Sporting with Amaryllis

Sporting with Amaryllis

by Paul West
     
 

Taking as his point of departure the sexual obsessions and initiation of the poet John Milton, Paul West elucidates the psychology of an artist who would come to create the most enduring and compelling work of Western civilization on the subject of Original Sin. But that all comes later. Now, young Milton is a Cambridge student, a virgin, intoxicated by the power of…  See more details below

Overview

Taking as his point of departure the sexual obsessions and initiation of the poet John Milton, Paul West elucidates the psychology of an artist who would come to create the most enduring and compelling work of Western civilization on the subject of Original Sin. But that all comes later. Now, young Milton is a Cambridge student, a virgin, intoxicated by the power of words and the stories of myth - and especially the myth of Amaryllis, the shepherdess in Virgil. When he meets her on a crowded London street, and is led mutely to her odd dwelling, hung with the dripping animal skins and shared with a philosophizing, castrated expert on plague remedies, he encounters a living myth so powerful as to make his earlier learning - his religion, really - pale by comparison. Is she a prostitute? A witch? A myth sprung to life? All that and more, as she invites Milton to use her as his Muse.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A rich feast for lovers of ornate and stylish prose, West's (The Tent of Orange Mist) latest short novel takes as its protagonist the poet John Milton, although the story is a far cry from a conventional work of historical fiction. The bulk of the narrative concerns a single fantastical encounter between a teenage Milton, sent back to London by his Cambridge tutor, and a mysterious black woman who is possibly one of the classical muses, and whom Milton names Amaryllis after a shepherdess in Virgil. Explicitly linking sexuality and creativity, West has Milton's tryst with Amaryllis serve as the poet's initiation into both realms. Indeed, West's adolescent Milton is so sex-obsessed that he sometimes seems a Renaissance Portnoy, and at times the earthiness of the novel (which also features musings on the plague, castration, and bodily processes and decay) rises to rather uncomfortable levels. Occasionally verging on the surreal, the novel has an allegorical quality while refusing to settle into any straightforward set of meanings. Both Milton and Amaryllis are a little less than fully formed, hovering uneasily between being mythic constructs and well-rounded characters. The real protagonist here is arguably language itself, and the sheer gorgeousness and texture with which West delineates both the artistic and the sensual supplies abundant rewards. (Dec.)
Library Journal
At 17, John Milton is fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He's just gone down to Cambridge and enjoys typically 17th-century bull sessions with his classmates rhapsodizing about the "music of spheres," as well as speculation on the possibility of more earthly delights. His outlook changes abruptly when he meets and is seduced by his muse Amaryllis, named for Virgil's shepherdess. Early on he betrays two wishes to his muse: "To have the seals removed from my eyes" and "To become a poet of mountainous gift." There is a price for these gifts, and it is contained in the answer to John's nave question, "Surely Death cannot also be Poesy. Where is the sense in that?" West's (The Tent of Orange Mist, LJ 8/95) rendition of 1625 London is vivid and credible, as is John's sudden, simultaneous education in sex and poetics. This fine story is only marred by a bizarre, jarring digression into Amaryllis's other-worldly origins that briefly throws the tale into disarray-although given West's obvious erudition, this section may resonate on allegorical frequencies inaudible to this reviewer. Recommended for large fiction collections.-Adam Mazmanian, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
Wielding words and high-flown images with his customary aplomb, prize-winning novelist West (The Tent of Orange Mist, 1995, etc.) offers a different take on the notion of creative inspiration, capturing soon-to-be poet John Milton in a heady, developmentally decisive moment.

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780879516666
Publisher:
The Overlook Press
Publication date:
12/01/1996
Pages:
160
Product dimensions:
5.65(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.68(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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