I’d forgotten Claire Tomalin’s article on Milton in last Saturday’s Guardian Review:
Milton can be difficult, there is no doubt of that. He has high-flown sorties and syntax that asks for close attention (and rewards it), and his range of allusions is so far-flung that some of his poems need explanatory notes before they open up to the modern reader. In a few lines of his poem on melancholy, “Il Penseroso”, for instance, he brings in Morpheus, the god of dreams; Memnon, an Ethiopian king who went to Troy and was killed there, and his sister Himera; the Ethiopian queen Cassiopeia, who was turned into a constellation to punish her for boasting that she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs known as the Nereids; and Vesta, the Roman goddess of hearth and home, traditionally a virgin, although Milton here makes her the mother of Cassiopeia by Saturn, her father, god of fertility and permissiveness, who presided over the holiday known as Saturnalia, from which our Christmas is derived. Even working your way through this with notes can feel like pushing through a nearly impenetrable bramble patch, fascinating as it is, and without notes you simply skip.
Melancholy: a man after my own heart. I will get reading ‘Il Penseroso’, excited rather than daunted by the breadth of his allusions. Poetry’s hermetic world can sometimes behave like a secret archive of meaning. (I felt this way whilst reading Plath a couple of weeks ago.) But Tomalin is most excited at the thought of Milton writing directly about his own experience. This is where the ‘magic’ lies:
The picture given in the famous last couplet of “Lycidas”, his elegy to a drowned college friend, is [also] perfectly clear:
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
And yet it is infinitely mysterious, too. Is “he” the supposed shepherd, the “uncouth swain” who has spoken the whole poem, and is now suddenly described, and shown about to depart? Or is it Milton himself, who in fact wrote the poem, and is turning away from poetry for reasons of his own, not given? Or are we meant to accept that “he” is a purely formal figure set within the strict conventions of pastoral poetry? Whatever Milton’s intention, and whether it was set or fluid, the man who twitched his mantle blue is fixed forever for us – fixed, but on the point of departing, to those fresh woods, and pastures new. One part of Milton’s greatness is that he never lets us forget that magic is a component of poetry.
This article must be an extract from Tomalin’s introduction to a new edition of Milton’s poetry selected by her for Penguin. At the forefront of Penguin’s blurb is mention of the beautiful design of the new edition (it’s OK). The first thing I noticed was how big Claire Tomalin’s name was to Milton’s on the cover. Hmm..