Wednesday, April 26, 2017


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."