Tag Archives: renaissance

My Eclecticism

The Earl of Surrey by William Scrots, an actual Renaissance man

So, back in April I commented to a friend on Facebook that I’d had a great birthday — I watched Das Rheingold and Iron Man. Her response was that I am a Renaissance Man. Now, I don’t want to throw the compliment back at her, but I fear that, from the position of accuracy, I am not a Renaissance Man.

I am eclectic.

Now, it’s been about a decade since I read excerpts from Castiglione, The Courtier, or Leon Battista Alberti’s (less than modest) description of himself, but I’m pretty sure that the Renaissance Man had/has a broader array of interests and skills than I do. He was not only interested in reading/writing poetry/history/philosophy, not only in the visual arts, not only in languages, but also in the sciences, in horsemanship, in the art of war.

A Renaissance Man would be a sort of science-engineer bodybuilder who plays rugby and writes haikus. He owns a muscle car whose engine he rebuilt last year on Saturday mornings before reading Tolstoy in the afternoon. His homemade cappuccino is superior, as is his knowledge of the dietary habits of capuchin monkeys. He is also a third-order Franciscan of the order of the cappuccini.

That’s a Renaissance Man.

I, on the other hand, am somewhat eclectic but mostly like the humanities.

I used to read Discover magazine, but stopped for some reason. Or no reason. I don’t even know.

Other than that, I read books — books about history (omnivorously until 1500, then selectively); science fiction novels, fantasy novels, books about the genres of science fiction and fantasy; ancient philosophy, ancient theology, ancient poetry, all ancient literature in fact; the odd graphic novel/comic book; theology — ancient, mediaeval, Reformation, some modern, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox; a growing amount of English classics, from Marlowe and Shakespeare to the Brontes; mediaeval literature, philosophy, historiography, and books about mediaeval literature; and so forth. Very occasionally I read modern poetry. Very. Occasionally.

I like science fiction and fantasy. I like Vikings. I like the Pyramids. I like superhero movies. I used to like Doctor Who. I read some Neil Gaiman. I watch documentaries about history. I also enjoy the history of art — preferably the art itself or documentaries about it. I like visiting cathedrals. And castles. I like Star Trek — classic, TNG, DS9. And the original Star Wars. I can play the clarinet but don’t do it as often as I’d like. I watch Merlin on Netflix. I also watched Daredevil on Netflix. Murder mysteries on TV still draw me in (especially Hercule Poirot, Brother Cadfael, and Richard Castle), and I’m starting to get into the books. I used to Highland Dance. I listen to the Beatles, Wagner, Great Big Sea, Queen, Weber, and some of the music from junior high and high school.

To some, I seem very high-class. I’m the guy whose antique pocketwatch has been at the clockmaker’s for a year, and I’m annoyed about that. I love watching Wagnerian opera. Gustav Holst’s The Planets makes me feel awesome inside. Beethoven and Vivaldi stir my soul. As does Striggio, for that matter. My Goodreads list includes Shakespeare, Milton, and St Augustine. I collect stamps.

But I also have a foot in Geek culture. I’m not fully-fledged — I don’t game, I read comparatively few comic books, I can’t tell you the number of times they’ve killed of Superman or Captain America, I don’t know by heart the lines of The Empire Strikes Back, I don’t wax eloquent about Star Trek unless it’s for a class assignment. But I go to all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, all the X-Men films, all the Batman films, all the Star Treks, all the Star Wars, adaptations of Tolkien, and so forth. I wish I’d caught Jupiter Ascending, and the current trend for robot films intrigues me, even if they’re not all very good. I’m in the midst of the final Pern novel and my next pleasure reading will merge my geekinesses as I read P Craig Russell’s graphic novel of The Valkyrie.

I have broad interests, but primarily within the world of the humanities and in how I choose to entertain myself. Beyond that, the most Renaissancey I get is when I read a book about Michelangelo or visit a Renaissance church. Science? Soldiering? Sports? Not for me. For me — philology, philosophy, and philately.

Epic review of Paradise Lost (also: Is there ring composition? Discuss)

Paradise LostParadise Lost by John Milton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It seems silly to write a review of Paradise Lost. ‘You mean Matthew, of all people, liked this book? What a shock!’ And, really, how can one give a star rating to one of the pinnacles of English literature? Obviously my five stars for something like Milton is far more subjective than rating of, say, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language or Discourse Particles in Latin. Nonetheless, to get to the matter at issue:

Read this book.

Paradise Lost is epic.

As you undoubtedly know, it is the tale of man’s first disobedience, and the most interesting character seems mostly to be Satan. In his programmatic statements about the poem, Milton may claim to justify the ways of God to men, but that doesn’t really happen. Mostly, an epic tale of G vs E goes down, crafted out of exquisite, beautiful, finely-crafted English blank verse (no rhymes here, friends!).

It begins, as Homer and as Vergil, with the theme presented in the first line — Of man’s first disobedience — and in medias res. We find Satan and the angels who joined him in rebellion lying on the Lake of Fire in Hell. From Hell, we watch Satan travel to Earth in order to corrupt the Almighty’s new creation — man. And there, we meet Adam and Eve and Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel.

In wondrously beautiful verse, beating in its iambic rhythm like the human heart, the tales of the War in Heaven and of creation are poured out before us by Raphael, with Adam filling in what happened after the birth of man. So here, as in the Odyssey or Aeneid, the necessary background for the early books is told by the characters themselves in a nice touch of narratology at the centre of the poem. These central books are my favourite part of Paradise Lost.

The inevitable Fall, followed by an encounter with the Son of God, and then the Archangel Michael giving a somewhat over-detailed account of the Old Testament. And it ends, as it began, with exile. I’ve not looked at it, but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of ring composition here? We begin with Satan and his angels exiled in Hell and end with Adam and Eve walking out of Eden. The second major episode of the book is Satan crossing to Earth, as later he crosses back. The centre is telling the past, while later Michael tells the future. I’m not sure; it’s not perfect, but it’s not lacking.

That is how fantastic a piece of literature this is. I don’t care if your religious or not. I don’t care if you’ve not read as much epic as I have. Read this book.

It is beautiful and powerful and will overcome you.

Be forewarned that it is not easy going until Milton’s poetry captures your mind and colonises your brain. This was my third or fourth attempt to read this book. It really helped to have read C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost first. I’m sure some other similar introductory volume would be worth the time, because it would be a shame to go through life without having read Paradise Lost.

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