Sunday, January 18, 2009

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

"Milton Dictates Paradise Lost to His Daughters," Eugène Delacroix (ca. 1826)

Despite the articles on John Milton that appeared throughout the year, in the Guardian and the New Yorker, I managed to miss his 400th birthday on the 9th of the past December. In my English classes at school and university, I never managed to finish Paradise Lost, though phrases of it do engrave themselves upon one's memory, but did also read (and, for the sake of the English Literature exam, memorize) his sonnet, "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent." Its language is enigmatic, and it was years later, looking at it afresh, that I understood it better.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."


This sonnet is, of course, Milton's reflection on the loss of his eyesight, or, in his words, light.

The "talent which is death to hide" is a reference to a Biblical passage, Matthew 25: 14-30. The passage tells the allegorical tale of three servants who receive money (a "talent" is a very valuable coin, in this context) from their master; two of the servants invest the coins and make a profit, whereas the third buries his coin. When the master comes back he happily receives the old and new coins from his servants, but when the third servant presents the single coin, he vituperates and then banishes the unlucky man from his service. Anyway, it isn't the most sympathetic or logical story, but the intended point of it is that God gives us gifts and wants us to do something with them. In Milton's case, the metaphorical God-given talent to which he refers is, most likely, his literary skill.

Since Milton cannot read or write when he is blind (though, of course, he later compensates for this incapacity by employing his daughters as scribes and readers, as is depicted in the painting at the top of this post), he despairs of being able to continue with his self-appointed task, which is, if the opening lines of Paradise Lost are a fair indication, to "assert the Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man." But then the thought occurs to him that God is so mighty as to be wholly independent of the actions of the individual; his work can be carried out by many divers emissaries.

To give my two cents, I don't particularly like Milton's world view. In my conception God (if he exists) created the world not as an exercise of his will, but because he wanted to have beings around whom he would make happy. Of course we are not always happy, but we grow, and even unhappy experience has a worth above superficial gaiety, if it ennobles and strengthens us. So we serve God by being happy and becoming better human beings, and by helping others to do the same, not by preaching about Christ or demanding punctilious observance of rituals. Since God is omnipotent anyway, there isn't much of a point to asserting his power the whole time.

At any rate, I do very much like the language of the poem, though considering the poet's future Roundhead sympathies his use of the adjective "kingly" is a little amusing. Especially the line "They also serve who only stand and wait" has often come to mind reassuringly in this indeterminate stage of my life.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Three Hostages

by John Buchan
First published: 1924

For a while John Buchan was one of my favourite writers and Greenmantle was one of my favourite books. I like reading some of his books as much as ever, not only the Richard Hannay books but also books like Huntingtower (set in Scotland) and The House of the Four Winds (set in an imaginary East European state). There are passages that are pretty politically incorrect, but in my point of view these are wisps of zeitgeist which are more stereotypes than true and ugly racism. Besides, to see Mahatma Gandhi implicitly referred to as a fanatic is, considering his presently sacrosanct status, shocking but amusing. Still, some of his books (e.g. The Half-Hearted) are uncongenial; and when I recently tried to read The Thirty-Nine Steps again, I was either in an exceptionally obdurate mood, or the breezily colloquial narrative voice is really a trifle obnoxious.

The Three Hostages, in common with these other books, is an intelligent spy thriller. It, however, is set in England after World War I; the world has returned to a peaceable order on the surface, but the damage that the war causes is still being wreaked in the minds of the people who were affected by it. A discussion of this phenomenon, of the supposed amorality that resulted from the war, and of the anarchic depths and powers of the subconscious, takes place in the opening chapters. The hero is Richard Hannay, who has retired from the army after becoming a general, and now lives in a rural manor with his wife Mary and their little son Peter. He feels that he is becoming settled in a quiet civilian life, perhaps to the detriment of his mental activity, but otherwise quite contentedly.

