Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.
It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn't cause a riot like Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.
When I think of Coleridge, I think of those momentary sparks of intuition I have experienced, when my brain seemed to grasp a clear and divine truth. It's like seeing something from the corner of my eye; when I turn to look more closely - it's gone! If others do not share this impression, that is all right, because subjectivity was a major tenet of the Romantic Movement, of which Coleridge was a founding member.
The Romantic Movement was, in part, a rejection of the cold logic that came from the Age of Reason. Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey emphasized emotion over reason, feelings over intellect. It was a return to spiritual, ephemeral realms of the imagination, often involving legends and heroes from ancient times. While their writing seems quite structured by today's standards, they were actually breaking away from the strict rules of verse prescribed by earlier poets.
He was residing in France in 1940 when the Nazis over-ran the country. As a British citizen, he was interred as an enemy alien. The Nazis knew they had a prize catch, however, for Wodehouse was famous throughout the world, and they were anxious to use him for propaganda purposes. They transferred him to a prison in Berlin and made him an offer: he would be treated decently if he would just make a few pro-German radio broadcasts. He agreed to do so -- to save his skin, he would later say -- he would also claim that they were harmless broadcasts in which he simply joked about his imprisonment.
But he didn't anticipate the repercussions. After the war, the good-natured comic author was branded as a traitor and collaborator by most Britons. He was never actually tried for treason, but in effect he was "drummed out" of his native land.
He came to the U.S., eventually settling in Remsenburg, Long Island, where he resumed his interrupted literary output. He became a U.S. citizen in 1956 and was eventually forgiven and even knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1975. He died in 1975 at the age of 94 and was buried in Remsenburg.
Why this history lesson? Well, my daughter and I were recently visiting the Hamptons, near Remsenburg, and decided we had to take time out to pay a respectful pilgrimage to P.G.'s gravesite.
Easier said than done. If you research it on the internet, you will learn that Wodehouse is buried in the "Historic Remsenburg Cemetery", and you will even find a photograph of his gravestone. Remsenburg is a small (but very affluent) town near the Hamptons -- we figured it would be a cinch to find the gravesite.
Three of us set out to do so -- me, my wife and our daughter -- one day this past July. Arriving in Remsenburg, we drove around the largely residential community for a short time, hoping to get lucky. We sighted no cemeteries and finally decided to ask directions at the Remsenburg Post Office. An elderly woman was just leaving the Post Office, carrying her mail -- obviously a local resident -- so we asked her for help (remember, Wodehouse was Remsenburg's most famous resident for many years). She said, oh, sure, he's buried in the "historic cemetery" and we could walk there from the Post Office. She gave us directions, we thanked her profusely and walked off, relieved that our quest would be over so easily.
In a few minutes we arrived at the cemetery, and, believe me, it was "historic". First of all, it was tiny, about the size of my living room/dining room area. And second, every stone there looked like it was from the Revolutionary War era. With one glance, it was obvious that P.G.'s gravestone was not going to be found there.
Dejected, we searched around the immediate area carefully, walking a few blocks in each direction to make sure we weren't missing anything. Then, back to the Post Office.
This time we went inside and spoke to the clerk (no other customers were around). She called her boss in from the back for additional help. They both agreed that Wodehouse HAD to be in the "historic cemetery". We assured them that he was not there and wondered if there were other cemeteries in the area. They couldn't think of any, but referred us to a community center across the street, where people might be able to help us. After more thank you's, we went across the street where we were lucky enough to find five people of various ages who were planning an upcoming social event. After we explained our quest to them, they went through the "historic cemetery" routine with us. When we explained that we just came from there, they began to seriously try to locate other cemeteries in town, using ancient wall maps that were hanging in the room.
Gathering all the info we could from the maps, and with many thanks, we continued on our way. To make a long story just a little shorter, in the end we couldn't locate any of the cemeteries that were indicated on those old wall maps -- don't know what happened to them, but they simply weren't where they were supposed to be.
By this time, we were getting antsy -- who needs this aggravation, it's only a gravesite! But a quest is a quest.
What we decided to do was drive out of town slowly, keeping a sharp lookout for anything that might hide a cemetery. We were at the point of giving up in defeat, when we passed a church building we hadn't seen before, the Remsenburg Community Church. With hope all but gone, we walked behind the building and saw gravestones! Not just a few, but many, and lots of new ones, at that. The graveyard extended in a thin line behind the church and went back a long way. What the heck, we all agreed, let's give it a try. Slowly we made our way back, checking stone after stone. Toward the rear of the grounds, there it was -- P.G.'s gravestone.
