Philology Phriday––Genius

16 Jul

Now Lycidas the Shepherds weep no more;
Hence for thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood
(“Lycidas” ll. 182-185)

I must say that I’ve been waiting to do a “g” word ever since I started doing Philology Phriday. The main reason for this expectancy, this giddiness, is really my love of the poem “Lycidas” by John Milton. I think Milton uses the word to show an ambiguous equivalency between the idea of “genius” and his poetic subject, Lycidas. The poem was written on the passing of a school buddy in a tragic drowning accident, the buddy’s name, however, not being Lycidas but something else I can’t remember off the top of my head. To contextualize the snippet I’ve epigraphed this post with, I’ll just say that at this point, Lycidas is dead, and the poet-bard is telling the dead Lycidas essentially what will become of him in the after-life. And this sparks a great discussion of the first appositive noun Milton ascribes to our dear, fallen Lycidas.

Genius is actually a word with common ancestry in Latin and Greek, of which both cultures used the word in its not so literal sense (literally, to be born, to come into being, or to beget) but instead used the term GENIUS as a moniker for the tutelary god or spirit that was allotted to every person @ birth to govern his/her fortunes, dictate his/her character, and a bit more morosely, conduct him/her out of the world into his/her afterlife. This could be one lens to aid in reading the ascription of GENIUS Milton places on dear Lycidas, but I think there may be more.

In fact, around the spill of the 16th century into the 17th (the century that contains Milton’s life and works) the term started to become something else. Instead of being something like a guardian angel or the Christain equivalent devil and angel on opposing shoulders, GENIUS soon came to mean not the spirit anymore, but a quasi-mythologic personification of something immaterial (like a virtue, custom, or institution––––>maybe things like intelligence, but maybe even something as abstract and substantial as death itself). This has to color our reading at least slightly. Or at least complicate it.

For if Lycidas, the mythic representation of the man drowned at sea, is in fact an embodiment of some mythological substance, we got some problems. How can a mythic be anything other than mythic? What does this tautology mean? There is a way out of this abyss of confusion, but you’ll have to trust me. If we think of this more modern sense of the word, it is classically (or maybe clichely) modern of humans to transform and twist the word’s meaning from a simple classificatory noun used to describe essentially an attendant spirit or daemon into the personification of this. An attempt to see the fingerprint of humanity in even the divine, the new use of the word GENIUS is exactly what Milton is acting out in this poem. The mythic Lycidas is really just a myth superimposed on a human, so that instead of being a “quasi-mythologic personification” Lycidas’ being “the Genius of the shore” is (and this may be the protean step to the now modern conception of genius that I glossed above) a “quasi-human mytholigization”. Lycidas is really just some dude (call him Johnny) who has been mythologized by a poem, and in this mythologization, Milton has turned that dude into that myth. He has genius-ified that dude by calling him Genius (and Lycidas), making the whole poem a long, rhythmic, and rhymic performative utterance. Isn’t that kinda cool?


One Response to “Philology Phriday––Genius”

  1. cheat roulette July 19, 2010 at 10:07 am #

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