11 December 2011

Walking With Lycidas

"Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year."

 So begins John Milton's great re-invention of the pastoral elegy, "Lycidas."
And so begins my recitation of the piece as I walk through my now-leafstrewn near-Washington-Park neighborhood. Right, left, right, left. . .step after step, and in my mind:

"Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,"

 I wrote about my donning the noble mantle of memorization, and about my first big memorization project, "Lycidas," in my blogpiece "By Heart."  The undertaking of committing to memory this allusion-stuffed, complex, 193-line poem was dangled by my college Shakespeare professor, Elihu Pearlman, as an alternative to taking his final exam.  I remember him saying how former students would accost him in public places years later and start spouting "Lycidas," the only thing they remembered from his classes.

And, though I never managed the task before the final, it nagged at me after that class was behind me.  I picked up the project in my own time, and slowly but steadily memorized Milton's "Lycidas."
Right, left, right, left. . .

"Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme."

Who indeed?  "Who would not sing for Lycidas?"  Certain lines of the poem have special resonance with me as I stump, right, left, down my leaf-strewn streets ("Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year. . .")  

"Lycidas" is not "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."  It is not "The Tyger."  Noble and satisfying as those short lyrics are (I've memorized both) "Lycidas" is, comparatively, a load.  It is long, complex, and bursting with allusion and allegory.  It is a giant fruitcake of a poem.  It bristles, it burgeons, it abounds, it is crowded, chockablock, stuffed full of references and images and characters from classical mythology and Christian iconography and British folklore and legend. It is one whopping conglomeration, a glorioius hodgepodge of a poem!

But don't get to thinking it is a disorganized mess.  No. It is very specifically and intricately structured.  The centerpiece of "Lycidas" is a funeral procession for the unfortunate, drowned title character (in reality Edward King, Milton's ill-fated Cambridge classmate.)  Everybody marches in this cortege, from doddering old Camus (a figure representing the river Cam, flowing through  Cambridge) to St. Peter ("the pilot of the Gallilean Lake") who lets loose his wrath with both verbal barrels against the corrupted clergy of Milton's time. ("He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake. . .")

A lot goes on in this poem.  Milton wrote it as his contribution to a book of poems mourning the death by drowning of his classmate, King.  In so doing he resurrected and remade a classical form, the pastoral elegy, which is traditionally peopled with shepherds and shepherding imagery.   Milton pictures himself and King as fellow shepherds who "were nurs'd upon the selfsame hill, / Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade and rill."  Poetry itself, through the lens of Milton's take on the form, becomes "the homely, slighted shepherd's trade."

But the poem is not all shepherds and flocks.  There is a lot of carnal, watery imagery of King's drowning, and profound moments of self-doubt on the part of poet.  "Ay me!" the 'uncouth swain,' the speaker of the piece, cries a couple of times when the intricate, protective superstructure built of his own pastoral rhetoric collapses in the brute face of the reality of King's abhorrent death.

"Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where'er thy bones are hurl'd;" 

There is much thinking about death, about the purpose of a life lost so young, about the purpose of art.

"Alas! What boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?"

(I would not be surprised to find that the stages of thought that Milton's poet/shepherd goes through prefigure those now-famous stages of the grieving process identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.)

The deeper I got into the memorization of "Lycidas," the more connections I discovered and began to see the wonderful, overall structure of the poem.  Milton's shepherd/poet moves through doubt, witnesses the great funeral procession; and the thinking of the poem, through many twists and turns, starts and stops, travels eventually, beautifully toward a place of redemption.  Even here, near the end, serious doubt intrudes into the shepherd/poet's mind.  But a redemptive vision finally, almost grudgingly, breaks free and wins out.

"Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high" 

With Milton, footnotes and annotations were indispensible friends.  I consulted reference works.  I listened to recordings of the poem read by well-known British actors, with the assumption that their pronunciations of some of the more obscure characters and place names could be trusted  (an assumption I no longer really believe). I even checked in at a Cambridge University English students' forum for the pronunciation of "Camus, reverend sire."  (They had never heard of the esteemed dude.)

