Poetry Reading Journal #1 (Donne through Rochester)
The second assignment for Farber. Note there was a word limit, what I turned in had parts cut from it.
2004-02-17-0612 Engl 549 Farber Poetry Reading Journal #1 (Donne through Rochester)
Paradise Lost, Book 9
0627 Line 192
So, what does Milton do here in poetry that he could not do as well in prose? The formality of the form he chose does give his work a dignity from its closeness to the examples of earlier, more ancient epic poems. Also, the necessity of generally adhering to iambic pentameter, does make Milton's expression, not like prose... In this sense (assuming most of what his readers read is prose) it is something novel, more markedly unusual, not as easily assimilated, (defamiliarizing) and it is perhaps easier to become absorbed in savoring unexpected sounds and turns of phrase and the imagery built on top of that, than in a corresponding prose work. It is denser (one can find more per word read to contemplate than in most prose..).
lines 215- "whether to wind the woodbine... clasping ivy where to climb" these alliterations could be done in prose as well. Is there an example in this poem clearly dependent on the meter? That is, are their variations in meter that serve an effect, or is the choice of medium primarily of value for the greater attention it by default requires of both author and audience than would be required by corresponding prose?
line 196 "To the Creator, and his nostrils fill" is hard to ignore, as it is a clear exception to the regular meter. The pyrrhic foot followed by a trochee, can be seen as creating a rush. Then at the caesura, where I breathe, seems to fortell or provide a physical example for "and his nostrils fill." Especially, since I'm not clear where to breathe on the preceding lines, I find that breath to be a big one.
I'll work on staging the poem. It is early dawn, and sacred light is gradually brightening. We have humid flowers which suggest the warmth and steaminess of a jungle. We have a metaphor of Eden (or perhaps, the air?) as the Earth's great altar. The flowers provide an incense that one might find in a Catholic or High Anglican (or Buddhist) ceremony. The flowers exhale their incense, and this in fact reaches the nostrils of a grateful creator. Silent praise is sent up... and then we have a pair of humans, perhaps singing, but joining a choir at least, who then get down to business matters. The scene might be intended to be seen as silent (rare in an Eden?), until the entrance of the humans.
But not really. The "send up silent praise" strikes in me the feeling when I get up and see the dawn sky and feel the dawn air, and in an exclamation that is often silent or quiet, "Oh, how beautiful.... Che bella." And the silent gladness of being there then.
Line 205 marks a change, with the beginning of Eve's dialog and the trochaic substitution in the first foot (Adam), helps to set off this transition against the regular rhythm of the preceding lines. There are notable breaks from regular meter in Eve's speech. There is a sort of parallelism with "to tend plant, herb, and flower" (line 206) and "Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind" (line 210). Perhaps that is primarily a visual effect. I am getting the feeling from these lines, especially by line 210, that Eve and Adam's work has become incessant and almost mechanical. Line 206 does maintain a pleasant sound and feeling, consonant with the sense of "pleasant task." Line 206 has an irregular meter, with a spondee ("plant, herb"), followed by a feminine ending on the final iamb. When we get to line 210, however, the line comes in with a spondee, "lop ov-", followed by strong iambs, and line 211 repeats this same strong rhythm. This allows me to perceive or add a rising pitch to Eve's statement that would fit a stereotype of a nagging/haranguing wife or girlfriend (who started out nicely enough).
The thing that drew me in to a closer look at these lines (after "Adam"), however, was the beginning of line 212: "Tending to wild," with a trochaic substitution in the first foot. While the value of the other variations in meter was not immediately clear, "Tending to wild" is both easy to see as a variation in rhythm, and felt good and appropriate. I didn't initially read "Tending to wild" with a lot of force, and took it instead as an opportunity to come down from the strong rolling rhythm of the two preceding lines into a gentler part of the dialog. I now see it could be read, perhaps more effectively, as a forceful conclusion to those lines. Either way, it is a clear transition in the sense and rhythm of the speech.
One question I have (reminded to me by my preceding remarks that were influenced by the visual layout of the poem on the page) is why, once written, it would not be better to format a poem in the form of prose? This would remove the tendency to see line endings as significant in the flow of rhythm, and level the playing field, in a way, between great prose and great poetry (both of which, to the extent the distinction is even a valid one, will use rhythm and perhaps variation from a base rhythm to their service).
While I'm not as clear as I should be on this distinction, lines 210 and 211 also stand off from preceding lines due to lots of long vowel sounds: The a in wanton vs. the a in labor of line 208; we, by, day vs. prune, prop, bind. Though, does the i in bind fall in the short category? If it were "bend" that might be longer. Maybe a parallel vowel sound layout in those to lines would be a more tenable way to describe additional linking in sound between them, in addition to rhythm.
Eve continues, but I should spend time with some other poems.
Delete this part:
I'll note though how, while I'm very impressed, and not sure what it means, that Milton has imagined all this from a few verses in the Bible. I get the sense, or have to wonder, that Milton may be pulling something like Goethe in Faust or Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And that is a radical (though perhaps seeming not so) redefinition of familiar myths or concepts in such a way that appeals to the readers at the time and moves them along in their psychological development by giving them a new way of seeing themselves in the old myths. There are a number of complex and not all together sensible issues that Milton addresses in these verses. A big one is, "What exactly are the motivations of the Devil?" Another is, "What exactly is the effect or reality behind the symbolism of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?" When first reading Eve & Adam's dialog, the impression I got was that they already had reason (and Milton makes it clear they do), and that Eve at least was stressing about the work she was supposed to do. Furthermore, it sounded like she at least had plans to reproduce. When the time came to eat the fruit, the effect, while not entirely clear, seemed similar to what people in recent times have ascribed to drugs like LSD (The Goblin Market gives an impression of riffing on/using as a starting point Milton's portrayal of this event). I won't continue with this talk not directly related to the medium, except to say that I know Paradise Lost, like the Bible, is a very important work in English Literature, and also in the development of the culture, and seeing its thread of influence in other notable literature adds a lot to reading it. I also find it interesting to see how writers from Milton to, more recently, Joseph Campbell, Daniel Quinn, and the editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible all have interpretations of Genesis different than the general sense I got from simply being raised in the culture, and furthermore, that at least in the case of Campbell and Quinn, there is significant emotional involvement in their reinterpretations. The effect on me of reading the first part of Starhawk's Truth or dare, is also related, though I think there is a more complete treatment of the subject in The chalice and the blade.
Aphra Behn's To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More Than Woman (503)