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The Lonely Gods

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre
To grind in the mill of an undelighted and servile copulation must be the only forced work of a Christian marriage, oftimes with such a yoke-fellow, from whom both love and peace, both nature and religion mourns to be separated.

More powerfully than anyone before him, including Shakespeare, Milton conveyed in his divorce tracts a strange form of suffering: loneliness not in a state of radical isolation but in the everyday, continual presence of a spouse. The intensity of the pain may be difficult for those who have not encountered it to grasp, but anyone who has experienced it directly—as Milton himself did with his first wife—will recognize the force of his analysis. A person locked in a bad marriage, he wrote,

lies under a worse condition than the loneliest single life; for in single life the absence and remoteness of a helper might inure him to expect his own comforts out of himself, or to seek with hope; but here the continual sight of his deluded thoughts without cure, must needs be to him…a daily trouble and pain of loss, in some degree like that which reprobates feel.

Small wonder, he noted, that in such a situation the principal feeling toward the unresponsive spouse turns quite simply to hate. Milton fails to acknowledge it, but his spouse must have experienced a reciprocal loathing.

It is this condition—what Milton called “a drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption”—that Wagner (who had his own personal experience of it) depicts with exceptional sensitivity in the second act of Die Walküre, in the long, painful argument between Wotan and Fricka. The unbearable condition of loneliness inside a marriage is still more explicit in the opera’s first act. The wounded Siegmund—having been injured in an attempt to rescue a maiden who was being forced to marry a man she feared—staggers into Sieglinde’s dwelling and is succored by her. Regaining his strength, he makes haste to leave before the return of Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding: “Ill fate pursues me/follows my footsteps.” But she pleads with him to stay:

So bleibe hier!
Nicht bringst du Unheil dahin,
wo Unheil im Hause wohnt!
[No, do not leave!
You bring no ill fate to me,
For ill fate has long been here!]

Disaster cannot be brought to a house where it already dwells. Her marriage to Hunding is the ghastly state Milton unforgettably described as “two carcasses chained unnaturally together.”

At this point of desperation what awakens in both Siegmund and Sieglinde is the dream of an escape from the torment of loneliness, the almost unbearably intense discovery of their passionate love for one another. That love is, of course, adulterous—the drugged Hunding is snoring in the adjoining room—but the lovers themselves, throughout their ecstatic celebration of the emotional springtide that has suddenly burst upon them, insist upon it as a marriage. They sing of each other as bride and groom. And Die Walküre seems at moments at least to endorse this erasure of the hated bond in terms that Milton himself might have understood. “Unholy [Unheilig]/ call I the vows/that bind unloving hearts,” Wotan sings, in pleading with Fricka to acknowledge the emptiness of Hunding and Sieglinde’s union and the legitimacy of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love.

Milton, of course, would have regarded Wotan quite literally as one of the demons who does Satan’s will, and he would have been horrified by the lovers’ transgressive violation of all norms of decency and propriety. Their transgression is intensified by their realization that they are twins, brother and sister whom the fates had separated only now to bring them together again in mutual passion. “The bride and sister,” Siegmund sings, “is freed by her brother;/the barriers fall/that held them apart.” For Milton such incestuous unions were the quintessence of evil: Satan impregnates his own daughter Sin, and the monstrous child of their union, Death, in turn rapes and impregnates his mother. That is what it means, in Milton, for the barriers to fall that held people apart.

And yet Milton understood, better than any great artist other than Wagner, the full force of the imperative to escape from loneliness in order to secure the fulfillment of desire and the realization of intimacy. This intimacy in Die Walküre takes on an absolute dimension through the force of narcissism: that is what it means to love one’s twin or, in the case of Wotan, one’s daughter. Already before the love is declared, Hunding is struck by his wife’s eerie resemblance to the stranger who has entered his house: “He looks like my wife there!/A glittering snake/seems to shine in their glances.” And this resemblance is rapturously celebrated by the lovers themselves. “The stream has shown/my reflected face,” Sieglinde marvels, “and now I find it before me;/in you I see it again,/just as it shone from the stream!”

The passage recalls a celebrated moment in Paradise Lost in which Eve, first awakened from her creation, looks at herself, “with unexperienced thought,” in the waters of a clear, smooth lake:

As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A shape within the watery gleam appeared
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love.

For Milton, Eve must be weaned from this “vain desire”; narcissism must give way to mutuality. But once again the contrast with Wagner is less decisive than it seems: Eve is led, she is told by a mysterious guiding voice, to one who will enable her to realize in the flesh the longings awakened in the glassy reflection: “he/Whose image thou art.”

The Edenic pair have, in Paradise Lost, a deeply passionate marriage. Against a current of theological speculation that located the first experience of sexual intercourse only after the fall, Milton insists (with a striking introduction of his own “I”), on the erotic nature of their bond in Paradise:

…nor turned I ween
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity and place and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and command to some, leaves free to all.

It is the nature of this bond—its narcissism and its eros—that leads Adam, as Milton depicts him, freely to elect, in full consciousness of what he is doing, to join Eve in the primal transgression:

I with thee have fixed my lot,
Certain to undergo like doom, if death
Consort with thee, death is to me as life;
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of nature draw me to my own,
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose my self.

I have stressed the Miltonic moments in Wagner; here, in the lines I have just quoted, is perhaps the most Wagnerian moment in Milton, Wagnerian not in Sturm und Drang but in a sublime spirit of pathos and calm. It was in that spirit that Jonas Kaufmann beautifully sang the words in which Siegmund, told that Sieglinde cannot accompany him to Valhalla, refuses proffered immortality in order to die with her:

So grüsse mir Walhall,
grüsse mir Wotan,
grüsse mir Wälse
und alle Helden,
grüsse auch die holden
zu ihnen folg ich dir nicht.

[Then greet for me Valhalla,
greet for me Wotan,
greet for me Wälse
and all the heroes;
greet all those fair
and lovely maidens.
To Valhalla I will not go!]

It is this choice of a human love and a human fate—against high commands and oaths and obligations—that brings together the great seventeenth-century poet and the great nineteenth-century composer in a shared project. Milton imagined his project as an attempt “to justify the ways of God to man.” But he did something else, something more like a justification of the stained, muddled, and sinful world that humans have created for themselves. “Those deeds of music,” the British philosopher Bernard Williams wrote of the Ring, “cannot in themselves justify the world of compromise and cruelty, but they can express what it would be like for it to be justified, because they invoke a state of mind in which, at least for a while, the world can seem to justify itself.”4 Together Milton and Wagner make it possible for us to hear what it might sound like to find the mortal world enough.

  1. 4

    Bernard Williams, “The Elusiveness of Pessimism,” in On Opera (Yale University Press, 2006), p. 69. 

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