Tag Archives: aesthetics

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.


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.


Magic Not Made By Melody

The best part of Elizabeth Bishop‘s sonnet “I am in need of music” is also the least intelligible.

Here is the sonnet:

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

Bishop completes most of the work, the argument of the poem, in the octave. In the first eight lines, she establishes the problem (a fretful unease) and names a remedy (melodious music). The poem itself is an attempt at fashioning a version of this remedy. For my taste, Bishop does the job too well. The abundant alliteration and internal rhyming draws too much attention to artifice. The reader, too soon, sees how the poet hopes to manipulate our senses–like a scary sound track preceding an event in an otherwise too ordinary scene at the movies.

The second stanza (the sestet) also suffers from this overwrought “magic made by melody”, but less so. Although contrived (one may easily surmise the unwritten questions Bishop must have asked herself in the composition of the stanza), the last six lines step away from the argument, away from the intellect and toward an ungrounded sensual gesture. Spells, breathing, sinking and floating, waves and pools, dreamy embraces–these are the impressions of melody on the poet’s sensual self, the remedy to her “bitter-tainted” unease. If these lines refer to nothing outside our subjective, soothing, sensual experiences, it’s still hard not to swoon over the “subaqueous stillness” and the “moon-green pool”.

The sestet works the “magic”, but (even so) I prefer the pivot at the end of the octave, an absolutely befuddling statement: “dream flushed to glow!” Here Bishop writes within herself; she is not watching in the self-critical mirror. In other words, one little ecstatic utterance escapes Bishop’s superb and exacting internal editor. I am fascinated with the phrase not only for its departure from the established course of the poem, but also because it sends me in search of some kind of sense, some kind of logic in the syntax that would explain it. How flushed? “Dream” as a noun or a verb? And “glow”? Why, of all things, “glow”? Yes, the phrase completes the rhyme and certainly leaves no guessing for where the caesura is employed, but beyond these mechanics of the form, what on earth did she mean? I am suggesting, of course, that Bishop did not know what she meant. She had some hints and the phrase is by no means in the wrong poem–the sonnet is packed with images of sleep, water and various auras, but there’s nothing here to paraphrase, and that’s the beauty of it.

“Dream flushed to glow!”: this is not nonsense; this is glossolalia. Just so, Milton’s Adam and Eve were found, before the sentence, already repenting (thanks to “prevenient grace”):

… sighs now breathed
Unutterable which the spirit of prayer
Inspired and winged for Heav’n with speedier flight
Than loudest oratory. (Paradise Lost XI:5-8.)

Sometimes, we do not know what we mean; sometimes, right then, there’s no truer language.

Oil and Aesthetics: When will the poets ever shut up?

Oil is a dominant source of energy in the United States, supplying the nation with approximately 40% of its energy needs. … No oil spill is entirely benign. Depending on timing and location, even a relatively minor spill can cause significant harm to individual organisms and entire populations.
— Jonathan L. Ramseur. Oil spills in U.S. coastal waters: background, governance, and issues for Congress. CRS, April 30, 2010. [PDF – 383 KB]

Once stable, oiled birds go through a series of tub washes alternating between baths with a one percent solution of … dishwashing liquid and clean water. The wash time varies depending on the amount of oil, and the size of the bird, but on average it takes two people 45 minutes and 300 gallons of water to do a thorough washing.
IBRRC: How oil affects birds. June 3, 2010.

Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!
–Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, the Whale (1851).

A popular narrative in recent Western aesthetics holds that the horrors of the Second World War stupefied the artistic sensibilities of 20th century. It came in several flavors (including: beauty is dead, progress is dead, God is dead, meaning is dead, and order is dead), but was premised, by and large, by the problem of evil. In other words, whatever deity it was that the artist had once worshiped, it was no longer worthy of admiration. Without a god to praise, without an aesthetic ideal, without a cause, the poets fell apart or fell into a noisy silence. (“Noisy” in that poets seldom shut up. If they have nothing to say, they babble on, honing their craft, singing: nothing to sing.) This was, the story goes, the end of the modern, the beginning of postmodern.

Clearly, I do not subscribe. First, evil demands more than silence in response; ceding resistance to passivity and chaos is neither clever nor artful. Second, as I’ve said, no one really ever shuts up anyway–the author without authority is, nonetheless, a loud mouth. Finally, my God is not dead and: “He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out'” (Luke 19:40 NRSV. oremus Bible Browser).

Nevertheless, the times justify a longing for silence; the refusal to sing, may become the song of resistance beside the rivers of Babylon. And, at times, sin’s deep reach screams into the fibers of our personal and social existence. Realizing personal inadequacies, the poet might honestly join Donald Davie: “I held my tongue, and also / I discontinued my journals / … / … my calling: / it commits me to squawking / and running off at the mouth ” (“The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted”. Collected Poems, pg 382).

In any case, to speak is to implicate one’s self. And sometimes to speak is to realize just how deep the foul roots of greed and lethargy grow into the human soul. The oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is inking over the ocean in a great slick of poems. The “Deepwater Horizon” well holds all the rhymes anyone with ears should care to hear. Readers, where would we be today without our oil? What would our world be without the wretched convenience of “modern” transportation? Where would our sources of income go? And all the food we have eaten? The distances we travel for family and career? Our educations and even our books? What would be of nearly all or our ease and leisure?

Each and every word we have written and read is now rising, in great, reeking gallons in the Gulf. If there was ever a time to hold our tongues, it is now.

Justified Poetry

Why do poets feel compelled to apologize for their craft? To make an apology for poetry? While I understand that everyone has (acknowledged or unacknowledged) assumptions by which they guide their own reading and composition (aesthetics), do we really need to join the party of this-or-that aesthetic to write (and read) well?

Certainly, I have not written (nor read) well enough and perhaps a dogmatic allegiance to an aesthetic would help, but I doubt it. I am in a position now (in which I write seldom and read only somewhat more) that can not afford this kind of austerity. (March 21, 2009)

The Mirror or the Lamp?

After many years I have returned to reading M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp. I don’t know if I’ll finish it, as I’m (even now) slowly making my way through the first hundred pages. Nevertheless, it has brought me to this question: Why do we (readers, poets, critics) care so much about the origins of poetry? In the outburst of passion. In the method of memory. In the mirror of imitation.  Or, to put it another way, why do we need to assign to one type of poetry (epic, narrative, lyric) the status of prime parent? Of course, I understand that doing so informs a reader’s poetics or a reader’s way of evaluating what is and is not “good” verse, but is it possible to have an aesthetic without having an implicit (or explicit) allegiance to the chicken or the egg? (January 11, 2009)


Over-rated? I’m not sure. Honesty comes seldom to visit and when it does, we’re stingy with each other.

Aim: To write honestly without succumbing to the confessional. (March 25, 2008)