So, this first memorization project proved fantastically rewarding for me. The more I worked on it, the deeper my connection with the poem, and with the mind of John Milton, became.  In doing such a project, in working on it diligently and truly, in studying to understand not just the plot and structure of the poem, but the correspondences between sounds, the musical structures and inversions, the choices of particular words at particular times, you get inside the poet's brain to an astonishing degree.

Memorizing "Lycidas" sparked a string such efforts for me. 

From time to time I'll feel like working on a new poem.  First, I make three copies of the poem.  One of them, the main one I work from, I tape to my bathroom wall.  We spend a lot of time looking at bathroom walls, so why not use that time to "get" a few more lines of my latest memorization project?  It works well for me.  There it is, the first thing I see in the morning, and among the last I see at night.  The second copy I carry around with me, so that when I'm going through the poem in my head, if I am truly stumped, I can quickly refer to it.  The third copy lives in a permanent  binder of poems I've memorized.

In this way, I have memorized a bunch of poems over the years, short, medium, and long.  The shortest of the short you might think would be the Williams Carlos Williams poem whose title I have adopted for my blog, the whole of which you can read just below that title, and which is much shorter at 15 or 16 words than this sentence.  But you'd be wrong. The shortest I've memorized is probably Ezra Pound's "In the Station at the Metro."  Only two lines there, and shorter than "The Red Wheelbarrow" by one word:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Also in the "short" category would be some sonnets, both traditional and non-, like ""next to of course god america i" by E.E. Cummings, and recently "Holy Sonnet XIV" by John Donne (the one that begins "Batter my heart, three-person'd God;").

Well, this is starting to feel like a whole catalog of the poems I've memorized, and I don't want it to be that.  That sounds like a topic for another blogpiece.  So just a few remarks will suffice.

Robert Frost:  I have memorized the most poems by him, at least 8 of his.  Maybe more.  I have myself become a swinger of "Birches," and looked askance at my neighbor while "on a day we meet to walk the line / And set the wall between us once again" in "Mending Wall."  

Of the ones I'd put in the category "long," "Lycidas" still takes the crown of Myrtles brown for longest, at 193 lines.  I also memorized Wordsworth's "Lines" (popularly called "Tintern Abbey") which clocks in at 159 lines, and Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a mere 131 lines.  

There are many, many more.  

The thing about memorization, however, is that if you don't keep up with it, if you don't go over a particular poem in your mind from time to time, it slips away.  I would venture to say that I have forgotten more poems than most of my readers have remembered.

Getting one of these poems back once it has begun to slip or tarnish in the memory is an interesting phenomenon of the brain, however:  one of those things where you can really feel your brain working. The synaptic roadways once built in the act of memorization--word by word, sound by sound, stanza by stanza--remain there, though no traffic is crackling along them.  So when you work to "get back" a poem, it is relatively easy.  You just start up the flow of traffic again.  A much easier task than memorizing it in the first place.  It is an act of reminding oneself of something familiar, of again "seeing" something that is already there.

Of the many poems I've memorized, a handful or two are in what I'd call good shape.  I think of them from time to time and keep them up.  Gerard Manly Hopkins' "The Windhover" I always have ready at hand.  "Ozymandias" is right there, as is Yeats' "The Second Coming."  "Jabberwocky," of course.  And several of the Frost poems are in pretty good shape, though occasional shingles might blow off them in a stiff New England windstorm.  "Mending Wall," and "Birches," those are pretty much there, and "After Apple-Picking."  "Directive," though, a lesser-known poem of his, but a terrific one, needs a good rehab and paint job.  Haven't looked at that one one in a while. But unlike the "house that is no more a house" at the poem's center, I know I could bring it back to snuff with a little attention.

And then there is "Lycidas."  Though I don't go through the entire opus frequently, I still think of it as solidly memorized, ready at a moment's notice.  It is a part of my life and of my mental landscape.  It is in there.

 At least I thought it was.

So, a couple of weeks ago, as I went out walking, I fired up the "Lycidas" engine, to see just how solid it really was: 

"Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude," 

Right, left, right, left.  I walked along.  

