NABOKV-L post 0016939, Thu, 21 Aug 2008 10:09:48 -0400

THOUGHTS: Cedarn in Milton's Comus
from Matt Roth:

Though I think it is fairly well-known, I was surprised to see that there has never been any discussion on the list of the term "cedarn" and its original use in Milton's Comus. (Kubla Khan has been mentioned, however.) It occurs in the poem's final monologue, given by one of the spirits. Here's the whole speech:

Spir. To the Ocean now I fly,
And those happy climes that ly
Where day never shuts his eye,
Up in the broad fields of the sky:
There I suck the liquid ayr
All amidst the Gardens fair
Of Hesperus, and his daughters three
That sing about the golden tree:
Along the crisped shades and bowres
Revels the spruce and jocond Spring,
The Graces, and the rosie-boosom'd Howres,
Thither all their bounties bring,
That there eternal Summer dwels,
And West winds, with musky wing
About the cedarn alleys fling
Nard, and Cassia’s balmy smels.
Iris there with humid bow,
Waters the odorous banks that blow
Flowers of more mingled hew
Then her purfl'd scarf can shew,
And drenches with Elysian dew
(List mortals, if your ears be true)
Beds of Hyacinth, and roses
Where young Adonis oft reposes,
Waxing well of his deep wound
In slumber soft, and on the ground
Sadly sits th'Assyrian Queen;
But far above in spangled sheen
Celestial Cupid her fam'd son advanc't,
Holds his dear Psyche sweet intranc't
After her wandring labours long,
Till free consent the gods among
Make her his eternal Bride,
And from her fair unspotted side
Two blissful twins are to be born,
Youth and Joy; so Jove hath sworn.
But now my task is smoothly don,
I can fly, or I can run
Quickly to the green earths end,
Where the bow’d welkin slow doth bend,
And from thence can soar as soon
To the corners of the Moon.
Mortals that would follow me,
Love vertue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to clime
Higher then the Spheary chime;
Or if Vertue feeble were,
Heav'n it self would stoop to her.


The spirit, having done its work, is flying off to Elysium, to walk in those cedarn alleys, etc. This causes me to wonder how we might see Cedarn, Utana as some kind of hereafter. From a formal perspective, we could see the commentary, written in Cedarn, as a kind of hereafter for John Shade's poem. Or the simple fact that the Cedarn portion of the novel follows (chronologically) Shade's death might be enough to mark it as a kind of hereafter. Since I am inclined to think of Kinbote as a secondary personality of Shade, it likewise makes perfect sense to view Kinbote-in-Cedarn as a hereafter for Shade. No doubt there are other possibilities as well.

Beyond that basic point, I might also note a number of resonant moments throughout the rest of the passage that could be seen as related to PF:

1. Hesperus: In "PF" we see the "The claret taillight of that dwindling plane off Hesperus." Hesperus is Venus, who also appears here as that "Assyrian Queen" sadly sitting by the fatally wounded Adonis. Adonis, for his part, is the son of Myrrha, whom Venus inspired to have sex with her father, then turned her into a myrrh tree. Myrrh is the gift given by Casper, the only one of the three magi not mentioned in PF. And since I'm following this chain to nowhere, I'll mention that in Ovid it is Venus who tells Adonis the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, who are punished for committing sacrilegious lustful acts in Cybele's (Sybil's?) temple. These are all linked narratives within Book X of the Metamorphoses. But now I've gone too far afield.

2. "crisped shades": the metaphor here is to a woman's "crisped" or curling hair. In "PF," Shade describes the shade of the shagbark as "undone garlands." These seem to me like two sides of the same metaphor.

3. West Winds: Cedarn, of course, is in the west.

4. cedarn alleys: is there a note of Timon Alley (Zemblan street) here?

5. Iris: "twinned iris," Iris Acht, etc.

6. Elysian dew: see Elysian scene in "PF," with sad, mourning women like that sad Assyrian queen?

7. corners of the moon: In Macbeth, Act III, sc. 5, we find: "Upon the corner of the moon / There hangs a vaporous drop profound. / I'll catch it ere it come to ground: / And that, distilled by magic sleights, / Shall raise such artificial sprites / As by the strength of their illusion / Shall draw him on to his confusion." This is, in other words, a "moondrop," the adjective Shade uses to describe the title of his poem. Some would argue that Kinbote has been drawn on to his confusion in Cedarn.

Obviously I haven't synthesized much of this, but I thought I would throw out a few ideas and see if any of you can take them further. Of the few uses of "cedarn" in literature, this seems to me the most generative possibility. Or perhaps this has all been examined somewhere else already, in which case please reply with a citation.

Matt Roth

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