The Poets

February 12, 2010

Comus in the Margins

There's a poem quoted in the margins of one of Benjamin Jowett's translations of the works of Plato- specifically the book of Phaedo. The quote there was to serve as a comparison to what Socrates was elaborating on, namely, how some spirits are still so carnally-minded after death that they are so weighed down by it that they cannot ascend to the heavenly world ...

But the soul which has been polluted, and is impure at the time of her departure, and is the companion and servant of the body always, and is in love with and fascinated by the body and by the desires and pleasures of the body, until she is led to believe that the truth only exists in a bodily form, which a man may touch and see and taste, and use for the purposes of his lusts,—the soul, I mean, accustomed to hate and fear and avoid the intellectual principle, which to the bodily eye is dark and invisible, and can be attained only by philosophy;—do you suppose that such a soul will depart pure and unalloyed?

She is held fast by the corporeal, which the continual association and constant care of the body have wrought into her nature.

And this corporeal element, my friend, is burdensome and weighty and earthly, and is visible; a soul thus hampered is depressed and dragged down again into the visible world, because she is afraid of the invisible and of the other world- prowling about tombs and sepulchers, near which, as they tell us, are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls, spectres emanating from souls that have not departed pure, but still retain something of the visible element: which is why they can be seen.

-Phaedo, 80

Jowett, or perhaps the publishers, thought that a good comparison of the thought above might be found in a section of a poem entitled Comus, and so it was inserted …

But, when lust,
By unchaste looks, loose gestures, and foul talk,
But most by lewd and lavish act of sin,
Lets in defilement to the inward parts,
The soul grows clotted by contagion,
Imbodies, and imbrutes, till she quite lose
The divine property of her first being.
Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp
Oft seen in charnel-vaults and sepulchers,
Lingering and sitting by a new-made grave,
As loth to leave the body that it loved,
And linked itself by carnal sensuality
To a degenerate and degraded state.

-Comus, 469

Now I can’t be certain of the exact time I first read those lines, but it was definitely prior to 1995, and therefore prior to my formal introduction to poetry. I mention this because the poet who wrote those lines, John Milton, is the selfsame poet whose works pulled me deep into the realm of poetry years later (which I mention in an earlier post).

I should probably be clear on something here, or rather on two points.

First of all, John Milton is a man- no more and no less than I am. Although he happens to be my favorite poet, my praises to him resemble that of praises I’d render to a friend.

Nevertheless, and secondly (and the self-reflecting point of this post), I find it fascinating that his poetic influence reached further back than I had imagined. I must have read and reread that margin note twenty times or more, and never once- until recently- did it occur to me to find out who was responsible for those lines.

It goes without saying, when I did find out who was responsible for those lines, it reaffirmed the aesthetic preference I have for his style of writing- not to mention I was amazed and happy about it.

One of the very first things I did when I set this blog up was to indicate why poetry interests me. I wrote:

My longstanding interest in philosophy and theology- both sparked by my interest and belief in God- are what brought me to poetry, hence here.

Isn’t it delightfully coincidental that my first exposure to Milton was while reading Phaedo years ago- a deeply philosophical work whose subject revolves around the question of life after death and immortality? I believe that it’s questions like these, ultimately, that brought me to poetry … even more so, respectfully, than Milton.

Side Note: The above link under Phaedo leads to an awesome lecture that I recommend checking out.

1 comment:

sireneatspoetry said...

I just want to like this, so here I go: *like*

Good work, John (!).

I am sorry I don't make it here very often, but I am glad you are still sharing your insights and finds.

As of April 9th, 2010