Monday, December 6, 2010

I Kill Your Idyll: Preceding Milton with Cervantes

I haven’t made much progress in Milton since my last post. I’ve found myself re-reading several of his poems, in particular “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and “Arcades.” These are mid-length short poems running less than 200 lines each. They’re also thoroughly pastoral, and it has occurred to me that I may be experiencing some dissonance in appreciating these poems because of my recent reading of Don Quixote.

One of the major themes of Quixote is the rejection of romantic idealism. Quixote satirizes—why am I always wanting to write “satyrizes”—the chivalric and pastoral romance, turning knights and poetic shepherds on their heads, making of them something like the more fanatical participants in the Society for Creative Anachronism—which, following a tangent, reminds of the Sandman epilogue, Sunday Mourning, in which an immortal goes to a Renfaire with his girlfriend—hilarity and existential quandaries ensue.

The Renaissance was a load of bloody Italians poncing around claiming to be the Golden Age of the Greeks come around again… This [Renaissance festival] has as much to do with the past as I have to do with, I dunno, a hedgehog… It’s just someone’s idea of the English Middle Ages crossed with bloody Disneyland.

Coming back to Milton, “L’Allegro,” and “Il Penseroso” are companion pieces which balance each other. “L’Allegro” paints a life devoted to mirth, while “Il Penseroso” gives us melancholy. Both poems are built on classical images—clichés?—pertaining to their topic. Either one by itself would seem to be well-written but trite. Putting them together creates an intriguing “dissonant companionship.”

“Arcades” is “part of an entertainment presented to the Countess Dowager of Darby, at Harefield, by some noble persons of her family, who appear on the scene in pastoral habit, moving toward the seat of state,” on which the good Countess beams rays of silver light from her arse.

Mark what radiant state she spreads

In circle round her shining throne,

Shooting her beams like silver threads!

This, this is she alone,

Sitting like a goddess bright

In the center of her light.

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