Finding the Way In

Every once in a while I pull out of its shelf my worn copy of Milton’s poetical works. What can one say? To embark on any given line of Milton is to find oneself in a thunderous domain where language becomes the very avatar of bliss. Paradise Lost is, of course, Milton’s crowning achievement, with Samson Agonistes right on its heels.

But there are dozens of short poems for one’s pleasure. Near the top of this list, I would put the twin pieces “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” In these two works, Milton mounts an “apostrophe,” that poetical form in which the poet speaks to an abstraction: Shelley to the West Wind, Keats to Solitude, Shakespeare to “devouring time,” and so forth.

“L’Allegro” hails happiness, “thou goddess fair and free,” and “Il Penseroso” extols melancholy, the “pensive nun.” When one has finished reading these twin pieces, one is in a quandary: Which is the better mood? On the surface, happiness carries the day — but upon reflection, one asks whether melancholy might not after all be a mood more fitting to our mortal condition.

Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks , and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles . . . .

In this happy mood, Milton conjures the picture of a country morning, where we hear “the lark begin his flight,/. . . And at my window bid good-morrow.”

It is, of course, sheer fancy. No one can possibly take it seriously. Aren’t poets forever summoning us all away from the plodding burdens of real existence and off to a mere cloud-cuckooland? A lark on my windowsill greeting me indeed.

But 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not yearn, in our very bones and marrow, for that realm where the barrier between us and the rest of creation is withdrawn?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?

In all the fairy tales, such barriers have started to break down. Here’s a robin trying to get our attention, or two beavers with their boiled potatoes and sewing machine, or a faun with his scarf and umbrella, or (better yet) a unicorn looking at us from a cool glade. Do we weary readers not find a fleeting sense in ourselves that it all might be beckoning us on? Surely the man who feels nothing but scorn and boredom at such fancies may be missing something?

 

Milton certainly entertains such a fancy quite seriously. On the porch and railing just outside the windows of my study, a Carolina wren comes from time to time to get at the feeders and scattered seeds that I have put out. But he never bids me good morrow. Neither does the little red-breasted nuthatch, nor the red-bellied woodpecker, nor the chickadees and titmice and chipping sparrows.

What if one of them did greet me one fine morning?

At this point, readers may be thinking, “Ah. Where have I come across this line of thought before?” You have come across it in C. S. Lewis’s sermon “The Weight of Glory,” which he preached in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off . . . is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. . . . We do not want merely to see beauty. . . . We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see . . . all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that . . . some day, God willing, we shall get in.

We are told by St. Paul of a “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” that lies in store for us. It is immensely difficult to keep such a picture in focus if one is beleaguered with the clutter of ordinary life, or harried by tension and controversy, or weighed down with sheer pain. Our ordinary efforts to grasp the idea of glory as it comes to us from the Bible, with thrones and golden streets and cherubim, seem to have nothing to do with larks and fauns. It is sometimes urged in the name of piety that the larks and fauns belong either to childhood, to be firmly put away as we mature, or worse, to paganism, to be jettisoned.

But that lark at my window, whether he wishes me Good morrow or not, does stand on a threshold. On the hither side stands me, crowned with the dignity and mystery that belongs to the species Homo sapiens. But beyond the lark stretches a whole realm to which I and my kind are almost total strangers. Oh, to be sure, we can observe the birds through our field glasses, or trap them and classify them and dissect them. But who knows what they know? What attracts them to a mate? What makes them build those elegant nests? What makes them sing? Dear God, what makes them sing?

If only we could get in — truly inside the world of porpoises and gazelles and ivory-billed woodpeckers — and angels and archangels and seraphim and red dwarfs and galaxies.

What does Redemption mean? Whatever else it entails, surely there will be a re-knitting of the frayed fragments of a Creation tattered and torn by us sons of Adam. Then, perhaps, the lark will not only greet me, but he will show me the way in. Then, perhaps, all the fancies that have broken our hearts in all the songs and tales from all of our tribes will come into their own. And then we may even find the spot where

A tiny little man stands in forest dim,
A cunning little mantle he wears on him.
Who can this stranger be,
Standing ‘neath the forest tree
With the mantle hanging down to his knee?

Tom Howard

By

Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

  • Nick Palmer

    Tom, very interesting and moving piece. Unfortunately, as a mid-50s Philistine, I never learned to read nor appreciate poetry. I feel like I’m on the outside looking in.

    I’ve tried to wade into Paradise Lost, but to little avail. I’ve even tried starting from Lewis’s “Preface to Paradise Lost.” Any thoughts? Or, should I just mourn my loss?

  • thomas s

    beautifully written. fortunately, i grew up in an era when good poetry/good literature was still taught in high school english classrooms. lines from milton, il penseroso, l’allrgro especially still run thru my mind. think i memorized at least half of macbeth. and the great lines from hamlet and julius ceasar. but, alas, much of that seems forgotten now, victims of political correctness, intellectual sloth and the numbing, noisy distractions of pop culture.

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