Monthly Archives: December 2010

Mud

With this, I conclude what I aimed to achieve at the beginning of the year. I have written something here (in this semi-public, self-published manner) once a week for every week of 2010. I have done so at some expense: first, my wife has prepared the family meal on Wednesday nights; second, I have written with less ambition at my job; and third, I have written very little poetry this year. Of these, I lament the last the most.

Beyond demonstrating a bit of self-discipline, I am less certain of the rewards of this year-long exercise. Although I felt out-of-practice at the beginning of the year, I doubt that my prose-style has improved. I’m not any smarter; I probably lost as much knowledge this year as I gained. (My very limited language skills, for example, have eroded.) As for readers, except for my wife and one friend, I am pretty sure that I have no consistent readers. I did not look for readers, so I can’t complain, but the world also gained very little from my labors. Nonetheless, it was time well-spent in so far that it was (selfishly) mine.

In the coming year, I hope to write more poetry than in previous years. This will result in fewer contributions to this blog. I have some unfinished business (the Lycidas series is incomplete) and I do not want to lose what little prose writing muscle I’ve gained, so I will carry on, but I expect to write no less than one post per month in 2011.

Today, the temperatures will reach the mid-50s; the snow is melting and the rain will come this afternoon. Today is not a good day for writing. I am ending this now to drag my Wii-addicted sons through the mud. We live in exile and want more for mud than for words.

Updike’s Afterlife

I read John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers in high school, along with The Coup and, later, The Centaur in college. Having, recently, wrung myself out on Milton and, in general, having lost my bearings on what matters to me as a reader, I pulled a copy of The Afterlife and Other Stories from the public library. I’m halfway through it now … and halfway through this current life too. That makes me ten to twenty years younger than most of the characters in this collection of stories.

Thus far, halfway in, I do not like them–the characters. They are not likeable people; or, rather, it’s hard to feel sorry for them. Parini writes in his review of the collection that Updike was “unashamedly autobiographical” in his short fiction. Privileged men, momma’s boys, self-absorbed, painfully selfish–if autobiographical, his characters are not his best representatives. Their regrets, their affairs and divorces, their ailing aging bodies, their helpless dissolutions, seem to be worn as prizes, or (at best) as the assumed sacrifices of a life lived in comfort.

If there is a pleasure to be had in reading these stories, it is that of sharing in the joy Updike finds in writing, the joy and the talent. He wrote so much, so well and with such ease. Readers stand on the side as the author’s witnesses. We are not merely passive, but inconsequential. Updike would write (and did write) with or without us. He was a superb talent and to read him is to acknowledge this fact.

Of those that I have read thus far, the title story is the most compelling and challenging. (“Brother Grasshopper” is also memorable, for its portrayal of a friendship between men, and “A Sandstone Farmhouse” as a moving remembrance probably based on the author’s relationship with his mother.) Unlike the others stories, “The Afterlife” extends beyond Updike’s conceptual control. He seems less confident, less sure, less tidy in his conclusion. In the other stories, characters face regret and sentimentality with lonely resignation. Sad, even with their affirmations of sensual existence, the characters have disconnected themselves from their roots. In contrast, in “The Afterlife” they face the storm. Even what might have grounded them (social ties, memory, and experience) is a fool’s game in the storm of “The Afterlife”. Free of silly regrets and pointless sentimentality, “The Afterlife” is, ironically, the most hopeful of the stories.

Reference:
Parini, Jay. 1994. All his wives are mother. The New York Times, November 6. http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/06/lifetimes/updike-afterlife.html.

Rootless

Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis

Woodbine: Lycidas

“The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine” John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 146.

The flowers of Milton

Jane Elizabeth Giraud. The Flowers of Milton. 1846.

The woodbine might have been well attired and, for a fairy’s bower, well attiring, but it was not well imagined as strewn across Edward King’s laureate hearse. Here, I think, Milton let poetic convention (the weight of an echoed Shakespeare) write a sloppy, unthinking image. Shakespeare, too, is part of the confusion. His “woodbine”, however, is better placed; it grows as it should, vined into a canopy, held aloft by the magical forest, by an unseen trellis, perfuming the stage for Titania’s dreams:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act 2, Scene 1. Lines 254-8)

But is it “honeysuckle” that Shakespeare intends? Two acts later, in the same play, he wrote:

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.

(Act 2, Scene 1. Lines 41-3)

Many have taken line 41 as evidence that Shakespeare meant two plants–one a woodbine, another a honeysuckle. It seems just as likely to me that the poet was repeating or clarifying his reference to a single plant. In another world he might have written, for example: “the prickly pear, the Opuntia cactus” or “the tiger, the Siberian tiger”. I do not think it matters, here, what specific plant the bard did or did not have in mind. He imagined a vine, one with love-scented flowers hung from the ceiling of this forest boudoir. Nonetheless, I vote for honeysuckle.

Though murkier in his intentions, Milton too may not have needed a specific flower for this line. Any woodbine would rhyme. Furthermore, he probably would have known more than one plant with this name. On this point, McHenry cites the OED when asserting: “Woodbine in Milton’s time basically meant any climbing plant, including ivy” (101). It seems unlikely, however, that Milton was thinking of what it would mean to toss these “well attir’d” vines on his friend’s casket. Whether by “woodbine” he meant honeysuckle, clematis, or convolvulus does not matter. I can hear the tangled mass of foliage slapping down in an awkward woody heap; one that would likely crush the delicate blossoms that preceded it: primrose, crow-toe, jasmine, pink, pansy, violet and musk-rose.

