December 16, 2017
Milton, Wolfe, Angels
On this day in 1637 Edward King, college friend of John Milton, was drowned at sea; three months later, Milton published his commemorative poem, "Lycidas." This is one of the major contributions to the elegiac tradition -- in the manner of Shelley's "Adonais" and Tennyson's "In Memoriam" -- but it may be most widely known for giving Thomas Wolfe the title to his first and most famous novel, three centuries later. Wolfe's title was almost Alone, Alone, borrowed, he said, "from the poem I like best, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; then it evolved to O, Lost!; finally, when his publisher asked for something more inspired, Wolfe went to Milton:
. . . Ay me! Whilst thee the shores, and sounding Seas
Milton's angel in "Lycidas" was St. Michael; the statue in Look Homeward, Angel was of a different sort, based on one that Wolfe's father had purchased for his tombstone shop:
Wash far away, where ere thy bones are hurld,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou to our moist vows deny'd,
Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded Mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold;
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth.
No one knew how fond he was of the angel. Publicly he called it his White Elephant. He cursed it and said he had been a fool to order it. For six years it had stood on the porch, weathering, in all the wind and the rain. It was now brown and fly-specked. But it came from Carrara in Italy, and it held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction, it was poised clumsily upon the ball of one phthisic foot, and its stupid white face wore the look of some soft stone idiocy.
The actual Wolfe statue has been identified on the grave of the wife of a Methodist minister in the Asheville, North Carolina area, and is today a stop for the literary traveler. In the novel, the angel is sold to the local madam as a marker for the grave of a young prostitute. Many contemporary residents of Asheville were horrified to discover that Wolfe's book contained such details, and such recognizable portraits of themselves and their neighbors. Some were so outraged that "They were denouncing him from the roofs and the corners and the housetops," wrote Wolfe's sister, Mabel. The headline of the book review in the Chapel Hill paper enlarged the complaint: "Wolfe's First Is Novel of Revolt: Former Asheville Writer Turns in Fury upon North Carolina and the South." If Wolfe wasn't furious in the book he was soon afterwards at his sister's reports, and at the letters he received:
Apparently you can rob banks, be a crooked lawyer, swill corn whiskey, commit adultery with your neighbor's wife -- and be considered a fine, lovable, misunderstood fellow; but if you try to make something true and beautiful you are "viciously insane" and your "big overgrown body" ought to be dragged through the streets by a lynching mob.
By the time Wolfe has finished this 1930 letter to Mabel, he too has joined the elegiac tradition: "Now I feel as if I have been exiled.... It is like death.... If then, I am dead to people who once knew me and cared for me, there is nothing more to say or do -- I must go on into a new world and a new life, with love and sorrow for what I have lost."