Tuesday, January 8, 2013

remember your Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost: Satan Alarmed  (1794)
Jean Pierre Simon after Richard Westall
 Image Credit: Art of the Print
Happily for us, opinionators Ted Widmer and Cynthia Wachtell have renewed interest Melville's Civil War poems, with timely sesquicentennial looks at "The Conflict of Convictions" and "Misgivings" from Battle-Pieces (1866) and "Inscription for the Dead at Fredericksburgh," revised in manuscript from the earlier variant submitted to and published (along with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) in the star-spangled charity anthology Autograph Leaves (1864).

What's missing in the pieces by Widmer and Wachtell is a frame of reference big enough to accommodate the scale of Melville's artistic reach as a poet. Hershel Parker's Melville:  The Making of the Poet gives the background essential for understanding the scope of Melville's grand artistic ambitions. But the quickest fix I can think of is to read the superb Leviathan essay by Robin Grey, "Annotations on Civil War:  Melville's Battle Pieces and Milton's War in Heaven" Leviathan 4 (March and October 2002): 51-70. That whole wonderful Special Issue is devoted to Melville and Milton.  But Grey's Leviathan article shows the pervasive influence of Milton on Battle-Pieces:
Hell's reception of the rebel angels is the beginning not only of Paradise Lost (Milton's epic begins in Hell) but also may be the starting point for Melville's Battle-Pieces, if we credit Melville's claim in his preface, that "this volume originated in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond."  ("Annotations on Civil War," 66)
Cynthia Wachtell's discussion of the "Fall of Richmond" in her book War No More shows why we need a Milton revival among Melville readers and critics. Had Wachtell remembered Paradise Lost, or read Robin Grey in Leviathan, she would not have puzzled over the strangely "original" reference to Satan in "The Fall of Richmond":
Melville even went so far as to suggest that the North’s victory would bring about the triumph of heaven over hell.  Using one of the most original—and surely one of the oddest—invectives to be penned during the entire war, Melville referred to the southern enemy as “the helmed dilated Lucifer.”  (War No More)
Back in 1950, Henry Pommer more precisely identified Melville's source for "dilated Lucifer" as the portait of Gabriel's antagonist Satan  in the fourth book of Paradise Lost:
On the other side, Satan, alarmed,
Collecting all his might, dilated stood,
Like Teneriff or Atlas, unremoved:
His stature reached the sky, and on his crest
Sat Horror plumed.... (985-989)

Speaking of Miltonic reach, an essay from Addison's Spectator proclaims of this memorable scene:
The conference between Gabriel and Satan abounds with sentiments proper for the occasion, and suitable to the persons of the two speakers. Satan clothing himself with terror when he prepares for the combat is truly sublime, and at least equal to Homer's description of Discord, celebrated by Longinus, or to that of Fame in Virgil, who are both represented with their feet standing upon the earth, and their heads reaching above the clouds(British Essayists)
Yes Satan alarmed and "dilated" was a famous image, engraved by Jean Pierre Simon, painted by Richard Westall for Boydell's sumptuously illustrated edition Poetical Works of John Milton.

Explicating a line from "The Conflict of Convictions" Ted Widmer reads "he" in political terms as President Buchanan, but "he" in Melville's poem is in fact printed "He" with the upper-case "H" conventionally designating Deity. Melville gives it a wicked ambiguous twist, for sure, but the printed word in every version I have ever seen is "He" not "he."

So, not the White House but "heaven" is old and cold.
The weather was not good inside Melville’s poems; a blustery wind served as a perfect metaphor for the angry speeches on all sides, rending the Union: “I know a wind in purpose strong — it spins against the way it drives.” (Ted Widmer)
Here again the same problem, too small a frame of reference. Widmer the ex-speechwriter wants nothing to do with cosmic forces or high flown allusions to Milton. God must mean the sitting U. S. President, wind must mean partisan political rhetoric. But in Melville's poem the wind that spins against the way it drives is plainly not of human manufacture. As metaphor this wild yet willful, contrarily purposive wind represents uncontrollable, unpredictable determinations of bigger powers, say Nature or Necessity or Fate. Robert Penn Warren got it, explaining this "brilliant metaphor" of the wind as "one of the ideas, and ironies, which dominate Battle-Pieces—the idea that there may 'be a strong necessity' which underlies history."

A later passage from "Conflict" (lines 74-79), again in Warren's words:
develops, of course, the irony in the metaphor of the wind in line 64.  The war is being fought for freedom, but even in the victory "unanointed" power may come to work against the very assumptions of the old republic, first, by 'Dominion' over foreign lands...
(Selected Poems of Herman Melville, p 353)
The Iron Dome emerges for Warren as Melville's "image of the new 'power state,' created in the process of defending the Old Union, but in actuality working to destroy the very principles on which the old Union had been established."

But back to Milton. Early in his explanatory note to "The Conflict of Convictions," Warren feels obliged to cite Melville's "reference to the 'latter fall'" as "one of the several which set the poem in relation to Paradise Lost." Further discussion of the poem requires setting the stage with  a nod to Milton.

In the Albany of Melville's youth, by the way, War in Heaven was considered a matter for schoolgirls, literally. In July 1836, when Melville's sisters received awards at the Albany Female Academy, third prize for best student composition (after even worthier essays on the "Constitution of Man" and "Traits of Indian Character") went to the anonymously-submitted essay on the "Genius of John Milton":
"The writer seems fully to have appreciated the plan and imbibed the spirit of the great poet. She is thrilled with wonder and awe at the martial array and dread artillery of Heaven—at the dire conflict and fearful discomfiture of Satan and his legions." 
(Albany Evening Journal, July 22, 1836)
And in Connecticut Lyman Beecher dramatically communicated the heroism of Satan when reading aloud from Paradise Lost to his daughter:
"Genius and heroism would move him even to tears. I recollect hearing him read aloud Milton's account of Satan's marshaling his forces of fallen angels after his expulsion from heaven. The description of Satan's courage and fortitude was read with such evident sympathy as quite enlisted me in his favor...." (Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe)
 OK, time to go. There's this book I have to get now...

1 comment:

  1. Also, Widmer's _Young America_ is worth mining for his views of Melville.