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Imagine a sensitive, sexually naive 17-year-old having his first encounter with a streetwalker: a bit of groping frustrated by conscience and inexperience. Next envision that same youth, now obsessed with sex, following prostitutes everywhere but never approaching them, until suddenly taken up by a mysterious black beauty who's the fulfillment of his innermost desire. Picture the grim surroundings where a crude initiation occurs—then be prepared for the realization that all is not what it seems. The place is 17th-century London, and the boy is Milton, but his buxom prize, with her companion, a castrated ex-sailor, is no mere tart: A weary time-traveler, part Calliope, part extraterrestrial, she has inspired poets from time immemorial, and the discourse she now has with her latest charge carries both the wisdom of the ages and the terrible knowledge of mortality. She and Milton enter a barge on the Thames, where the novice breathes the language of the dead, then embark on a journey seaward in a gondola, where he learns all of the pleasures of the flesh in a single, unending afternoon, only to be placed ashore, fully awakened but again alone, at the end of the day.
To accept the conceits offered in abundance here is to experience a fanciful, probing, indeed mesmerizing story, but any unwillingness to grant the unfettered possibility of magic in the real world would lessen its effect considerably.
Even at their wettest, his eyes could be surly, and when the heavy upper lids slid down he had sealed you away, unworthy of further insult. He was only seventeen, but Chappell his tutor scolded him for not being sleek enough, for not adapting himself to the whims of his elders. Smart, gifted, busy, retentive, but somewhat brash, he let his emotions get the better of him, complaining (as if there could be any changing of it) about the dryrot curriculum that represented the human creature at its deadest and most barren. He boasted too, in a reverse way, claiming that from the age of twelve he had virtually blinded himself, poring over books until midnight as if pursuing a life sentence prematurely. He never smiled much and prided himself on being truculent without being belligerent; he knew his Latin only too well and could distinguish between being fierce and being warlike in a trice. In those old Roman words, he claimed, he could hear the throats of long-gone ancestors, all the way back to proto-language, in which the bawl, the bleat, the whine became consistent vocal shapes. His father had schooled him in music; his school, St. Paul's, had equipped him with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; and private tutors had seeded him with French and Italian. Where else should such a little monster go but Cambridge? Later centuries would have dubbed him a swot, which is to say studies with obvious tedium. He heard the music of humanity all right, but not in the programs of Scholastic logic designed to ready him for becoming a clergyman.
No, in his mind's eye he was too much a pagan, treading water at Cambridge while wondering how to escape the preambles to reverence. He was a sensitive, fine soul alert to the pleasures of being green, a tyro, an amateur, unwilling to close his mind before it had been tempted, and remarking in himself, with mild derision, what he sometimes referred to as the faint subterfuges of untutored eloquence. Half the time, when he spoke, the words volunteered themselves, coming from he knew not where but having little to do with the body that heaved and perspired, the nose that bled, the hands that flexed their fingers, the eyes that ached and ran. A ball of air within his chest gave him pangs and only sometimes melted away, punctured, he thought, by crumbs.
If only, like his father the moneylender, he could become a composer, but to music he was a receiver, a staunch devourer, too much in love with it to make it behave on the page or in the air. He was too ready to unfurl his arm and make his fingers taper as a singularly poignant phrase affected him, most often from an organ; music made him strike attitudes of almost ineffable buoyancy, and he was aware of them too, smirking even as he overdid the histrionics of appreciation. He sang too, with wavering solemnity, and a bad habit of sticking his index finger in an ear to make his voice more resonant to himself. Music, he said, ran up the stem of life and popped out as a flower. Music was breath on fire, eternity made momentary. It put him in mind of the ancient Greek who, chopped into mincemeat for the gods, was at last put back together, except for a piece of shoulder already eaten (a goddess in a hurry). Ivory replaced the missing flesh. Ivory was music, of what music had done to anatomy. So, he mused, he was a little horror for thinking such things, for linking the majesty of music to the expendability of meat. He was not normal, he knew, but he was not a genius yet, as Chappell said, instructing him to read all of a certain text and come prepared to construe any portion of it, even while the whole of literature waited in the scullery like a vagrant promised a meal of bread and stale beef.
