Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lycidas

Regarded by many critics as the finest elegy ever written in the English language, John Milton's Lycidas, composed in 1637 in response to the death of Edward King, a close friend and erstwhile rival of his at Christ's College, Cambridge. King was apparently a very promising young scholar, with a personality that endeared him even to those who competed with him, as did Milton, for a fellowship at the College. King died when his ship, which he was taking to visit his home in Ireland, was wrecked when it struck a rock near the Welsh coast.

Milton followed many of the traditions of elegiac verse, including bestowing a Greek pseudonym upon his subject, a pastoral setting with references to laurels and myrtles (symbols of poetic achievement), metaphorical embodiments of the fateful quality of death (comes the blind Fury / with th' abhorred shears, and slits the thin spun life), and the hope of eventual resurrection and immortality. The irony here, as with Shakespeare's early sonnets, is that we know next to nothing about their actual subjects; the immortality gained here is by the poem's author.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Pilgrim's Progress

Few books have been so widely read, only to plunge later into (relative) obscurity, as has Pilgrim's Progress. On many lists, it's among the ten best-selling books of all time, and has been translated into more than 200 languages -- and yet, today the most popular edition ranks only as twentieth in the amazon-narrowed category "Christian Classics and Allegory." But despite its fading from familiarity, signs of its influence are not hard to find in literature and pop culture; in the broadest sense, much of vast realm of "fantasy" literature -- one in which the narrator enters a "dream" or alternative world, especially one supplied with maps, owe their genesis to Bunyan's book.

The book, despite its relatively scarce passages of detailed description, has from the very beginning attracted illustrators, painters, and (later) filmmakers. The great English poet and artist William Blake is prominent among these, as are Byam Shaw, the Rheads, and Barry Moser. In 1850, a moving panorama of Pigrim's Progress, known as the Bunyan Tableuax or the "Grand Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress" was painted by Joseph Kyle and Edward Harrison May and displayed in New York; an early copy of this panorama survives and is at the Saco Museum in Maine. Many prominent American artists contributed designs for this panorama, among them Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, Henry Courtnay Selous, and Daniel Huntington. You can see scenes from this surviving copy here, or watch a video of the entire panorama here. Like films, panoramas were displayed using two reels -- though since the painting is more than eight feet tall, "changing the reel" is quite an undertaking!

Early film producers also seized upon the subject, beginning with a silent version in 1912; an animated version was produced in 1950, and the year after that it was the subject of an opera by the composer Ralph Vaughn-Williams. A 1978 live action version even featured a very young Liam Neeson in the role of "Evangelist" (he appears at 4:28 -- it's his very first film role)! And now, although the story has fallen from fashion. it's safe to say that there will be more versions to come -- CGI anyone?

JUST ADDED: Here's a photo of the board game version in use, and a video of the Moving Panorama.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Rave on, John Donne ...

John Donne's memorial at St. Paul's
If there is any rival at all for Shakespeare as the most gifted, fluid, clever, and yet substantive poet of the English Renaisance, it can be no other that John Donne. In the secular world, his racy, seductive verses positively pulsed with vivid life, and if they had been his only literary remains, his reputation would have stood nearly as high. But it is his sacred verse, sermons, and meditations, all composed after he had turned toward a religious life, that secure his ultimate reputation, and which have leant the language some of its most memorable phrases. "Ask not, for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee!" Death, and its anticipation, were as great a gift to Donne as life had been; he famously posed in his funeral shroud for his own coffin's portrait, and had the lid propped up in his study at old St. Paul's cathedral, where he was Dean. The carved effigy above is based on that same portrait, and had a miraculous second life of its own: When old St. Paul's was destroyed by fire in 1666, his was the only effigy that survived intact, falling into the crypt but remaining upright. It was, of course, installed in the new St. Paul's, where it remains to this day.

