‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

"H G Wells: a Literary Life" (2019)

During Lockdown I've doodled around on this blog with imaginary books, but perhaps it's time to mention a real one, by me: H G Wells: a Literary Life (Palgrave 2019). Since my old author website has fallen into desuetude this blog is the place linked-to in, for instance, my twitter bio and other such places; so it probably wouldn't hurt to use it for self-promotion from time to time. So, here we are. This title was shortlisted for the 2020 BSFA Award and did not win, and is presently shortlisted for the Locus Non-Fiction Award (and will not win). I'm quite proud of it, actually. Publisher's blurb:
This is the first new complete literary biography of H G Wells for thirty years, and the first to encompass his entire career as a writer, from the science fiction of the 1890s through his fiction and non-fiction writing all the way up to his last publication in 1946. Adam Roberts provides a comprehensive reassessment of Wells’ importance as a novelist, short-story writer, a theorist of social prophecy and utopia, journalist and commentator, offering a nuanced portrait of the man who coined the phrases ‘atom bomb’, ‘League of Nations’ ‘the war to end war’ and ‘time machine’, who wrote the world’s first comprehensive global history and invented the idea of the tank. In these twenty-six chapters, Roberts covers the entirety of Wells’ life and discusses every book and short story he produced, delivering a complete vision of this enduring figure.
Available from all good etc etc.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Mithraic Narnia

Morwen Montifiore’s The Lion, the Sun and the Soldier (University of Berkshire Press 2020) proposes a major new interpretation of C S Lewis's Narnia novels:—that behind the ‘surface’ pleasure of fantasy adventure and talking animals lies a more profound, religiously significant schema of Mithraism.

The book opens with a summary of what we know about the Roman mystery religion centred on the god Mithras. It was a cult particularly popular among the soldiery, and its glory days lasted from the 1st to the 4th century CE. Worshippers of Mithras met in caves, or underground temples. They had a complex system of seven grades of initiation, enjoyed communal ritual meals and called themselves syndexioi, those ‘united by the handshake’.

Since the cult was secret and hermetic, little by way of written evidence for it has survived. But iconic scenes of sculpture, bas-relief and inscription represent the salients: Mithras born from a hollow rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun). Over 420 sites have been excavated in Italy related to the cult—some 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of the bull-killing scene (known as the ‘tauroctony’), and about 400 other monuments have been uncovered. Naturally enough the highest concentration of mithraea, 680, have been identified in Rome; but it is germane to Montifiore’s argument here that the Italian town of Narni, from where (Lewis acknowledged) the name ‘Narnia’ was derived, was also a major centre of Mithras’s cult—perhaps because this town is the one closest to the geographical centre of Italy.

The key to the Narnia novels, Montifiore insists, is that each embodies one of the seven ranks of Mithraic initiation. Those ranks, from lowest to highest, are:
7. Corax, Corux, or Corvex (raven or crow)—[symbols: beaker, caduceus]
6. Nymphus, Nymphobus (bridegroom)—[symbols: lamp, hand bell, veil, circlet or diadem]
5. Perses (Persian) —[symbols: hooked sword, Phrygian cap, sickle, crescent moon, stars, sling, pouch]
4. Miles (soldier)—[symbols: pouch, helmet, lance, drum, belt, breastplate]
3. Leo (lion)—[symbols: batillum, sistrum, laurel wreath, thunderbolts]
2. Heliodromus (sun-runner)—[symbols: torch, images of the sun god Helios, whip, robes]
1. Pater (father)—[symbols: mitre, shepherd's staff, garnet or ruby ring, chasuble, elaborate robes]
In each case Lewis treads a fine line: he must throw a veil of unknowing over the secret aspects of the cult for fear of violating its mystery and offending the god; and yet he must include enough coded and deictic specifics to make manifest the holy mystery of the religion. Montifiore thinks Lewis errs, if anything, on the latter side: in her view The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) ‘is so obviously a coded Mithraic novel that it is only surprising nobody seemed to realise the fact when it was first published.’

The first referent in the book's title is, of course, to Leo, a key avatar of Mithras. To disguise his identity from the unworthy and non-initiate, Lewis (Montifiore argues) renames him, condensing his leonine incarnation ‘[Mithr]as-lion’ into ‘As-lion’ and so ‘As-lan’. It is certainly true that the leontocephaline or lion-headed Mithras was a major figure of the god, appearing in large numbers of excavated mithraeums all across Europe.

