Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Macaulay Compares Milton to Dante

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Everything below is one long quote from Macaulay's essay on Milton:
The only poem of modern times which can be compared with the
Paradise Lost is the Divine Comedy. The subject of Milton, in
some points, resembled that of Dante; but he has treated it in a
widely different manner. We cannot, we think, better illustrate
our opinion respecting our own great poet, than by contrasting
him with the father of Tuscan literature.

The poetry of Milton differs from that of Dante, as the
hieroglyphics of Egypt differed from the picture-writing of
Mexico. The images which Dante employs speak for themselves; they
stand simply for what they are. Those of Milton have a
signification which is often discernible only to the initiated.
Their value depends less on what they directly represent than on
what they remotely suggest. However strange, however grotesque,
may be the appearance which Dante undertakes to describe, he
never shrinks from describing it. He gives us the shape, the
colour, the sound, the smell, the taste; he counts the numbers;
he measures the size. His similes are the illustrations of a
traveller. Unlike those of other poets, and especially of Milton,
they are introduced in a plain, business-like manner; not for the
sake of any beauty in the objects from which they are drawn; not
for the sake of any ornament which they may impart to the poem;
but simply in order to make the meaning of the writer as clear to
the reader as it is to himself. The ruins of the precipice which
led from the sixth to the seventh circle of hell were like those
of the rock which fell into the Adige on the south of Trent. The
cataract of Phlegethon was like that of Aqua Cheta at the
monastery of St. Benedict. The place where the heretics were
confined in burning tombs resembled the vast cemetery of Arles.

Now let us compare with the exact details of Dante the dim
intimations of Milton. We will cite a few examples. The English
poet has never thought of taking the measure of Satan. He gives
us merely a vague idea of vast bulk. In one passage the fiend
lies stretched out huge in length, floating many a rood, equal in
size to the earth-born enemies of Jove, or to the sea-monster
which the mariner mistakes for an island. When he addresses
himself to battle against the guardian angels, he stands like
Teneriffe or Atlas: his stature reaches the sky. Contrast with
these descriptions the lines in which Dante has described the
gigantic spectre of Nimrod. "His face seemed to me as long and as
broad as the ball of St. Peter's at Rome, and his other limbs
were in proportion; so that the bank, which concealed him from
the waist downwards, nevertheless showed so much of him, that
three tall Germans would in vain have attempted to reach to his
hair." We are sensible that we do no justice to the admirable
style of the Florentine poet. But Mr. Cary's translation is not
at hand; and our version, however rude, is sufficient to
illustrate our meaning.

Once more, compare the lazar-house in the eleventh book of the
Paradise Lost with the last ward of Malebolge in Dante. Milton
avoids the loathsome details, and takes refuge in indistinct but
solemn and tremendous imagery. Despair hurrying from couch to
couch to mock the wretches with his attendance, Death shaking his
dart over them, but, in spite of supplications, delaying to
strike. What says Dante? "There was such a moan there as there
would be if all the sick who, between July and September, are in
the hospitals of Valdichiana, and of the Tuscan swamps, and of
Sardinia, were in one pit together; and such a stench was issuing
forth as is wont to issue from decayed limbs."

We will not take upon ourselves the invidious office of settling
precedency between two such writers, Each in his own department
is incomparable; and each, we may remark, has wisely, or
fortunately, taken a subject adapted to exhibit his peculiar
talent to the greatest advantage. The Divine Comedy is a personal
narrative. Dante is the eye-witness and ear-witness of that which
he relates. He is the very man who has heard the tormented
spirits crying out for the second death, who has read the dusky
characters on the portal within which there is no hope, who has
hidden his face from the terrors of the Gorgon, who has fled from
the hooks and the seething pitch of Barbariccia and Draghignazzo.
His own hands have grasped the shaggy sides of Lucifer. His own
feet have climbed the mountain of expiation. His own brow has
been marked by the purifying angel. The reader would throw aside
such a tale in incredulous disgust, unless it were told with the
strongest air of veracity, with a sobriety even in its horrors,
with the greatest precision and multiplicity in its details. The
narrative of Milton in this respect differs from that of Dante,
as the adventures of Amadis differ from those of Gulliver. The
author of Amadis would have made his book ridiculous if he had
introduced those minute particulars which give such a charm to
the work of Swift, the nautical observations, the affected
delicacy about names, the official documents transcribed at full
length, and all the unmeaning gossip and scandal of the court,
springing out of nothing, and tending to nothing. We are not
shocked at being told that a man who lived, nobody knows when,
saw many very strange sights, and we can easily abandon ourselves
to the illusion of the romance. But when Lemuel Gulliver,
surgeon, resident at Rotherhithe, tells us of pygmies and giants,
flying islands, and philosophising horses, nothing but such
circumstantial touches could produce for a single moment a
deception on the imagination.