I should point out that the rhythm of the poem does not fit the beat of my walking.  I can force the strong beats of the line to fit my footsteps,

"YET once MORE, O ye LAURels AND once MORE
(left, right, left)
ye MYRTles BROWN with IVy NEVer SERE"!

But when I do, the high-steppers and drummers materialize around me and I am in a martial parade, and it is all too ridiculous!  So I calm down my delivery of Milton's lines to a rhythm that is natural to me, somewhat slower than the beats hammered out by my feet.

The first three stanzas--that is 36 lines--of the poem are very solid in my mind. (You can find a version with modern spellings here, and a nice annotated version with the original text here.)  That reflects the history of my learning it.  Even before I set out to learn the whole thing, when I was still in Professor Pearlman's class, I did memorize these three stanzas, so they are the section of the poem that I have necessarily spent more time on than all the subsequent lines.  And my brain still feels that.

Since I am walking, the experience of the poem takes on a spatial dimension.  Superimposed on the Denver streets I'm passing through is another landscape, the journey of memorization itself.   It feels like what I've done up to that 3-stanza mark is take a pleasant countryside walk over familiar territory.   Now the landscape changes just a bit.  Nice trimmed lawns give way to slightly more ragged foliage, with spiky spears of plants of unknown species to be careful of.

I do quite well with it anyway, even though the color has drained a bit from the landscape I walk through in my mind.  It is solid, in fact, until the poet-speaker accusingly questions the water nymphs, 

"Where were ye, nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old Bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the [something something] Mona high--"

where I stop for a moment and double back to make another run at it, since I know these words,

"For neither were ye playing on the steep 
Where your old Bards, the famous Druids lie,
Nor on the. . .

Nor on the. . .

Nor on the top of  [something] Mona high. . ."

but no matter how many runs I make at it, there is that lacuna, a small hole burned in the manuscript, and I decide to leave it, leave a small black hole where the unknown word goes, and get on with it,

"Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream:
Ay me!  I fondly dream---"

So that, next time I come back to the poem, it feels like I have forged a new line, a line with a  permanent wordless hole in it, a gap of sound where a word or words should be, two syllables in darkness:

"Nor on the top of [something] Mona high. . ."

Unless it comes back to me suddenly in the run up to and through it.  That  happens sometimes, certainly.  Especially if the watcher in my mind, the arms-crossed cynic who is just WAITING for the unremembered word to come along so he can shout, "Ha ha!  I knew you'd miss it again!" . . . if that part of my mind can be distracted just at the right moment. . .then maybe my brain will make the leap and fill in the word without thinking about it. The old habit will come back, the old neural pathway in the woods suddenly clear again. 

But if  it doesn't, if I still cannot remember the word or words that fill that trochaic gap, then my mind will just lodge the line as you see it above.  I have a clear sense of the rhythm of what is missing, of the tree, but not of its leaves.  I will make a note to look it up when I get back from my walk.

And when I do look it up, I see my big error, how my brain conspired to move me further away from the answer, not closer to it:

"Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high. . ."

See, I never could have gotten it.  My brain led me down a completely bogus path in the woods, to an inevitable dead end!  I wasn't on the well-trodden neuronal trail at all, but on a devious dogleg.  

My brain knew the line had something to do with the top of the mountain Mona, described as "high."  And in perfect iambic pentameter, it had falsely constructed "Nor on the top of [something] Mona high,"  so I was struggling to remember a word or words, filling one stressed and one unstressed syllable, which didn't really exist.  I had moved "top of" forward from its real position, just before "Mona high." And I had lodged as a new memory this  enigma of a line, struggling to come up with the language to fill a hole that didn't really exist!

As soon as I read the line, it was a kind of "D'oh!" forehead-slapping experience. Of course!  ". . .the SHAGGY TOP OF Mona high"!  I won't forget that again!  

So, little parts of the beautiful memorized  structure get rusty and maybe even fall away, leaving holes like that one.  And sometimes, on the spot, I slap a patch on the hole. . .but it proves to be the wrong patch!  And then the wrongly-patched line becomes a part of the memorized edifice, unless I question it later for some reason.

