I’m back in Oberlin. After a few hours’ organ practice, I headed up to the third floor of Mudd Library to sit in a “womb chair” and read. I try and get here as often as I can, as the depth of these rotating sofa pods work in conjunction library’s designated quiet zone to lend the same sense of isolation I can normally only get in a practice room. They feel protective.
Since speaking with Alice Goodman by phone a few weeks ago, I’ve been working my way though Paradise Lost. It’s the 350th anniversary year of the poem’s publication, so I suppose it’s as good a time as any to have grabbed a fresh copy. For certain, it makes more pleasurable reading than the countless mind-numbing books on the political revolutions wrought either by Donald Trump in 2017 or Martin Luther in 1517 (men equal in their social charms, from what I gather).
The last time I read Milton was as an undergrad, so I’d since forgotten the little chuckle that one has upon reading the introduction to Paradise Lost. Milton makes it clear that you’re about to embark on a mega-poem adventure with no rhyming. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. It is, apparently, “barbarous,” “troublesome,” “unnecessary,” “restrictive,” and apparently no longer used in Spain or Italy. But with Milton, you don’t need syllabic symmetry. That which is poetic lies in Milton’s gratuitous conjuring up of images to evoke aural sensations. It’s not surprising – he was blind, after all. And yet the sheer number of constant references to the Bible, Dante, Virgil, Ovid, and anything Greek and mythological feels astounding. One can almost imagine Milton working through a checklist of myths and legends about heaven and hell, one by one, variation by variation. While each idea feels familiar, every presentation feels fresh or spoken anew. One starts to hear voices of characters that seem close, real, tangible. Indeed, in encountering the band of fallen angels gearing up for war in Book I, one can’t help but be but drawn in.Whence the chaos, torture, brimstone, lava, colorings of red and black? It’s clear that these aren’t demons or fork-tailed devils that we think of when we think of hell? They still seem angelic.
But why flutes? While Paradise Lost is an epic poem, Milton doesn’t look back to Homer, but to the historian Thucydides’ account of the Battle of Mantinea (418 BC).
Milton’s reference is pointed: Of the many battles of the Peloponnesian Wars, Mantinea was Sparta’s battle of pride after being barred from the Olympic Games by the Athenians in 420 BC. It might seem trivial at first, but Sparta’s isolation was not merely symbolic, as the Olympics constituted a religious ceremony on Mount Olympus, the dwelling place of the god Zeus. To be barred from the Olympics was to be cut off from Zeus entirely. Both Thucydides’ Spartans and Milton’s angels thus march to sounds of flutes so that they might regain an audience with God, and not simply to return to the place from which they were expelled. The flutes inspire order and stoicism, as the Spartans and fallen angels fight not for revenge, but for dignity.
Milton also says that they’re playing in a “Dorian mood.” It’s a clever play on words, referring at once to the modal system in music, as well as the moods that beset the soul upon hearing certain musical keys or tonalities. In The Republic, Plato declares some modes as useful and not useful: the Lydian mode was too relaxed and melancholy, supposedly “not even fit for women” (yikes); and the Phrygian mode is energetic and lively. But when he gets round to the Dorian mode, Plato is often quoted as talking about militaristic affect. But the longer quote actually reads:
The Dorian mode is that of assertiveness, sure, but also that of last resort even. It’s not aggressive. It’s as if the fallen angels are somehow trying to shake off their sense resignation.
The references back to Thucydides and Plato in just ten lines of poetry feel dense and profound. But I see a glaring problem: the flute generally signified something very different in Milton’s day. It doesn’t quite line up with, say, Shakespeare’s famous lines about the recorder in Act III of Hamlet:
Hamlet’s paranoia is in full swing by this point in the play: he’s putting on a play to tap the conscience of his uncle Claudius, depicting a fictitious king being poisoned in the ear. Recorders here are no instruments of war, organization, or resolve, or of anything really; they are but reflections of those who breathe life into them and maneuver them – instruments to move the souls of others. Such a notion was set forth beautifully by St. Augustine:But Augustine’s erudition is Hamlet’s pain. Hamlet feels himself a pipe, and his father’s ghost the piper. Here flutes have no perfection, no phalanxes. They don’t serve to organize. They sing to move, to discombobulate.
And what of modes? What of the moods they inspire? Especially if the ancient Greek Dorian and Phyrigian modes known to Plato were not known to Milton. The modes of Milton’s day were Church modes, which over the course of centuries inverted the Phyrigian and the Dorian.Milton’s Dorian was the same as our own today. If you sit at a piano, it’s just a scale which starts on D and works its way up the white notes. It’s wistful, but also somewhat duplicitous. When you get to to the sixth note, B, it’s always higher than you’d expect. It feels like you’ve started a minor scale all over again on A, as the last four notes mirror the first four notes of the scale. One gets the sense that two sad keys sitting side by side in the same scale. It’s what gives Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair that peculiar edge of melancholy when they sing “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” the first time round.
Conversely, Plato’s Dorian mode is the same as our Phryigian mode. It’s the one that’s a bit of a drag. If you head over to your piano, start a scale on E, and work your way up, it’s the second note that sounds too low. When you head back to home base or your home key, there’s no avoiding a certain depressive quality to that single too-low note.
I’ve kept returning to that passage over the last few week, wondering exactly how it is the fallen angels are moved in that passage. As I write, I ponder if the distinctions are arbitrary – it’s such a small difference. But as I read and reread, I have trouble hearing Thucydides and Plato. Shakespeare and Purcell are somehow engrained in my musical sensibilities. I can’t “unhear” them.
Alice Goodman got back into reading Milton while talking to me about The Death of Klinghoffer in an interview for VAN Magazine. She’s republished her libretto in its entirety without any cuts. In some ways she’s a real hero of mine, as the libretto of Nixon in China puts me on edge every time I hear or read it. But the questions I have after talking to her are ones that only time will answer. I wonder whether people will be able to “unhear” John Adams’ opera. After all the fuss, the protests, the sheer noise, I wonder if people will be able to hear Alice’s when they read it. It’s as if we now have two operas: we have “Klinghoffer” as it’s referred to colloquially, and we have The Death of Klinghoffer, a work of poetry embedded in Alice’s new book, History Is Our Mother. But sat here in my womb chair in Oberlin, I can’t help but wonder if it’s another arbitrary distinction.