Thursday, 19 January 2012

Like A Falling Star


I saw this interesting configuration of elements the other morning, and it put these words into my mind:

... how he fell
From Heav'n, they fabl'd, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o're the Chrystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star
On Lemnos th' Ægean Ile ...

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

Ever read Paradise Lost? No? Not many people have. I probably wouldn't have myself, if it hadn't been a set text at school. It gives off a stuffy aura that is somehow off-putting, and I suppose few kids these days can manage even the most basic of the Biblical and classical references in what is a highly-allusive text. Lothlorien and Tatooine, yes; Arcadia and Scythia, not so much.

But, open it and start reading, and you'll find that it is one of the most glorious things ever written in the English language, a grandiloquent, intensely visual epic story told in the grand style; in places it resembles a sophisticated graphic novel, or screenplay. Just read that extract above, describing the fall of Mulciber, architect angel of Hell, out loud -- really out loud -- and feel the thrill it sends down your spine. There's magic there, and plenty more where that came from.

Should you feel like giving it a go, there's quite a good online version here.

14 comments:

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Thanks for the Milton; seems faintly sacrilegious, but I've downloaded a copy to my iPhone.

Mike C. said...

Sacrilege? Well, Blake always said that Milton was "of the Devil's party" without knowing it (i.e. the writing always gets more vivid when Satan is the subject). I think we can stretch that to include Mr. Jobs...

Mike

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Oh, you antiappleians!

Mike C. said...

... What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may condemn infernal MicroSoft,
And justify the ways of Jobs to men.

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Thanks. Good that I have the book now.

Martyn Cornell said...

Obligatory Housman quote: "Malt does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to man." And as Chesterton knew, you get to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

I always think the first quote is Chesterton -- I never think it's Housman, of all people.

Is "Paradise" a recommended pub, then? An odd association to invoke for a place of recreation for anyone who knows the poem, as I assume Chesterton means the cemetery...

Mike

Martyn Cornell said...

Yes, I'm sure Chesterton did mean the cemetery, though I doubt many people today associate Kensal Green with coffins, which is why the pub got away with the renaming.

I started to wonder what Chesterton thought of Housman: a dreadful miserablist, probably, I guessed. And hurrah, the wonders of the web enable us to find out. According to this book, Chesterton was one of Housman's Classics pupils at UCL: apparently we could learn more from p156 of N. Harte and J. North, The World of University College, London 1828-1978, but alas Google Books won't let me take a look. However, via Amazon's "look inside" function, we learn that Chesterton mentions Housman in his autobiography (that link may not work) and refers to him as part of his "collection of pet pessimists" but says that Housman "seems to me one of the one or two great classic poets of our time". Ain't the internet grand!

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

That's really interesting -- at the back of my mind, I think I recall something of the sort from a review of a Housman bio in the TLS.

The internet is indeed grand, but -- like any powerful vehicle -- the key is knowing how to drive it, and so few do (surprisingly). You, sir, are a master driver.

Mike

Huw said...

I studied English Literature at University and reading Paradise Lost was definitely the highlight. Settling in on winter evenings to ride the long incantatory sentences was a pleasure (although I’m not sure my resulting long essay on ‘The Fortunate Fall’ was up to much.)

Mike C. said...

Huw,

The importance of (a) reading poetry aloud and (b) deriving pleasure from it are much misunderestimated, in my view; we've come to regard it as a mental, intellectual activity, a bit like code-busting...

I think it helps if you have a gift for accents -- I was able to help my daughter grapple with the Ancient Mariner by insisting we read it aloud in a gritty Scouse... I have an unlovely Estuary accent, and it's fun to adopt the orotundities of Belfast, Glasgow or Newcastle.

Mike

Huw said...

You’re absolutely right; reading aloud leads to pleasure and understanding.

Paradise Lost only made sense as a whole once I’d surrendered myself to its rhythms and cadences – to be able to apprehend the sinuous lines of thought. It’s also ripe for code-busting! Maybe that’s why it’s so good.

Mike C. said...

Huw,

A large part of the pleasure, I think, is the way pre-20th c. poetry, read aloud, gives us permission to camp it up a bit and get away from that mumbly, shoe-gazing idea of poetry that vitiates and neuters a lot of contemporary work.

Talking of camping it up, did I hear someone out there say "It's Burns Nicht the nicht?"

Mike

Huw said...

Possibly, although I’ve always thought that a strong rhyme covers a multitude of sins. A well-declaimed poem doesn’t necessary make sense or be ‘art’.

We had haggis and the trimmings for dinner last nicht in honour o’ the great scoundrel.