Tag Archives: poetry

Monday’s Verse, Dec. 1, 2008

Dear readers,

A new “translation” of Paradise Lost has been published. Translation, you ask? Into what language, sir? Well–English, of course. It is a prose translation, meant to disencumber the modern reader from the “linguistic obscurity” of Milton’s unrhymed iambic pentameter, aka blank verse. This is an understandable aim. Unlike, say, Chaucer, Milton wrote in modern English, but his sentences are very long, his syntax wacked-out, his vocabulary monstrous. Or as Stanley Fish says, “Milton’s language is not like Chaucer’s — a dialect modern readers must learn; it is our language structured into a syntax more convoluted than the syntax of ordinary speech, but less convoluted or cryptic than the syntax of modern poets like Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery.” Fish also makes the excellent point that the effect of Milton’s words was archaic and obscure in its own time: PL was supposed to sound something like the Bible, Greek epic, and a scientific treatise, all wrapped into a moral poem of the highest art.

Actually, I don’t think Stevens’s or Ashbery’s syntax is all that tough–I think their subjects are tough! But in any case, today we’re going to read Paradise Lost. Kidding! People, it’s 12 books of something like 1000 lines each. And yet, and yet… his techniques are not totally foreign to our typical format. PL is actually a bit of a hodge-podge, containing within its epic structure elements of novel, prose-poem, lyric poetry, and, particularly, renaissance drama. One example is the plenitude of potentially stand-alone sonnets embedded within the books.

Consider lines 886-899 of Book IV. One way to analyze this poem would be to ask one brave reader to do the work that Dennis Danielson has just done with his new book, and “translate” it for us. Another intrepid soul might offer his/her thoughts about what is lost, what is gained, in the explanatory process. This is a scene after Satan has escaped from Hell and is making his way to earth to wreak havoc on Adam and Eve, God’s new favorites. Gabriel, guarding the gates of the earthly paradise, asks him, Yo, you were locked up in hell as punishment for disobeying God’s will. Why’d you hafta go and escape? Satan replies:

Gabriel, thou hadst in Heav’n th’ esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question askt
Puts me in doubt. Lives ther who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doomd? Thou wouldst thyself, no doubt,
And boldly venture to whatever place
Farthest from pain, where thou mightst hope to change
Torment with ease, and; soonest recompence
Dole with delight, which in this place I sought;
To thee no reason; who knowst only good,
But evil hast not tri’d: and wilt object
His will who bound us? let him surer barr
His Iron Gates, if he intends our stay
In that dark durance: thus much what was askt.


Monday’s Verse: Nov. 10, 2008

Readers, sorry ’bout last week, I was, um, busy. Who better to read on the first Monday after Tuesday but Walt Whitman, most inclusive, most civic-minded, of all American poets. Yes, this is a poem about death, but it is also a celebration (I’ll let someone else explain of whom). Note how the emotional tone ranges from mournful to exultant–how does he do that? For me at least, I had emotions spanning such a range for most of last week.* You?

best as always,


*An Onion headline read, “After Election, Fervent Obama Supporters Must Face the Emptiness of Their Own Lives.”

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up–for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.