One time, such a false-memory patch job led to an incongruously funny image creeping into my memorized version of the poem:

There is a part of the poem, quoted above, where the speaker asks some water nymphs, essentially, "Where the hell were you when Lycidas drowned"?"  He then comes to his senses, realizing that, even if they had been there, they couldn't have helped the hapless youth.  What, he asks,  could the great poet Orpheus's mother, the powerful muse of epic poetry, Calliope do when her own son was torn to bits by a crazed band of hopped-up Maenads, worshipers of Dionysus?

"Had ye been there--for what could that have done?
What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore, 
The Muse herself, for her inchanting son
Whom universal Nature did lament, 
When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His gory visage down the stream was sent, 
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?"

Well, somewhere in the history of my going through "Lycidas" in my head, long after I'd put aside the books and the poem copies and was just going through it over and over, maybe when I had picked it back up after not visiting it for a while, my brain hiccuped on the second line quoted above.  I hit a synaptic speedbump, the poem's grammatical hardware went rattling airborne for a moment, and when it had jounced back down, the line came out, "What could the Muse herself whom Orpheus bore".  

I blithely repeated it this way for some time,  until it finally came through to me that my version depicted Orpheus giving birth to his own mother!  I quickly changed "whom" back to "that."

Sometimes the memory problems are larger than these little burn holes.

Sometimes, it is like I am walking along and suddenly utter blackness yawns before my feet!  I find myself on the edge of a precipice, and I cannot see the other side.   The toes of my shoes hang over the scarp, and utter nothingness stretches away before my eyes!

This happened on that recent walk, when I was going through "Lycidas" in my mind:

"Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:"



The black gulf opens before me.  

Let's make another run at it: 

"Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:"--

Blackness.  Nothing.

"He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:"--

But dammit, it's not there.  What did he stern bespeak, anyway?

Grrrrrrr. . .

And as I struggle with it, thinking of how St. Peter's saliva-spewing rant begins, it starts coming back to me, albeit in bits and pieces.

Let's see, the line ends with "young swain, " so:  "[buh-DUM buh-DUM buh-DUM buh-DUM], young swain,"  and something before that, "for thee,"  so [buh-DUM buh-DUM buh-DUM] for thee, young swain,".   Hmmmm. . . .

So the line starts to reassemble itself before my struggling memory banks.  I have a definite feeling about the content and meaning of the first part of the line, but not the words.  I know that the syntax is sort of backwards and that what St. Pete is saying is essentially that one Lycidas is worth bushels of the corrupt and inattentive young rascals who form the ranks of the clergy nowadays.  How, instead of noble young Lycidas dying, he would rather have done without [forgive me!] boatloads of these whippersnappers.

And as I think thusly, the NEXT lines pop into my head, "Enow of such as for their bellies' sake / Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?"

So now the picture is starting to re-form.  No longer an utter blackness before me, I see parts of the landscape re-appearing, a crag here, a pink-painted hillside there.  Now I know that there is something on the other side there, and as I remember more, it is as if the now-clearly-visible chasm before me starts closing up, as if I am pulling on a rope and dragging the further side of the canyon back towards me, inch by inch, foot by foot, until, with a tremendous rumbling thump and a satisfying snick! of finality, there is no longer a chasm at all, but just a path through the rugged landscape: 

"He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
"How well could I have spar'd for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies' sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck'ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths!" 

And so it goes, right, left, right, left.  The pathway through the poem is restored before my feet and I continue through Milton's landscape, and the landscape of memorization in my mind.

That's what it's like for me, walking on a late Fall day through my Denver neighborhood, re-memorizing, very literally re-membering Milton's "Lycidas" in the landscape of my mind.


  1. Memorizing, I was told as a young student, is the best way to appreciate real poetry. I think you'd agree. But it's hard (and gets harder as you get older, so memorize now.
    It wasn't a Shakespeare course. It was a course Renaissance literature or in Milton.

  2. Really a beautiful and immensely interesting and enjoyable blog.

  3. Wonderful writing! Perhaps I'll have to dust off my copy of Paradise Lost again.