Clive James on Milton: shooting down a few soaring similes?

article exploring Milton’s overt learning

This article, published online and linked above should be read by all students of Milton as an antidote to the Milton scholars who praise his erudition and flights of Classical allegory as evidence of the strength of his poetic invention.  Go on – challenge yourselves.  His recent book: Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 is a fascinating read and is a useful addition to your independent research.

Poems of a lifetime


Clive James on Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and lessons in the “shutting up” of poetry

Published: 14 May 2014
Library/Writer Pictures

When I was young, cartoons by James Thurber were so widely known that people would refer to them in conversation just by quoting the captions. I remember not quite understanding the reference in one caption: “I said the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces – but let it pass, let it pass”. I thought the line very funny at the time but I didn’t know that Thurber was quoting Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon”. You don’t need to get the reference to get the joke; but the joke eventually got me to Swinburne, who would gradually turn out to be the most accomplished poet that I couldn’t stand. Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, would occasionally throw in an alliterative line for effect (“Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad”) but Swinburne wanted the whole poem to be that way: a meal of popcorn. Sometimes, in his blizzard of alliteration, he failed to notice that he had written an identity rhyme instead of a rhyme:

“And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten . . .”

Perhaps he noticed but thought we wouldn’t, intoxicated as we were bound to be by his sonic hurtle. But for a poet to be all sound is nearly as bad as for a painter to be all paint. After several attempts over the years to detect any signs of an underlying strength, I still find that a Swinburne poem affects me like a painting by John Bratby: there is so much impasto that the only tension lies in your wondering whether it will slide off the picture and fall on the floor. I have to give up on Swinburne; there is no time to go on quarrelling; and anyway there are problematic poets with whom one can quarrel to more purpose.

Look into Chapman’s Homer and you can see what alliteration once did, long before Swinburne arrived to overdo it. Agamemnon kits himself out before going into battle:

“Then took he up his weighty shield, that round
about him castDefensive shadows; ten bright zones of
gold-affecting brass
Were driven about it, and of tin, as full of gloss
as glass,
Swelled twenty bosses out of it . . .”

While the “defensive shadows” are good, “as full of gloss as glass” is beyond good: it’s brilliant. Just don’t let Swinburne hear about it. But you can’t stop poets finding inspiration in the heritage, and no doubt to be as learned as possible is not just a duty, but a good thing; and yet you can’t help wishing that some of the learned poets since Shakespeare had been blessed with the knack of forgetting what they had read.

For much of his life, Milton needed his memory because he couldn’t see. When he considered how his light was spent, he didn’t complain about being too often driven back into his remembered books. Perhaps he didn’t see the problem. But my quarrel with Paradise Lost – man against mountain! – begins with how Milton’s beaver-dams of learning turn streams of invention into stagnant ponds. One of the several Miltonians among my friends kindly goes on telling me that the displays of learning were part of the invention. Milton obviously believed that to be true. But here I am, once more submitting myself to Paradise Lost in the hope of being caught up; and once more realizing that the famous clash between T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis on the subject of Milton (Leavis did most of the clashing) was not a quarrel about nothing. It was really about a monumental example of poetic genius defeating itself; because the question of the possible insufficiency of his single most important work would never have arisen if it did not seem to pride itself on undoing things that Milton well knew how to do. A consummate lyricist faced with his biggest opportunity, he strained every muscle to be bad. Let one illustration serve, from Book IX. Eve has just spoken, and now she is described:

“Thus saying, from her Husbands hand her hand
Soft she withdrew, and, like a Wood-Nymph light,
Oread or Dryad, or of Delia’s Traine,
Betook her to the groves, but Delia’s self
In gait surpassed and Goddess-like deport,
Though not as shee with Bow and Quiver armed,
But with such Gardning Tools as Art, yet rude,
Guiltless of fire had formed, or Angels brought.
To Pales, or Pomona, thus adorned,
Likest she seemed – Pomona when she fled
Vertumnus – or to Ceres in her prime,
Yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove . . .”

