That dreaming day it was, the bell-like air
Unclosed the naked admirable heaven,
Well made, and framing Oxford town; that day
The crocuses put out their waxen petals –
White, purple, gold – a comely darling band
To witness God’s unrivalled handiwork;
That day the droning sky let fall on China
Its bloody rain, plastering street and wall
With quivering flesh; that day the miner ’s wife
Strangled her starving children in their bed;
Elysian day, that day of plague and death
And horror screaming out of impersonal headlines –
That day it was I put my Milton by,
And, still with that serene immortal air
Elated, and the organ-march of sound,
Looked down into the blackened furtive street,
Looked up into the blue that boomed of death,
And in my imagination issue was joined:
Come down, Milton, from Olympus,
Where centuries have seated you, above common criticism.
Cease now that stirring flight
Above the Aonian Mount, and effect a landing.
Touch earth, Milton, and answer us.
We are the Twentieth Century, the unseated men, sceptics,
Not cynics, but questioners:
Come, stand in our midst, then, stand to our question.
And first, we would like to insist,
As searchers we speak, without favour, hostility,
According our world and you
Unprejudiced appraisal, and science is our searchlight.
Stand in the light then, speak:
We come not to venerate but to give a fair hearing,
To examine, sift, dissect,
And to weigh you in the balances of this generation.
To begin with, let us concede,
As we must in fairness, that much praised mastery
Of stirring speech, the vocal word
In a stately progression of inevitable numbers
That range the stops and keys
Of sentient mind, oft embalming the commonplace
In imperishable phrase’s crystal formed
Music – Oh yes, you can use your instrument.
But we of this age ask more
Than resounding phrase, than sonorous platitude.
Death towers and the earth rocks
And the light grows lurid – And what will you say to us?
Far-famed your exalted aim –
And indeed it were splendid, that justification
Of the ways of God to men
In their planned economy of cosmic Purpose.
Oh, fine and brave that faith!
Buoyant as the psalmist’s, unimpeded by knowledge –
God calling the stars by name
And rushing in the thunder to the work of creation;
Chaos like a quilt rolled back,
Order struck out; above, the Heaven-footing firmament;
Hell’s smouldering pit below,
And in the midst, our Earth and its cherished progeny!
How manifest then His ways!
Who forged us the sun, and set the stars for our night-lights,
Fashioned this Earth our home
And crowned the work with Man, soul and centre of the universe.
But not for us remains
That cheerful comfort in the starry multitude –
Tale of especial care
Poured down upon Earth by attentive Providence.
To us the heavens unclose
But the shoaling of suns and the breathing nebulae
And the interstellar dark,
Those staggering deeps of unfathomable void,
Where, shrunk to pinpoint, voyage
Our wandering world, and we its prisoners,
On through infernal night,
Through the bedlam universe of blazing monsters
Awful in beauty, on
One tiny spark, an ephemeral life-bearer,
On to the Arctic bounds
Of immeasurable space and the last extinction.
Not here God’s purpose plain
For men: here’s terror and might and majesty,
But little that love Divine
That framed and fixed your comforting cosmology, Milton.
Where then will you show him just?
(For perhaps you plead the needs of poetic symbolism,
Not ignorant so yourself)
Will you prove it by argument, history, parable?
By Comus’ fit defeat
And meritorious Virtue so triumphantly vindicated?
By that immortal tale
Of the serpent in Paradise, the first disobedience,
Our exiled parents’ woe,
Till the Father in compassion send his Son to redeem them?
By Samson’s end, effecting
With the help of his God a Philistian holocaust?
Happy indeed who prove
With a fund of fables Eternal Righteousness;
And this your word of strength
For a world worn thin with its own futility?
Unfixed our solid earth
To circle like a soul in the cosmic immensities:
Unfixed our ancient faith
Like a ship without a course in the incalculable ocean.
‘All’s best though oft we doubt,’
While the oppressor goes prospering, the weak cry, vainly;
‘Ever Best found in the Close,’
But how long must we wait for these assured consummations?
Not here the classic plan,
The unfolding pattern of a purposed symmetry,
But warring forces wild,
Inscrutable, confused as your own Chaos, Milton.