"You shall be said, John," Chappell told him. "There is only the work, then the ministry. Do not look too far for fear of toppling in."
"No," the young polymath answered even as his hands did a random tremble, "there remains everything that surrounds. There is the All. You must not look at the anemone without recollecting how it sprang from the blood of Adonis, killed while hunting."
"There is purity," Chappell said.
"I am pure enough, sir."
"Self-judged is self-flattered."
"No, I am the world's thus far. I am the twin of its dirt. My mind is all swans, rainbows, hydras, harps, eels, magic brews, and preposterous resurrections. The horn of plenty bellows."
Any more of that, indicating profound aversion to study, would get him into hot water: Chappell was serious, like any paralytic watching one of the able-bodied prancing by. "Rustication," he said: a raw threat, sending the young student back home for as much as an entire term, there to rethink his ways and put a veneer of humility on his cheek. Yet rustication for him would not mean return to the countryside, but to London, where he was born, son of a Catholic-turned-Protestant. Rustication, as far as he was concerned, was return to Cambridge, where they quartered the heart and made the mind a wen of dust.
And so it was. Banished to the city he came from, he felt purged and renewed, pagan again in his own mottled way, and ready for readings unprescribed and hectic. This happened to be the Lent term, the one of going without, but it was going to turn, he thought, into a feast, like going off to Nineveh undercover with only a dagger and a hard loaf to keep him safe. Or was it Persepolis? He was going to ride in triumph away from stuffy, torpid Cambridge with its Cam and its damp Chappells, its incessant east wind and its inert rivers. A jail of reeds. He longed for bustle, sunshine, crowds, a world of unkempt morals, where the will had something to cut its teeth on.
Now he was Pelops, feeling Hermes ram the ivory prosthesis into place beneath his collarbone, shrugging at him to teach him how to move the shoulder from now on, cursing Demeter, who had eaten the flesh that used to be there. She would eat herself when the fit was on her, he said. And the soupy blood streaming behind him, the young John, from where the ivory had been forced home with spikes and sap, made a carpet of anemones for his pursuers to walk upon. All the way from Cambridge to London, he dreamed himself into grandiose roles, giantkilling here, shipsinking there, tugging a vineyard from an open fold in his belly, reaching swans down from flight and blowing them up like trumpets with their beaks deep into his mouth. It was time to be different, to be new, to be dipped among the broth of stars like the poles of Earth itself. Going home, he whispered, away from the lean intellects, the three-legged stools, the priests in wolves' clothing. An enormous catapult slung him all the way, soaring above fields and streams, thatch roofs and coupled lovers, greasing him with magical flux, a son going home to a different kind of trouble among lewd, sweet gardeners along the musky coast of Araby.
He knew he was home in London when, having dismounted from the horse-drawn omnibus, he gave himself a good stretch and soothed his legs by raising them in turn to the top of a bollard, at which some hussy commented on the fine calves he had, calling him a fine young squire and inviting him to bed down with her for half an hour, more if he needed it. A far cry from Scholastic logic, he thought, eyeing her chapped lips, the blatant scraped-looking ruddiness of her cheeks, her general look of disrepair, through which her buxomness bulged and presented itself: a ripe orgy for the buying, at which he peered, travel-worn as he was, wondering why he had never paid the price, groped under sacking or silk, smelled alien brassy breath from the mouth of someone paid to come close to him. She had a scapegrace arrogance to her, lolling tall in front of him, her hidden flesh rippling as if she were part molten, her hands gesturing at him part by part, her not-so-clean brown hair blown this way and that in a sidespill--a carefully managed commercial flaunt, as if this were the most mobile component of her. Yet all he could think was how much he wanted to be reunited with his books at home, hug his parents, his brother and sister, and get on with his intellectual life among the Romans and the Greeks, spurning this girl's chapped face and capacious buttocks, her huge breasts, her poorly cared-for hands. He smiled, lunged, almost knocked her over, recovered and bowed, hoping she had looked away; but she had taken in all his awkwardness, told him her name was Peg, and started to laugh in a deep, jagged voice that said she had grown up on a farm or under a dray. He showed her his bookbag, opened it up as if she were a horse to feed, and she told him it would be better to have one full of breasts. Or she would empty it out, the learned tomes among the horse droppings, and clap it over his head while she had her way with his greenhorn body, making him retch and spasm, arching his back until he collapsed forward upon her. If he didn't use it, she yelled, it would fall off, so what was he waiting for. She was clean, she told him; one smell at her would prove the point, one scrape with his nail would catch no grime. He wanted to touch, but he stood frozen, jinxed by purity.