The hollow rock from which Mithras comes into the world is coded by Lewis under the lineaments of bourgeois furniture, the ‘wardrobe’ (guarding the sacred robes of the god—‘many caverns, buildings and hollow-spaces are recognized as Mithrea, the cult centres of the mysteries of Mithras’ [Britt-Marie Näsström ‘The Sacrifices of Mithras]; ‘the Mithraic Pater wore elaborate ceremonial robes, jewel-encrusted with metallic threads, in honour of the god’). The third titular item, the ‘witch’, is manifestly the Mithraic antagonist: pale, wintry, cruel and repeatedly associated with the form of the crescent: a white-skinned avatar of the lunar goddess.
Mithraic rituals involved a re-enactment by the initiates of episodes in the Mithras mythos, a narrative whose main elements were: birth from the rock, striking water from stone with an arrow shot, the killing of the bull, Sol's submission to Mithras, Mithras and Sol feasting on the bull, the ascent of Mithras to heaven in a chariot. A noticeable feature of this narrative, and of its regular depiction in surviving sets of relief carvings, is the absence of female personages (the sole exception being Luna watching the tauroctony in the upper corner opposite Helios) [Leo Ulanov, Mithraism: an Introduction (OMD Press 2019), 135]
The big central even of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the sacrifice. Rather than Mithras sacrificing a bull, it is the lunar Witch (but actually Aslan, manipulating events) who sacrifices Aslan. But according to the ritualistic protocols of the Mitraic lodge to which (Montifiore believes) Lewis belonged in Oxford 1949-53, the ox-sacrifice of Mithras was actually a mode of self-sacrifice by which Mithraic initiates are redeemed.

In this first novel Lewis brings four children to illustrate four aspects of Mithras’s worship: the lead child is ‘Peter’, that is Pater, the designation of highest authority in a Mithraic cult:
The highest grade, pater, is by far the most common one found on dedications and inscriptions – and it would appear not to have been unusual for a mithraeum to have several men with this grade. The form pater patrum (father of fathers) is often found, which appears to indicate the pater with primary status. There are several examples of persons, commonly those of higher social status, joining a mithraeum with the status pater – especially in Rome during the ‘pagan revival’ of the 4th century. It has been suggested that some mithraea may have awarded honorary pater status to sympathetic dignitaries. [Alison Griffith, ‘Mithraism in the private and public lives of 4th-c. senators in Rome’, Journal of Mithraic Studies 2010-09-28]
Montifiore returns to ‘Pater’ repeatedly in her book. The other children are Lucy (that is ‘light’, or Mithraic illumination), Edmund (‘ad mundo’, the principle of returning to the corrupted world, against which Mithraic initiates struggled: it is significant, Montifiore thinks, that it is Edmund who betrays Mithr-aslan in the story) and ‘Susan’, a name that means ‘lily’ (in many Eastern bas-reliefs and statues Mithras is shown as standing on a lily). The four are cultic priest-titles of profound Mithraic significance, and each child emblematises a different aspect of the cult. Representations of lion-headed Mithras sometimes showed him with four wings, two pointed towards the heavens (Peter and Lucy), two towards the earth (Edmund and Susan).

If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the Leonine volume of the Narnia sequence, the next published volume, Prince Caspian (1951) picks up the second of the three major aspects of Mithras: the warrior or soldier. Although the cult of Mithras was notionally open to all men, it was particularly popular among Roman soldiers (‘Mithraic sanctuaries are found from Roman Arabia to Britain, from the Danube to the Sahara, wherever the Roman soldier went’ [Michael Speidel Mithras-Orion: Greek hero and Roman army god (Brill 1980), 12]). Lewis’s second novel celebrates the courage and perseverance of the warrior, as Mithraslan’s people battle the unbelieving Telmarines through a series of combats. Lewis ingeniously weaves-in the sacred Mithraic artefacts of the soldier— pouch, helmet, lance, drum, belt, breastplate—into this novel, a fact that Montifiore thinks explains some of the more (on the surface) baffling aspects of the book.

Next Lewis published The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) a novel that is, as its title makes plain, about Sol Invictus, the sun. For this story only Lucy (light—sunlight, that is) and Edmund (the world) return from the first two books, together with a wavering third figure Eustace, who fulfils the roll of suppliant or would-be initiate, and so acting-out once again the sacred mysteries. The Heliodromus (‘sun-runner’ or ‘sun-treader’) is second only to Pater in the hierarchy of Mithraic worship: and his symbols—the Torch (here brought to life as a fiery dragon), images of the sun god Helios, whip and robes—all have their place in Lewis’s story.

This concluded the ‘major trilogy’ of the series, with the three major avatars of Mithras: Lion, Soldier and Sol Invictus. What remained for Lewis was to write the minor triad, one novel each for the lesser ranks of the Mithraic cult—and then to conclude the series with the supreme figure, the Pater. Accordingly he published The Silver Chair (1953) to dramatize the archetype of the Corax (that is, raven or crow). 1953 was the year of what Montifiore, diplomatically enough, calls ‘Lewis’s disaffection’; she thinks the events of this year explain the darker tone of this novel. Late in the process of drafting the novel Lewis changed his talking crow Grimfeather into a talking owl (‘Grimfeather’ is, manifestly, a more crow-y than it is an owlish name): an act of superstitious warding-off, Montifiore thinks, occasioned by the events of midsummer. This is a fable of giants and hollow spaces, of deadly green serpents—reminiscent of the Corax’s ritual caduceus—and danger.

Next, by way of emblematising the figure of Perses, the Persian, Lewis wrote The Horse and His Boy (1954), a story set in his fantasy-world’s equivalent of Persia—‘Calormen’—and replete with Persian stylings: hooked sword, Phrygian cap, sickle, stars, sling and pouch.

The Magician's Nephew (1955) is the book of the Nymphus, a figure related to Venus, divinity of sexual love and fecundity. Lewis’s novel tells a comically twisted love story, with old Andrew Ketterley falling for the dangerous charms of ‘Jadis’ (Montifiore speculates the name is version of Ἀφροδίτη Ἰάδαρα, the cult of Aphrodite based in the Adriatic town of Iadera: ‘Aphrodite of the veil and diadem’) and Narnia itself undergoing partuition. A key artefact of the nymphus, the lamp, here becomes the lamp-post, whose presence in the first Narnia novel is herein explained.

This leaves the final Narnian novel, The Last Battle (1956), in which Aslan (largely absent from the ‘minor arcana’ trilogy of novels), now returns in splendour as Mithras Pater, Sol Invictus and the soldier fighting the titular battle. The elaborate robes of the Pater are, in this novel, first parodied by the ass in the old lion skin and then reclaimed in glory by Mithras himself, as he wraps the world up and redeems his initiates.

Montifiore’s analyses of individual Narnia novels are detailed and persuasive, but her book ends with a chapter of biographical hypothecation that is more speculative. What exactly, she asks, happened on midsummer day 1953? Certain facts are recoverable. A bull belonging to an Oxfordshire farmer called Eustace Bunce was killed. The police were called, although in the event no charges were filed. Montiofire thinks Lewis’s friends covered the whole thing up, recompensing Bunce for his lost ox, and indeed paying him over the odds that he not make a public fuss. Those friends clearly thought Lewis was responsible for the beast's death, although to the end of his days—having retreated from Mithraism to more conventional Christianity for the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s—Lewis never admitted to it, or even referred to the incident. In a letter to a mutual friend from July that year, J R R Tolkien wrote: ‘what I don’t understand is: if Jack wanted a cow, for whatever d-n fool reason, why didn’t he just go to a farmer’s auction and buy a cow?’

Montifiore thinks Lewis’s friends underestimated his commitment to Mithraism in the early 1950s, either not realising that he was a practising member of a secret Oxford Mithraeum, or else believing this merely to be an eccentricity, or something undertaken for reasons of academic research. With respect to midsummer 1953, Montifiore thinks Lewis didn’t want just any cow from any old farmer's auction. There were—this is all speculation on her part of course, but she argues her case with vigour—particular aspects to Bunce’s bull that made it a fitting sacrifice to Mithras. To slay a bull, of the right kind and with the right coloration, at dawn on midsummer, as a Mithraic sacrifice to Sol Invictus, was, Montifiore believes, a matter of the gravest cultic importance. She thinks Lewis tried to buy the bull from Bunce who refused to sell, first because the price was too low, and then because he found Lewis’s insistency on the point offputting and oddball, and wanted to have nothing to do with whatever he was up to. Frustrated, Lewis—not, Montifiore believes, entirely sober—borrowed an old army pistol from his friend Charles Masterman, and set off in the middle of the night to walk the eight miles out of town to Bunce’s farm. Once there he shot the bull in its head. The whole affair, Montifiore argues, was bungled: Bunce’s dogs alerted the farmer to Lewis’s trespass long before dawn, but rather than be deprived of the sacrifice Lewis shot the ox in the eye and then tried to run off, only to become entangled in a hedge. Whatever grand cultic version of events were playing out in Lewis’s head beforehand, the business actually became a rather grisly comedy of errors.

Bunce, at any rate, made no official complaint, presumably satisfied with his compensation and surely keen to wash his hands of the whole strange business. Lewis was depressed for weeks, and, Montifiore thinks, the changes he made to the final draft of The Silver Chair prior to its September publication reflect a disillusionment with the cult. But he rallied and wrote the last three Narnia books at speed. Perhaps he believed that this devotional act would have some cultic resonance, or make manifest some important Mithraic effects. It may have been a reaction to the lack of any such consummation that returned Lewis to his wartime Christianity. Certainly after his marriage to Joy Davidman and her battles with cancer, he committed himself again and publicly to this more conventional faith, and wrote some of his most celebrated works of Christian apologetics. But, if Montifiore is to be believed, he left behind him, in these seven novels, a monument to the cult of Mithras.

[Disclaimer: for the avoidance of doubt, and prompted by a couple of folk on Twitter and elswhere, let me say that this isn't real. At the risk of ploddingly explaining the joke, this is a little about Ward's Planet Narnia book and rather more me thinking aloud, in a performative way, about what counts as ‘evidence’ in literary criticism. C S Lewis didn't kill a bull in 1953. Or at least, I don't believe he did.]

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

John Milton, "Paradise Assured" (?1678)

Briony Foster (ed), Milton's Paradise Assured (University Press of Augéres, 2021)

The discovery in 2017 of a single printed copy of Paradise Assured—the third volume, long thought lost, in John Milton’s trilogy that began with Paradise Lost (1667) and continued with Paradise Regained (1671)—was something of a nine-day wonder among Milton scholars. Almost all denounced it as a forgery, or some other kind of hoax. It is true that a small number of these experts have altered their views after being given the opportunity to examine the volume (it passed from its previous owner to the Canadian Bibliotheque Augéres last year, reputedly for a six figure sum) but most have stuck to their initial view, applying okham's celebrated razor both to the text itself and to the sometimes extraordinary claims that have been made about it. Professor Briony Foster, who has edited the volume for publication, was one of the few eminent Miltonists to believe the story of the book, and she defends her position in the introduction to this new edition at some length. The volume’s provenance only reaches back to a Belgian collector who acquired it in 1918, but as Foster points out: a lot of paperwork and other material was destroyed during the war, and she bases her faith in the genuineness of the article upon internal grounds.

Even those not inclined to dismiss the whole volume out of hand might raise objections to the likelihood of this book actually being by Milton. Some of these I will discuss below. But first, a brief account of the book itself. Paradise Lost (in its 1674 second edition) comprises twelve books of epic verse, a number modelled on Vergil’s Aeneid; Paradise Regained is four books, and, in Milton’s famous phrase, represents an example of ‘brief epic’ of which the Biblical book of Job is offered as a key example. With this third and final epic, Paradise Assured Milton divides his story into six sections. This, Foster argues, is a homage to Vida’s Christiad, a Latin epic in six books published in 1535 (Miltonists have long known of Milton’s admiration for Vida’s poetry).

The single printed copy of Assured we have is all that remains of what was clearly (assuming the volume is genuine) a very small initial print-run. It was likely a rush-job: there is no licence notice and the date on the title page has somehow gotten garbled: “MDCLLLIIV”. Foster has her own reasons for thinking 1678 a likely publication date, although she also considers the chance that the work came out 1674, the year of Milton’s death, and concedes that it might have appeared as late as 1694. There are numerous typographical errors (Foster tabulates these in a seven page appendix). Evidently, the work passed through the printer’s somewhat carelessly.

The subject of Paradise Assured is the end of the world as detailed in Saint John’s Revelation. It distorts Milton’s sometimes rather sinuous (indeed, rather oblique) throughline to dispose it into the following table, but this is, more or less, the structure:
Book 1. The prophesied End Times. The Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon appears to John on the island of Patmos, and tells him that the island is Christ. Christ then appears to John, relates a story about the moon goddess raising Patmos from the seabed and rebukes mankind for its sinfulness. John falls into a fit of ‘shame and ecstasie mixt’.

Book 2. Satan rouses his army in the underworld and leads them out through seven gates onto the Earth. They assault Jerusalem—the seven seals are explained as the seven outer gates of the city.

Book 3. The seven trumpets sound; with each Milton digresses into one of the ‘seven ages’ of the earth. The trumpets are explained as the seven inner gates of Jerusalem’s inner citadel.

Book 4. Satan’s army assaults the temple; the seven bowls are each filled in turn with blood that overflows. Each bowl corresponds to one of the entrances of the great Temple in Jerusalem.

Book 5. The Final Battle. Satan is defeated by Christ leading an army of the holy.

Book 6. A New Heaven and a New Earth are founded. The angel of the sun brings the book of life down to the holy land. The elect begin their return journey to God.
The business with Christ actually being the island Patmos is explained in the poem itself. Milton explicitly refers back to the famous epic simile of Paradise Lost in which Satan is compared to the oceanic Leviathan to which the unwary mariner anchors his boat thinking it an island, only to be dragged to a watery perdition. Patmos (the poem suggests a rather fanciful etymology for this name, linking it, via Πατ-, to God the Father) rises from the seabed as Christ rose from the dead, to form the virtuous mirror-image of Satan, a stable refuge for mankind.

It’s also worth noting that where the first five books are all between 770 and 940 lines long, the sixth book is nearly 1700 lines, and gets into some rather baffling obscurities towards its end. I shall return to these.

Certain questions press themselves, inevitably, upon any reader. One is: exactly when did Milton, blind and ill with chronic gout and kidney problems, write this lengthy text? Was it between Regained’s publication in 1671 and his death? Such a timeline is not impossible, of course, although it’s hard to see how the weakened Milton was able to revise Paradise Lost, produce a good quantity of prose and confect an entire epic poem from scratch; and the lack of any references in his letters, or letters by his friends, to the work is suspicious.

Foster floats the argument that sections of the poem, ‘and perhaps many such passages’ had been written earlier—perhaps as early as 1664 she says—but she provides no external evidence one way or the other. Stylistically Paradise Assured represents a retrenchment, away from the more purged and austere style of Paradise Regained towards the fruitier or more bombastic style familiar from earlier work. This is one reason why Foster thinks significant portions of the poem might have been composed years before. Many readers, though, may find themselves struck that a certain cantankerousness, characteristic of old men in poor health, flavours much of the verse:
In various stiles sins passage hath stird waves
Most turbulent of all the rivers spate
Whose sound the eloquence of cataract
Chimes woe unto the earth: I broght
Not Peace, but the sword: my gospel preach'd
Man hath corruptd, misconstrued and spoilt;
Nor shall my Church be only drensht with blood
Of its own mart[y]rs, z[ea]lots yet arise
To mirroir dark humillity and peace
And so revert upon your sons my love
As enmity enflamd with passions kiss
Grind hart on hart; so shal ruthless war
And persecution and fierce civil rage
Ravage the Christian world; intolrant pride
Usurping powr infallible, shall send
Its heralds forth with curses in their mouths
And fetters for mans conscience in their hands;
To bid the unenshrivend nations kneel
Under their conqu’ring standard and adopt
The creed of murderers, who, in the place
Of the pure bond of charity, present
A forged scroll blurrd and defacd with lies,
And impiously inscribe it with my Name.
These are religions traitors, and from them
An ample harvest shalt thou reap, O Death!
As is well known, Thomas Ellwood jotted down in a memorandum book what has long been believed to be ether the opening lines of Paradise Assured or some kind of unpublished coda to Paradise Regained:
That Paradice first lost and then regaind
Yet station’ d o[n] precarous human hearts
That blind or prideful yet may cast away
As ignorance discards a priceless pearl
That could release his family from debit[…]
Bland enough. But, oddly, the poem as published opens quite differently:
Numinous Muse, that movd my former song
Of Adams loss and greater Adams taske
Most hard and bitter, to unfall that world
I here again in humble ernest press—
Thou tender spirit, whos invirtuing Force
Suffuses stil the tangeunt human air
And so enspires and interanimates
The finer pieties of human hope.
Now, Holy Word, culminate my last Song
And so rowse fulminating fire from of[f]
The high and diamant peak of Helicon
To now illumine all this mortall world
That paradise once lost and but regaind
With such and painfull sanguinary hurt
Be made secure, and firm establisht thence
For all eternity of mortless time:
All banishment of dark by all thats light
From shield of fathers Patmos raisd
Where ere the Cytherean washed her face
And now the eremite endavouring pray
Beneath the Throne celestial and true.
Now, this is interesting enough, although how interesting depends upon the extent to which you are prepared to accept Foster’s argument that this poem is indeed echt Milton. So far as that goes, the real sticking point is not Books 1 – 5, which, though sometimes wayward, are in line with the sorts of things Milton has elsewhere written. The sticking point is Book 6.

In this final book, after a couple of hundred line of gaudy but striking description of the New Jerusalem, all gold-tiled streets and gemstone-studded buildings under a perennial swift sunrise, Milton does something odd. By ‘odd’ (Foster doesn’t use the word) I mean: unprecedented for Milton, something not hinted-at in any of his prose, Latin or English. He reverses time. Foster quotes a number of abstruse sources that may have been behind this conceit, a couple of Neoplatonists, a pamphlet by Newton, and she makes much of Angélique Arnauld’s book Passage chronologique de la rivière Jordain (1642)—hard though it is to imagine Milton being persuaded by a Janesenist. Paradise Assured does mention the story that the Jordan miraculously reversed its flow when Jesus was baptised in it.
When Death itself reverted back on Life
The very bre[e]ze turbilliond and backt
Round Oreb’s height, and Jordan’s mighty flow
Stood horrent and stepped back at whence it came.
None of this is laid out with what you might call crystal clarity, but in amongst the pious ejaculations and paeans to ‘th’obscurity of Light that veils the veil’ (whatever that means) a narrative does sort-of emerge. We might summarise it like this: the apocalypse is the end of time, in the sense that there is no further (forward) time beyond it. But it is not the end of the flow of time, which rather reverses and starts back again towards its source. God sets a kind of temporal antechamber—a thousand years, as mentioned in St John’s vision—in which the last business of the former iteration of time is wrapped up, not least the final punishment of Satan, described with grisly relish by Milton:
Satan meanwhile a million fathom deep
At bottom of the pit, in mangld mass
With shatterd brest and broken limbs enspread,
Lay groaning on the adamantine rock:
Him the Strong Christ with ethereal touch
Made whole in form, but not to strength restord,
Rather to pain and the acuter sense
Of shame and tormend; hidious was the glaire
Of his blood stre[a]ming eyes and loud he howld
For very agonue, whilst on his limbs
The massy fetters, such as Hell alone
Could forge in hottest sulphur, were infixd
And rivetted in the perpetual stone:
Tho worst of all these [a]gonies was that
Corruption foul, Time’s daughter, set
The first the fiend had ever felt such hurt
Her teeth in flesh &d bone, and brought a foame
And rank dissension of sinew and flesh
Through a decay of aye a thousand year
Until by sharp degrees he was dissalved
And, mote by mote, his consciousness unpicked.
The righteous, though, do not experience this thousand-year postscript. Rather they begin to live a completely different mode of time—running backwards towards the divine fiat lux. Milton’s theory, if we piece it together, seems to be: before the Fall time ran smooth and lustrous, ‘as Oxus clean or Indus bright/Unruffled and enriching in their flow’. The Fall polluted this stream, since when time has been both choppy and (to use the anachronistic word) entropic: moving sluggishly for the young and too rapidly for the old, whirlpooling around moments of pain to sharpen them and carrying away our joys and memories as mere flotsam. Times, as we have all noticed lately, have been hard.

The assurance of Milton’s new paradise is the reversal of time into a new, clean flow. In remarkable passages, the poem describes the saved living their lives—deathless now—in the new landscapes of this timeflow, from which they are able to observe all the events and people of our history, viewed in reverse. History is a story that is told now, and so Milton is able to revisit and clarify the problematic of free-will versus determinism that is such a feature of Paradise Lost’s armature of theological justification. Now it all seems simpler, somehow: then we were free to chose (‘then’ is now for us all, at this moment—the one in which you are reading these words), but now the story is over, and our choices are part of that narrative. Because time runs both ways, from the creation to the apocalypse and back Milton can present both these things as being true simultaneously—the elect, living in the timeline that runs back to God’s creation, pass the exact moment Adam chooses to disobey God’s instruction. It is illustrative.

Six thousand years have passed, and then another six thousand (what shall we say?) anti-years, 12,000 in all, and—like passengers in a boat returning along a parallel channel and passing new folk just setting out—the elect can observe Adam fallen jerk backwards into grace. This is the moment when, from the point of view of the elect travelling back, Adam’s choice has happened. It is as baked into history as Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, or Milton's death in 1674. But from the point of view of Adam life and is absolutely open and choice-free. It’s like Einstein’s thought-experiment with passengers on a train passing observers in the train station. Not, of course, that Milton says anything quite like that.

There’s another important detail. The main business of the elect, passing along this reverse timeline—presumably at one second per second, though Milton doesn't specify—is observing the previous timeline (our timeline) and judging. As they pass ‘our’ seconds crosswise, they look over and see us. Some of us are, at that very moment, dying. This is the elect’s great work, ‘givn by God and so accepted/With effulgent gratitude’. With some they reach across and, at the moment of death, yank the virtuous soul over into their timeline. With others they—don’t. What happens to those delinquent souls? The poem is not entirely clear, but the implication seems to be: they are left to the entropic decay of that timeline—our timeline—eventually, one presumes, to dissipate after the manner of Satan’s terrifying dissolution in the antechamber of forward-time, the last milennium of ultimate decay. But that’s not where Milton’s emphasis is. Instead he stresses the way the post-apocalyptic ‘reverted flow of Jordain’ sweeps the elect ever closer to God:
Not as when th’sun arizes newly keen
To level horizontal thro misty aire;
Nor yet when sinking orb with settling touch
Coaxes the horizon to a blaze of red;
But rather as tho beams unspread and rush
In eager congregation inward, and
Unite back in intensifying clench
Of brilliancy and eer increasing bright
Appro[a]ching GOD againe who is our home.
It is a conceit that becomes, for Milton, the key to all mythologies. Everything is explicable in terms of it. Prophesy? Messages from the elect, for whom our future is their past, telegraphed by some means from one timeline to the next. Miracles? Eddies in which timelines flow together such that the laws of what Milton thought of as ‘natural philosophy’ become puzzled together, and corruption rolls back into purity, illness into health, death into life. This theory is even used to situate the Trinity: God, the Creator (or Father) stands at the beginning; Jesus in the midpoint of both streams, looking both forward and backward, and the Holy Spirit is the twinned direction of the flow. When, as in the passage quoted above, Milton invokes the Holy Spirit as his muse, it is not merely a form of words.

This is where Professor Foster's edition strays into numerology; and, according to her more severe critics, into sheer bizarreness too. There has been little evidence of Milton's engagement with mystic number theory (unlike, say, Isaac Newton, who was passionate about the subject) but it is plausible that he had some interest in the topic. Foster takes such interest as axiomatic. The number seven, thrice repeated, recurs in Revelation, and so in Milton's poem. 7 x 7 x 7 = 343. ‘Exacty three hundred and forty three years after Milton's death, in November 2017, this copy of Paradise Assured came to light,’ says Professor Foster. ‘Can there be any doubt that this denotes the most profound significance?’ One may, perhaps, be permitted a modicum of doubt, although Foster goes further: she believes, it seems, that the republication of Milton's lost work, exactly 343 years after (though as we have seen, the actual publication date is unclear) will trigger a worldwide renascence in Christian eschatology that will, in turn, activate the end of the world. A sober head might doubt that 2021 will see the apocalypse, although given what we have seen over the last few years, perhaps it's not so unlikely as all that. ‘I have every hope,’ she says at the conclusion of her introduction, ‘that I will soon be making that retroactive passage back to God, and that a cube of years will bring me to a meeting with John Milton himself; that he and I will travel onward as his eyesight restores itself, and his youth returns, and his joy in God grows hale and strong again.’ Paradise Assured, or Paradise Absurd? It is, I suppose, for the reader himself, herself or themselves, to determine.


To the editors. Dear Sirs and Madam. You have obliged me to seek, and pay for, legal counsel with a view to compelling you to publish this letter, having refused to print my previous two. It is unconscionable. You are very well aware that since writing my review of Professor Foster's edition of Milton's Paradise Assured I have undergone a change of heart, and yet you refuse to remove the offending review from your website, or add the disclaimers I have asked for. My tone was not merely dismissive and rude; it was, I now know, blasphemous. Professor Foster is still alive as I type, and yet I know she dies early next year. I know this because her returning form has contacted me from the patrallel retrotimeline and provided me with proofs of the TRUTH of everything she says, inspired by John Milton's poetry. We are very near the end of the world my friends, and levity is not the correct tone in which to address these matters. It is a matter of life and death, eternally speaking. It is not a matter not not a matter of some tribal God of the Middle Eastern wastelands, but of time travel, of an engine of sublime potency that cast off this, our timeline from its originary vastness, limiting its range such that it curves back hard upon itself. Of course, primitive people thought in terms of gods and wonders, and of course a figure like Milton rationalised it into his belief system but, sirs, madam, an atheist even such as I can see the ways in which visitants from future metamorphosis, such as Professor Foster, might use their superior temporal perspective to impart WISDOM. You must heed me. A.R.