Of all the poets who have introduced into their works the agency
of supernatural beings, Milton has succeeded best. Here Dante
decidedly yields to him: and as this is a point on which many
rash and ill-considered judgments have been pronounced, we feel
inclined to dwell on it a little longer. The most fatal error
which a poet can possibly commit in the management of his
machinery, is that of attempting to philosophise too much. Milton
has been often censured for ascribing to spirits many functions
of which spirits must be incapable. But these objections, though
sanctioned by eminent names, originate, we venture to say, in
profound ignorance of the art of poetry.

What is spirit? What are our own minds, the portion of spirit
with which we are best acquainted? We observe certain phaenomena.
We cannot explain them into material causes. We therefore infer
that there exists something which is not material. But of this
something we have no idea. We can define it only by negatives. We
can reason about it only by symbols. We use the word; but we have
no image of the thing; and the business of poetry is with images,
and not with words. The poet uses words indeed; but they are
merely the instruments of his art, not its objects. They are the
materials which he is to dispose in such a manner as to present a
picture to the mental eye. And if they are not so disposed, they
are no more entitled to be called poetry than a bale of canvas
and a box of colours to be called a painting.

Logicians may reason about abstractions. But the great mass of
men must have images. The strong tendency of the multitude in all
ages and nations to idolatry can be explained on no other
principle. The first inhabitants of Greece, there is reason to
believe, worshipped one invisible Deity. But the necessity of
having something more definite to adore produced, in a few
centuries, the innumerable crowd of Gods and Goddesses. In like
manner the ancient Persians thought it impious to exhibit the
Creator under a human form. Yet even these transferred to the Sun
the worship which, in speculation, they considered due only to
the Supreme Mind. The history of the Jews is the record of a
continued struggle between pure Theism, supported by the most
terrible sanctions, and the strangely fascinating desire of
having some visible and tangible object of adoration. Perhaps
none of the secondary causes which Gibbon has assigned for the
rapidity with which Christianity spread over the world, while
Judaism scarcely ever acquired a proselyte, operated more
powerfully than this feeling. God, the uncreated, the
incomprehensible, the invisible, attracted few worshippers. A
philosopher might admire so noble a conception; but the crowd
turned away in disgust from words which presented no image to
their minds. It was before Deity embodied in a human form,
walking among men, partaking of their infirmities, leaning on
their bosoms, weeping over their graves, slumbering in the
manger, bleeding on the cross, that the prejudices of the
Synagogue, and the doubts of the Academy, and the pride of the
Portico, and the fasces of the Lictor, and the swords of thirty
legions, were humbled in the dust. Soon after Christianity had
achieved its triumph, the principle which had assisted it began
to corrupt it. It became a new Paganism. Patron saints assumed
the offices of household gods. St. George took the place of Mars.
St. Elmo consoled the mariner for the loss of Castor and Pollux.
The Virgin Mother and Cecilia succeeded to Venus and the Muses.
The fascination of sex and loveliness was again joined to that of
celestial dignity; and the homage of chivalry was blended with
that of religion. Reformers have often made a stand against these
feelings; but never with more than apparent and partial success.
The men who demolished the images in cathedrals have not always
been able to demolish those which were enshrined in their minds.
It would not be difficult to show that in politics the same rule
holds good. Doctrines, we are afraid, must generally be embodied
before they can excite a strong public feeling. The multitude is
more easily interested for the most unmeaning badge, or the most
insignificant name, than for the most important principle.

