Feature: “Milton, Woolf and the mad Magnificat”

Pierre-August Renoir, The Wave, 1879 (public domain)


Because what we do as academics is demanding, and coercive in so many ways – ways both good and bad – there is seldom any time for play, or experiment, or sheer foolery. Even when the day-to-day demands of teaching or admin ease, our own research involves restrictions, parameters, duties and certain disciplinary pieties of application and process.

I can’t describe the exact set of needs, circumstances, competencies and incompetencies that led me, just before the start of term in 2015, to decide to try a quiet little experiment which would be enjoyable, I thought, though not knowing why. I would find a way of allying, of juxtaposing the work of two very disparate writers.

Although antithetical in a number ways, there are also demonstrable similarities: both work obsessively to describe their subjects with minute accuracy, though for very different reasons; their evocations of colour and light are unparalleled, and they above anything own their own style. Because I run the department’s Twitter account, I would use social media to do this; the exercise would be chance-based, and under only one restriction, one that was self-imposed: the firm restriction of sequentiality.

It would remain to be seen, if, contrary to responsible historicisation, to orthodoxies of period specialisation, to certain rigid boundaries of form, and to many of the rules of scholarly procedure, John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem Paradise Lost, with its aim ‘to justifie the ways of God to men’, and Virginia Woolf’s twentieth-century Modernist novel The Waves – a formally experimental meditation on being – could actually be made to speak to one another.

If they could, what would they say? The explanatory and descriptive piece that follows, from a vantage point some seventeen months later, has a few preliminary suggestions, although since the project may only end some twenty years from now, I can promise no hasty conclusions.

On the fourth of January 2015, then, to the best of my knowledge – for archiving is alien to the nature of social media – this tweet rode out under the English@Plymouth banner, and under the hashtag #paradisewaves:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit *** the sun had not yet risen

Another tweet was added, testifying to the casually ludic nature of the project:

Virginia Woolf and John Milton – phrase a day from @EnglishPlymUni 1674 meets 1931 – no prize for guessing who’ll stay longer

For indeed, Paradise Lost, in all its twelve-book splendour, is going to last for years longer than Woolf’s modestly sized novel.

Pierre-August Renoir, The Wave, 1879  (public domain)
Pierre-August Renoir, The Wave, 1879 (public domain)

To begin with, what is the methodology? The only rule – and even that, by its nature, involves selection, possible error and the randomness of circumstance – is that I should tweet a phrase or sentence, depending on sense and length, from the two texts every day, in strict sequence, starting from the first utterance; the experiment, I decided, should begin where they begin, and insert nothing in the tweet itself but Woolf and Milton’s own words. This was not going to be creative work, in the way that the ‘found’ poetry of – say – Tony Lopez and others, is.

It is bound by the necessity of what is already on the page. To the extent that the exercise works under this self-imposed constraint, it could be said to owe a debt of literary provenance to the twentieth-century avant garde Oulipo movement, where the act of creation, in reaction to earlier Surrealist experiments in realms beyond reason, was deliberately hamstrung by selected restrictions.

Jean-Jacques Poucel has noted that ‘Oulipian constraints are willingly adopted, intentionally designed, and strategically calculated to fulfill particular ends’ – but in the same way, whilst the constraints are indeed chosen, this project must disown that Oulipian debt, since the subjective or creative element is very small, existing only in the daily process of choosing length: within the word limit of 140 characters imposed by the form of a tweet, how long should each fragment from novel or poem be?

Apart from Oulipo, and the surrealist fishing on bicycles from out of which that grouping arose, what literary models are there for a procedure like this? In many ways, isn’t its presence as a moment of play in a heavily policed and directed mental landscape enough? After all, surely its presentation on the most ephemeral and feather-brained of social media playgrounds is enough automatically to consign it to the back of the cultural cupboard along with the hula-hoop and the ‘seebackroscope’.

But if the practice is to be sanctioned in traditional literary ways, I would make an appeal to my own research in the eighteenth century, to the accretional poetry of Christopher Smart, who scribbled exuberantly in personae not his own in a popular magazine, who temporarily lost his senses, and in the private madhouse in which he was confined, wrote a piece of what might be now be termed ‘outsider art’: his Jubilate Agno, composed across a length of time between 1758 and 1763.

This is a hugely detailed yet panoramic evocation of all creation, a mad Magnificat which sets the Gospels alongside botany and musicology and zoology in a process of sequential daily accident, with ‘Let’ and ‘For’ verses speaking to each other across the page:

Let Jael rejoice with the Plover, who whistles for his live [sic], and foils the marksmen and their guns. For I bless the PRINCE of PEACE and pray that all the guns may be nail’d up, save such as are for the rejoicing days. (Jubilate Agno, B1:4)

Scholars have identified the botanical texts, dictionaries and encyclopaedias to which Smart had access, and how he used them sequentially in constructing his devout edifice, making a dialogue between his own biography, elements of the new Enlightenment knowledges of the physical world, and the Old and New Testament.

At #paradisewaves, among the cheerful adverts and endorsements for beach resorts that I didn’t foresee when I decided on the tag, Milton and Woolf do speak to each other. The isolation enforced by the strict limit makes each word luminous. Here in the age of digital reproduction, the close attention to texts at the micro level of word and phrase (akin to the ‘practical criticism’ of the twentieth century) can still occur, though with different emphasis: we must find our auras in humbler ways.

Finally here, a few examples of how they affect and reinflect each other are here adduced. What has been difficult in this compiling activity is to find a pair which don’t do anything when set together, and whilst this is perhaps simply testimony to the remarkable capacity of humans to see patterns in anything, there’s a strong case to be made for precisely the opposite argument: these two particular texts, with their deep concern for human beings and their messes, are uniquely placed to communicate with other, and with us.

Sometimes they collide in a startling bathos, as on the third of August 2015:

heard so oft/ in worst extremes, and on the perilous edge/ of battles when it rages *** and my hair is untidy

They can seem uncannily cooperative, as on the fourteenth of January 2015:

Siloa’s brook that flowed/ Fast by the oracle of God *** broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand

They can inject some startling false causation, as on the recent fourteenth of May tweet:

whose exile/ Hath emptied heaven *** because Louis is alert and not a wool-gatherer

They can luminously disagree, as on the twenty-eighth of February, 2015:

regions of sorrow, doleful shades *** ‘islands of light are swimming on the grass’, said Rhoda)

They can appear simply ridiculous, as on May the second this year:

and half enclose him round/ with all his peers: attention held them mute *** there is a green caterpillar on your neck

Sometimes these chance juxtapositions simply transcend the bounds of sense and reinforce each other in the collision of the sublime and the quotidian; it is a magnificat for each, and a synthesis where each retains its own distinctive voice and yet maintains a dialogue with the other.

On the seventeenth of April 2015, Milton showed us Satan newly in hell, and – just having been punished for his first rebellion – planning another. Woolf, though, in the dawn garden with her children, seemed to know that he still has more to learn, and that the learning will be even more painful this time:

so spake th’apostate Angel, though in pain, / vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair *** it is very early, before lessons



Dr Min WildAbout the author:

Dr Min Wild is a lecturer in English at Plymouth University. She is the author of Christopher Smart and Satire: ‘Mary Midnight’ and the Midwife and co-editor of Reading Christopher Smart in the Twenty-first Century.




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