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Milton’s Satan and the struggle for power

Just over 350 years ago (on October 10, 1667, to be precise), the poet and MP John Denham went into the House of Commons “one Morning with a Sheet, Wet from the Press, in his hand”. Asked “What have you there, Sir John?”, he replied, “Part of the Noblest Poem that ever was Wrote in Any Language, or in Any Age”. This encounter, recorded by Jonathan Richardson in 1734, supplies a possible publication date for a poem which would become one of the most important in English: John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Milton’s name was already well-known. He was the controversial blind man who publicly advocated the execution of King Charles I in 1649 before serving in Oliver Cromwell’s republican government. Milton also spoke out against the Catholic Church, didn’t believe in the Trinity and had written pamphlets about the merits of divorce. His anti-monarchical stance didn’t prevent Denham, a lifelong royalist, from praising the poem. But Milton wrote Paradise Lost (dictating it, since he had become com…

Why I’ve Had Enough of George Orwell

Why is it always Orwell o’clock? Why is everything mildly unpleasant about government instantly Orwellian? Why is every banal propaganda effort obviously 1984 sprung to life? Why is it all as crushingly predictable as the Orwell Prize, the outstandingly foreseeable new Churchill And Orwell double biography, and now a new life-size bronze Orwell statue outside the BBC?

There is a simplicity and a clarity to Orwell’s prose. It flows nicely. But there is also nothing special about it other than the fact it has been canonised as the ultimate in English authorial excellence.

This is still very much a surprise to me, because there is just so much wrong with it. Are the violent caricatures of Jews in Down And Out In Paris And London really defending the downtrodden in 1933? Are the rantings (against amongst others, vegetarians) in The Road To Wigan Pier even coherent? Were the baying hysterical yellow people forcing a European into Shooting An Elephant really an appropriate metaphor for colon…

Søren Kierkegaard

I fell for Søren Kierkegaard as a teenager, and he has accompanied me on my intellectual travels ever since, not so much side by side as always a few steps ahead or lurking out of sight just behind me. Perhaps that’s because he does not mix well with the other companions I’ve kept. I studied in the Anglo-American analytic tradition of philosophy, where the literary flourishes and wilful paradoxes of continental existentialists are viewed with anything from suspicion to outright disdain. In Paris, Roland Barthes might have proclaimed the death of the author, but in London the philosopher had been lifeless for years, as anonymous as possible so that the arguments could speak for themselves. 

Discovering that your childhood idols are now virtually ancient is usually a disturbing reminder of your own mortality. But for me, realising that 5th May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard’s birth was more of a reminder of his immortality. It’s a strange word to use for a thinker…

Virgil Revisited

One of the most magical passages in the Aeneid occurs when the hero, in search of the golden bough that will allow him entrance to the Underworld, is shown the way by two doves, emblems of his mother, Venus. In David Ferry’s new translation, the moment unfolds as follows:

He stood there where he was and watched to see
What signs he might be given by how they went,
Alighting to feed a little, then flying a little,
Alighting a little again to feed on the grass,
Then flying a little way, and alighting again,
Then flying a little again, feeding and flying,
Keeping themselves just far enough ahead
So that they can be seen by him who follows….

With all translations of the Aeneid into English, extra words are needed to convey the meaning of the more condensed Latin; this passage in Virgil’s text takes only four lines. But it is what Ferry accomplishes—his delighted attention to the movement of the doves, teasing the reader forward, and again forward, along with Aeneas; and his confidence, as a poet, …

Charmed life - Mary McCarthy

In a late television interview, when asked if she had any regrets about her career, Mary McCarthy smiled gnomically and said something to the effect that she wished she had written more and read less. I have been worrying about this remark for decades, as it seemed to highlight one of the major tensions of the writing life: the uneasy and potentially dangerous relationship between reading and writing, between input and output, between absorption and invention. In her, this tension was marked.

McCarthy wrote a great deal, but her fictional output was limited and fits neatly in two compact volumes into the smart boxed set of the new Library of America edition, edited by Thomas Mallon. There are seven novels and eight stories (four previously uncollected). The first of the novels, The Company She Keeps (1942), can be read as a series of interconnected short stories, all reflections of a central female character, the formidable but tormented Margaret Sargent. Some of the chapters were ori…

Completing the Portrait: John Banville Tells Us What Isabel Archer Does Next

IT WAS A TRUTH universally acknowledged, at least at the time of its original publication, that the ending of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady is inadmissibly abrupt. Acknowledged by all, that is, except Henry James. He had chided George Eliot for spelling out the conclusions of her novels in far too much detail (and in fact, if one reads the final chapter and epilogue to Adam Bede one gets a sense of what James means); he did not intend to make the same mistake himself. To defend the opinion of the masses, however, who insistently demanded more of the Portrait, it could very well be that James used his critical judgment of Eliot to excuse himself from spinning more of a yarn that had, after all, reached a difficult impasse.

At the end of the novel, we are left with the same question we have had all along, the question also of Ralph Touchett, and indeed of James himself as he began to write the novel: namely, what will Isabel Archer do? It is now, as it was then, a fascinating ques…

Philip Roth, Patriot

Philip Roth’s new collection of nonfiction, mostly writing about writing and about other writers, is called, with Rothian bluntness, “Why Write?” (Library of America). It’s the first nonfiction collection Roth has produced in many years, though some pieces in it have appeared in two previous volumes, “Reading Myself and Others” and “Shop Talk.” Where John Updike, his competitive partner in a half-century literary marathon—in which each always had the other alongside, stride by stride, shedding books like perspiration—produced eight doorstop-size volumes of reviews, essays, jeux d’esprit, citations, and general ponderations, Roth ceased writing regularly about writing sometime in the mid-seventies. Since then, there have been the slightly beleaguered interview when a new book came out, the carefully wrought “conversations” in support of writers he admired, particularly embattled Eastern European ones, and, after his “retirement” from writing, a few years ago, a series of valedictory ad…