Monday, July 12, 2010

The Dark, Unfathom'd, Infinite Abyss

It has happened. It has finally happened. I found a respectable audio recording of Paradise Lost.

One of my great disappointments in memorizing poetry has been my inability to plumb the palpable obscure of Milton’s writings, a deficiency which I attribute to the lack of a quality recording. The Librivox version is decent: Cori Samuel does an excellent reading of Books II and IV, and the fellow who reads Book I has some kind of voice-altering technology which makes his voice all growly and demonic when he reads the part of Satan. Of the other readers, I will make no mention… Last summer I downloaded an unabridged reading of the whole poem by the same nasally Frenchman who performed my recordings of The Brothers Karamazov and Les Miserables. Being a nasally Frenchman is all very well when you’re reading a novel originally written in French, and set in Paris, but it’s all wrong for Milton. Try to imagine, I don’t know, Christopher Lee reading Huckleberry Finn (“All right then, I’LL GO TO HELL!!”), and you’ll get an idea of how jarring this is. I’ve never listened to it much, and while Melville, and Macbeth, and King Lear, and The Tempest, and The Waste Land, and all the other great epics were committed to memory, Milton remained alone on the bookshelf, solitary, voiceless, and unread.

Happily, my waiting has ended. I have uncovered a recording of the 1992 BBC Radio 4 abridgement of Paradise Lost in 41 episodes, with Dennis Quilley as the narrator and Ian McDiarmid as Satan. You’ll remember Ian McDiarmid as the oily, deceitful, charismatic, malicious, and terrifying Senator Palpatine of the first two movies in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and the emperor in all the rest. His readings are fantastic—full of thunder, lightning, menace, revenge, and a fiery, seeping fog of creeping evil. When he starts going off about the “spacious empire” in Episode 8, the resonances with his famous film-work start to feel a little eerie, as if some men are made to be villains. But the narrator leavens it all with his jovial, rollicking flair. He actually seems to be enjoying reading it. I was reminded of two characters from Pixar movies: the narrating praying mantis in A Bug’s Life, and Mr. Pricklepants, the delightful Shakespearean hedgehog from Toy Story 3.

* * *

During my trip to Southwestern a week and a half ago, I stopped by the library on the day before it closed for the summer and checked out nine books I had been planning to read or reread for a while: All Hallow’s Eve, The Brothers Karamazov, the Confessions of Augustine, The Figure of Beatrice (a study of the life and poetry of Dante by Charles Williams), Coleridge’s Literaria Biographia, Moby-Dick and Calvinism by our beloved Dr. Herbert, Knox’s translation of the Psalms, On the Road, and Milton and Melville, a study of the literary influences of Milton’s work on Melville’s.

It seems that there’s more to writing an epic than a sonorous style, although I was surprised to discover that the sonorous style is a necessary part of it (at least in part). I was also surprised to discover how many of the ingredients that are necessary to writing an epic I had already employed in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of my novel.

These are what Pommer lists as the functional components of a Milton-style epic, whether in poetry or prose:

"Three characteristics of Paradise Lost Havens considered valueless in determining Milton’s influence on authors who had read pre-Miltonic poetry, but valuable in determining why poetry sounded Miltonic. These three are repetition of words or phrases, cumulations of the same parts of speech, and the use of adjectives ending in –ean or –ian and derived from proper nouns."

I could work on my repetition, but the last one is a go. Remember how in February I noted that I was deliberately weaving in references to other times and places than the setting of my story so that I could give it a sense of grandeur and, whenever necessary, ventilate the closed-in action of the school.

But he goes on:

"Of the nine characteristics more peculiar to Milton’s epic, seven are these: inversions of natural word order, omissions of words not needed to convey the meaning, parenthesis and apposition, the use of one part of speech as another, a vocabulary marked by archaisms and borrowings, generous use of proper nouns, and unusual compound epithets."

The only one of those I’m lacking at the moment is “the use of one part of speech as another.” This is what happens when Shakespeare or Milton or Melville makes what would normally be an adverb into an adjective, for example in the line: “O sleep, thou ape of death, lie dull upon her, and be her sense but as a monument, thus in a chapel lying!” where dull takes the place of dully. I have been working at it earnestly for months, but still have not divined a way of doing this without it sounding forced and awkward.

See, and that’s the trick, because one of the major themes of the first part of this book is that an epic isn’t forced, but that it overflows naturally out of the heart of the writer as he engages with his favorite works (and with the vast, unfathomed, infinite abyss) and drinks them deep in ever-greater measure. That is key. A little further down the page, Pommer writes:

"Iambic rhythm, epic similes, suspensions, compounds of all- and un-, [I have employed all of these, not always consciously] and general epic characteristics are perhaps the most important… but the sum of them must be totaled if one is to grasp the full significance of A. S. W. Rosenbach’s statement that Melville ‘could write with… the grandeur of Milton.’ To repeat, this study does not have to do with a case of conscious imitation, nor with an unconscious, unadulterated assimilation. To some indeterminable extent it does deal with the fact that ‘the books… [which] really spoke to Melville became an immediate part of him to a degree hardly matched by any other of our great writers in their maturity.’ It also deals with that close, attentive reading, whereby ‘one great Genius often catches the flame from another, and writes in his Spirit, without copying servilely after him.’"

But my primary earthly, external calling isn’t even that of a writer; it’s to live a literary life. Therefore, any writing I produce that doesn’t serve as a function of that is no other than vanity.

In other words, there can be no grandeur for its own sake. Everything that I write, and every style I employ, must serve the purposes of the story. The reason Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 16 were so successful is because they did exactly this.

No comments: