Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mute Inglorious Miltons... And so on.

Ruminations upon the nature of fame and accomplishment.

Starts with a visit to an eudaemonist and the Stein quote. Haunting. Haven't read much Stein. The authority in the use of the third person singular knocks me out.

"one is certain that anybody who really has it in them"

Thinking about a post on the Bonecarver regarding primary critique, I pull up Gray's Elegy: "Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest." General web search on the phrase leads then to an interesting entry on regarding Lycidas and fame: "That last infirmity of Noble mind." A nice reference from Hamlet:

Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

Remember a Steiner line, from the essay The Uncommon Reader, about how most students could not even respond to the title of Lycidas (cf. James Woods, ever arch, Toppling the Monument). From Vergil's Ecolouges: "but 'mid the clash of arms, my Lycidas,/ our songs avail no more than, as 'tis said,/ doves of Dodona when an eagle comes."

When the eagle comes...

To Theocritus Idyl VII with the excellent line where Lycidas says he "hates the birds of the Muses that cackle in vain rivalry with Homer." Reeling back to Poe and his strangely(?) hopeful musings on future Miltons. Somehow stumbling upon the utterly arresting image of a stoning. Finally, as always with me, Steiner:

"an end to classic literacy"
"now passing quickly out of reach"
"fading rapidly from the reach of natural reading"
"Who would not sing for Lycidas?"
"What Muse for Granville can refuse to sing?"

And this final almost weary summation, an epitaph for the Tomb of Fame,

"And so on."

Which takes me straight back into Stein's what

"one does not in one’s heart believe."

Lycidas, goat-herder, poet, drowned friend/sailor - Eliot's Phlebas whose bones where picked in whispers. Mute inglorious whispers singing the true song of the all too human "fame". Lycidas, emblematic of Steiner's "far galaxies bending over the horizon of invisibility," Poe's "full extent of triumphant execution" becoming ghastly ironic in its undertones - the present day live burial of women and "inquires into lapidation." Lycidas, mocking the birds of the muses, invoking Adrasteia "she whom none escapes," now broken of wing, amnesiac, a crack whore on the corner of the 21st century, a mouth full of rocks and broken teeth. Lycidas who "visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world," now with no song, no poem, no singer, none who remember, drowned with his whisper-haunted bones is the final Mute Inglorious Milton.

From Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein:

And still one does not, no one does not in one’s heart believe in mute inglorious Miltons. If one has succeeded in doing anything one is certain that anybody who really has it in them to really do anything will really do that thing.

From Elegy written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

From Lycidas by John Milton

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of Noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes;
But the fair Guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th'abhorrèd shears,
And slits the thin spun life. But not the praise,
Phoebus repli'd, and touch'd my trembling ears;
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th'world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreds aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfet witnes of all judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in Heav'n expect thy meed.

From the Eclogues by Vergil:

Heard it you had, and so the rumour ran,
but 'mid the clash of arms, my Lycidas,
our songs avail no more than, as 'tis said,
doves of Dodona when an eagle comes.
Nay, had I not, from hollow ilex-bole
warned by a raven on the left, cut short
the rising feud, nor I, your Moeris here,
no, nor Menalcas, were alive to-day.
Alack! could any of so foul a crime
be guilty? Ah! how nearly, thyself,
reft was the solace that we had in thee,
Menalcas! Who then of the Nymphs had sung,
or who with flowering herbs bestrewn the ground,
and o'er the fountains drawn a leafy veil?--
who sung the stave I filched from you that day
to Amaryllis wending, our hearts' joy?--
“While I am gone, 'tis but a little way,
feed, Tityrus, my goats, and, having fed,
drive to the drinking-pool, and, as you drive,
beware the he-goat; with his horn he butts.“

From The Project Gutenberg EBook of Theocritus, Bion and Moschus by Andrew Lang:

The literary quarrels (to which Theocritus seems to allude in Idyl VII,
where Lycidas says he 'hates the birds of the Muses that cackle in
vain rivalry with Homer') were as stupid as such affairs usually are.