Such passages, and there are scores of them, are impoverished by their riches: erudition distorts the picture, whose effect divides into the poetic and the encyclopedic. This element of Miltonics can be called uniquely his only because he did the most of it: in fact, it’s a hardy perennial. In the previous century, Spenser had been often at it, as when he loaded a library on top of his two swans in “Prothalamion”:

“Two fairer birds I yet did never see:
The snow which doth the top of Pindus strew,
Did never whiter shew,
Nor Jove himself when he a Swan would be
For love of Leda . . .”

Even those among his readers who knew nothing about Greece might possibly have known that Pindus was its principal mountain range, and everybody knew about shape-changing Jove and his attentions to Leda. Similarly, readers of Marvell’s “Bermudas” probably knew that Ormus – still in business at the time, although soon to decline and vanish – was a kingdom notable for wealth:

“He hangs in shades the Orange bright
Like golden Lamps in a green Night.
And does in the Pomegranates close,
Jewels more bright than Ormus show’s.”

But here we see where the trouble with this aspect of Miltonics really starts: when an encyclopedic reference is outclassed by its poetic surroundings, like a fake jewel in a fine setting. The line about the lamps in the green night is one of Marvell’s best things, and poor old Ormus pales beside it. (Milton, too, dragged Ormus in, and to even less effect.) One hesitates to rhapsodize about the pure spring of inspiration, but there is such a thing as clogging the pipes.

The awful thing about the apparent success of Milton’s unyielding stretches of leaden erudition was that the plumbing of English poetry was affected far into the future. Without Milton’s example, would Matthew Arnold have taken such pains to burden his “Philomela” with this lumbering invocation of a naiad and her habitat?

“Lone Daulis, and the high Cephissian vale?
Listen, Eugenia . . .”

But surely Eugenia has stopped listening, and is checking the menu for room service. At least we can say, however, that Arnold, by perpetrating such a blunder, helped to define what makes “Dover Beach” so wonderful: apart from Sophocles, nobody from classical times makes an appearance, and even his bit is part of the argument, not just a classical adjunct parked on top of the edifice like a misplaced metope. Milton, of course, schooled himself well in the trick of pulling a learned reference into the narrative texture, but all too often, no matter how smoothly the job is done, the most you can say of it is that it sounds good.

A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start

But sounding good can’t even be called a requirement. It’s a description. A poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start. Hence the shortage of real poems among the global planktonic field of duds. In the countries of the Anglosphere, the poet’s first relationship is with the English language even when the poet is indigenous. There is therefore no mystery, although there is some sadness, about the shortage of Australian Aboriginal poets. Until the corrective opinion of such inspired Aboriginal leaders as Noel Pearson prevails, it will go on being true that too few people of Aboriginal origin are masters of the country’s principal language. Published in 2009, the Macquarie PEN anthology attempted to compensate for this imbalance artificially by including anything in English from an Aboriginal writer that might conceivably be construed as a poem, even if it was a political manifesto. It wasn’t the first attempt in Australian literary history to give Aboriginal culture a boost into the mainstream. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Jindyworobak movement did the same, with whitefella poets rendering themselves unreadable by using as many of the blackfella’s totemic terms as possible. New Zealand might have been in the same position with regard to the Maoris, had it not been for the advent of Hone Tuwhare (1922–2008), in whose poem “To a Maori Figure Cast in Bronze Outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland” the bronze figure speaks thus:

“I hate being stuck up here, glaciated, hard all
and with my guts removed: my old lady is not
going to like it . . . ”

After twenty-five lines of brilliantly articulated bitching, the statue signs off: “Somebody give me a drink; I can’t stand it”. Tuwhare was himself a Maori, so the argument was over. Finally it is the vitality of language that decides everything, and this hard fact becomes adamantine as one’s own vitality ebbs.

Finally it is the vitality of language that decides everything

That’s not all: as time runs out, the mind is weighed down with a guilty mountain of the critical duties that won’t be attended to. There is barely time to read Elizabeth Bishop’s poems again and pay them a less stinted praise. When I first wrote about her, thirty years ago, I tried to be clever. It was a failure of judgement: she was the clever one. Will I get myself off the hook just by saying that I ended up with almost as many lines by Bishop in my head as by Robert Lowell? What one feels bound to acknowledge fully is her artistic stature. Of her moral stature there can be no question. The big book of her letters, One Art(1994), is a mind-expanding picture of a difficult yet dedicated life, and a smaller book of letters, Words in Air (2008), by collecting her correspondence with Lowell, defines the ethics of a historic moment: a moment when poetry, queen of the humanities, took a step towards the opportunistic privileges of totalitarianism. Lowell wanted her endorsement for his bizarre temerity in stealing his wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters to use unchanged in his poetry. Bishop refused to approve; and surely she was right. Students in the future who are set the task of writing an essay about the limits of art could start right there, at the moment when one great poet told another to quit fooling himself.