Trapped in a toppling world
What can we hold to but our sceptic honesty?
What have you more than words
To reverberate in the void that echoes our questioning?
They ceased, and in the momentary pause
Succeeding speech I saw the imagined scene –
The Inquisitors, myself and everyman,
Spokesmen of our perplexed uneasy world
Ringed round, attentive, probing, restless searchers,
Not hoping much of value from our search,
But searching still, and hoarding miser-like
Our precious grains of scientific truth.
In circle round they sat, watching the poet,
While with their factual logic they unlaced
That noble vest of language and laid bare
The shrunken corpse of commonplace beneath it.
They ended, and the light now left them, fell
In the midst, fell now on Milton, and he spoke:
To trust in Him alone
Who alone is Lord
Who knoweth His own
There rests my word.
While my body had breath
In darkness and the dust
In the Valley of the Shadow of Death
In Him was my trust.
This said, he lifted up his sightless eyes
To meet the descending beam, and there was silence.
Have you seen, some time, a billowing bank of cloud
Build up its dazzling turrets into the blue,
Build up and up, pile upon glistening pile,
A towered celestial city; and then there comes
A cool insistent wind, and the towers topple
And the gleaming bastions shred away to air,
Shred and dissolve and are not; so dissolved
Those high-built arguments when Milton spoke.
Or have you heard in a symphony first begin
Some sharp uncertain air – woodwind, perhaps,
Trace out a tentative theme, which then the strings,
Shrilling cicadas, catch, elaborate,
And weave to an intricate indecisive pattern,
A petulant thing, uneasy of itself,
Assertive, shrill; then all at once, three chords
Brush it away like cobwebs in the dew,
Three sweeping calm authoritative chords
That dredge the deep foundations ultimate
Of final truth: so Milton answered them.
Or so it seemed that hour; for with his words
I saw him in the winter of his days,
His fiery purpose quenched, his spring of life
Turned back upon its course, his chiefest hopes
Prone in the dust, and all he most abhorred
Triumphant everywhere; like his own Samson,
Samson the wrestler, shorn and impotent,
A Samson sitting in a grey cloth coat
Before his door, contemptuous, solitary,
Among the Philistian worshippers of Dagon
That knew no God of Israel; Samson blind.
Despised, defeated in a world run mad,
In chains, but most intolerable, blind.
Blind, while idolatrous multitudes had eyes,
Blind, the entrusted minister of God,
Blind, while unheeding fools had blessed light,
Might see the daily miracle of Dawn,
Might look on ‘Summer ’s rose’ and ‘Vernal bloom,’
‘And flocks and herds and human face divine.’
At such a time I saw him then; as Job
Bowed to the earth with burdens all unearned,
Or as Prometheus, for his gifts to man
Nailed to the rock: yet as Prometheus, proud,
Amid victorious foes, defiant, tameless,
Eternal; and as Job, undoubting still.
And at that hour it seemed he answered us –
Perhaps I was deceived – But then it seemed
Some more than human help indeed was here,
Was here indeed a strength indomitable
Rooted in God Himself, impossible else;
Impossible but His eye and voice were near
And underneath the everlasting arms.
That hour I saw (unless I was deceived)
Milton triumphant, not as he designed
By studious proof, but his own steadfast soul,
And in His worshipper God justified.
And then there seemed, even in the furtive street,
Even in the sky still droning death, no ill
Unconquerable, nor woes much stronger now
Than those which bowed, and could not conquer, Milton.
That hour I saw him, some storm-voyaging plane
Riding the clouds, or, like a granite scarp,
Stand up out of confused and angry seas
Impregnable; and when he spoke, his words
It seemed ran out in waves to the utmost shores
Of Time and Space, where hang like candelabra
The clustered stars that bound the universe.
Then all Creation rang; they, rolling back,
Sounded as loud through this our timorous world,
Our dubious sapless generation, loud,
Crude, shattering organ peal, uncompromising,
Violent, majestic, mad, illogical,
Heart-searching – ‘All His ways most wise and good –
Oh, perilous, glad, precipitate, unproven!
And ‘Though He slay me, will I trust Him still –
Blind, witless, blank, and world-subduing word.