Under the seductive sway of Dr. Tamkin, Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day (1956) recalls scraps of poetry the way we often do in times of heightened emotion. There’s Shakespeare – “. . . love that well which thou must leave ere long” – and Keats – “. . . But now of all the world I love thee best” -- but most touching and thematically appropriate for Bellow’s feckless hero is this from Milton’s “Lycidas”: “Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor.” Wilhelm is drowning in self-pity, naïveté and the world’s indifference. “Lycidas” probably remains the best-known elegy in the language, at least among readers of advancing age. One would expect Bellow to know the poem, but it’s no stretch to believe the bumbler Wilhelm could quote it. “Lycidas” colors our thoughts of death and mourning, as do Shakespeare and Tennyson.
Ten years ago I interviewed a computer scientist who was dying of cancer. Once handsome and quite the lady’s man, he was now a baggy suit on a rack of bones. He had been an undergraduate at Rice University, and on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination he was seated in an English literature class when news of the killing was announced. The professor had been lecturing on Milton, and, unlike other professors, did not cancel his class and, instead, read “Lycidas” aloud to his students. More than forty years later, the computer scientist – like Tommy Wilhelm, not a bookish man -- recited for me:
“But O the heavy change, now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone and never must return!”
He had tears in his eyes as he spoke the words, and three months later he was dead. In his “Life of Milton,” Dr. Johnson famously wrote of “Lycidas”: “In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new.” It’s a rare misstep for Johnson. On this date, Oct. 31, in 1779, William Cowper had been reading the first volume of Johnson’s recently published Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, including the “Life of Milton.” In a letter to his friend the Rev. William Unwin, Cowper says he has enjoyed the book except for Johnson’s treatment of Milton, which he calls “unmerciful to the last degree.” Cowper takes Johnson’s condemnation of Milton as a personal attack:
“As a poet, he has treated him [Milton] with severity enough, and has plucked one or two of the most beautiful feathers out of his Muse’s wing, and trampled them under his great foot. He has passed sentence of condemnation upon `Lycidas,’ and has taken occasion, from that charming poem, to expose to ridicule (what is indeed ridiculous enough) the childish prattlement of pastoral compositions, as if `Lycidas’ was the prototype and pattern of them all.”