Empson on Eliot
|This may be a famous anecdote among Miltonists, but it was new to me. |
I'm currently reading William Empson's delightful Milton's God (London: Chatton & Windus, 1965), and, as those who have read the book know, he frequently disagrees with T. S. Eliot. As Empson relates it, Eliot disliked Milton's style, claiming in 1936 that it "was a bad influence on modern poets" (25) and later in 1947 that it was "musical rather than imagist" (29). Eliot took particular issue with Satan's being "chain'd on the burning lake" (1.210), because shortly thereafter he is described making his way to the shore and his chains are never mentioned again. Eliot also disliked Milton's depiction of Paradise, writing in 1936 that "I for one can get pleasure from the verse only by the deliberate effort not to visualize Adam and Eve and their surroundings" (30).
At this point, Empson delivers the smackdown of all smackdowns:
That, you see, had made nonsense the complaint about lack of imagery, because the images excited by Milton's Paradise would have to be fairly vivid before this struggle could impose itself. So long as you gave Mr Eliot images of someone being tortured his nerves were at peace, but if you gave him the image of two people making each other happy he screamed. (30)Unbelievable. He out-and-out calls Eliot a sick bastard.
He also had this to say about Pascal's Wager, or as he calls it, the Gamble of Pascal:
He argued, while more or less inventing the mathematics of Probability, that, since the penalties for disbelief in Christianity are infinitely horrible and enduring, therefore, if there is any probability however tiny (but finite) that the assertions of the religion are true, a reasonable man will endure any degree of pain and shame on earth (since this is known beforehand to be finite) on the mere chance that the assertions are true. The answer is political, not mathematical; this argument makes Pascal the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie. (45-46)Empson is so cool, so cranky, and so entertaining.