The Burning Boy


In the invocation to Book VII of Paradise Lost, Milton fears lest his fate be like Orpheus’s—to be torn apart by the uncomprehending practitioners of oppression and violence—and he looks to his own muse to protect him, as Orpheus’s mother Calliope could not,

from the barbarous dissonance
Of Bacchus and his revellers, the race
Of that wild rout that tore the Thracian bard
In Rhodope, where woods and rocks had ears
To rapture, till the savage clamour drowned
Both harp and voice; nor could the Muse defend
Her son. So fail not thou, who thee implores:
For thou art heavenly, she an empty dream.

Milton treats Calliope’s case with extreme and poignant tenderness. She is full of grief that she could not defend her son. This is a recurrent theme in Milton. Earlier in Paradise Lost, for example, Proserpine gathering flowers is herself gathered like a flower by Dis, the god of the dead, “which cost Ceres all that pain / To seek her through the world”. But Ceres does not exist, any more than Calliope does. Both are empty dreams.

Why the reproach of the word “empty”? At whom is it directed? Whose empty dream is Calliope? There are various answers: the empty dreams of classical mythology, whose fabulists related (erring there as well) the fall of Mulciber in Book I; the empty dream of a reader who might seek from an epic the assurances of a less severe, more Keatsian, system of divinity than the austere Christianity that remains to the unillusioned Milton; thus the empty dream of a naïve younger Milton, who once, in a more optimistic period, might have staked his hopes on belief in such a muse, such a vocation. All of these answers are really just one answer: the rebuke is directed at those who had hoped to find Calliope a saving muse; most of all, to Calliope herself, whose empty dream it was to believe she could save Orpheus. She cannot save him because she is an empty dream. She must suffer both his death and her own failure to be real. Her unreality doesn’t exempt her from pain and sympathy: it is the cause and content of her pain.

This is the pain of mortality: it is the pain Orpheus felt at being unable to save his “half-regained Eurydice” (“L’Allegro”). “Half-regained” because even though Orpheus “made Hell grant what Love did seek” (“Il Penseroso”), what Love sought was a mortal being, and so a being whose presence can never be complete. Contrast this with the immortal experience of Eden in Paradise Lost, where Adam dreams that he sees the newly created Eve: when she disappears from his dream he wakes to find her or forever to deplore her loss, but Adam and Eve are heavenly or all but heavenly, she is not an empty dream, not a half-being, and he regains her wholly. Milton’s own experience has been far more like Orpheus’s. When he dreams of his dead wife (in Sonnet 23), he tries to embrace her, but she flees like Eurydice back into the darkness and absence and emptiness that is his blind and mortal life.

For Milton the most painful part of morality, and its defining condition, is not facing one’s own death, but facing one’s powerlessness to save another being from his mortality. The muse has become mortal, as we all do. The boy she seeks to save has become mortal, as we all do. Her mortality consists most fully in her inability to prevent his mortality. His mortality consists most fully in her powerlessness to prevent it. He becomes mortal when he sees his mother cannot save him. She becomes mortal when she sees that he sees this. It is only as fragile, unreal mortals, with our inevitable tropism towards dissolution, that they can interact, and (they now realize) that they have ever interacted. Becoming mortal is the central theme of Paradise Lost, which describes how the mortal taste of the fruit “Brought death into the world and all our woe”. That ordering matters: death leads to woe, to the experience of mourning the death of others (Adam explicitly chooses to follow Eve into a world of death because the woe of surviving her is worse to him than the woe of dying himself).

And becoming mortal is the central theme and problem of much poetry, especially the poetry of old age. What becomes of the world when it becomes unreal? How can one make of that unreality something that matters? Wallace Stevens, in old age, wrote over and over of the way ageing transmogrified the world and made it unreal. He remembers a childhood house seventy years later: “Upstairs, the windows will be lighted, not the rooms”. His mother, bending down to kiss him, is preserved as a pure eidetic memory of her dangling necklace: “The necklace is a carving, not a kiss”. This is why in another late poem he wonders “Have I lived a skeleton’s life / As a disbeliever in reality, / A countryman of all the bones of the world” even though he remembers a time when he did not write poems about “what skeletons think about”. He once did not, but now he does: “nothing has been changed except what is / Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all”. But now he is a countryman of everything that is unreal, his only country (Stevens is almost certainly thinking of Yeats) the country of old men. He loses his sense of once having lived in reality. The past too has become unreal, the sense of once having had a sense that the world was real is dissipating.

Stevens and Milton present two radical examples of the most absorbing fact of literary vocation: that you end up devoting your life to love of the unreal. This is the same story Proust tells. The world becomes unreal anyway, the trajectory of life is a trajectory towards disbelief in reality, so poetry provides a way to tutor the soul to love what is unreal. Since what becomes unreal is our relation to other people, themselves mortal and unreal—Orpheus, Eurydice, Calliope, the mother, the woman met at the edge of a field seventy years ago (from Stevens’s “The Rock”)—loving what is unreal means loving others as you love poetry. Loving poetry is one way for mortals to love mortals.

