A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Milton

From Paradise Lost, Book IV, lines 205-318 

Beneath him with new wonder now he views
To all delight of human sense expos'd
In narrow room Nature's whole wealth, yea more,
A Heaven on Earth: for blissful Paradise
Of God the Garden was, by him in the East
Of Eden planted; Eden stretch'd her Line
From Auran Eastward to the Royal Tow'rs
Of Great Seleucia, built by Grecian Kings,
Or where the Sons of Eden long before
Dwelt in Telassar; in this pleasant soil
His far more pleasant Garden God ordain'd;
Out of the fertile ground he caus'd to grow
All Trees of noblest kind for sight, smell, taste; 
And all amid them stood the Tree of Life,
High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit
Of vegetable Gold; and next to Life
Our Death the Tree of Knowledge grew fast by,
Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill.
Southward through Eden went a River large,
Nor chang'd his course, but through the shaggy hill
Pass'd underneath ingulft, for God had thrown
That Mountain as his Garden mould high rais'd
Upon the rapid current, which through veins
Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up-drawn,
Rose a fresh Fountain, and with many a rill
Water'd the Garden; thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether Flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears,
And now divided into four main Streams,
Runs diverse, wand'ring many a famous Realm
And Country hereof needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flow'rs worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious knots, but Nature boon
Pour'd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain,
Both where the morning Sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierc't shade
Imbrown'd the noontide Bow'rs: Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view:
Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gums and Balm,
Others whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rind
Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true,
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betwixt them Lawns, or level Downs, and Flocks
Grazing the tender herb, were interpos'd,
Or palmy hillock, or the flow'ry lap
Of some irriguous Valley spread her store,
Flow'rs of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose;
Another side, umbrageous Grots and Caves
Of cool recess, o'er which the mantling Vine
Lays forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant; meanwhile murmuring waters fall
Down the slope hills, disperst, or in a Lake,
That to the fringed Bank with Myrtle crown'd,
Her crystal mirror holds, unite thir streams,
The Birds thir choir apply; airs, vernal airs,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune
The trembling leaves, while Universal Pan
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance
Led on th'Eternal Spring. Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath'ring flow'rs
Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis
Was gather'd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and th' inspir'd
Castalian Spring might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive; nor that Nyseian Isle
Girt with the River Triton, where old Cham,
Whom Gentiles Ammon call and Lybian Jove,
Hid Amalthea and her florid Son,
Young Bacchus, from his Stepdame Rhea's eye;
Nor where Abassin Kings thir issue Guard,
Mount Amara, though this by some suppos'd
True Paradise under the Ethiop Line
By Nilus head, enclos'd with shining Rock,
A whole day's journey high, but wide remote
From this Assyrian Garden, where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living Creatures new to sight and strange:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native Honor clad
In naked Majesty seem'd Lords of all,
And worthy seem'd, for in thir looks Divine
The image of thir glorious Maker shone,
Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom plac't;
Whence true authority in men; though both
Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd;
For contemplation hee and valor form'd,
For softeness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
His fair large Front and eye sublime declar'd
Absolute rule; and Hyacinthine Locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clust'ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
Shee as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevell'd, but in wanton ringlets wav'd
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli'd
Subjection, but requir'd with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receiv'd,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.
Nor those mysterious parts were then conceal'd,
Then was not guilty shame: dishonest shame
Of Nature's works, honor dishonorable,
Sin-bred, how have ye troubl'd all mankind
With shows instead, mere shows of seeming pure,
And banisht from man's life his happiest life,
Simplicity and spotless innocence.
-- John Milton 

Milton seems to me the third greatest poet in English, after Shakespeare and Chaucer, particularly for his ability to roll like thunder in great cascades of blank verse. I read these lines aloud (well, under my breath) as I was typing them, and it made me aware once again how much mastery he had over the sound of the language, and the various tricks -- assonance, alliteration, chiasmus ("Flow'rs of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose"), oxymoron ("coy submission, modest pride"), and so on -- that he brings to his verse. 

Of course, one reason I'm aware of all these things is that my copy of Paradise Lost is heavily scribbled over with the notes I took from my grad-school Milton course, which was taught by Douglas Bush. There was nothing Miltonic about Mr. Bush himself; he was a small, elderly man (though at the time he taught me he was probably younger than I am today) with a dry (oh, hell, it was dull) classroom delivery. But he knew his Milton. There's a probably apocryphal story that someone once asked him about a trip he took by train from Boston to Los Angeles, and Bush said that it was unfortunate that he forgot to bring a book with him. "But, Mr. Bush," the other person said, "I thought you used to recite poetry to yourself when you didn't have a book with you." "I did," said Bush. "But Paradise Lost only got me as far as St. Louis." 

For his course, we had to memorize a certain number of lines from Paradise Lost ourselves, and write them out on the final exam. I chose the passage beginning "Not that fair field / Of Enna..." which is why I posted it here. (My friend Russell Merritt decided to memorize one of Milton's Latin poems, and since his room was next to mine in the dormitory, I got to listen to him recite it and act as prompter. It begins: "In se perpetuo tempus revolubile gyro..." but that's all I remember. I'll bet Russell can still remember all of it.) 

Mr. Bush's particular bêtes noires were critics who subscribed to the idea that Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it, an idea proclaimed by Blake and picked up by Byron and Shelley, among others. The fact remains, however, that Satan is the most compelling figure in Paradise Lost, and his defiance of authority is immensely attractive. The passage above is actually from Satan's point of view -- his first glimpse of Eden -- as Milton reminds us when he notes that "the Fiend / Saw undelighted all delight."

Mr. Bush was around before feminist criticism gained the influence it has today, but he was defensive about what may as well be called sexism in the poem (e.g.,  "Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd; / For contemplation hee and valor form'd, / For softeness shee and sweet attractive Grace, / Hee for God only, shee for God in him"). It is pretty indefensible from a modern point of view. But Milton had an unhappy marriage -- lord knows he was hard to live with -- and he argued for a kind of "no-fault" divorce in several pamphlets that got him in trouble with the authorities. That trouble also influenced his famous argument against censorship in Areopagitica, where he wrote, "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." Milton was a pretty complicated man. 

Actually, the best that can be said about Milton is that he wrote Paradise Lost, which, whatever you may think of its theology (and I don't think much of it myself), is a magnificent, if daunting, work of art. Samuel Johnson admired it too, but even he observed, "None ever wished it longer."