Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fire without Heat -- The Scholars' Cowley

The most interesting comment I've ever found in favor (it seems to me) of Paradise Lost is from Michael Aquino, former Magus in the Church of Satan and then founder of the Temple of Set. As I remember it, Aquino says that Paradise Lost is Satanism in disguise.

That at least makes reading Paradise Lost an intriguing proposition.

Yesterday I found another interesting statement in the Cambridge History of English Literature, which says that Milton used a pagan style to explore a Christian theme. This was said to explain the kind of through-line from Spenser's poetry to Milton's poetry, and it was in an essay about Spenser.

When I'd posted my earlier entry, my reactions to Johnson's awesome and hilarious essay on Abraham Cowley, I'd tried to draw a parallel between Cowley's life and Spenser's life. Anybody so attached to Spenser as Johnson paints him to have been is of interest to me, since I was also attached to Spenser for a while. My first big "own initiative" project in life, about fourteen years ago, was to read and take notes on the six and change books of Spenser's romance, The Faerie Queene. My second was to read the Nicomachean Ethics, since Spenser said at one point that he had based his poem on Aristotle's Ethics.

At that point in time I'd read a life of Spenser -- in fact, I believe, the very one I read yesterday: the Cambridge one. And when I made my previous post, I was working with whatever shadowy knowledge of Spenser's life I still retained after fourteen years.

The biggest two mistakes I made were to call The Faerie Queene an epic -- which is sheer ignorance; and to say that Spenser had been exiled to Ireland. Spenser had not been exiled to Ireland. He went with a Lord on a campaign to Ireland, and his career basically kept him in Ireland.

Spenser had been involved in a controversy at Cambridge, whic roiled with Catholic-Protestant controversy in his day. But he didn't stand against the Protestants during the controversy -- though he didn't stand for them, either. So Spenser was basically a marked man, doomed to the glass ceiling of custom, for not rooting for the winning team.

So Spenser went to Ireland with Lord Grey, where, while engaged in a number of political offices, he wrote his poetry. He came back to England twice, bringing his poetry with him, and hoping to get preferments, specifically in England. He was never given his preferments. In fact, tradition even says that the Queen herself ordered Spenser his preferments, but that the Lords who disliked Spenser refuted them so powerfully, that Spenser was never given them.

So Colin Clout went back home to Ireland. And, in his poetry, he spoke of himself as an exile.

My weak, little mind thought of Spenser as actually having been an exile. But he wasn't.

But in this way, Colwey's story parallels very much with Spenser's story, and I think it really reinforces the idea that Spenser was a hero-figure, if not a father-figure, for Cowley. Cowley went to Cambridge. He was often a bit bombastic about "turning Puritan," he went into a foreign country to serve a Lord (Lord Jermyn, in France, where Cowley encoded letters from the Queen to the King), he was involved in a Protestant-Catholic controversy which put a glass ceiling on his career, he wasn't given preferments, and he considered himself an exile.

Now, after reading the Cambridge history, I consulted another work: The English Poets, edited by T.H. Wood. This book is basically a selection of poetry by the notable poets in British history. There T.H. Wood contributed a critical essay to preface the selection of Cowley's poems.

The essay is basically a re-hash of Johnson's essay, minus any of the whimsical asperity which makes Johnson's bitchy essay so fun. The most interesting thing, to me, though, about the essay is that it mentions, like Johnson mentioned, the fact that Cowley did more than a little, if not to inspire, than at least to lay the groundwork for the possibility of Milton's creation of Paradise Lost.

Johnson's essay actually seems to lump Milton together with the metaphysical poets, even though Johnson goes on to point out that Milton despised the metaphysical poets. But Johnson also shows how Milton's description of Satan's spear as a tree tall enough to have been used as the mast of a ship comes directly from lines in Cowley's poem of the Davideis, where Goliath's spear is described as big enough to have been used as the mast of a ship.

You'd think that Ward, whose essay is not much more than a toned-down facsimile of Johnson, would simply have used the same example. But he doesn't. Instead, Ward uses a different example to play up the fact that Milton had greater powers of poetic condensation than Cowley. He uses Cowley's description of hell, which is almost like a circus of horror, counterpoised, with similarities, by Milton's more succinct description.

This description of Milton's, though, I think, is important to note, however, because it talks of the fires of hell being without heat and light. Milton's hell is full of cold fire and visible darkness. And this is the attitude, I believe, a lot of scholars try to take when presenting the "good" works of Cowley.

However, Ward goes even further than Johnson in connecting the ideas of Cowley with Milton's covertly Satanic verses. I think that everybody has always wondered *why* Cowley tried to write his poem, the Davideis. Most people seem to find the Bible an unfit subject for epic poetry. But the exceptions have been Milton, whose poem was a pagan re-telling of the Bible story, and Cowley, whose decision nobody understands.

Personally I feel that Cowley's decision to write the Davideis makes a lot of sense. He was fatherless and somehwat poor, as Johnson likes to paint him. But he was also a poetic prodigy, and known for his skills by the age of fifteen. King David was also a poetic prodigy, and known for both his poetic and martial abilities from a young age. But the difference between Cowley and King David is that King David's life was abolutely replete with father figures! Not only did King Davidb have his father Jesse: he had Samuel, Saul, Goliath, Jonathan, Uriah, and Nathan!

David even had God as a father figure. It's obvious that Cowley was moved by this relationship, as his severe metaphors and constant calling out to loved ones who are absent is very much like King David's thundering expressions of pain and suffering and his constant calling out to a God who seems to ignore more often than he answers.

Plus, although Spenser may have been Cowley's father figure, I think Cowley identified with King David. King David might be the prototype for what Camille Paglia calls the male heroine. King David really is like a male diva. And Cowley is also quite a diva.

So I think the sensational life of the male heroine King David appealed as a dramatic subject for the diva Cowley. But scholars must feel differently than I. Cowley himself seems to have felt different. Ward notes a statement by Cowley that he feels the epic verse has been too long in the hands of pagan poets, and that now the Christians must take it for their own uses. Cowley's statement was made later in his life, as a preface to this poem, which had been written in his youth. Cowley, in fact, says that he is only publishing this poem because he wants to leave the door open for poets who wish to use his poem as an example for how to take the pagan form and use it for Christian ends.

Ward comments ominously that only eleven years after Cowley published this preface, Milton published his Paradise Lost.

However, Ward's selection of poetry includes the elegy for Mr. Crashaw. I could absolutely be mistaken in this assumption, but it appears to me that in the last lines of the quote below can be found the inspiration for the title of Milton's great poem:

"Nay with the worst of heathen dotage we
(Vain men!) the monster woman deify;
Find stars, and tie our fates there in a face,
And paradise in them, by whom we lost it, place."

The concept of a paradise lost is as old as human consciousness, I'd imagine. But consider these other lines, from Cowley's poem on Solitude:

"Oh Solitude, first state of human-kind!
Which blest remain'd till man did find
Even his own helper's company.
As soon as two, alas! together join'd,
The serpent made up three."

Combine these two verses and, for all Ward's praising of Milton's gifts of condensation, you have title and summary (up to redemption) of Milton's epic.

Why would Milton despise the metaphysical poets? Probably because he didn't want to recognize the influence they had on him? Why? Because he didn't want to have to admit the influence Cowley's poetic ideas had on him. Again, why? Well... that will wait until my next post.

Theoretical cliffhanger? I certainly hope so.