Sin and Scylla
Milton, like Shakespeare, enjoyed reading Ovid; he was even more moved by Ovid than he was by Virgil. Even if Milton’s strenuous Christianity put him at odds with Ovid’s paganism and violence, not to mention his frivolous, capricious character, his debt to his classical predecessor is well known. In her capacious, deeply enjoyable and patiently intelligent study (it takes 165 pages beforeasubstantial discussion of Paradise Lost occurs), Maggie Kilgour asks just what kind of coupling this was. While the classroom use of Ovid to teach Latin necessarily meant working with shorter sections, Kilgour finds that Milton read Ovid as an integrated whole, the Metamorphoses and the other works, and responded in an engaged and probing way to Ovid’s full achievement and his character asapoet.
Ovid’s tales were sanitized when they were cast as moral allegories in the Middle Ages, and Milton has been assumed by most scholars to take this line: that is how Milton’s Christianity won the day over the pagan poet. Kilgour is not so sure, and characterizes the highly sensitive Milton as bound to admit the un-emasculated Ovid into his text. “Ovid’s interests mirrored those of the young men of the time”, she writes, “especially those who became writers. He spoke to poets obsessed with the relation between sex and poetry–making sex into poetry, using (or trying to use) poetry to get sex, and constantly probing the complex interchange between imaginative and sexual fancy.”
The result is an emphasis onadeeply significant division that runs through Milton’s verse: Milton the Christian is thoroughly attracted to Ovid the pagan poet of the erotic and the aesthetic; Ovid helps make Milton that quintessentially self-divided author, and in some crucial ways, the most integrated. Kilgour’s Milton is drawn to the ancient poet’s treatment of creation. Ovid wasapoet of origins, and Milton learned from Ovid as he reflected on his own role as creator, and therefore his relationship with the Creator, God. Ovid gave to Milton the literary sense that the world had to be constantly remade, that destruction (“near annihilation”) is bound up with creation, and hence that good is necessarily involved with evil.
Ovid was paradigmatic for Milton, as Petrarch was for any sonneteer. Milton filtered Virgil, Shakespeare and many other influences and sources through an Ovidian lens. Kilgour offers novel descriptions of key elements in Ovid’s style that work their way into Milton’s lines, and those of his significant Renaissance predecessors. The wandering river Maeander in the Metamorphoses is just one example of Ovid’s much imitated ability to embody an aesthetic principle in adescription (here of “narrative errancy”): “ambiguo lapsu refluitque fluitque/occurren
Shades of moral judgement in analyses of Milton for the age of terrorism
Maggie Kilgour MILTON AND THE METAMORPHOSIS OF OVID 373pp. Oxford University Press. £70 ($135).
Stanley Fish VERSIONS OF ANTIHUMANISM
Milton and others
290pp. Cambridge University Press. £50 (US $90).
97811070 0305 7
sque sibi venturas aspicit undas” (“flows back and forth upon in doubtful course,/and, turningback on itself, beholds its own waves comingontheir way”). But this account of Ovidian mannerism quickly gives way toamore complex sense of literary patterning where Milton is seen in his early poem “On the Death ofaFair Infant” attemptingacontrast of two different Ovids–the Spenserian (allegorical) and Shakespearean (sensual)–with Milton posturing himself as the new poetic force reconciling each to the other. It didn’t work, since you cannot representafatal cough asarape even inametamorphosis (“For he being amorous on that lovely die/That did thy cheek envermeil, thought to kiss/But kill’d alas, and then bewayl’d his fatal bliss”), but Milton had learned enough to undertake the wholly more impressive Comus.
Well recessed in Milton’s mind was Ovid’s tale of Narcissus and its treatment of the interaction of creativity and (self-)desire. The Narcissus myth points towards the Fall, although since the change from man to flower was irreversible, it jars with Milton’s belief in free will and–inadapting it for Paradise Lost–heneeds to alter the myth accordingly. Satan is the kind of son of change who has nothing to do with “development and progress”: “Evil fixes what was once fluid and moving”. Milton’s Sin is based directly
16.10.12 Washington, DC
Winold Reiss’s pastel portrait of Langston Hughes, c.1925, is on show at the US National Portrait Gallery as part of Poetic Likeness: Modern American poets,which features paintings, drawings and photographs of poets from Walt Whitman to Denise Levertov. For those unable to visit the show, running until April 2013, the Gallery’s website has not only reproduced images, but also, in the “Spoken Word” section, recordings of poets reading their work, including Hughes, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath. www.npg.si.edu on Ovid’s Scylla. Satan reflects the inflexible stagnancy and oppressiveness of Charles I, as Milton saw it, but if the narcissism of Sin in Book Two and Eve in Book Four connote the Fall of man, Ovid’s imaginative power still shows how things might have been otherwise. Moreover, Ovid’s copiousness suggested to Miltonapoetic representation of the universe that is at the heart of his unfallen world and the account of creation in Book Seven. Adam and Eve are warned of dangers by stories from Raphael and by their own experience that have their origins in Ovid’s Narcissus. The serpent is from the Book of Genesis but at the beginning of Book Eleven Milton explicitly compares Adam and Eve to Ovid’s Deucalion and Pyrrha, who themselves remade humanity afteradeluge. This puts the emphasis decidedly on positive human effort in the fallen world, not sin, but misses the chance to exploit Ovid’s presentation of this couple as mirror images of each other, through the Latin echoes in each other’s names.
Kilgour’s Ovid is known by the large narrative patterns he is held to suggest to Milton. There isagood amount of Latin quoted in her book, so that in many places you can see as well as feel the presence of Ovid’s text in Milton’s, especially with Milton’s earlier Latin verse. However, the tendency with the longer poems is to avoid the specific phrase. Ovid is seldom encountered in these sections as a series of verse lines, which is how, after all, he was read. What was in that space between the learning of Latin verse and its scansion and the ability to put words, in Latin or English, into metrical relationships with each other, the quantitative way for Latin, and in stress metre for English? One of the most compelling passages comes early in the book, when the exiled Ovid is presented asamodel for Satan; “inter mutata referri/fortunae vultum corpora posse meae” (“my fortune’s face can now be reckoned among those metamorphosed figures”, Tristia,Book Two). It would have been good to see more of those moments in the greatest poetry when Ovid works on Milton, word for word.
Has Kilgour gone too far in trying to present quite so much of Paradise Lost as Ovid-driven? Don’t the other poets and theologians come into force in this mythmaking? There isahint of anachronism when Kilgour claims that “God’s creative energy generates new and dynamic creativity, as opposed to the drained repetition of Sin and Death”. The theology of the poem is that God is the only true creator; no one else may participate in this except as his creatures, and in doing so we experience divine love, which we must perpetually return in worship. That seemsavery different framework to the “originality” that Kilgour offers, and Milton’s complicated relationship, and the narrator’s, with God, is not satisfactorily
TLS OCTOBER 19 2012