[Milton-L] Who would not sing for Ralph?

john rumrich rumrichj at gmail.com
Wed Sep 30 09:17:55 EDT 2015


​It's the time of term when I have no time, and yet this year managed to
read a novel, *Speak,* by Louisa Hall, out just this past summer.  It
features among other narrative threads extracts from the diary of Mary
Bradford, a woebegone 13 year old pilgrim on board a ship heading to the
new world, accompanied by her parents and the man she is supposed to
marry.  She smuggles her beloved dog Ralph on board because she cannot bear
to leave him behind, but the dog is then swept away in a storm at sea.  The
girl is devastated, and the surprisingly sympathetic man she is being
forced to marry alone attempts to console her for her loss.  But being
unable to say much on his own, he chooses a book of poems to read from to
the homesick girl sunk in her grief:

"Ralph dead ere his prime (he said), but must not go unwept.

Heart caught in writer's chest, and awful confusion . . . . Felt tears
hotly rising: nearly sent Whittier away, for did not want him to witness my
sorrow.  But he faced out to sea. Did not gape at my tears, but spoke only
of Ralph's love for green lawns and driving afield in the morning,
battening flocks whilst the dew was still fresh.  Found myself caught by
remembrance, of Ralph going forth, guarding our meadow, standing on
hilltops.  His bark, and the weight of his lean.  Whittier continued, and I
awash  in desire for the place that we lost.  For flowers of our home:
amaranthus, jessamine.  For his body under the sea.  For Ralph, on deck
being seasick and vomiting, yet looking homewards with sorry expression.
For his familiar body swept away by the waves. For Ralph, being still with
us."

I can't count the many ways that this passage works within the larger story
but was particularly taken by the way sympathy for a character's wrenching
sorrow somehow coinhabits with gentle mirth in these sentences and those
that follow.  It may be a readerly experience reserved for those who know
their Milton.  So I thought I'd share it here with a recommendation for the
novel.

John Rumrich
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