We spent about fifteen minutes at the site (big photo opportunity) and then happily returned to our car, our Wodehouse pilgrimage successfully completed.
Perhaps this is why, when I am called upon to name my favorite writer associated with the so-called "Lake Poets" of the 1800's (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, sometimes Percy Bysshe Shelley), I will tell you that I like Thomas deQuincey.
Not a poet himself, deQuincey wrote most of his prose for magazines and newspapers. Much of these works were later collected and published as books. DeQuincey's best known work is Confessions of an Opium Eater. By today's standards it's a rather tame tale, but it was considered edgy in its own time. There is evidence that both Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire were influenced by deQuincey to try the narcotic. Besides using opium in his autobiographical account, deQuincey raised eyebrows when he told his readers about a prostitute he befriended. Apparently, sex was not involved; people just didn't admit to "slumming" back then.
Be that as it may, Samson Agonistes is the story of Samson, told in the biblical book of Judges. (I have to give props to my Sunday School teachers from my childhood for my familiarity with the story, which I guess made me comfortable enough with it that I didn't fear the inevitable mind wander.) For anyone who didn't do the Sunday School thing, I'll fill you in on the plot.
Samson was called by God to be the deliverer of his people, who were enslaved by the Philistines, and he had extraordinary strength. As part of the deal, he was never to cut his hair. Samson hooks up with Delilah (whose name, in Milton, is spelled Dalila), who is a spy sent to uncover the secret of Samson's strength. She puts the pressure on, and because she's so hot, he finally gives in and confesses that if his hair is cut, he won't be Mr. Universe anymore, so, well, Delilah cuts his hair, Samson is captured, his eyes are put out, and he is made a slave. One day, when the Philistines are having this big to-do for one of their gods, Samson asks a boy to place him between two of the pillars of the temple, and his strength is returned long enough for him to push the pillars over and cause the building to collapse, thereby killing all the bad guys who have been enslaving his people.
That's it, more or less.
So why does Samson Agonistes exist if all of this is readily available in the Bible? Well, Milton liked applying classical styles to biblical themes. He'd already taken on the epic with Paradise Lost, and with Samson Agonistes, he was going for the Greek tragedy (complete with chorus!), because, you know, Milty liked the way the Greeks worked it.
Anyway, briefly, here's what I think of Samson Agonistes. Don't read it ever, unless someone makes you. And even then, try to find a way out of it. But, if you someday decide not to heed my warning and try to read Samson Agonistes on your own, please remember the following important points:
1. Just because it says "Agonistes" right there in the title, that does not mean that Milton meant for this play to be an agony to read. No, apparently the word means "the struggler" and refers to Samson's, um, struggle. I guess reading it made me Jamelah Agonistes, but whatever, let's just move on.
2. It's written in free verse. (Represent!) Kind of. It's not Whitman, or anything, and it does employ the use of metrical feet, but not in any sort of systematic way, so you couldn't say, for instance, that it's written in dactylic hexameter, which you could if you were talking about the Iliad. For instance.
3. Published in 1671, the play came out 11 years after the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, and since Milton wasn't what one would call a supporter of the monarchy, you can find evidence within Samson Agonistes that the play is an allegorical critique of the day's culture. No really, you can. If you're into that sort of thing, which I'm sure you are.
4. Let us not forget that Milton was a smartypants when it came to issues of Christian theology, and one of the more interesting themes within Samson Agonistes is that of predestination vs. free will. You know, just because God chose Samson to be the deliverer of his people and gave him extraordinary strength (based on that "no hair cutting" clause), Samson still had the choice to let Delilah cut his mullet (though I'm sure it couldn't have been a mullet -- if his hair had never been cut, then there was no way for it to be business in the front) and had to bear the resulting consequences.
5. Perhaps Milton felt an affinity for ol' blind Samson, since he himself was losing his eyesight. Or perhaps he didn't. It's a hell of a thing.
And there you have it, kids. My review of Samson Agonistes. John Milton may be my homeboy and all, but I definitely didn't dig this the most. But that's okay, because Jamelah Reads the ClassicsTM so you don't have to.
I'm benevolent that way.
Sunday 28 April 1661: After supper my father told me of an odd passage the other night in bed between my mother and him, and she would not let him come to bed to her out of jealousy of him and an ugly wench that lived there lately, the most ill-favoured slut that ever I saw in my life, which I was ashamed to hear that my mother should be become such a fool, and my father bid me to take notice of it to my mother, and to make peace between him and her. All which do trouble me very much. So to bed to my wife.
Throughout the diary, there are times we might identify a little too much with Pepys. The following excerpt illustrates how, in many ways, life in 2005 doesn't differ too much from life in 1661:
Wednesday 3 April 1661: Up among my workmen, my head akeing all day from last night's debauch ...
Aside from their historical value, do you find diaries interesting as literature? Do you enjoy reading them? Why or why not?
It could be said that Samuel Pepys is the patron saint of modern day bloggers, considering the amount of personal detail he chose to include and the fact that he was the person who eventually bound his journals and handed them over to a college in Cambridge. Do you keep a diary, journal or weblog? If so, do you find it motivates you to write more than you would otherwise? Are blogs another form of modern literature? To come full circle, the diary of Samuel "The Bloggfather" Pepys has been serialized as a blog. You can check it out here and find out what he was up to all those years ago.
Shakespeare is credited with creating (either through the addition of prefixes or suffixes or through plain old inventiveness) about 1700 words that linger in today's lexicon, including the following: addiction, blushing, eyeball, lonely, obscene, swagger, and my personal favorite, madcap. To have invented one or two or even ten words that remain in common use hundreds of years after your death would be a pretty impressive feat, but to come up with well over a thousand? Well, that's just (to use one of Shakespeare's words) zany.
Be that as it may, literature students still suffer. Shakespeare's writing (along with other things, like the translation of the King James Bible) may have ushered in modern English, but to today's readers, it doesn't seem very, well, modern. Take, for example, this passage:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrowIt all sounds very nice (it's my favorite passage from Shakespeare, to be honest) and it inspired the title of one of Faulkner's novels, but so what, exactly?
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Shakespeare wrote about death, love, lust, sex, betrayal, murder, cross-dressing, and yes, there was that one bit about the fairy falling in love with the man who had been turned into an ass, but is this writing something we can still truly connect with? Or is the antiquated nature of the words an impediment?
Language is something that is forever in a state of flux. Would Shakespeare be more relevant today (outside of academia and the film career of Kenneth Branagh, where his relevance will never cease) if his writing were updated into an English closer to what we speak today? Outside of the rare interlinear or side-by-side translation, why do you think this hasn't happened on a widespread basis? Would it be wrong?
Think about your own writing for a minute. If it were to survive and be read for hundreds of years (and you were to know about it somehow), would it be okay with you if those words you labored over were rewritten so audiences of the day would be better able to get it? What's more important, being able to understand everything (without having to consult a dictionary) or the sanctity of the writing as written?
(Thanks to Billectric for inspiring this question.)
Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb and Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dovelike sat'st brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
At this time politically, England had been through a civil war and a period called the Commonwealth, led by a man named Oliver Cromwell who had deposed Charles I and took over as Protector of England. Cromwell died in 1658, and two years later, Charles II took the throne, ushering in the era known as the Restoration. In a period of time with so much going on, it's logical that people were confused with and disillusioned by things that were happening in their country.
Enter Milton's poem. Though published nine years after the death of Cromwell, it's been argued that this is who Milton based his Satan on. And though he uses a classical form to write about Biblical matters (calling upon the Holy Spirit to be his muse), there should be no doubt that Milton also had politics on his mind.
Now, I'm not intending this to turn into a theological discussion at all, so please don't go there. As you might have noticed, I underlined a few lines for you. I thought I'd be a peach that way. And that's what I'm interested in here. The fact that Milton is writing a poem to make something he views as important clear to other people. Theodicy (justifying God's goodness in spite of an evil world) is a pretty lofty goal to be sure, and may just be impossible on a widespread basis, yet this is what Milton sets out to do with his work. States it clearly in the beginning, so his readers will know that everything that follows is meant to serve this end.
So, if you've made it with me this far, I'd like to ask -- what do you think about writing with such a lofty agenda? Is it something writers should aspire to, or should writers have an agenda at all? Finally, and most importantly, can a poem or a story or a novel ever really be a catalyst for understanding, for change? Or can these things only serve as pieces? Or can they do anything at all?
Are books that important, really?