April 21, 2011

Failing Christ's Passion

Milton is often chided for being squeamish when it comes to the subject of the body. Nowhere is this discomfort more evident than in the fact that his only poem devoted to Christ's Passion remains unfinished. Even Paradise Regain'd, his later work on the life of Christ, can only offer several vague gestures toward the Son's impending crucifixion. The Passion was begun at Christmas 1629, when Milton was 21. Later in his 1645 Poems Milton marks the unfinished poem's impasse with a statement of explanation:
"This subject the author finding it to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished." 
Thus, despite its failure, Milton still chose to include the poem in his first collection of published verse. Indeed, one does not have to look hard for poetry that fully invests itself in the suffering of Christ (Donne and Herbert are not far off); in Milton's own life and work, however, this failure to recount Christ's death shows that some of the best theological points are made in their absence.
            The Passion 
  Ere-while of Musick, and Ethereal mirth,
  Wherwith the stage of Ayr and Earth did ring,
  And joyous news of heav'nly Infants birth,
  My muse with Angels did divide to sing;
  But headlong joy is ever on the wing,
    In Wintry solstice like the shortn'd light
  Soon swallow'd up in dark and long out-living night.


  For now to sorrow must I tune my song,
  And set my Harpe to notes of saddest wo,
  Which on our dearest Lord did sease er'e long,
  Dangers, and snares, and wrongs, and worse then so,
  Which he for us did freely undergo.
    Most perfect Heroe, try'd in heaviest plight
  Of labours huge and hard, too hard for human wight.


  He sov'ran Priest stooping his regall head
  That dropt with odorous oil down his fair eyes,
  Poor fleshly Tabernacle entered,
  His starry front low-rooft beneath the skies;
  O what a Mask was there, what a disguise!
    Yet more; the stroke of death he must abide,
  Then lies him meekly down fast by his Brethrens side.


  These latter scenes confine my roving vers,
  To this Horizon is my Phoebus bound,
  His Godlike acts, and his temptations fierce,
  And former sufferings other where are found;
  Loud o're the rest Cremona's Trump doth sound;
    Me softer airs befit, and softer strings
  Of Lute, or Viol still, more apt for mournful things.


  Befriend me night best Patroness of grief,
  Over the Pole thy thickest mantle throw,
  And work my flatter'd fancy to belief,
  That Heav'n and Earth are colour'd with my wo;
  My sorrows are too dark for day to know:
    The leaves should all be black whereon I write,
  And letters where my tears have washt a wannish white.


  See see the Chariot, and those rushing wheels,
  That whirl'd the Prophet up at Chebar flood,
  My spirit som transporting Cherub feels,
  To bear me where the Towers of Salem stood,
  Once glorious Towers, now sunk in guiltles blood;
    There doth my soul in holy vision sit
  In pensive trance, and anguish, and ecstatick fit.


  Mine eye hath found that sad Sepulchral rock
  That was the Casket of Heav'ns richest store,
  And here though grief my feeble hands up-lock,
  Yet on the softned Quarry would I score
  My plaining vers as lively as before;
    For sure so well instructed are my tears,
  That they would fitly fall in order'd Characters.


  Or should I thence hurried on viewles wing,
  Take up a weeping on the Mountains wilde,
  The gentle neighbourhood of grove and spring
  Would soon unboosom all their Echoes milde,
  And I (for grief is easily beguild)
    Might think th' infection of my sorrows loud,
  Had got a race of mourners on som pregnant cloud.

  This Subject the Author finding to be above the yeers he had, when
he wrote it, and nothing satisfi'd with what was begun, left it

No comments:

Post a Comment