From these considerations, we infer that no poet, who should
affect that metaphysical accuracy for the want of which Milton
has been blamed, would escape a disgraceful failure. Still,
however, there was another extreme which, though far less
dangerous, was also to be avoided. The imaginations of men are in
a great measure under the control of their opinions. The most
exquisite art of poetical colouring can produce no illusion, when
it is employed to represent that which is at once perceived to be
incongruous and absurd. Milton wrote in an age of philosophers
and theologians. It was necessary, therefore, for him to abstain
from giving such a shock to their understanding as might break
the charm which it was his object to throw over their
imaginations. This is the real explanation of the indistinctness
and inconsistency with which he has often been reproached. Dr.
Johnson acknowledges that it was absolutely necessary that the
spirit should be clothed with material forms. "But," says he,
"the poet should have secured the consistency of his system by
keeping immateriality out of sight, and seducing the reader to
drop it from his thoughts." This is easily said; but what if
Milton could not seduce his readers to drop immateriality from
their thoughts? What if the contrary opinion had taken so full a
possession of the minds of men as to leave no room even for the
half belief which poetry requires? Such we suspect to have been
the case. It was impossible for the poet to adopt altogether the
material or the immaterial system. He therefore took his stand on
the debatable ground. He left the whole in ambiguity. He has
doubtless, by so doing, laid himself open to the charge of
inconsistency. But, though philosophically in the wrong, we
cannot but believe that he was poetically in the right. This
task, which almost any other writer would have found
impracticable, was easy to him. The peculiar art which he
possessed of communicating his meaning circuitously through a
long succession of associated ideas, and of intimating more than
he expressed, enabled him to disguise those incongruities which
he could not avoid.

Poetry which relates to the beings of another world ought to be
at once mysterious and picturesque. That of Milton is so. That of
Dante is picturesque indeed beyond any that ever was written. Its
effect approaches to that produced by the pencil or the chisel.
But it is picturesque to the exclusion of all mystery. This is a
fault on the right side, a fault inseparable from the plan of
Dante's poem, which, as we have already observed, rendered the
utmost accuracy of description necessary. Still it is a fault.
The supernatural agents excite an interest; but it is not the
interest which is proper to supernatural agents. We feel that we
could talk to the ghosts and daemons, without any emotion of
unearthly awe. We could, like Don Juan, ask them to supper, and
eat heartily in their company. Dante's angels are good men with
wings. His devils are spiteful ugly executioners. His dead men
are merely living men in strange situations. The scene which
passes between the poet and Farinata is justly celebrated. Still,
Farinata in the burning tomb is exactly what Farinata would have
been at an auto da fe. Nothing can be more touching than the
first interview of Dante and Beatrice. Yet what is it, but a
lovely woman chiding, with sweet austere composure, the lover for
whose affection she is grateful, but whose vices she reprobates?
The feelings which give the passage its charm would suit the
streets of Florence as well as the summit of the Mount of
The spirits of Milton are unlike those of almost all other
writers. His fiends, in particular, are wonderful creations. They
are not metaphysical abstractions. They are not wicked men. They
are not ugly beasts. They have no horns, no tails, none of the
fee-faw-fum of Tasso and Klopstock. They have just enough, in
common with human nature to be intelligible to human beings.
Their characters are, like their forms, marked by a certain dim
resemblance to those of men, but exaggerated to gigantic
dimensions, and veiled in mysterious gloom.

