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World enough and time: Religious poets write the best dirty verse.

September 24, 2010

John Milton

I am giddy this morning with the news that a long-lost bawdy poem may be the work of dour old John Milton, if only because it allows me to revel in the irony that our very best sexy verse in English is the work of religious poets — often Puritans.

Anyone who’s taken college English probably knows I’m referring to John Donne’s “The Flea,” and Andrew Marvell’s sublime, unsurpassble “To His Coy Mistress.” Both are seduction poems, attempts to win over some young woman who is inconveniently withholding her charms.

Donne, better known as a pious Anglican priest-poet whose works include “Medition XVII” with its immortal words, “No man is an island, entire of itself…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” As a young man, though, Donne balanced spiritual conviction with an appreciation of fleshy joys, which he expressed in erotic poetry.

Among these: The delightful “Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Coy To Bed,” in which he compares undressing his mistress to exploring the new continent of America. But “The Flea,” with crude thoughts cast in elegant language, is his most famous:

“Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be….”

To my mind, though, even Donne is surpassed by Andrew Marvell. Though not a clergyman himself, he was the son of a vicar, served as secretary to John Milton, and wrote poetry in praise of the Puritan dictator, Oliver Cromwell. He’s a fascinating character — diplomat, member of Parliament, possibly a spy against the Dutch, and quite possibly a lifelong celibate.

Yet nonetheless he wrote the greatest seduction poem of all time (and my personal favorite), “To His Coy Mistress,” which essentially says, in the most musical language possible, “We’re all going to die, so you might as well give it up!” It begins:

“Had we but world enough, and time,/ This coyness, lady, were no crime.” And goes on for three verses, providing along the way titles and allusions for countless later works by other hands, to end with these sublime lines: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

Oh, really, the poem is too great to withstand dissection like this. Go on, click over and read the whole thing for yourself. Here’s the link again. We’ll wait here. Only take you a few minutes. Go on, now, we’ll wait:…Doody-doody-doody-do. Camptown races five miles long, doo-dah. Pokerface, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh. Hotel California, what a nice suprise. Hmm-hmmm–Oh! You’re back!Great. So….

….you see no reason exists why John Milton could not have written a bawdy verse or erotic poem, his status as the greatest English poet after Shakespeare, and the author of the great Christian epic poem, Paradise Lost notwithstanding.

Of course, as often happens, when you look a little closer the story gets complicated. For one thing, scholars are skeptical of the poem’s authenticity, and when we actually read the thing, “An Extemporare Upon a Faggot,” it proves more a piece of doggerel than an erotic masterwork in the manner of Donne or Marvell. (“Faggot” is used here in the nearly archaic sense of a stick of firewood.)

Here’s the entire thing: “Have you not in a Chimney seen / A Faggot which is moist and green / How coyly it receives the Heat / And at both ends do’s weep and sweat? / So fares it with a tender Maid / When first upon her Back she’s laid / But like dry Wood th’ experienced Dame / Cracks and rejoices in the Flame.”

On the other hand, I’ve always thought critics and scholars, especially those practicing textual criticism, tend to be more confident than their methods justify. While this is may be, as some scholars aver, the work of a rival intending to discredit Milton, who is to say that he did not doodle it off some idle afternoon between the Rise of Satan and the Fall of Man?

Then again, if you read the comments section of this story from the London Telegraph, this poem turns out never to have been really lost at all, the controversy over its authorship being routinely discussed by past scholars and anthologists, including Kingsley Amis, editor of The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978).

Or so says poster “Henry Braun,” who, it seems safe to assume,must be the American poet of that name (and here is his charming website).

So the claim of Oxford scholar Jennifer Bait to have “stumbled upon” the poem while “sifting through” some dusty volumes at the Bodleian Library is suspect. Either she’s a publicity hounding hoaxter, or she doesn’t really know her own field, or –not the least possibility — this is a gravely under-reported story.

Whatever the case may be, I’m hoping “Extemporare” does turn out to be a work of Milton. I love it when we can put some blood in the marble cheeks of the Old Masters.

One Comment leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    September 27, 2010 11:14 am

    I love the idea of Milton writing dirty poems. Plus it makes sense, it makes him more human, like you you said Chauncey Mabe, “who is to say that he did not doodle it off some idle afternoon between the Rise of Satan and the Fall of Man?”

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