Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thoughts revisited: Milton's Birthday.

The Hermetical Poetics of Lycidas.

Number was significant in Renaissance poetry.
It was something that unified diametrically opposed views of the world.
Number mattered to Astrology, Alchemy, Occultism, Neo-Platonism, Christian Cabala, and through the Bible: Catholicism and Puritanism.
Pythagoras, Plato, Agrippa, Pico, Ficino, Spenser, Sidney, Dee, Chapman, Jonson, Donne, Herbert etc. all created a rich tapestry of symbolism on which Milton could draw. But especially the Bible in Lycidas.
Milton drew on the tradition of “silent numbers” whilst writing On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.The poem divides 1,2,3,4./8/9/10.
It begins with the tetractys, an expression of perfect law…the poem to follow will announce the new law of Christ.
8=Salvation…the theme relating to this is the preparation for the Nativity which will be the world’s salvation;
9=Angelic harmony…the theme within the poem is heavenly sound.
10=Law…the theme of the poem, here, is the new law that will expel the old (the Puritan law that will remove the idolatrous practices of Laud’s Catholicism).

He used numbers extensively and in a much more refined manner in Il Penseroso. For Milton, “silent number” composition worked alongside poetical composition and heard numbers.

This Hermetical art was part of the poet’s craft: has nothing to do with lunatic contemporary readings of Renaissance drama through Cabala or with secret metrical codes in Milton. Silent numbers were not dumb! They were intelligent, mysterious expressions of poetic themes. They were expressive like silences in music.

So what about Lycidas?

Lycidas was written in 1637 as a memorial to the death of Edward King, a Fellow at Christ’s at the same time as John Milton.
The poem is one of 36 entries.
Lycidas was the climactical poem.
Already number was at work.
36 is called the Great Quaternion.
The number was represented as a pyramid: 1 dot, 2 dots, 3 dots….8 dots.
The “star-ypointing pyramid”, as Milton acknowledged in his first published poem “On Shakespeare” was a memorial symbol for surviving time.
A fitting number therefore for King.
36 expresses the book’s intention. Justa Eduardo King naufrago will use musical words to build a monument for the deceased scholar.
With this in mind, one would expect Lycidas to pick up three themes: time, music, remembrance.
Milton’s structuring of Lycidas—captures the bigger picture in the smaller. Everything is there in his poem.

Lycidas has 11 sections.
11 in Greek is Alpha Iota=AI, which Milton refers to in Lycidas. It was the word, according to Ovid, which the Hyacinth bore after the death of Hyacinthus and so a deeply rooted in pastoral elegy: “that sanguine flower inscribed with woe”.

10 sections and a 1 section Coda.
10 sections are the elegy for King. 1 section refers to the poet/author.
Milton knew stellar numerology from Spenser.
He used it in Il Penseroso with the central image of Ursa Major.
Death and memorial stars were recognised by Spenser when he mourned the death of Sidney as Cygnus…the beautiful singing swan.
It has been suggested that the 10 major sections of Lycidas refer to the number of stars in the Lyra of Orpheus( as mentioned by Ptolemy in his Almagest (1515). The number 10 also refers, however, to the constellation of Delphinus. This double possibility is alluded to within Lycidas: Orpheus and Arion who rode the dolphin both occur as images. Arion survived a dangerous sea journey: King did not. Milton, as Orpheus, uses stellar numerology to place King among the stars.
But more would seem to be at work. So, is there something else?

The sections of Lycidas, using line numbers, appear like this:
There is nothing noticeable here…not immediately, until (as Fowler has identified) you look at the repeats: 14 and 21.
Milton has zoned the poem.


Something even brighter appears when the lines between the 14 and 21 signatures are added:
Now the silent numbers appear in the sky:
35 was the prime number of harmony for Pythagoras and the Renaissance:
80 was the number of man’s life according to Psalm 90, a key text for Renaissance thinkers because of its cry: “teach us to number our days”.
The central image is one of man’s harmonious days on earth cut short.
This relationship between numbers and time is picked up in another very personal feature running through the metrics of the poem:

King died on Thursday, 10.8.1637.
On that day, there were 14 hours of light and 10 hours of night.
Lycidas has 14 brief lines, 10 unrhymed lines, 24 couplets for the hours of the day.

But most important is the silent significance in the numbers that zone: they are divisible by 7 and refer to 10 weeks (2x7)+ (2x7)+(3x7)+(3x7) or 70 days, this follows Genesis 50:3 and the days of religious mourning, a number also related to the death of Moses. Through this number Milton is paying tribute to the deeply religious King and placing his death explicitly within pagan pastoral elegy and implictly within a Christian framework. Milton's hermetical method shows a perfect synchronism of Orphic and Christian elements... a universal elegy.

The silent symbol is a quiet echo of the images in Milton’s deeply felt elegy:

"So sinks the day star in the ocean bed…"
400 years since Milton's birth, the deep Renaissance elements of his work remain obscure and as such the complexity of Milton, the Puritan militant, is little more than sketched.


Jee Leong Koh said...

This post makes my head swim, in a good way.

Eshuneutics said...

Is this the Milton effect? Or the numbers? I guess its the last option.