Out of her, he thought, the sun is pouring, the source of all brightness in this world. She has a blaze of her own, a whole jungle of delights into which prodding or poking is natural. The whole human race, bar a few prelates, had done it, so why not he? The touch or hint of dropsy only made her entire frame even more desirable as she began to stalk around him, making a lewd circle of self-display, butting her rear at him, then her bosom, then maneuvering the palms of her hands as if she were rolling dough. It was a fine, stirring show, making him want to follow her, burn his books, and devote his next twenty years to lust. He was a man, and he should prove it at least twice a week. What was the going rate? Would his father tell? Pushed beyond ordinary constraint, he advanced upon her. Here he came, gobbling air out of nervousness, and draped his hand across the double globes of her front, marveling at their sheer weight, their malleable availability. She egged him on to feel further, strident catalogue of herself, and his questing finger felt lapsing flaps or fins easily folded this way or that while she howled with laughter, telling him to tug away, so long (slong) as he paid for what he felt at. A long feel, he heard, sets up a young gentleman for the full day.
He could hardly bear to tell himself this was the first time he had laid hand on the organ in question, the shaggy half-pear he longed to incorporate somehow into his demure verses, in the end dubbing it "the zone." His finger smelled as if he had been grappling with an old haddock, but he prudently told himself that perhaps the smell was the crucial part, without which none of the rest would happen. Only that close to heaving up did the male feel lascivious, somewhere between loathing and voracity. She spat in his face, gave him a hard dunt with her fist right where he had been feeling hard, most Ovid-like, and then plunged an index finger right up his nose, making him squeal, his eyes run, and at last his blood run down over his mouth. "No pay, you have me not," she snapped at him. Not even a handful. It was over. He had failed again. Nothing to boast about, only yet another impromptu exercise in falling short, proving he was destined for poetry or the clergy. She stormed off in search of riper clients, her shawl and hair blown sideways by a stiff London wind, almost on the point of being detached from her body, ripped away no sooner than flung.
There was nothing for it but shame. Away dodged his imagination as, piling his books back into their bag, he called himself Orpheus, torn to pieces by drunken devotees of Bacchus. The head of Orpheus floated down the River Hebrus as far as the isle of Lesbos. His own might drift down the Thames as far as the Isle of Dogs. Greatness in those Greeks--notoriety, disgrace, true flair for sticking out like a sore finger--came from courage, not from hanging back. It was merely a matter of coming as close as possible to the event, the disaster, and then closing your mind: coaxing yourself to the brink and then fixing the mind on a certain star so as to plunge undauntably into the abyss of scent. Was that indeed where he was going, all of him, with no hope of withdrawal? The first ever of his flashes forward came to him then as he trudged forward, gasping from the weight of his books. Someone, deep in swarthy futurity, said aloud that the best sex he ever had was in Puerto Rico, which was where the women liked it most. Perhaps an old sailor said it, an old salt looking back on a life of assiduous swiving, getting the whole world into the comparison. Where did they love to do it most? Where did they make love to their very occupation? Madagascar? Cadiz? Or the Bermoothes?