Perhaps wrongfully, Hannay reminds me of Watson. He does not possess a quicksilver intelligence, nor is he a quietly contemplative type, but he is up for adventure and sturdily British and fond of common sense. Where he differs from Watson is in his preference for the society of men who have been in the military or travelled a good deal or deservedly hold positions of importance in the world, and his eagerness to stand well with them. He likes hunting and politics, and is proud of his feats regarding the same. At least his sort of hunting is not a cruel sport, but an absorbing and suspenseful pastime that requires thought and ingenuity and physical dexterity. (Which obviously does not change the fact that the animals die.) Women, except for his wife, are rather beyond the pale of his interest. In his view, they are led by instinct rather than rationality, so if they exert any power in the political world it is through feminine enthusiasm or fascination and not so much through any respect inspired by their competence and understanding; besides, friendship or conversing with them as one would with other men is out of the realm of possibility. But possibly this is too severe a statement of the case. At any rate, Hannay is more resourceful and philosophical and, perhaps, perceptive than Watson.

The true story begins as a trio of unexpected visitors comes to Fosse Manor. They are all concerned in a spate of kidnappings, for which a shadowy criminal organization is responsible. This criminal organization is not intent on receiving ransom money, but on holding hostages who will ensure its safety until the organization is liquidated, its aims realized. One visitor is Julius Victor, an American businessman whose daughter Adela has vanished; the second is Macgillivray of Scotland Yard, who is investigating the case; and the third is the British soldier Sir Arthur Warcliff, whose little son David was also taken. All of them have come to ask Hannay for his assistance.

Hannay, at first convinced of his inability to help at all, finally agrees to attempt it. There is one clue: a poem that the kidnappers sent to the parents of the kidnapped oddly correlates to words that Hannay's friend, the doctor Tom Greenslade, let drop a day or two earlier. As it turns out, the doctor had heard those words from Dominick Medina, a rising politician who is very much in fashion. Hannay procures an introduction to Medina in order to follow up on this clue, and is impressed with his talents and intelligence. He promises to be a formidable ally. But the first uncertainty arises when Hannay's friend Sandy Arbuthnot (who was also in Greenmantle) turns up and profoundly distrusts him. Then Hannay visits Medina at home one day, only to find himself subjected to a hypnosis designed to mentally enslave him and make a tool out of him. Soon there is no other reasonable conclusion but that Dominick Medina is really a leading spirit in the criminal organization.

So Hannay must pretend that he is a brainwashed follower of Medina and at the same time strive to discover the victims of the kidnappings. Fortunately there are many friends and trusty minions of the law to work alongside him, each in their own way, and to unravel the complex net. This unravelling is quite suspenseful, the characterization excellent, and the settings of established England and chaotic London and remote Norway are employed to the customary good effect. In Buchan's best books the excitement derives as much from the diversity of the details and the quality of the writing style and the worthwhile nature of the thoughtful passages as it does from the vicissitudes of the plot. In my view this is one of those books.

N.B.: I cannot quite understand why villains in spy thrillers, for instance, must always be foreign. An English or German or Russian accent is in itself a sign of evil by now, and for whatever reason the antagonist is rarely permitted to be a compatriot. If an American or a Briton has ever been the archvillain in a James Bond film, I've forgotten it. In the case of The Three Hostages, Dominick Medina is of Irish origin. If Richard Hannay is to be believed, this explains a lot.

* * *

"The barriers between the conscious and the subconscious have always been pretty stiff in the average man. But now with the general loosening of screws they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed. It is like two separate tanks of fluid, where the containing wall has worn into holes, and one is percolating into the other. The result is confusion, and, if the fluids are of a certain character, explosions. That is why I say that you can't any longer take the clear psychology of most civilized human beings for granted. Something is welling up from the primeval deeps to muddy it."

* * *

The Three Hostages [Arthur's Classic Novels]
An e-text of the book.
Review of The Three Hostages [John Buchan Society]
A brief evaluation, with a plot summary that may be too full of spoilers for some.
John Buchan Exhibit [Queen's University Archives]
A biographical sketch illustrated with letters, photographs, etc.