I love Shakespeare enough to have named one of my sons after one of his greatest plays and characters (Lear). I also love sonnets as a poetical form (hear me talk about them on the radio or visit my site devoted to composing sonnets). And in popular culture, I join millions of Pink Floyd aficionados. What a pleasure, then, to stumble upon Shakespeare's sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day...") adapted to song by David Gilmour, the voice and guitar of Pink Floyd. One of the commenters on YouTube called this "the light side of the moon." Maybe so. One of the things I love about culture today is the wild intermixture of classical and popular that can make old things new, and give new things class. So enjoy:
Manuscript of the first page of Paradise Lost (Morgan Library)
During the last few months, together with my students, I read Paradise Lost twice (including listening to a very fine audio version by Naxos narrated by Anton Lesser). A fit way to celebrate Milton's 400th birthday. Within our senior seminar of nine students and me we read extensively in the secondary literature between readings of the primary text, finding this work a very rich and durable text. I measure the value of my favorite literary works relative to the kinds of conversations they create and the pleasures of form and thought they provide. For this epic poem--so inimical to contemporary tastes--the yield has been repeatedly powerful. (See, for example, the musings this work provoked in me back in October).
It was while reading this book as an undergraduate (under the tutelage of Milton scholar John Tanner) that I chose to change from law to a career in academia. Not all of that has been a smooth ride, but my, what refreshing sustenance I continue to draw from my first literary loves. This is among those.
I think Paradise Lost elicits something grand, something epic, within its readers--even its critics. And its faults, of which there are many, slip away as the sheer presence of the work accumulates within its iambic cadences, its baroque allusions, its dramatized theology.
What in me is dark
illumine, what is low raise and support
Milton felt himself a failure in so many ways by the time he wrote the great poems at his life's last stage. I'm glad he lived to see the response to his magnum opus.
I tried naming one of my children Milton, but my wife did not agree. We compromised, naming him Adam in reference both to the Bible and to Paradise Lost. In the poem Adam speaks very tenderly about his mate, even before she is created, and Milton paints the pair as equals, fitly independent and interdependent:
What happiness, who can enjoy alone,
Or all enjoying, what contentment find?
Among unequals what society
Can sort, what harmony or true delight?
And there is, of course, that final image as the poem closes--Adam and Eve exiting the garden, sobered, holding hands, about to take on the fallen world together:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitary way.
Part of my love of Paradise Lost derives from the relationship between Adam and Eve. At times strained, ultimately united, the two are lovers, intellectual companions, repenting and reforming their lives within a knowledge of their weakness and God's strength. It is an image of marriage I hold to as I do my own Eve.
A couple months ago, in the midst of my excitement over Paradise Lost, I shared some thoughts and lines with my wife from this great work. Her own reflections she wrote down on her own blog, here. It pleased me that something I valued so much also pleased someone I value so much. Our marriage is a happy one in part because we each read widely and share broadly our interests--a bit like the way that Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost split up to range about the garden independently before rejoining each other, renewed by their adventures, renewed by their reunion.
Thank you, John Milton.
When I stumbled across Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symphony No. 3, 1993), I joined a million others compelled by this mysterious, elevating, haunting music. The first movement, Lento, seems to be a complex, contrapuntal crescendo toward some sort of empathic climax that mixes, inexplicably, profound sadness and transcendence. A 27 minute hike from the depths of a valley to a place, not quite so dark, reverberating with a plea that seems to break open the milky way with yearning, with mourning, with communion with darkness and light.
The first movement is a great, complex canon of deep sorrow. It starts almost inaudibly with the basses, then with utmost slowness, progressively rises through the strings until the entire orchestra is involved in its glory.
At its heart, as the strings suddenly fade, lies a 15th century Polish poem known as the Lamentation of the Holy Cross. The Mother of Christ begs her dying son to speak:At the end of this soprano respite, this brief ray of light, the huge string canon returns, more powerful than before. This time it retreats, and eventually fades into oblivion.
My son, chosen and loved,
Let your mother share your wounds
And since, my dear son,
I have always kept you in my heart,
And loyally served you,
Speak to your mother,
make her happy ,
Though, my cherished hope,
you are now leaving me.
But the music is grander than Christian tradition, elevating toward an expansiveness reminiscent of Aaron Copland's Fanfare of the Common Man, but muted, sustained, and contemplative as Barber's Adagio for Strings. I recently saw a Mormon play by Eric Samuelsen called Gaia that used LDS theology about the creative activities of premortal spirits to meld the pagan earth spirit, Gaia, with Eve as the incarnation of the female spirit that orchestrated the creation of this world. I feel that Górecki's work bursts the bounds of denominational religion, rising toward a spirituality of pure connection--mother to son, sufferer to sufferer, in a texture of simultaneous descent and ascent, dissonance and consonance.
What if the Fall was not at the beginning of history but was in fact the beginning of history itself?
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law --
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson