Martyrdom vs. Phrophecy and Apotheosis

Posted: January 25, 2018 in Uncategorized

If so shrewd and sensitive (though so limited) a critic as [Samuel] Johnson failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults, it is worth while to inquire whether we may not have more success by adopting the opposite method: by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age; and, without prejudicing their case by the adjective ‘metaphysical’, consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable, which subsequently disappeared, but ought not to have disappeared. … In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others.

–T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets” (1917)

Student: Eliots presented himself as opposed to two poets, Milton and Dryden, instead of just one, because they compliment each other. I think he is trying to make a point of how he disaproves with both of them from both perspectives.

Teacher: I believe T. S. Eliot is saying that Milton and Dryden are opposites. John Milton was a Puritan revolutionary writing under Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War (1642–1651) and the Protectorate (1653–1659). John Dryden, on the other hand, was a Royalist “man of the world” writing under the Restoration monarchs (after 1660). Not that these events should be seen as causes, as far as Eliot is concerned, and even less so for his American successors, the practitioners of the so-called New Criticism. But these historical contexts are highly emblematic of the faults which the respective writers commit.


The Fall of The Rebel Angels
(from Milton’s Paradise Lost)
Gustave Doré

The Puritan is too visionary; in other words, his epic plots and grand visions appear as entirely prior to language. It’s clear in reading John Milton that he thought up all of Paradise Lost in his head first, and then ex post facto sat down to dictate it. The whole schema seems insufficiently to have passed through the crucible of the act of composition, to have been insufficiently submitted to language’s transformational forces, and this because Milton feared that the overarching schema of his epic might be destroyed by the full heat of the creative process. Not that Eliot considered Milton to be entirely useless as a poet – far from it, in fact. Rather, Eliot thought that Milton was too imaginative, letting his vision run loose in flights of fancy, while his language, powerful though it was, struggled to keep up. Because he is not firmly rooted in language, Eliot considers Milton insufficiently traditional. For Eliot there is an all important difference between true abstraction (which lifts an artwork into the Tradition, along with those of Shakespeare, Homer and the artists of Lascaux Cave) and mere fantasy (which consigns an artwork to the scrap heap of literary history, along with Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, and their science fiction-writing progeny).

Not that Eliot necessarily consciously thought this, but it’s hard for me right now not to think of the highly fragmentary Waste Land as a kind of rebuttal to Milton, what Paradise Lost might have looked like if Milton’s own ego, or self-image, as a visionary prophet, hadn’t been so bound up with the poem and he had surrended himself more fully to the depersonalizing power of language. It’s hard not to see Eliot’s reference, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, to a mock-heroic and tedious Lazarus as an offhand allusion to the visionary Milton.

And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
. . .
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

The Apotheosis of James I
Peter Paul Rubens

The courtier John Dryden, on the other hand, rather than conceiving other-worldly visions and then attempting after the fact to put them into words, writes poetry meant to please the ear and flatter a king. Quite simply, the writer has a political or social goal, or intended effect, well in mind before he ever sit down to inscribe that potential effect’s prior literary cause. Strategic and ambitious ends, along with the ego intimately attached to them, are what the poet is unwilling to sacrifice in the act of composition. Here, the poet, again, does not allow his mind to enter fully into the crucible of language. The metamorphic power of language is always held in check, with the result that Dryden poetry never becomes sufficiently abstract. Rather than excessively other-worldly, like Milton’s, Dryden’s verse is excessively this-worldly, suited to specific sites and situations. Again, not that Eliot had this in mind at all, but it’s hard for me right now not to recall the fatuous Polonius in “Prufrock” as an allusion to Dryden.

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

In sharp contrast to both these writers, Eliot, you will recall, insists that poetry must be utterly without ego: “The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, and continual extinction of personality.”



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