Sunday, 28 December 2008

Wordsworth's Milton

MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Fen is the key, here: or more specifically, the Fens, Cromwell's birthplace. Wordsworth is inflecting his 1802 contemporary world via Commonwealth England, such that each illuminate the other. Coeval with Milton's sublimity is Cromwell's political occlusion, violence and selfishness ('we are selfish men'). Wordsworth begs Milton to raise us up; Cromwell, famously, knew that 'no one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.'

And where is this poem going? It follows a very curious and roundabout trajectory, almost as if denying the implied Milton stream-line straight to the sea it purports to valorize; as if formally mimicking the Cromwellian stagnant fen watersit purports to deprecate. The motion is something like: Milton, I wish you were alive right now. England in 1802 has stagnated. The church, the army and the world of literature ('altar, sword, and pen,) not to mention the domestic arrangements of the better-off ('Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower') have lost their 'ancient English' happiness.

OK. But isn't that a weird quartet? Church, Army, Literary world and Stately Homes. The third term is justified, I suppose, by the fact of Wordsworth and Milton both being poets; but the fourth is not by Wordsworth himself being fairly well-to-do. More, neither the 'Church' nor the New Model Army of Milton (and Cromwell) is hardly in either case the 'ancient English' iteration.
The octet concludes with the confession of selfishness, and the request that Milton give us the altitude of 'manners, virtue, freedom, power': another very odd quartet, a set of values that seems to go out of its way not to map onto the previous set of conceptual locations. But perhaps that mismatch is the point; a subtle dislocation. Because the sestet that follows has nothing to do with the octet, replacing a call for direct action with a rather diffuse peroration to Milton's starriness. 'Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart' articulates muddle: it is unfortunately ambiguous between 'you, Milton, dwelt apart from humanity' ... in which case why call on him, as the octet does, to engage and improve humanity? ... and 'your soul dwelt apart from you, Milton' which would imply schizophrenia. 'Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea' is more interesting, implying as it seems to that Milton lies beyond (a sort of Lacanian Real) the tortuous, fen-blocked river-line of poetry; as a wished for direction. But the last triplet, linked with a wholly illogical 'so', rams a completely other Milton, tramping 'life's common way' and happily stooping to 'the lowliest duties.' It doesn't match the lofty and removed Milton of earlier. Plus, calling a man so eikonoklasteically associated with the regicide 'majestic' just looks clumsy, even crass.

The complex and suggestively dislocated awkwardness here can be mistaken, if you screw up your eyes and don't look too closely, for a simpler, more banal poem: 'Milton was lofty but did not lack the common touch; his poetry, and his model, should inspire the compacent stagnation of contemporary England'. But I don't think that's what's going on in this sonnet. A better way of reading its tangles is to see it as a specific riff upon a specific sonnet of Miltonic starry-uplifting praise:

Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud,
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way has ploughed
And on the neck of crowned fortune proud
Has reared God’s trophies, and his work pursued,
While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbrued,
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
And Worcester’s laureate wreath. Yet much remains
To conquer still; peace hath her victories
No less renowned than war: new foes arise,
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains:
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw.

This is a poem that forces through obstacles (Cromwell ploughing resistless through clouds and detractions); a poem whose stream flows uninterruptedly on, although soaked red with Scottish blood. A poem that knows that the end of war is no reason to stop making war. In the face of such sublimely brutal directness, with its slipstream of human blood and misery, which poet in all conscience would not want to artculate a more circumspect, checked-and-balanced fenny poem?

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