Donne's poetry, along with that of his fellow "metaphysical" poets, was for some time neglected, but was salvaged by no less a fellow poet than T.S. Eliot, whose 1921 essay brought them back into high esteem. It was no coincidence that Eliot, like Donne, had had a mid-life conversion to the Anglican faith, one which at once abstracted and heightened both their spiritual dimensions. But Donne, it seems likely, was a more comfortably ribald and lively poet, pre-conversion, than the awkward Eliot ever was; part of the pleasure of his verse lies in contrasting a beautiful piffle such as "The Flea" with the sonorous sentiments of the Holy Sonnets. Along the way, we'll pause to consider "Song (‘Go and catch a falling star’)," "The Sun Rising," "Love's Alchemy," and "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning."

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sweetest Shakespeare ...


The one work of English verse which endures without the help -- if that is what it is -- of educators and culture mavens, and the long list of people who like to prescribe certain works as 'good for you,' is Shakespeare's little book of sonnets.  Had he never written a play, they would still be remembered.  From their first publication to the present, they have been in people's hands, hearts, and mouths, and I would be willing to wager there are few English speakers alive today, in any corner of the globe, who do not know -- perhaps without realizing it -- a line or two of one of them. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments ... Summer's lease hath all too short a date... And the list goes on.

Shakespeare's sonnets were greatly admired even before they were published; as with the informal verses of many other poets of the day, they were circulated in manuscript.  It might be something like the present day, when the poetry or prose of a writer circulates online, via their blogs or those of their friends, before being picked up by a publisher to be "officially" brought out to the public.  It's not even clear whether Shakespeare himself authorized their publication, although the case is better for the sonnets than for the plays. It was, like the early days of the Internet, a wild time for publication, with piracy and bootleg editions rampant.

On a formal level, it is important to distinguish the "Shakespearian" sonnet from its "Petrarchan" precursor (in fact created by Giacomo da Lentini). Both are entirely in iambic pentameter; the  Petrarchan form was made up of an "octave" (two quatrains of four lines) rhyming abba/abba, followed by a closing sestet (cde/cde). The octave was supposed to describe some sort of quandry or problem, which the sestet would, to some degree, answer. It was Spenser, in English, who changed the division of the lines from the octet and sestet to three quatrains and a two-line envoi -- here the three quatrains could develop three takes on a single theme or a series, to which the envoi did not need to offer a clear answer.  And it was this far more elegant division that Shakespeare took up, following it in every one of his sonnets.

The order of the sonnets is uncertain -- neither published version had Shakespeare's explicit sanction -- but there are two broad sequences that readers then and now have discerned: the first are largely addressed to a male friend or lover, urging himself to outwit the passage of time and preserve his beauty by having offspring; the second series seem addressed to a harsh if not cruel "dark lady," a woman who has scorned the poet's attentions.

But these poems only live because we, every time we read them, make them new -- finding meanings suited to our time and place -- and thus our own understandings matter just as much as all of the above. So pick a sonnet -- any sonnet -- and describe what it means to you, and to whom (an envoi is a letter, or an ambassador) you would send it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Shepheards Calendar

The annals of literature are filled with dead forms and genres, but none of them is probably deader than the Pastoral. Once, along with Epic and Tragic verse, it stood among the prime modes of literary composition, but today it seems a strange and distant prospect, one whose very atmosphere -- although curiously unfamiliar -- seems at the same time already stale. And yet, for Edmund Spencer, it was precisely with this genre that he sought to resuscitate the moribund body of English verse, and breathe new life into a national literature.

The formula is simple: to move away from the City and its attendant troubles, back into an imaginary green world, populated with shepherds and shepherdesses, the former playing upon their oaten reeds and singing love calls, the latter wandering about fetchingly, replying with fleeting hints of "no" or "yes" before dashing off to still more distant pastures. As with the poetry of the medieval troubadours or the fleeting lovers on Keats's Grecian vase, love among these figures was generally unconsummated, desire eternally deferred, and the conventions of a progressive plot -- indeed, of any plot at all beyond romance in general -- were as though unknown.