The Editors reply. Having taken legal advice of our own, we have agreed to publish Professor R---'s uncharacteristically intemperate communication in the pages of this journal. That advice also counsels caution in expressing in a public forum any kind of value judgment upon the letter's contents, but we can, at least, express here our sympathy for him and his family at the news, recently reported, of him having lost his tenure and his restraint under the terms of the mental health act.

Monday, 1 June 2020

"W. H. Auden, the W. H. Stands For Wu-Han You Know"

As I stayed-in one evening,
Not walking down any street,
Tapping away at my laptop
My horizons newly petite.

In at my always-in earbuds
I heard a lover sing
Over the thrum of guitar chords:
Le virus has no ending.

“I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till the plague is finally beat;
And the river jumps over the mountain
And people go masked in the street;

“I'll love you till the ocean
Is emptied of plastic, and clean;
And scientists, winged, go squawking
That they’ve made a real vaccine.

“We’ll run through fields like rabbits,
For in our blood we will hold
The Flower of Antibodies,
To take us back into the world.”

But all the Covids in the city
From -1 running up to -19
Said: “let not songs deceive you.
You shall not unquarantine.

“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where all is contagiousness,
We watch you from the shadow
And cough when you would kiss.

“In headaches and in worry
Your life would shudder away,
For contact promotes infection
To-morrow just as to-day.

“Into the lung’s pink valley
Rolls the cytokine storm;
And through the threaded bloodstream
The hordes of virus swarm.

“O plunge your hands in water,
And scrub them in soap as long
As it takes you to sing, sing twice
All the Happy Birthday Song.

“The schools reopen this summer,
The crowds pack Beachy Head,
Though the touch of a hand-shake opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

“O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

“O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and say:
I can still love my neighbour, just
In a socially-distanced way.”

It was late, late in the evening,
The song was over and done;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the lockdown carried on.

[Note: I originally jotted this into a series of tweets on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, but I find myself moved to extract it from the welter of that platform to bung it here. I'm not sure why, unless it's a sense that my nation, which today moved more-or-less comprehensively out of lockdown despite tens of thousands of new weekly Coronavirus cases and thousands of continuing deaths, is undertaking something reckless and foolish. My concern is, I cannot deny, personal as well as general. I'll be 55 this month, and have suffered lifelong from an asthma that renders me, so far as I can gauge it, at rather higher risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19 than many others. So I do not share the heady sense of invulnerability many younger people (wrongly, I think) seem to think justifies a collective rush back to shops and beaches bars and nightclubs. Auden's great poem catches something of my mood, perhaps.

There he is, at the head of this post. Apparently Auden's face looked that way not merely because of a lifetime's smoking and sunshine, but because he suffered from ‘Touraine‐Solente‐Golé syndrome’, also known as ‘Behçet's disease’: an autosomal recessive form of pachydermoperiostosis. This was news to me, I must say. ‘The main features,’ according to Jeffrey K Aronson, ‘apart from the skin changes, are digital clubbing, subperiosteal bone formation, and arthropathy; other features include anaemia, blepharitis, hyperhidrosis, and congenital cardiac defects. There is an excellent description in Rook's Textbook of Dermatology, at times poetic: “The pattern of folds and furrows on the forehead and cheeks, and the heavy thickened eye-lids, stamp the patients with a uniform expression of weariness and despair”.’ Blimey!

I've never quite known what to make of the celebrated David Hockney remark: ‘I kept thinking, if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like?’ I suppose Hockney means: if that's his face his balls must be extraordinarily wrinkled; but the bon mot has always taken me the other way, to the notion that Auden's balls had struck some kind of Faustian pact, along the lines of Dorian Gray's picture in the attic:—that as Auden's face collapsed into that amazing tangle of runnels and crevasses his balls became purer, smoother and rounder until, on his deathbed, they were two billiard balls of unblemished perfection.]