This sort of poetry is an extension and also an antithesis of conventional love poetry. We’re used to thinking of poetry as an instrument of amorous expression. It is addressed to the beloved, and says something like, “Look how deep I am, and love me for that”. There is a wide range of expressive tonalities for such poetry: Love me because I am so ebullient, love me because I am so in love with you, love me because we are so happy together, love me because I am so sad, love me because I mourn your death so much. Such poetry, no matter how fictive its occasion or tone or performance, is all essentially second person. It courts the reader, it courts the beloved. They need not be the same: one way of courting someone is to perform the courtship of someone else. This is what actors do, and the genres of movies or plays about love require actors to do that. Love me, Humphrey Bogart, because of the sad and tragic way I love Ingrid Bergman. Love me, Grace Kelly, because of the delightful and perky way I love James Stewart. Love me, Fred Astaire, because of the ebulliently resourceful way I love Ginger Rogers.

But the poetry of unreality, the poetry of old age (as we may call it for short), is not a poetry of courtship but of meditation. It is often most helpful—to the poet, to the reader—as love poetry, but this is love without courtship, without an eloquence meant primarily to appeal to the addressee of the poem (an appeal to grant the love whose withholding has tested the poet and prompted his or her eloquence). The way the poetry of unreality is different is clearest when it manifests itself (as in the example of Calliope or Ceres) as a meditation on the asymmetric love for the child. But the parent’s love for the mortal child (whatever its biological source) is not the source of the paradigm that I wish to bring out here, but a manifestation of it. Put otherwise, the child may be “the child unanswered in her” (Alvin Feinman), or “a child asleep in its own life” (Stevens again), or the old woman who “stands before me as a living child” (Yeats), or one’s own lost childhood, as in Merrill or Proust.

The love of a mortal or broken or helpless or vulnerable being, when it cannot rescue that mortal, broken, helpless, vulnerable being, represents the one who loves that being as equally helpless. Freud says that parental narcissism, undermined by the relentless attacks of reality, imagines the immortality of the child. But parents finally understand their own mortality when they recognize the mortality of the child: the child too is mortal, and no refuge for the parents’ lost immortality. It’s the recognition of the mortality, of the unreality, of the child that leads, we could say, to real love rather than the desperately escapist overestimation that Freud thought parental love amounted to. Both parent and child, Calliope and Orpheus, are unreal, since each would depend for its reality on the reality of the other; both are unable to defend themselves, or each other, from unreality, and so both suffer life’s vector towards exclusion from the shared world, from shared reality.

Diotima, in The Symposium, calls Love the child of Plenty and Poverty. Although much of her account is allegorical, her story is partly about the relationship of allegorical figures to our experience of others. Allegories are abstractions. But in The Symposium, Love is not an abstraction but (says Diotima) a daemon, neither human nor god, but anthropomorphic nevertheless, personified in a way that his allegorical begetters are not. His quasihelplessness is a result of this personification, of his being like us, not like the abstract gods of the ideal realm. He is like us because he stands for our love and need and defeated expectation, and he is the object of our love and need and expectation as well. While under his aspect of resourceful plenty, he may stand for the display of everything the lover wishes to use to court the beloved, but the helplessness I am focusing on makes him like the child who embodies love in all its helplessness, who embodies all the ways that love cannot defend what is loved, nor give succour to the lover. Love, personified, stands for the absolute vulnerability of a being to whom there is nothing we can offer but love (Philip Pullman’s daemons, in the trilogy His Dark Materials, are perfect instances of what I have in mind). Poems that personify love this way are poems that personify the love we (readers, poets) feel for poems which are expressions of loss and need and vulnerability and helplessness, for poems reduced to the poverty of having only intensified expressiveness left to them. This is a tautology, perhaps, which comes down to the idea that sad poems are sad. But it’s also a deep and impressive fact that sad poems are sad.

Consider Shelley’s “When the Lamp is Shattered”:

When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possessed.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?

Its passions will rock thee,
As the storms rock the ravens on high;
Bright reason will mock thee,
Like the sun from a wintry sky.
From thy nest every rafter
Will rot, and thine eagle home
Leave thee naked to laughter,
When leaves fall and cold winds come.

Love leaves the nest, but then it turns out that Love is still there, only not a god any more but frail and exposed and mortal (“your bier”): unreal. Here too love is a child (leaving the nest), or rather the fragile, mortal child is a figure for love, at once object and relationship. The being is the relationship, our relationship with the unreal world. Love here is a kind of counter-allegory: it is the abandoned lover who allegorizes the pain of being Love, of experiencing what Love experiences, allegorizes Love’s pain. Love is a ruined god. From its eagle home—its position of divine superiority—it laments sublunary frailty, but then it participates in this frailty, suffering the very thing it condemns, estranged from its own divine and allegorical origin, its eagle home. “Why choose you the frailest?” is Shelley’s complaint. But it’s a complaint, not against Love, but about the very experience that Love too is described as having.