Spencer's model was Virgil's Eclogues; as with many Renaissance writers, having a classical model was the shortest route to respectability. Within that model, though, Spencer took considerable freedoms, treating the bucolic settings as scenes for miniature dramas of his own. Two of his characters -- the fair Rosalind and her suitor Colin Clout (the latter borrowing his name from Skelton's poem) fairly outgrew the page, bestowing their names and histories on many successor characters, including Shakepeare's Rosalind in As You Like It. In other hands, such a poetic cycle might seem a piffle, but Spencer uses them to stake no less a ground than that of English poetry itself. In this, he is aided and abetted by one "E.K." (possibly a disguise for Spencer himself), who situates the verses that follow within both the classical world of Virgil and the vernacular realms of Chaucer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Skelton in the Closet

The English poet John Skelton is often given the title "Poet Laureate" -- an honorific only previously bestowed upon Chaucer, long before the title became a tedious government sinecure. He is easily one of the most under-appreciated poets in English, and yet for his breathing of life into what had been, before his career, a moribund realm of English poetry, it's my personal belief that he ought to be recognized as one of the greatest of all poets in all the history of those storied isles.

Skelton was known for his signature two-foot lines, sometimes jokingly referred to as "Skeltonics" -- and deservedly so.  It remains a native rhythm of the language, and there are many more recent poets -- rapper Chuck D among them -- whose rhythms trace a similar line.  Compare for instance this stanza from "Vppon a deedmans hed":
Your ugly token
My mind hath broken.
For I have discussed
We are but dust,
And die we must,
From worldly lust.
To this from Public Enemy's "Swindler's Lust":
Back it up
Vultures of culture
A dollar a rhyme
but we barely get a dime
Uh huh check it out!
If you don't own the master
Then the master own you
Who you trust
from Swindler's Lust?
From the back of the bus
Neither one of us
Control the fate of our soul
In Swindler's Lust …
The shortened beat of these lines -- and it's curious to note that "lust" is a rhyme-word in both -- makes for an ideal satirical meter.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

English and Heresy


The traditional tale of the ascendance of English into all its national glory in the wake of Chaucer's great work is -- alas -- far from the whole story. Not only did the substance and structure of English change after his death, but the language itself came under attack from the authorities of both Church and State. With the 1401 act De Hæretico Comburendo ("on the burning of Heretics"), the new King Henry IV, who had grown up hearing Chaucer himself declaim his verse, and whose personal copy of Troylus and Criseyde survives to this day, signed a bill which made the possession of heretical books -- and, by implication, any and all books written in English -- a crime punishable by burning at the stake, a practice heitherto unknown in England. Indeed, the reach of this new law was so broad that, although John Wycliffe, whose advocacy of an English version of the Bible gave his name to its earliest translations, was himself burned at the stake -- even though he had, by that time, been dead for many years; the authorities simply had him exhumed and burned his bones, tossing the ashes in the river Swift (see illustration above).

That Chaucer's own books could be, by this statute, made suspect, is confirmed by the arrest of one John Baron of Agmondesham for the possession of English texts, including a "boke of the Tales of Caunterburie," in 1464. But it was not only him; in the early years of the fifteenth century, nearly a hundred people across Britain were burned at the stake as "relapsed" heretics (it was a two-strikes-you're-out system). Many were women who had taken up the cause of the English scriptures, only to be arrested and forced to confess, among them Hawisa Moone and Margery Baxter. The Lollards believed that women, too, could be preachers of the Gospel, another strike against them in the eyes of the Church. But there were also men of strong views, including a Buckimghamshire blacksmith who swore he could "make as good a sacrament with my tongs upon my anvil as any priest upon his altar." The blacksmith was among those executed.

The ban on any translation of the Bible into English was extended by the Constitutions of Archbishop Arundel, and lasted until Henry VIII finally permitted -- indeed commanded -- the use of the English Bible in 1539. Ironically, much of the New Testament in this volume was based on the translation of William Tyndale -- a man burnt at the stake on orders from Henry himself. And despite the hope that the availability of Scripture would ease the tensions of the theological debate, they continued unabated; in 1542 Parliament passed a statute attempting to restrict who could read, and who could interpret, the English Bible -- and women (except noblewomen) were specifically excluded.