Wednesday, March 07, 2007

L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Il Moderato and Il Mystico

It seems to be that time of the teaching term where every task gets rushed as Easter starts to come into view. I am in the latest EMLS

writing about some off-colour late 17th century burlesques of Hero and Leander. I guess I’d hoped EMLS would have a shorter lead time than the print journals, but getting it seems to have taken the most part of a year. My surmise is that the whole world beats the electronic path to the editor’s in-box. What an odd effect on prose numbering paragraphs (rather than pages) has! Obviously it is done to aid citation, for a web page is more of a scroll than a leaf.

Anyway, as a full text is not available on the web unless you sign up with ‘Questia’, this is a transcript of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ serious parody after Milton, ‘Il Mystico’. It isn’t very good, I’m afraid: its diffuseness tends to highlight just how well Milton avoided a flaccid list of high-brow pleasures in the real model, ‘Il Penseroso’.

First, though, this link, though, is to the libretto of ‘Il Moderato’, where Charles Jennens added a Golden Mean to the Perissa and Elissa (as Edmund Spenser would have put it), the too-much and too- little of Milton’s prior poems, mingling the three together for Handel to set.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Il Mystico

Hence sensual gross desires,
Right offspring of your grimy mother Earth!
My Spirit hath a birth
Alien from yours as heaven from Nadir-fires:
You rank and reeking things,
Scoop you from teeming filth some sickly hovel,
And there for ever grovel
'Mid fever'd fumes and slime and cakèd clot:
But foul and cumber not

The shaken plumage of my Spirit's wing

But come, thou balm to aching soul,
Of pointed wing and silver stole,
With heavenly cithern from high choir,
Tresses dipp'd in rainbow fire,
An olive-branch whence richly reek
Earthless dews on ancles sleek;
Be discover'd to my sight
From a haze of sapphire light,
Let incense hang across the room

And sober lustres take the gloom;

Come when night clings to what is hers
Closer because faint morning stirs;
When chill woods wake and think of morn,
But sleep again ere day be born;
When sick men turn, and lights are low,
And death falls gently as the snow;

When wholesome spirits rustle about,
And the tide of ill is out;
When waking hearts can pardon much

And hard men feel a softening touch;

When strangely loom all shapes that be,

And watches change upon the sea;

Silence holds breath upon her throne,

And the waked stars are all alone.

Come then because then most thinly lies

The veil that covers mysteries;

And the soul is subtle and flesh weak

And pride is nerveless and hearts meek.


Touch me and purify, and shew

Some of the secrets I would know.


Grant that close-folded peace that clad

The seraph brows of Galahad,

Who knew the inner spirit that fills

Questioning winds around the hills;

Who made conjecture nearest far

To what the chords of angels are;

And to the mystery of those things


Shewn to Ezekiel’s open’d sight

On Chebar’s banks, and why they went

Unswerving through the firmament;

Whose ken through amber of dark eyes

Went forth to compass mysteries;

Who knowing all the sins and sores

That nest within close-barrèd doors,

And that grief masters joy on earth

Yet found unstinted place for mirth;

Who could forgive without grudge after

Gross mind discharging foulèd laughter;

To whom the common earth and air

Were limn’d about with radiance rare

Most like those hues that in the prism

Melt as from a heavenly chrism;

Who could keep silence, tho’ the smart

Yawn’d like long furrow in the heart;


Or, like a lark to glide aloof

Under the cloud-festoonèd roof,

That with a turning of the wings

Light and darkness from him flings;

To drift in air, the circled earth

Spreading still its sunnèd girth;

To hear the sheep-bells dimly die

Till the lifted clouds were nigh;

In breezy belts of upper air

Melting into aether rare;

And when the silent height were won,

And all in lone air stood the sun,

To sing scarce heard, and singing fill

The airy empire at his will;

To hear his strain descend less loud

On to the ledges of grey cloud;

And fainter, finer, trickle far

To where the listening uplands are;

To pause – then from his gurgling bill

Let the warbled sweetness rill,

And down the welkin, gushing free,

Hark the molten melody;

In fits of music till sunset

Starting the silver rivulet;

Sweetly then and of fine act

To quench the fine-drawn cataract;

And in the dews beside his nest

To cool his plumy throbbing breast.

Or, if a sudden silver shower

Has drench’d the molten sunset hour,

And with weeping cloud is spread

All the welkin overhead,

Save where the unvexèd west

Lies divinely still, at rest,

Where liquid heaven sapphire-pale

Does into amber splendours fail,

And fretted clouds with burnish’d rim,

Phoebus’ loosen’d tresses, swim;

While the sun streams forth amain

On the tumblings of the rain,

When his mellow smile he sees

Caught on the dank-ytressèd tress,

When the rainbow arching high

Looks from the zenith round the sky,

Lit with exquisite tints seven

Caught from angels’ wings in heaven,

Double, and higher than his wont,

The wrought rim of heaven’s font, -

Then may I upwards gaze and see

The deepening intensity

Of the air-blended diadem,

All a sevenfold-single gem,

Each hue so rarely wrought that where

It melts, new lights arise as fair,

Sapphire, jacinth, chrysolite,

The rim with ruby fringes dight,

Ending in sweet uncertainty

‘Twixt real hue and phantasy

Then while the rain-born arc grows higher

Westward on his sinking sire;

While the upgazing country seems

Touch’d from heaven in sweet dreams;

While a subtle spirit and rare

Breathes in the mysterious air;

While sheeny tears and sunlit mirth

Mix o’er the not unmovèd earth, -

Then would I fling me up to sip

Sweetness from the hour, and dip

Deeply in the archèd lustres,

And look abroad on sunny clusters

Of wringing tree-tops, chalky lanes,

Wheatfields tumbled with the rains,

Streaks of shadow, thistled leas,

Whence spring the jewell’d harmonies

That meet in mid-air, and be so

Melted in the dizzy bow

That I may drink that ecstacy

Which to pure souls alone may be …

It’s Hopkins in 1862, before he became a Jesuit. The interest seems to me to lie in the way that allusion to Ezekiel drops into the poem. Yes, Ezekiel has a very strange vision of cherubims, but after that, is busy recruiting God to destroy sinful Jerusalem. Hopkins’ poem betrays the barely suppressed dislike of the poor which regularly appears in his work. Instead of pursuing the pattern of vengeful and not very mystical reverie of all but the select being struck down, he takes characteristic recourse to nature, and the heaven-proximate floatings-about, above all this filth, of a lark.

The picture is Raphael’s ‘The Vision of Ezekiel’ (he’s the tiny figure bottom left in the shaft of light). Raphael clearly gave up trying to work out the cherubim and their multiple wings and very confusing wheels, and just opted to have Ezekiel see something iconographically normal (well, relatively so), which just happens to be God pulling off a complex aerial stunt on the evangelical beasts.

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