What really annoys me, however, in this “difficult” debate, this side of The Pond, is that it is treated as a modern phenomenon. Suddenly, we have all these “difficult” poets and it’s not part of out tradition. This silliness really comes from double-ignorance. Difficulty has been around for most of the past century. But not in the good old English academic system where there is no Robert Duncan, no Charles Olson, no Wallace Stevens, no John Ashberry, no Ezra Pound, no H.D. It is the gap in global developments that makes “difficulty” appear new. Even worse, though, is the neglect of English poetry in terms of depth. The teaching of English poetry always stops with the surface. So, Blake is easy. Well, yes, if we are talking about a handful of well known poems set for A Level exams, a simple sample from Songs of Innocence and Experience. But the whole of Blake? The philosophy of the Zoas and all the prophecies? And Milton? Well, yes, if we teach him thematically, in schools, as a second-rate version of The Bible. (How this brings back memories of sitting round in tutorials where very nice students prattled on about the Evil One in Paradise Lost, reducing Milton to a story for Sunday School). I have just been re-reading Paradise Lost with “difficulty” in mind. Here is part of a well known love poem from Paradise Lost. Just a love poem. Just a poem by Eve, who wasn’t particularly bright anyway. Not “difficult” at all.
My author and disposer, what thou bid’st
Unargued I obey; So God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful evening mild, then silent night
With her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of heaven, her starry train:
But neither breath of morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest birds, nor rising son
On this delightful land, not herb, fruit, flower,
Glistering with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful evening mild, nor silent night,
With this solemn bird, nor walk by moon,
Or glittering starlight without thee is sweet.
But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom
This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?
As a narrative, this is incredibly modern, but only if you see it through Mercurian eyes and read with Milton as a Puritan, Hermetic Neo-Platonist. Firstly, the overall positioning of this speech is key. It is in Book 4 of Paradise Lost. Following Spenser, who expounded much of the hermetical tradition in the Faerie Queene, 4 is the number of marriage and concord. This particular passage is the focus of the whole book, the point at which the harmony between Adam and Eve is established. Throughout Paradise Lost, speech lengths serve to set contexts. This speech by Eve is 24 lines long: the poem is about how a 24 hour day should be. 24 means more than that, however, for it represents12+12, the marriage of the Heavenly City and the Kingdom of Earth. (This speech is re-visited by Adam, in Book 8, on the 24th day of Paradise Lost when Raphael discusses the ways of Heaven and Earth, how the microcosm (Adam and Eve) should be married to the macrocsom (God and the Universe)…not accidental). Milton, as implied author, is shaping the architecture of his poem. Within this, Milton’s narrator, Eve, shapes her understanding of Eden.
Eve’s section is a serenade to Creation, written in the sweet style of the amor cortois, Dante’s “il dolce still nuovo” (Purgatorio: XXIV, 57) hence its sweet…sweet…sweet structure. The love song is shaped by a woman who understands love intellectually: “Donne ch’avette intelletto d’amore”, says Dante. And the serenade has a complex intellectual structure. 16 lines overall, from “Sweet is” to “is sweet”. The word order is reversed to suggest more than a flourish of rhetoric for the whole structure of the poem reverses. 16, hermetically, is the number of concord squared, and Eve splits the 16 lines into 9 and 7. The first 9 lines of the poem represent the permanence that Heaven brings to Earth. Then, in the second part, the number 7 of mutability takes over. Such is doubly stressed by the seven lines from “But neither” to “thee is sweet” and by the seven negations which occur (neither breath, nor rising, nor herb, nor fragrance, nor grateful, nor silent, nor walk). Through the whole 16 line poem, Eve expresses her understanding of how love binds the eternal to the transient. Though Eve says, “God is thy law, thou mine” and places herself in relation to Adam (as Adam relates to God), she shows herself to be intellectually creative, more creative in thought than Adam—hence the final question, which is not a throw-away line, as some Miltonists claim, showing her shallowness, but a final bursting out of what goes on in Eve’s mind: speculation about the universe through the power of Amor; an intellectual power that will eventually take her too far...
It is about time complexity returned to the world of poetry and the teaching of poetry and teachers and students got over facile discussions about “difficulty”. In education, at all levels, there needs to be an understanding that "difficulty" is good and readers need to teach themselves constantly how to read in new ways.