Milton, when a youth

by Dean Kyte

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Melbourne writer Dean Kyte’s thoughtful meditation on Henry Fuseli’s painting “Milton, when a youth” (c. 1796-9), housed in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, morphs into a soulful reverie as he recalls his own ‘paradise lost’...

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There’s a painting in the NGV by Henry Fuseli, that Baptist to Blake’s Christ. It depicts the fabled moment when, asleep beneath a tree, John Milton was visited by the unmet muse, the shadow of a strange lady who planted some words, the seeds of Paradise Lost, in the fertile soil of his dreams. Even in his sleep, Fuseli’s Milton looks blind as a classical idol, swooning en los sueños, his prophetic, delphic vision turned deliriously within, as in his dream of reason, he justifies the ways of God to men.

I passed an idyll once, a dream with an Italianatelooking lady under a tentlike linden in the Carlton Gardens. I recall her dark hair as being coarse as a horse’s mane, and, like the ingresque odalisque of Raffaello’s Fornarina, she wore the black mess of tresses wrapped up in an exotic turban which gave her an antique, Oriental air.

The oasis of our siesta over, she asked me, afterwards, as we walked arminarm up the allée towards the tramstop in Nicholson street, what tree I would build my dreamhouse in. Passing the palais of the Royal Exhibition Building, the verdant Versailles of riotous parterres revelling before it, and the concordant Hochgurtel Fountain gurgling, murmuring to my memory of la Fontaine des Mers, in that antipodean Tuileries transfigured by a moment of sensuality perdu, I saw briefly in my vision, before I put the starry dame on the tram, Paris! – that other paradise lost. As spectral as a dream, it hung about me, present in its past, as this spectral lady hung, darkly shining, on my arm, an Eva I’d bitten into beneath the linden, but who had now passed forever from my lips.

Under the buttressed, tordred bowers of the Moreton Bay figs, I launched, with proustian loquacity, into prosodic rhapsody, describing my ‘soul tree’, the horsechestnut which had shaded and sheltered me with its ombrous umbrella au coin de l’allée de Diane et de la Voie Triomphale aux Tuileries. As we crossed the street to the tramstop, the 96 bearing down on us, East Bruswickbound, I rounded out this anecdote. She squeezed my hand, and in contrast to my raconteurial periphrasis, told me in a few brief parole, as the tram pulled up beside us, which tree in our Eden she would have built her dreamhouse in.

Non ricordo quale albero che mi disse.

No arriverderci, no aurevoirs. Like a pleasant dream fleeing more quickly the more quickly it is pursued by waking consciousness, she simply hopped up into the E-class, and the last I saw of her in this life was her fornarina portrait sliding out of the finestrino of its frame as that traum of tram bore her toward Coburg. She was sitting very rigid and straight against the green cushions of the carriage, like the somnambulistic subject of a mesmerist’s deception, her eyes shut tight as Milton’s in the painting by Fuseli, and breathing very deeply, as if she were trying to regain her disturbed 和.

She did not open her eyes, did not hazard to betray any desire to take a souvenir of me, or vouchsafe me one last look as, like a gondola dondolando dolcemente, berced by the vagaries of the rails, the traumtram carried her away.

I turned, recrossed the street, retraced my steps slowly, meandering through the Carlton Gardens, the moist memory of her lips drying on mine as I tacked back to Exhibition street by random detours through the labyrinth. Like a couplet whispered to a sleeper, that last, strange image of her, eyes shut tight as she tried to regain the harmony within herself which my dream of passion had disturbed, planted some mystic intimation of the horror and the darkness, the spleen wrapped in the ideal of sensuality, in me, a potent phrase which, awake, I could not now recall.

Like a great place emptying of people at dusk, I too emptied of the darkstarred dame, and with each step I regained my jarred and shaken 和, returning to the labyrinthine banality of my habitual solitude as a flâneur in the grand green maze of a great city in the late afternoon.

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released October 2, 2021
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Dean Kyte Melbourne, Australia

Dean Kyte is a writer, artist, filmmaker and flâneur.

He is the author of five books and two collections of short films.

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