Edg’d with poplar pale, [ 185 ]
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flowre-inwov’n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

No pity for these nymphs? And not only no pity, but no regret for the hollows, groves and streams in which they dallied and sang? This is not Milton siding with Satan, or Milton sympathizing with the rebellious energies of the demons. And if I were to be told that pity and regret are not the same as nostalgia, that nostalgia is the desire to return home, I’d say what I said before, that it is the desire to fully recollect the home that is loss, that the impossibility of doing even this much gives rise to pity and regret.

Some critics reconcile the Ode’s Classical yearnings to its Christianity by way of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which was read throughout the Middle Ages as prophesying Christ, in the lines beginning “Dear child of the gods, increase of Jove” (“cara deum suboles, magnum Iouis incrementum”). But if Milton did have this eclogue in mind, what an irony he would have found in its final lines (I have the Ferry translation at hand):

So, little baby, may your first smile be                                                                           When you first recognize your mother, whose                                                               Long nine-months travail brought you into this world.                                                     That child who has not smiled thus for his parents                                                          No gods will welcome at their festal table                                                                        Nor any goddess to her amorous bower.

As many Christian readers would have realized, Christ would overturn those festal tables and amorous bowers; in the Ode, Milton shows him doing so.  I’d rather not reconcile the Classical yearnings to the Christian hopes at all, but instead to read Milton as nostalgic for two irreconcilable points of origin at once, where the two are at odds with one another, so that choosing one means not losing the other (it’s already been lost), but losing the hope of fully questing after, fully yearning for, the other. Committing oneself to regaining Eden, committing oneself to Christ, means losing out on the full nostalgia for the classical world.

At times, and maybe all of the time, it would be better to say of Milton’s nostalgia for the Classical world that it is really a nostalgia for that nostalgia that motivates the Renaissance learning in which he was formed.

Milton himself said that the Ode was both pastoral and epic; pastoral not only, perhaps, because it is about shepherds, but because, as Empson saw, pastoral was about the waste of life, the waste that results from the conflict between two ways of life, each better in some ways, but not as good in other ways, as the other. Empson’s binaries follow: the simple and the complex; the innocent and the experienced; the young and the old; the primitive and the civilized; the highborn and the lowborn….and maybe, in some guise, the Classical and the “Puritanical” (Milton’s anti-Royalist, anti-Laud Christian spirit, whatever we want to call it).  Empson’s book is about learning to live with waste—one of the profound preoccupations of his great mind—and it is not a coincidence, I think, that he ends his chapter on Milton and Bentley (the pastoral oppositions in that chapter are between the learned and the naive; the poet and the scholar; with Milton and Bentley each variously occupying each pole, so that the poles are stable but the players are not) with the passage that he does and commentary that he does, after not attending much to wastage elsewhere in the chapter; it is the one place in that chapter that Empson registers Milton’s sensitivity to the waste in Paradise Lost—a waste not of Eden (that waste can be redeemed), but of the civilization that Eden and Christianity were displacing; it is the shadow of the poem, investing it with life, but judged ultimately superfluous to true life. And what the epic does, the Ode is already doing: the task of pastoral: making waste tolerable.

Nostalgia is essential to the task because it is an attitude that is neither comic nor tragic: we do not, in tragedy, feel nostalgic for the life that has been wasted; it stuns us too much, puts us too far beyond our powers for subdued feeling, or perhaps for feeling anything at all. In comedy, the promise of abundance, of renewal, does not preclude nostalgia, but edges it out. In pastoral though, nostalgia is the key-note: the wistful desire to return to a point of origin is bound up in the desire that the potential that was once there has been wasted; it in this genre that authors find strength in what remains, knowing and showing that a great deal is gone from what was potential and possessed at the start.


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