The Soaring Ambition of Great Poets
Bill Long 1/5/12
Job, Dante, Milton for Starters...
As I have lately been memorizing great poetic works in multiple languages, I noted again how often poetic ambition, rather than simple or sophisticated plays with words or expression of ideas, lies at the heart of the poetic enterprise. Great poets feel that they are either the first to have experienced some great thing or that they uniquely have the words in which to capture human experience or historical truth. Sometimes, when both are involved, the scope of ambition is multiplied. Sometimes their ambition is cloaked in claims of humility; other times it is more nakedly expressed. This essay will focus on a few of those claims.
The Irony Of Job's Ambition
If there is one sentiment that captures Job's desire, after the manifold distresses have befallen him in chs. 1-2, it is not simply to die but is the wish that he had never been born or even conceived. Chapter 3 is a stunningly powerful combination of curse and lament, a fusion of two biblical literary forms, to express both a desire and a state of being, a longing and an unchangeable reality. His longing is to reverse time and crawl back into his mother's stopped-up womb; his unchangeable reality is that there is simply no rest for him, but trouble comes (v. 26). But at the beginning of his curse, in 3:4, when expressing his great longing for obliteration, he does so in language that returns us to God's creation of the world.
"That day (of his conception/birth), may it be darkness" (3:4).
The four Hebrew words that express this idea precisely mimic the words in Gen 1:3, except that Job replaces "hoshek" (darkness) for the "or" (light) of Genesis. In saying that Job wants his situation reversed, his identity obliterated, his existence to be nothing, he does so by linking his language to the greatest, most public act of creation in world history--God's making of the world. So, in essence, Job is saying, "Oh, please let me be obliterated and forgotten, but let me be so in words that link me with the most famous words in all of the Bible." He isn't just raging against the dying of the light, so to speak; he is wanting the entire creation to sit up and take note of his desire to be unnoticed. Job's "creation-reversal" method captures his enormous ambitions. Later he vows to etch his words on rock, the most permanent substance imaginable, from which no palimpsest or obliteration (Job. 19:23) is possible. What can we say about a poet who wishes never to have been born, but who says so over and over, with an obvious desire to have his words both graven in permanent substances and challenge the most basic affirmations of his literature? He is simply hyper-ambitious...
Dante's Little Lie That Fuels His Ambition
At the beginning of his masterpiece, the Inferno, Dante meets up with the Roman poet Virgil, who will be his guide from his present state of confusion and loss all the way to the gates of Heaven. Their dramatic encounter is narrated in I.60-136. After it becomes clear to Dante that he is accompanied by the great poet, he first expresses, in suitably humble language, his need to learn from Virgil. Dante had studied his work with assiduity. The Italian is better:
"O de li altri poeti onore e lume
vagliami 'l lungo studio e 'l grande amore
che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume" (82-84).
"O glory and light of all other poets,
let my long study and great love avail
that made me delve so deep into your volume"
But then, after confessing Virgil as his teacher, Dante cleverly says (86-87):
"You are the one from whom alone I took
the noble style that has brought me honor."
This expression is probably untrue in two ways, both of which serve to express Dante's ambition and enhance his standing to himself, and, hopefully, his readers. First, he expresses his sole dependency on Virgil. That can't be true. You don't just pick up classical sources and say, without more, that they shaped you. Even Milton, who drips with Latinisms and the influence of classical models of epic, is forthright enough to state his love of medieval romance literature, the Bible, as well as classical authors. By claiming Virgil as sole influence, Dante can, as it were, bypass the emerging and influential Italian poets of his lifetime. Only raw ambition, unrealistically raw ambition, would do something like this... Then, there is the idea of the noble style that has brought him honor. Most scholars wonder both what this style is (perhaps Dante used it in his odes) and how he could really claim that he already was famous. At the writing of Inferno, Dante was in exile from his home town, and his poetic work, while recognized, had hardly the honor that he desired. Thus, perhaps the skill of poets relates to their wanting to claim huge ground for themselves, as Dante does here.
Last, but not least, Milton, in Book I of Paradise Lost, makes the most inordinately huge boast or claim about his work, a claim as breathtaking as Stan's plunge from heaven after being tossed out by God. He will, in Paradise Lost, aim at "no middle flight" in his language, as he
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" (15-16).
This statement's ambition soars with the longing of Icarus, to be flying up to the sun to better catch its glinting rays. When, a few lines later, Milton identifies Satan's pride as the culprit that led to his being hurled from heaven ("what time his pride had cast him out from heaven"--36-37), we wonder, "Hm...does his ambition bear a family resemblance to Satan's overreaching in Heaven?"
So, we are urged to pursue the path of humility, to embrace the example of the one who "emptied himself" (Phil. 2), but we find, quite to the contrary, that those whose names resound most deeply in our collective poetic consciousness are those who couldn't hide the immense ambition for success that gripped them. So, we have it two ways; which will you have it?