From The Domain of Arnheim by Edgar Allen Poe

Is it not indeed, possible that, while a high order of genius is necessarily ambitious, the highest is above that which is termed ambition? And may it not thus happen that many far greater than Milton have contentedly remained "mute and inglorious?" I believe that the world has never seen -- and that, unless through some series of accidents goading the noblest order of mind into distasteful exertion, the world will never see -- that full extent of triumphant execution, in the richer domains of art, of which the human nature is absolutely capable.

A Stoning in Tehran
[original image source removed from]

From In Bluebeard's Castle. Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture by George Steiner:

We have seen something of the collapse of hierarchies and of the radical changes in the value-systems which relate personal creation with death. These mutations have brought an end to classic literacy. By that I mean something perfectly concrete. The major part of Western literature, which has been for two thousand years and more so deliberately interactive, the work echoing, mirroring, alluding to previous works in the tradition, is now passing quickly out of reach. Like far galaxies bending over the horizon of invisibility, the bulk of English poetry, from Caxton's Ovid to Sweeney among the Nightingales, is now modulating from active presence into the inertness of scholarly conservation. Based, as it firmly is, on a deep, many-branched anatomy of classical and scriptural reference, expressed in a syntax and vocabulary of heightened tenor, the unbroken arc of English poetry, of reciprocal discourse that relates Chaucer and Spenser to Tennyson and to Eliot, is fading rapidly from the reach of natural reading. A central pulse in awareness, in the language, is becoming archival. Though complex in its causes and consequences, this dimming of recognitions is easy to demonstrate:

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.

Laurel, myrtle, and ivy have their specific emblematic life throughout Western art and poetry, and within Milton's own work. We read, in his fine tribute to Giovanni Manso:

Forsitan et nostros ducat de marmore vultus,
Nectens aut Paphiâ myrti aut Parnasside lauri
Fronde comas. . . .

[Perhaps he would produce our features / With Paphian myrtle or Parnassian laurel / Twining our hair. . . .]

The ivy stands for poetry when it is particularly allied to learning: Horace's Odes 1. 1. 29 and Spenser's Shepheards Calendar for September tell us that, as they told it to Milton. Odes 1 is at work also in "myrtles brown" (pulla myrtus). The Shepheards Calendar for January and Macbeth, obviously, are resonant in the use of "sere." And the echo moves forward to Tennyson's Ode to Memory and "Those peerless flowers which in the rudest wind / Never grow sere" (rude has carried over into Tennyson's ear from Milton's next line). "Hard constraint" has moved Spenser to write his Pastoral Eclogue on Sidney, and the entire trope of compulsion is summarized in Keats's Ode to Psyche:

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear.

The Spenser and the Keats phrasings both temper and heighten the special coil of Milton's word order: sad occasion dear, in which "dear" signifies whatever affects us most directly, be it in love or in hatred, in pleasure or in grief (cf. Hamlet, "my dearest foe in heaven," or Henry V, "all your dear offences"). Lycidas is, of course, the name of the shepherd in Theocritus's seventh Idyl and that of one of the speakers in the ninth Eclogue of Vergil. The immediate reiteration of the name, particularly at the start of the line, is a long-established convention of pathos, a musical augment of sorrow. Spenser's Astrophel was probably in Milton's mind:

Young Astrophel, the pride of shepheards praise,
Young Astrophel, the rusticke lasses love.

Both "repeats," the Spenserian and the Miltonic, will sound in Shelley's Adonais. "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" is almost translation: from Vergil's tenth Eclogue 2. 3 -- "Carmine sunt dicenda; neget quis carmina Gallo"? Cf. the reprise in Pope's Windsor Forest:

Granville commands; your aid, O Muses, bring!
What Muse for Granville can refuse to sing?

And so on.

an eudaemonist
Project MUSE
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.22
Studying a Practice: An Inquiry into Lapidation
Renaissance Copresences in Romantic Verse
The Bactra Review
In Bluebeard's Castle. Somes Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture

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