Perhaps the gods and daemons of Aeschylus may best bear a
comparison with the angels and devils of Milton. The style of the
Athenian had, as we have remarked, something of the Oriental
character; and the same peculiarity may be traced in his
mythology. It has nothing of the amenity and elegance which we
generally find in the superstitions of Greece. All is rugged,
barbaric, and colossal. The legends of Aeschylus seem to
harmonise less with the fragrant groves and graceful porticoes in
which his countrymen paid their vows to the God of Light and
Goddess of Desire, than with those huge and grotesque labyrinths
of eternal granite in which Egypt enshrined her mystic Osiris, or
in which Hindustan still bows down to her seven-headed idols. His
favourite gods are those of the elder generation, the sons of
heaven and earth, compared with whom Jupiter himself was a
stripling and an upstart, the gigantic Titans, and the
inexorable Furies. Foremost among his creations of this class
stands Prometheus, half fiend, half redeemer, the friend of man,
the sullen and implacable enemy of Heaven. Prometheus bears
undoubtedly a considerable resemblance to the Satan of Milton. In
both we find the same impatience of control, the same ferocity,
the same unconquerable pride. In both characters also are
mingled, though in very different proportions, some kind and
generous feelings. Prometheus, however, is hardly superhuman
enough. He talks too much of his chains and his uneasy posture:
he is rather too much depressed and agitated. His resolution
seems to depend on the knowledge which he possesses that he holds
the fate of his torturer in his hands, and that the hour of his
release will surely come. But Satan is a creature of another
sphere. The might of his intellectual nature is victorious over
the extremity of pain. Amidst agonies which cannot be conceived
without horror, he deliberates, resolves, and even exults.
Against the sword of Michael, against the thunder of Jehovah,
against the flaming lake, and the marl burning with solid fire,
against the prospect of an eternity of unintermitted misery, his
spirit bears up unbroken, resting on its own innate energies,
requiring no support from anything external, nor even from hope

To return for a moment to the parallel which we have been
attempting to draw between Milton and Dante, we would add that
the poetry of these great men has in a considerable degree taken
its character from their moral qualities. They are not egotists.
They rarely obtrude their idiosyncrasies on their readers. They
have nothing in common with those modern beggars for fame, who
extort a pittance from the compassion of the inexperienced by
exposing the nakedness and sores of their minds. Yet it would be
difficult to name two writers whose works have been more
completely, though undesignedly, coloured by their personal

The character of Milton was peculiarly distinguished by loftiness
of spirit, that of Dante by intensity of feeling. In every line
of the Divine Comedy we discern the asperity which is produced by
pride struggling with misery. There is perhaps no work in the
world so deeply and uniformly sorrowful. The melancholy of Dante
was no fantastic caprice. It was not, as far as at this distance
of time can be judged, the effect of external circumstances. It
was from within. Neither love nor glory, neither the conflicts of
earth nor the hope of heaven could dispel it. It turned every
consolation and every pleasure into its own nature. It resembled
that noxious Sardinian soil of which the intense bitterness is
said to have been perceptible even in its honey. His mind was, in
the noble language of the Hebrew poet, "a land of darkness, as
darkness itself, and where the light was as darkness." The gloom
of his character discolours all the passions of men, and all the
face of nature, and tinges with its own livid hue the flowers of
Paradise and the glories of the eternal throne. All the portraits
of him are singularly characteristic. No person can look on the
features, noble even to ruggedness, the dark furrows of the
cheek, the haggard and woeful stare of the eye, the sullen and
contemptuous curve of the lip, and doubt that they belong to a
man too proud and too sensitive to be happy.

Milton was, like Dante, a statesman and a lover; and, like Dante,
he had been unfortunate in ambition and in love. He had survived
his health and his sight, the comforts of his home, and the
prosperity of his party. Of the great men by whom he had been
distinguished at his entrance into life, some had been taken away
from the evil to come; some had carried into foreign climates
their unconquerable hatred of oppression; some were pining in
dungeons; and some had poured forth their blood on scaffolds.
Venal and licentious scribblers, with just sufficient talent to
clothe the thoughts of a pandar in the style of a bellman, were
now the favourite writers of the Sovereign and of the public. It
was a loathsome herd, which could be compared to nothing so fitly
as to the rabble of Comus, grotesque monsters, half bestial, half
human, dropping with wine, bloated with gluttony, and reeling in
obscene dances. Amidst these that fair Muse was placed, like the
chaste lady of the Masque, lofty, spotless, and serene, to be
chattered at, and pointed at, and grinned at, by the whole rout
of Satyrs and Goblins. If ever despondency and asperity could be
excused in any man, they might have been excused in Milton. But
the strength of his mind overcame every calamity. Neither
blindness, nor gout, nor age, nor penury, nor domestic
afflictions, nor political disappointments, nor abuse, nor
proscription, nor neglect, had power to disturb his sedate and
majestic patience. His spirits do not seem to have been high, but
they were singularly equable. His temper was serious, perhaps
stern; but it was a temper which no sufferings could render
sullen or fretful. Such as it was when, on the eve of great
events, he returned from his travels, in the prime of health and
manly beauty, loaded with literary distinctions, and glowing with
patriotic hopes, such it continued to be when, after having
experienced every calamity which is in incident to our nature,
old, poor, sightless and disgraced, he retired to his hovel to

