Saturday, July 07, 2012

`The Sane Madness of Vital Truth'

Last year, David R. Slavitt published his translation of Milton’s Latin Poems (Johns Hopkins University Press), youthful works I had never read before. In his introduction, Gordon Teskey, a Milton scholar at Harvard, praises the poems’ “elegance, which would later mature into grandeur,” their “sly wit, which would later mature into insight,” and their moral seriousness, “which would later mature into hostility to tyranny—to what might be called political sin—because tyranny destroys human freedom.” Teskey’s characterization is correct, though the poems are derivative and a little dull, not yet the work of the author of Paradise Lost. Dr. Johnson is shrewd and precise in his “Life of Milton”: 

“The Latin pieces are lusciously elegant; but the delight which they afford is rather by the exquisite imitation of the ancient writers, by the purity of the diction, and the harmony of the numbers, than by any power of invention or vigour of sentiment. They are not all of equal value; the elegies excell [sic] the odes, and some of the exercises on Gunpowder Treason might have been spared.” 

Johnson goes on to memorably describe Paradise Lost as “habitual prayer.” What most interests me in Slavitt’s book of translations is one of Teskey’s throwaway asides in the introduction: 

“On the highest peak of the English Parnassus, three works stand apart from and a little higher than the rest: William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.” 

Only rarely does a critic write something so happily convergent with one’s own thought we suspect an act of mind reading. The bit about Parnassus is a little flowery, but the assessment otherwise is mine exactly. These are among the works I most often reread, though Milton less often than the others. I’m pleased a Milton scholar links his man and Shakespeare with their American cousin, Melville. One need not be a scholar to see a conscious kinship among them. Johnson says of Milton, “Shakespeare he may easily be supposed to like, with every other skilful [sic] reader,” and who can imagine Ahab without Lear, or Pip without the Fool? I find there’s a Milton and Melville Society with its own Review. And in 1850, with Moby-Dick underway, Melville writes of Shakespeare in “Hawthorne and His Mosses”:    

“But it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality:--these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare. Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, he craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them. Tormented into desperation, Lear the frantic King tears off the mask, and speaks the sane madness of vital truth.”

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