366. (John Milton)

In a work of literature, rightness of feeling coincides with a feeling of rightness; authors apprehend just what and how much is, and should be, felt in any situation and also bear in mind what it means for human action and thought to be fundamentally normative (experienced within and against the notions of the good and the true). In a work of literature (or art), apprehending the rightness of feeling is inseparable from apprehending the feeling of rightness. To apprehend what is rightly felt in a particular situation involves apprehending a feeling for rightness. Literature gets within its judgments (what is right in a particular situation) the conditions of those judgments, and this in turn depends on a feeling for what validates that rightness; a feeling that there are larger measures of rightness and goodness. “Feeling” here might be replaced by “knowledge,” but “feeling” is more accurate both to what literature shows and to the lived experience of rightness, often implicit, visceral, or subconscious.

Criticism needs to be alive to both the rightness of feeling and the feeling of rightness in a poem. The satisfaction that most derive from literature owes to both: literature communicates a feeling that seems right for the situation but also communicates what it feels like to live beneath the auspices of “ought,” to live normatively against “the good” and “the true.” The rightness of both is contained within, made possible by, the words; and the simultaneous sense of what it is right to feel and what rightness feels like is in turn inseparable from the feeling that the words in a text are right, and so to understand why a word is right, what it has been chosen or why it fits, demands that we understand both rightness of feeling and the feeling of rightness. (Though I am writing about literature, I might be writing about any art, or any form of thought that contains the grounds of judgment within each particular act of judgment).

Attention to single words should not be taken as an excuse for ignoring the poem’s Classical allusions or pastoral mode, but it can also alert us to how Milton’s feelings for rightness are at one with the poem’s rightness of feeling. In “Lycidas” for instance, take the lines:

Rough Satyr’s danc’d, and Fauns with clov’n heel,

From the glad sound would not be absent long;

And old Damaetas lov’d to hear our song.

We can find something similar in the line “Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas | Wash far away where’er thy bones are hurl’d.” Once again, the effect is partly syntactical, as the inversion of “shores and sounding seas | wash far away” yields to the simplicity of “where’er they bones are hurl’d.” The sense is also strangely circular, since the “far away” where the seas wash “thee” is characterized by being wherever it is that his bones are hurl’d: you are wherever your bones are; there is no saying where; such is the indifference of the earth to those who die. But something changes in the lines: “thee…wash far away” is darkened and roughened in “where’er thy bones are hurl’d.” Milton has just apologized for “dallying with false surmise,” imagining the flowers strewing the “laureate hearse” where Lycidas lies; now these lines make clear why he apologized. Delightful as the fiction might be, it is just that: a fiction. We ought to hear not Milton’s callousness in “where’er thy bones are hurl’d,” but his sense of the callousness of nature; rather than a vicarious pleasure in the violence of the seas, this is a chastened recognition that that violence will not allow his own fantasies to stand. The convention of the pastoral is no guard against what happens to bodies when they die; it is no guard against bad luck, the chance of embarking on a flawed vessel. Instead, it can accommodate Milton’s understanding of how fickle, seemingly cruel but in fact arbitrary, the world can be. Lycidas is not only saved in the sense that he is elsewhere, but he is saved because he is elsewhere (“other groves and other streams”), because this world cannot save or preserve, whatever the pleasures it affords. That is where Milton turns to prophecy and psalm:

There entertain him all the Saints above,

In solemn troops, and sweet societies,

That sing, and singing in their glory move,

And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.

“Entertain” has the full (and not fulsome) sense it possesses in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, “Hell shall unfold | To entertain you two, her widest gates.” It suggests invite, encompass, and provide with pleasure and diversion. But the nature of the Saints’ welcome, of their solemnity and sweetness, is what is most surprising here: they both move to tears and console, and they do so “for ever.” “For ever” is set against the “weep no more” of the next line; it is not that Lycidas in heaven will weep no more, but that in heaven Lycidas will recuringly weep and be consoled. It might be thought that “forever” means “permanently” but if that is the case, then we need to make sense of the ongoing singing of the Saints; it seems odd to think they sing once, get the crying done with, wipe off the tears and leave Lycidas alone. Milton suggests that the infinitude of heaven is also an infinitude of feeling met by endless compassion and care; heaven brings a deepening and transforming of the sorrow that the poem aspires to express, rather than an outright denial of it (it is different, but it still lives on the nerves of the disembodied souls).

The poem imagines, but does not dwell with, the “for ever” of the Saints. The last four lines of the poem:

And now the sun had stretch’d out all the hills,

And now was dropp’d into the western bay;

At last he rose, and twitch’d his mantle blue;

To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new.

The rightness of feeling here is at one with the feeling for rightness–the rightness of timing of a life lived well, of mourning extended but not distended, and of the being at one with a world that offers the compensations of new delights as well as the prospect of new sorrows. The movement of “And now…and now…at last…tomorrow…new” is not only a promise of moving on, but an apprehension of what it is to measure the time of life, a life that is restored to earth, that cannot, and should not, linger in the thought of heaven, or the thought of death.


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