Perhaps Milton too easily applied a well-metered and rhymed woodbine to his elegy. Perhaps readers were meant only to recall the plant’s sweet odor and its weeping habit. In any event, but for the most dogmatic florists, few readers will trip on these well-attired vines, these three feet at the end of one line in a great poem.

Reference

McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton Herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.

[Note: This is the ninth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas and Musk-rose: Lycidas.]

The American Contagion: Matthew Arnold and the Milton Window

For the past week I have been reading and re-reading Matthew Arnold’s final public address, “Milton” (1888). That following April the critic died of heart disease–an attack ensued upon leaping over a small fence to visit an American grandchild (Trilling 27). Hardly mentioning Milton, and doing so without much elaboration, the address was delivered to dedicate a newly installed window in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. The window, which I will likely never see, includes representations of the poet as a child, the poet visiting Galileo, and Milton (in his blindness) dictating to his daughter. The window was installed as a gift (solicited by Archdeacon Farrar of Westminster) from George William Childs, a wealthy, childless, co-owner of the Philadelphia Ledger.

Although stuck on the essay, I’ve never cared much for Matthew Arnold. Perhaps I have been uncharitable. Without Arnold’s notions of “Literature” as a subject of study (as a power to strengthen the moral character of its students, to make them better citizens, shining devotees of a secular ideal, a high mindedness; and proponents of the “grand style”) would we have English departments at our universities? Would I have had the professors and the books I have admired? Nonetheless, Arnold was a snob–and worse, a sort of upper-middle class elitist. In his dedication of the Milton window he boasts of his nationalism and croons over the British empire; this, despite the fact that he opens with a warning against the spread of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon contagion”–a malady which threatens to “overpower all nations”.

What was this “contagion”? Not the empire and not the bourgeoisie, but rather a popular aesthetic, a populist fervor for the “common”. As Arnold saw it, folks were too quick to identify and declare genius when in fact they were merely witnessing a small accomplishment. Perhaps the book, poem, painting, symphony, play, or stained-glass window in question demonstrated some mastery, some craft, but was it truly “excellent”? Did it exemplify the “grand style” at the heart of Arnold’s vision of a literate, empathetic, morally educated culture?

The “contagion”, in other words, was a kind of aesthetic grade inflation. Grade inflation might take hold anywhere, but clearly, Arnold saw the States as the principle vector for the spread of this virus. Ultimately, the “Anglo-Saxon contagion” was an American disease–one that would best be cured with some highbrow English culture. The cure could be found among those who could better taste and proclaim Milton’s style (the “grand style”) in Paradise Lost without giving two hoots for the religious and political message of the poem.

Arnold, therefore, distances himself from Milton’s admirers. Partly, as Boocker demonstrates, Arnold cultivates this distance to avoid Milton’s Puritanism and (lingering 150 years after the Restoration) Cromwellian associations. Boocker observes that a “fissure” followed, one in which readers had one opinion of the poet and another of the man. I suspect that many readers preserve this divide today. It seems to me, at the very least, one must have some notion of sin and grace as personal realities if one hopes to experience the poem as anything more than a clever rendition of an antiquated mythology. Appreciative readers who rejecting Milton’s basic religious foundations must adopt the fissure or else endorse, whole hog, the Blakean notion that the devil is the true hero of the poem.

Boocker is right, Arnold needed the fissure to buffer himself from the low-church Milton of the Interregnum. But the divide also insulates Arnold from another irritant, Milton’s American readers. These readers included the wealthy George Childs, perhaps, but also the leading American poets of Arnold’s day. One of these, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote a few lines of verse which were (and are?) displayed with the window:

The new world honors him whose lofty plea
For England’s freedom made her own more sure,
Whose song, immortal as its theme, shall be
Their common freehold while both worlds endure.

Thus, Whittier (unwittingly, perhaps) asks all who admire the window in St. Margaret’s to endorse his vision of Milton as a proponent not only of 17th century English “liberty”, but of American independence. Whittier’s verse goes so far as to suggest that all that is free in Arnold’s country is Milton’s freedom and by association, America’s freedom … the “common freehold” of the two countries. Facing such propaganda, though fed on the spoon of American philanthropic generosity, I can understand how Arnold would chafe and even swell with pride for his elitist empire. I don’t envy Arnold’s task at this dedication, but how odd that Milton is at once the occasion for the spread of the American contagion and the antidote against it. Ultimately, Arnold’s devotion to a “grand style”, an aesthetic standard that floats beyond the reach of religious sectarianism and political agendas, failed when he (echoing and sparring with Whittier) concluded:

Milton … and his hearers on both sides of the Atlantic, are English, and will remain English …. The English race overspreads the world, and at the same time the ideal of an excellence the most high and the most rare abides a possession with it for ever.

References:

Arnold, Matthew. 1892. Essays in criticism: second series. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz. Google Books.

Arnold, Matthew, and Lionel Trilling. 1949. The portable Matthew Arnold. New York: Viking Press. Internet Archive.

Boocker, David. 1994. A fissure in the Milton window? Arnold’s 1888 address. In Spokesperson Milton: voices in contemporary criticism, ed. C. W. Durham and K. P. McColgan, 126-137. Susquehanna UP. Google Books.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. “Milton”. The Works of Whittier, Volume IV (of VII). Personal Poems. Project Gutenberg.