Monday, March 7, 2011

Looking for Leopardi: Tom Howard on John Milton

A few weeks back I was privileged to hear Dr. Thomas Howard talk at a Crossroads event in Boston about T. S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets.” Tom, as friends call him, and as he is by-lined today at InsideCatholic, made Eliot not exactly comprehensible to me—these four long poems are famously and intentionally difficult—but at least beautiful. On his lips, they sang. In today’s article, Tom discusses two short poems by John Milton (pictured), author of “Paradise Lost” and “Samson Agonistes.” If you want to reawaken, as I do, to the joys and mystery of poetry, you would do well to read Tom Howard.

Tom writes about poetry, well, poetically. “To embark on any given line of Milton,” he writes, “is to find oneself in a thunderous domain where language becomes the very avatar of bliss.” He explains the poetical form of apostrophe, in which the poet addresses an abstraction, and discusses two short examples from Milton, “Allegro,” about happiness, and “Il Penseroso,” about melancholy. Noting that such poems are sheer fancy that “no one can possibly take seriously,” Tom then takes them seriously. They are, he says, a form of summons to a world from which we feel cut off. He writes:

Upon reflection, do we mortals not yearn, in our very bones and marrow, for that realm where the barrier between us and the rest of creation is withdrawn? On a tour, say, through the great valleys and vistas of New Zealand; or among the little hills, meadows, brooks, and cottages of the Cotswolds. Do we not, all of us—if our souls’ nerve-endings have not been altogether cauterized by noise, speed, and machinery—find ourselves wishing that we could get in? To be whisked along in a great charabanc at 60 miles an hour past the scene sends us back to the inn at the end of the day vaguely uneasy, dissatisfied—wishing . . .  Or, among the giant firs of British Columbia or the spruces in the Swiss alps, with perhaps—oh joy!—the glimpse of a fawn or a chamois: Would we not give a very great deal to be rid of time, which bundles us along our way so brutally, and even more, to exchange courtesies with the creature?

Read the full article, “Finding the Way In,” here. Tom Howard’s book on “The Four Quartets,” Dove Descending, is here.

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