This Day In Literary History
On August 10th, 1637, an Englishman named Edward King drowned at sea. His tragic death would inspire his college friend, the legendary English poet and polemicist John Milton, to compose a poem of elegy in his memory.
The poem, Lycidas, published three months after King's death, would prove to be one of the earliest and most famous poems in the elegiac tradition.
Some three centuries later, Milton's poem would inspire a legendary American novelist. It gave him the title of his first novel and influenced his writing.
The novelist was Thomas Wolfe, and the title of his classic first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, comes from the following passage in Milton's Lycidas:
. . . Ay me! Whilst thee the shores, and sounding Seas
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.
The angel in Lycidas was St. Michael. The angel in Thomas Wolfe's novel was based on a statue his father had bought for his tombstone shop:
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 real angel statue was placed on the grave of a minister's wife in Asheville - Wolfe's North Carolina hometown. In the novel, the angel statue is bought by the town madam and placed on the grave of a young prostitute.
Many people in Asheville were appalled and infuriated by Look Homeward, Angel, and not just because the novel's content was a shocker for readers in 1929 - the year it was published.
Wolfe's characters were thinly veiled portraits of his friends, neighbors, and other townspeople. A review of the novel in a local newspaper declared that "Wolfe's First Is Novel of Revolt: Former Asheville Writer Turns in Fury upon North Carolina and the South."
Wolfe's sister Mabel recalled how the people of Asheville reacted: "They were denouncing him from the roofs and the corners and the housetops." In a letter to Mabel, Wolfe complained:
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.
Finishing the letter, Thomas Wolfe summed up his fate this way: "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."
Quote Of The Day
"This is the artist then; life's hungry man, the glutton of eternity, beauty's miser, glory's slave." - Thomas Wolfe
Today's video features a complete reading of John Milton's classic poem, Lycidas. Enjoy!