Another example, ultimately very similar to Shelley’s: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca”, which takes as its occasion Felicia Hemans’s famous tear-jerker:

Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite “The boy stood on
the burning deck.” Love’s the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love’s the burning boy.

The subject in this erotic elogy is the faithfulness of love: Bishop describes love as an attempt at faithfulness to its own impulse even when the relationship is on the rocks. Love becomes, not the immortal “burning babe” of Southwell’s sixteenth century devotional poem, but the boy who tries to recite Hemans’s “Casabianca”, the poem about the boy who remains faithful to his dead father’s order to stay on deck till relieved. Young Casabianca’s “faithful heart” gives Bishop a model for the faithfulness she requires of herself, even as the relationship founders. In this first stanza love is her avatar: it is she who is trying to recite a poem of love’s faithfulness even as the ship goes down. The difference between herself and Hemans’s Casabianca is that he is heroically eloquent—“Say, Father say / If yet my task be done?” “Speak father!….If I may yet be gone!” “My Father! must I stay?”—whereas she, speaking as Love, is desperately “stammering elocution,” trying to ignore the disaster as it occurs and to treat the deck as “a schoolroom platform” (which it is as well, for the sailors who are instructed by the sight; there’s a memory here of Emerson’s account of drowning sailors here: “Well, they had a right to their eyebeams, and all the rest was fate”).

I think that Bishop, connoisseur of dreams, is thinking of a particular burning boy in “Casabianca”: the burning boy in the famous dream that Freud retells at the beginning of Chapter Seven of The Interpretation of Dreams, “the dream of the burning child” (p. 572), in which once again dream and reproach come together, as they have in Paradise Lost:

A father had been watching beside his child’s sick-bed for days and nights on end. After the child had died, he went into the next room to lie down, but left the door open so that he could see from his bedroom into the room in which his child’s body was laid out, with tall candles standing round it. An old man had been engaged to keep watch over it, and sat beside the body muttering prayers. After a few hours’ sleep, the father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’. He woke up, noticed a bright glare of light from the next room, hurried into it and found that the old watchman had dropped off to sleep and that the wrappings and one of the arms of his beloved child’s dead body had been burned by a lighted candle that had fallen on them (pp. 547-548).

As Freud interprets the dream, the abandoned child is granted a momentary prolongation of life. “I’m burning” is something the boy did say in his fever; Lacan will suggest that the boy sought to wake his father up on the first onset of his illness, but that his father did not see that he really was burning up. Now the child exists only as abandoned. The father can keep hold of the child, extend his life or his personification, only by not waking up to save the child (the child’s body) from the flames. Lacan notes that there are three sleepers in the story: the father, the old man, and the dead child who looks like sleep. The father can only prolong the existence of his son if, like the old man, he does not wake up. The old man should be awake, or should sleep competently, but the task of dreaming the child awake again—of sustaining a vigil by abandoning a vigil—devolves upon the father. He joins his son in sleep, but in doing so he abandons his son. And yet the only way to join him is to abandon him. Freud will later say that a deep motivation of this dream, as of every dream, is the wish to prolong sleep (“O, such another sleep, that he might see but such another child!”); but here that wish might be thought to be derivative of a wish to join the child in the sleep that sustains and abandons him.

As in Hemans’s “Casabianca” as Bishop might have wished to read it, the unconscious father finds in his own obliviousness to the actual burning boy the only way to personify that boy, to make him continue to personify Love. Lacan calls this “the missed reality,” the encounter that can take place only as a missed encounter, since to sleep is to miss the danger that in any case it is now too late to divert (the fever, the flames), while to wake to the actual child is to wake to his death (the sleep from which he will not awaken), as Milton does in Sonnet 23. In Lacan’s quick summary of the work of mourning, the separateness and loss of the child is the central fact that makes itself felt “by means of reality:” the real burning represents the child’s absence. Reality thus becomes not the terminus but the representational medium for the irreality, or inaccessibility, or abandonment, or loss, or disappearance of the child: the irreality which is everything that makes the child mortal, everything that the child’s life and reality consists in. Confronted with this child, all I can do is acknowledge that he is burning, or that he is dead, and that he knows my love can’t save him. If this is a reproach, its affective charge adds (like all guilt) to the intensity of feeling. We are both empty dreams, and all we have for each other, all we are for each other, is love. The only communion we have with each other is in the language in which I personify Love as mortal like me, and so mourn myself and Love and they boy I love because he cannot transcend mortal language. He can only stammer elocution, and he too would fail, like Calliope, in his performance on the schoolroom platform: he is mortal and the poetry he stammers is mortal, but he is still Love, still the burning boy, more faithful to us than reality.

  • About

    Martin Browning aka William Flesch is Professor of English and American Literature at Brandeis University. His publications are: Comeuppance; Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton and his articles include: Critical Inquiry; Studies in Romanticism and Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism, Werner Hamather, ed. and articles in Southwest Review.

    His paper 'The Burning Boy' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 3/ Life & Death, available here for purchase.