Hence it was that, though he wrote the Paradise Lost at a time of
life when images of beauty and tenderness are in general
beginning to fade, even from those minds in which they have not
been effaced by anxiety and disappointment, he adorned it with
all that is most lovely and delightful in the physical and in the
moral world. Neither Theocritus nor Ariosto had a finer or a more
healthful sense of the pleasantness of external objects, or loved
better to luxuriate amidst sunbeams and flowers, the songs of
nightingales, the juice of summer fruits, and the coolness of
shady fountains. His conception of love unites all the
voluptuousness of the Oriental haram, and all the gallantry of
the chivalric tournament, with all the pure and quiet affection
of an English fireside. His poetry reminds us of the miracles of
Alpine scenery. Nooks and dells, beautiful as fairyland, are
embosomed in its most rugged and gigantic elevations. The roses
and myrtles bloom unchilled on the verge of the avalanche.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Macaulay on John Milton and on the Nature of Poetry

The following is all a long quote from an essay by Macauley on Milton that appears in the first volume of his Critical and Historical Essays. This work can be found at Project Gutenburg.

We venture to say, on the contrary, paradoxical as the remark may
appear, that no poet has ever had to struggle with more
unfavourable circumstances than Milton. He doubted, as he has
himself owned, whether he had not been born "an age too late."
For this notion Johnson has thought fit to make him the butt of
much clumsy ridicule. The poet, we believe, understood the nature
of his art better than the critic. He knew that his poetical
genius derived no advantage from the civilisation which
surrounded him, or from the learning which he had acquired; and
he looked back with something like regret to the ruder age of
simple words and vivid impressions.

We think that, as civilisation advances, poetry almost
necessarily declines. Therefore, though we fervently admire those
great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we
do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark
ages. On the contrary, we hold that the most wonderful and
splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilised
age. We cannot understand why those who believe in that most
orthodox article of literary faith, that the earliest poets are
generally the best, should wonder at the rule as if it were the
exception. Surely the uniformity of the phaenomenon indicates a
corresponding uniformity in the cause.

The fact is, that common observers reason from the progress of
the experimental sciences to that of imitative arts. The
improvement of the former is gradual and slow. Ages are spent in
collecting materials, ages more in separating and combining them.
Even when a system has been formed, there is still something to
add, to alter, or to reject. Every generation enjoys the use of a
vast hoard bequeathed to it by antiquity, and transmits that
hoard, augmented by fresh acquisitions, to future ages. In these
pursuits, therefore, the first speculators lie under great
disadvantages, and, even when they fail, are entitled to praise.
Their pupils, with far inferior intellectual powers, speedily
surpass them in actual attainments. Every girl who has read Mrs.
Marcet's little dialogues on Political Economy could teach
Montague or Walpole many lessons in finance. Any intelligent man
may now, by resolutely applying himself for a few years to
mathematics, learn more than the great Newton knew after half a
century of study and meditation.

But it is not thus with music, with painting, or with sculpture.
Still less is it thus with poetry. The progress of refinement
rarely supplies these arts with better objects of imitation. It
may indeed improve the instruments which are necessary to the
mechanical operations of the musician, the sculptor, and the
painter. But language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted
for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals,
first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular
images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened
society is philosophical, that of a half-civilised people is