The business of poetry is now much more equally distributed between the sexes than it was even in the period after the Second World War, when women seemed to be taking up poetry as if it were a new kind of swing shift, the equivalent of putting the wiring into silver bombers. There had always been women poets, from Sappho onwards, and a few, such as Juana Inés de la Cruz, defined their place and time; but in English poetry, a small eighteenth-century triumph like Anne, Countess of Winchelsea’s poem “The Soldier’s Death” did little to remind the literary men of the immediate future that there could be such a thing as a poet in skirts. They might remember the poem, but they didn’t remember her. True equality really began in the nineteenth century: Christina Rossetti, for example, wrote poems of an accomplishment that no sensitive male critic could ignore, no matter how prejudiced he was. (There were insensitive male critics who ignored it, and patronized her as a cot-case: but the tin-eared reviewer is an eternal type.) Elizabeth Barrett Browning was spoken of in the same breath as her husband. He might have been the greater, but nobody except devout misogynists doubted that she was in the same game.

In the twentieth century, Marianne Moore achieved the same sort of unarguable status: she was acknowledged to be weighty even by those who thought she was fey. Back in the late 1950s, I would listen to an all-poetry LP that included Moore reciting “Distrust of Merits” and come away convinced that she had the strength to make seriousness sound the way it should. When she said “The world’s an orphans’ home” I thought hers was the woman’s voice that took the measure of the war in which the men had just been fighting to the death. Leaving aside Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore would have been enough on her own to make women’s poetry seem like an American thing. She was a Special Forces operative in a black tricorne hat. But there was also Edna St Vincent Millay, whose sonnets, despite their wilfully traditionalist structure and diction, looked more and more original to me as time went on, to the point where, in my mind, I was casting the movie about her affair with Edmund Wilson. Edna and Edmund could easily have become as famous as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, if not for one vital factor: Plath was the formative woman poet for whole generations throughout the English-speaking world, whereas Millay has never really caught on. But then, hardly anyone has ever caught on like Plath. In the whole of literature’s long history, Plath must be the supreme example of a poet breaking through to masses of people who know nothing about poetry at all. Fans of Byron had read verse before.

But if we look only for a big impact, we are treating women’s poetry as a commodity. The important thing is that women’s poetry has joined men’s poetry in the harsh realm of art, where nothing except quality can survive the perpetual bush fire of time. Donne, in one of his regrettably few statements about how “Metricall compositions” are made, referred to the putting together of a poem as “the shutting up”. An unfortunate term, and we could use a better one; because there can’t be much doubt that the shaping of a poem is also a pressure, in which the binding energy of the poem brings everything inside its perimeter to incandescence. If that were not the prize, then the great women poets of our time would not have worked so hard to join the men.

I still make plans to live forever: there are too many critical questions still to be raised. Most of them can never be settled, which is the best reason for raising them. Who needs a smooth technique after hearing Hopkins’s praise “All things counter, original, spare, strange”? Well, everyone does, because what Hopkins does with the language depends on the mastery of mastery, and first you must have the mastery. And how can we write as innocently now as Shakespeare did when he gave Mercutio the speech about Queen Mab, or as Herrick did when he wrote “Oberon’s Feast”, or even as Pope did, for all his show of craft, when he summoned the denizens of the air to attend Belinda in Canto II of The Rape of the Lock? Well, we certainly can’t do it through ignorance, so there goes the idea of starting from nowhere. Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realize what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.

Clive James’s most recent collection of poems is Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, which was published in 2012. His Opal Sunset: Selected poems 1958–2009 and a collection of his essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, both appeared in 2009, while The Blaze of Obscurity, the fifth volume of hisUnreliable Memoirs, appeared in 2010.

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