Thursday, March 25, 2010

On irritable reaching...

Kneejerk Poetics sez John Milton is a boring old whiteguy-canonical-too-religious poet who quit rhyme, used Latinate diction, went blind, gave Satan all the good lines, came up with a not-as-good sequel to Paradise Lost (which no one would wish to be a page longer), and was mean to his daughters who wrote everything down for him. His worst sin of all: influencing Robert Lowell.

Nobody in AmPo today would think of Milton as a revolutionary - but that's, in fact, what he was.

Like Shakespeare the son of usurer, Milton devoted many years to thinking and writing about the problem of money - long, long before Pound did so, and more rationally. David Hawkes's new book John Milton: A Hero of Our Time shows how even though Milton wrote in a time during which there was no conception of such a thing as an "economy," he could have predicted our present worldwide moneymess. As for being a revolutionary, Milton made the case for regicide and defended it when it was actually implemented - doing so in a time when there had been no other revolutions in the Western world - and in a place where the idea of throwing out even a tyrannical King (let alone executing him) was virtually unthinkable. He also advocated the separation of church and state, and made the case for legalizing divorce. And of course, in verse, Milton's move away from conventional rhyme - no doubt considered to be yet another dubious career move at the time - is also now taken completely for granted.

So what does it take for a poet to be considered revolutionary?

Anyway, this is from the introduction to Hawkes's book:

"Milton tried to imagine a world completely free of idols. He even tried to bring such a world into existence, in his revolutionary political career. He applied the principle of iconoclasm to everything: to religion, but also politics, to law, to marriage, gender and sexuality to the most intimate feelings and experiences. He practiced iconoclasm everywhere: in church, in the Council of State, in the law courts and, one suspects, in bed. He made iconoclasm his way of life.

And it is here that we find Milton's relevance to the present, day, for ours is an era of the image. Capitalist society is idolatrous to a degree surpassing the worst nightmares of seventeenth-century iconoclasts. It is a cliche of postmodernist philosophy that the distinction between sign and referent has collapsed and with it our ability to distinguish an essential, objective reality beneath the hyper-real world of simulacra that constitutes everyday experience. For example, the concern of today's politics with style over substance, with perception rather than reality, is obvious and undisguised. The rise of the image has often been linked to a relativist, pragmatist morality that can conceive of no absolute, ultimate truth underlying rhetorical signification, and to the spread of popular materialism: the widespread assumption that the world of appearances is the only reality. Its causes have been traced to the growth of the market economy, which depends upon the manipulation of images, and to a change in the nature of money, which has mutated into a non-material, purely imaginary or symbolic form. Images rule our world, and a world ruled by images needs an iconoclast.

Since Milton believed that idolatry was slavery, he would not be surprised to find that virtually everyone in capitalist society is enslaved.


Milton was that rarest of beasts, otherwise virtually unknown in the modern Western world: a supremely talented artist who also exercised significant political power. The author of Paradise Lost was also Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the revolutionary Council of State. The poet who gave us "Lycidas" was also the government propagandist commissioned to produce the official defense of the King's execution... Milton provides an example, almost unique in the history of capitalist society, of an artistic intellectual's attempt to put his theories into practice."

After 9/11, the English critic John Carey wrote a piece in the TLS that referred to the violent and angry Samson Agonistes as "an incitement to terrorism" - and wondered whether it should be "withdrawn from schools and colleges and, indeed, banned more generally." So much, remarks Hawkes, "for the notion that Milton's work is 'a monument to dead ideas.' Milton's prose and poetry are just as dangerous and inflammatory, perhaps even more so, in the twenty-first century than they were in the seventeenth."

It is, Hawkes concludes, "the heavy responsibility of each individual student of Milton to decide for himself or herself who are the idolaters of the twenty-first century."


Henry Gould said...

"Reading Milton. That mans Soul, it seems to me, was distended as wide as Creation. His Powr over the human mind was absolute and unlimited. His Genius was great beyond Conception, and his Learning without Bounds. I can only gaze at him with astonishment, without comprehending the vast Compass of his Capacity."

- John Adams, age 21, writing in his journal (1756)

Steven Fama said...

Milton, yes!

"Black-fire" and all the other proto sort of surrealist imagery in Paradise Lost (Philip Lamantia went through the first part of the book once, marking such phrases or passages, but alas that book is apparently lost).

But anyway speaking of "sort of" it is sort of hard for me to believe that this post on revolutionary Milton didn't bring in Areopagitica. Not to get all legalistic on anybody, but isn't that Exhibit A in any discussion of the man's relevance to individual freedom (my code words for revolution)?

Don Share said...

Thanks yet again, Steven! What a lost treasure Lamantia on PL is, along with Bunting's redacted Shakespeare sonnets!

Needless to say, Hawkes talks about Areopagitica; and I guess I assumed everyone got a bellyful of it in school already, or I'd certainly have mentioned it. Then again, I wasn't an English major, so could be wrong about that!!! But yes, it's Exhibit A plus.

Yrs. gratefully.

P.S. Can't someone put together a selected Eigner implemented your critique of the collected? Or are the rights to such an undertaking reserved by C.F. and R.G.? Just wondering, because even though I'd not miss a single poem of Eigner's, what could be better than a beautiful selected along the lines of, say, either of the O'Hara's?

Steven Fama said...

Hi Don,

I was taught Milton including Areopagitica as an English major, but that was "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." I hope it's still taught today, but good question.

As to Eigner, I think maybe the first part of your P.S. is garbled? But not understanding completely rarely stops me, so I'll answer anyway.

Copyright of Eigner's work resides in his estate / heirs. I'm not sure who has the say so on that, including whether there is a literary executor (if there is, that person may control all publication of the work).

The editors of the Collected, per se, aren't the executor (although sometimes they can be one and the same).

Ron Silliman's March 18th post called for a Selected Eigner, based on what he considered the distribution limitations of the Stanford volumes.

In response, in that day's comment box, editor Faville wrote, "We do intend to do a selected . . . ."

I assume the "we" refers to his co-editor and Stanford. As such (to finally answer your question), I assume that re-setting the poems ain't going to happen.

Meanwhile I've read the books, hard, and am still doing that in fact. I've also (may I plug my latest blog post?)just put yesterday a long, large fully-illustrated post on what I think are an interesting sub-set of Eigner's poems (click to see).

Don Share said...

I'm the king of garble, that's for sure! Thanks again, Steven. Your post on LE and current events is ingenious and wonderful! I loved it, and it really illuminates Eigner nicely. I hadn't seen the end of the comment stream on Ron's blog, so missed that bit about those guys intending a selected. I don't know if you've seen the book Becoming Marianne Moore, in which her first book is presented by way of facsimile versions of periodical publications as well as of the eventual book - but I've always thought it fascinating. Eigner in facsimile, I suppose, isn't going to happen beyond your own blogging, however, so... keep up the outstanding work!

Steven Fama said...

Thanks, Don. Just so it's clear, the bits of Eigner poetry on the "poems-from-the-news post were scanned from the Stanford volume pages, enlarged a tad ore more, and placed on the blogger-page (the screen) so that there's a reasonably wide left margin. They're not facsimiles, in other words, in the sense of taken from the manuscript pages.

I have a half-dozen other "things" about Eigner poems I've written in my head, which of course doesn't count for ANYTHING. I hope others beat me to all these other topics, as it would mean that many were writing on Eigner's poems (as opposed to about the books).

Henry Gould said...

On Milton, recommend Geoffrey Hill's recent book of poems, "Scenes from Comus"...