This change in the language of men is partly the cause and partly
the effect of a corresponding change in the nature of their
intellectual operations, of a change by which science gains and
poetry loses. Generalisation is necessary to the advancement of
knowledge; but particularity is indispensable to the creations of
the imagination. In proportion as men know more and think more,
they look less at individuals and more at classes. They therefore
make better theories and worse poems. They give us vague phrases
instead of images, and personified qualities instead of men. They
may be better able to analyse human nature than their
predecessors. But analysis is not the business of the poet. His
office is to portray, not to dissect. He may believe in a moral
sense, like Shaftesbury; he may refer all human actions to self-
interest, like Helvetius; or he may never think about the matter
at all. His creed on such subjects will no more influence his
poetry, properly so called, than the notions which a painter may
have conceived respecting the lacrymal glands, or the circulation
of the blood will affect the tears of his Niobe, or the blushes
of his Aurora. If Shakespeare had written a book on the motives
of human actions, it is by no means certain that it would have
been a good one. It is extremely improbable that it would have
contained half so much able reasoning on the subject as is to be
found in the Fable of the Bees. But could Mandeville have created
an Iago? Well as he knew how to resolve characters into their
elements, would he have been able to combine those elements in
such a manner as to make up a man, a real, living, individual

Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry,
without a certain unsoundness of mind, if anything which gives so
much pleasure ought to be called unsoundness. By poetry we mean
not all writing in verse, nor even all good writing in verse. Our
definition excludes many metrical compositions which, on other
grounds, deserve the highest praise. By poetry we mean the art of
employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the
imagination, the art of doing by means of words what the painter
does by means of colours. Thus the greatest of poets has
described it, in lines universally admired for the vigour and
felicity of their diction, and still more valuable on account of
the just notion which they convey of the art in which he

"As the imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."

These are the fruits of the "fine frenzy" which he ascribes to
the poet--a fine frenzy doubtless, but still a frenzy. Truth,
indeed, is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness.
The reasonings are just; but the premises are false. After the
first suppositions have been made, everything ought to be
consistent; but those first suppositions require a degree of
credulity which almost amounts to a partial and temporary
derangement of the intellect. Hence of all people children are
the most imaginative. They abandon themselves without reserve to
every illusion. Every image which is strongly presented to their
mental eye produces on them the effect of reality. No man,
whatever his sensibility may be, is ever affected by Hamlet or
Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story of poor Red
Riding-hood. She knows that it is all false, that wolves cannot
speak, that there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite of her
knowledge she believes; she weeps; she trembles; she dares not go
into a dark room lest she should feel the teeth of the monster at
her throat. Such is the despotism of the imagination over
uncultivated minds.

In a rude state of society men are children with a greater
variety of ideas. It is therefore in such a state of society that
we may expect to find the poetical temperament in its highest
perfection. In an enlightened age there will be much
intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just
classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and
eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of good ones; but little
poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create.
They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a
certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to
conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder
ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief. The
Greek Rhapsodists, according to Plato, could scarce recite Homer
without falling into convulsions. The Mohawk hardly feels the
scalping knife while he shouts his death-song. The power which
the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exercised over their
auditors seems to modern readers almost miraculous. Such feelings
are very rare in a civilised community, and most rare among those
who participate most in its improvements. They linger longest
amongst the peasantry.

Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic
lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the
magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its
purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge
breaks in upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty
become more and more definite, and the shades of probability more
and more distinct, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which
the poet calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the
incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear
discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction.

He who, in an enlightened and literary society, aspires to be a
great poet must first become a little child, he must take to
pieces the whole web of his mind. He must unlearn much of that
knowledge which has perhaps constituted hitherto his chief title
to superiority. His very talents will be a hindrance to him. His
difficulties will be proportioned to his proficiency in the
pursuits which are fashionable among his contemporaries; and that
proficiency will in general be proportioned to the vigour and
activity of his mind. And it is well if, after all his sacrifices
and exertions, his works do not resemble a lisping man or a
modern ruin. We have seen in our own time great talents, intense
labour, and long meditation, employed in this struggle against
the spirit of the age, and employed, we will not say absolutely
in vain, but with dubious success and feeble applause.

If these reasonings be just, no poet has ever triumphed over
greater difficulties than Milton. He received a learned
education: he was a profound and elegant classical scholar: he
had studied all the mysteries of Rabbinical literature: he was
intimately acquainted with every language of modern Europe, from
which either pleasure or information was then to be derived. He
was perhaps the only great poet of later times who has been
distinguished by the excellence of his Latin verse. The genius of
Petrarch was scarcely of the first order; and his poems in the
ancient language, though much praised by those who have never
read them, are wretched compositions. Cowley, with all his
admirable wit and ingenuity, had little imagination: nor indeed
do we think his classical diction comparable to that of Milton.
The authority of Johnson is against us on this point. But Johnson
had studied the bad writers of the middle ages till he had become
utterly insensible to the Augustan elegance, and was as ill
qualified to judge between two Latin styles as a habitual
drunkard to set up for a wine-taster.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Modern Library

When I was young I read a lot, all kinds of books. I read those horrible books written for specific age groups and then slowly went beyond to the classics. Sometimes I look back and wonder what it was that so drew me. I know part of it was deep insecurity. I had no sense of purpose or goal . And I felt that if I read and studied the books that centuries of consensus called the best I would become better by learning what mankind valued most highly. And that is how it works. Matthew Arnold called education an introduction, “to the best that has been thought or said.” If done properly it includes developing critical thinking. And also developing a sense for recognizing and appreciating beauty which is a specialized form of critical thinking.
One of the things that made the classics attractive was Random House’s Modern Library. They are simple but delectable little books. When I was in school they mainly published the best writers from Homer and Confucius to Joyce and Proust. In those days I spent dozens of hours a week in libraries and these beautiful little jewels of books were sprinkled throughout the stacks. Initially I didn’t read any of these books. But I took them down off the shelf and just enjoyed looking at them. They were smaller and had more pleasant proportions than most books. They all had essentially the same binding. It was clean, symmetrical and appealing and each had a little surprise: the title and author’s name in the small dark box. When younger I was always mildly startled by the art deco naked runner with the torch. I grew up with Pinkie and Blue Boy and landscapes on the walls. I didn’t know from art deco. In spite of their modest size they were not inconsequential. Printed on heavy paper they had real heft. And I loved to open them to the back and look over the list of all of the titles offered . Here I slowly made familiar objects of all the names. Turgenev, Pepys, Plutarch, Goethe, Gogol and many others slowly began seeping into my consciousness.
Then I slowly began reading them. One I tried earliest was Gulliver’s Travels. It moves slowly compared to what I was accustomed to. There would be pages and pages of minute descriptions. I couldn’t hack it. I don’t think I made it to page forty. Then I started checking out some of the Caedmon recordings of plays. Some Shakespeare, some O’Neil and lots of Tennessee Williams. I didn’t enjoy any of this but I forced myself because I was sure it was good for me. In those days the average American education didn’t prepare a ninth grader for Shakespeare.
I kept at it. I was a senior when I read Plato’s Republic. And even though most of it went over my head it was the first of the bunch I recall enjoying. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Modern Library edition; it was probably the Viking Portable edition.) From there I went to reading histories of philosophy and many individual thinkers. I ended up with some fondness for Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein. When I entered college I intended to get a string of degrees in philosophy. But I soon realized that my mind does not have the acute gift for logic that serious philosophy requires.
As I was growing away from philosophy I developed deeper enjoyment of literature. Many of the greats were to be found in the Modern Library. And I had begun to haunt bookstores. Used bookstores were full of Modern Library editions in those days (the seventies and eighties). And I discovered some other great and attractive books. The Loeb Classical Library filled some of the spaces left by the Modern Library, e. g., Strabo. But the Loebs are higher priced. Penguin books are great. The Oxford Classics are ok but don’t have the grace and charm of the Modern Library. The Viking Portables are pleasant and reasonably priced. I highly recommend the multivolume collection of English verse if only for the marvelous and enlightening introductions to each by W. H. Auden.
The other day I looked up the Modern Library on the net. And they still have a hell of a fine line up of books. Though they seem comparatively more expensive and I didn’t see any frequent flyer type of program. And, no, they didn’t pay me to write this.

I originally posted this on MONDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2008 on my other site. I will not even name that site here because it is very partisan and one of my main goals on this site is to maintain a totally apolitical atmosphere.