Privacy, Liberty, and the Search for Truth in Milton (Introduction)

                                                         he unobserved
Home to his mother’s house private returned
                                                         –Paradise Regain’d IV.638-9


A Note About This Blog: When I set out a bit over a year ago to write blog posts about Milton once a month or so, I had no idea how rewarding it could be. The blog post is a different genre, and one that I’m still learning. Having stuck with it for a year, I plan to continue this blog along its original premise even if I am unable to post as regularly as I might like. It is meant to be accessible to the average reader, not to professional literary scholars alone, so you may find that what I’m doing here isn’t really “scholarship” or academic writing, but instead something like a riff on a theme. That is a feature, not a bug. If my sometimes quirky connections of Milton to current events, pop culture, art, and politics can demonstrate how vital Milton’s writings remain today, if I encourage people to pick up Milton’s political prose or his poetry because of what they read here, this blog has served its purpose.  On a selfish note, it also helps me generate ideas that sometimes find their way into my academic writing and talks.


I owe the current topic to Cory Doctorow and my daughters. If you haven’t yet followed @doctorow on Twitter, you should probably do so now. I’ve mentioned Doctorow before, when I quoted his short story “Printcrime” in a conference presentation that grew out of a previous post about Areopagitica and 3D printed guns. At my insistence, my teenage daughters recently read Doctorow’s Little Brother, a young-adult novel that takes on the very adult problem of our rapidly diminishing privacy. Like Doctorow, I’m most disturbed that the surrender of our privacy is happening so damn quietly. I sense that this is because, like climate change, the problem seems too big for any one person to deal with or impact. Long before we wake up to find the planet has been irreversibly harmed by our corporate greed and individual laziness, we’ll have happily given up our right to protest it.

Queen Amidala, Star Wars Episode III

Queen Amidala, Star Wars Episode III

George Lucas was wrong: liberty doesn’t die to the sound of thunderous applause; it slips quietly away while we are busily checking our smartphones.

So after my daughters read Little Brother and Homeland (and also started playing the currently very popular, hacking-centric, video game “Watch Dogs”) I gave them a challenge for their summer break: code something. You need to know how the interconnected world works before you can understand the risks and benefits of an “internet of things.” A good way to start thinking about what the “internet of things” is would be to click on the info graphic below. As you browse the image, use your imagination about what such a world means for privacy.

An illustration of the "internet of things"

An illustration of the “internet of things”

What does all this have to do with John Milton and the English Civil War? Just about everything.

I’ve mentioned before that the first marital spat in Paradise Lost may be read as essentially a debate about balancing privacy with security. Eve, taking positions strongly inflected by Milton’s Areopagitica, suggests that security without freedom means one can enjoy neither. For the next few posts (probably over the next few months), I want to consider the role of privacy in Milton. In particular, I want to consider whether privacy is a necessary component to Milton’s soteriology. Does Milton’s writing suggest that human beings need a right to privacy in order to repair the ruins of the fall?

But this isn’t simply a question about theodicy, of course. The thing about Milton – the thing that makes him relevant today – is that his theodicy and soteriology always have consequences for politics & civic life as well. The needs of one drives the make up of the other – the state has to be organized in a particular way to allow human beings to fully realize their potential. It just so happens that the political organization this requires, in Milton’s view, is one that fosters individual liberties. I want to say “one that maximizes individual liberty,” but there are limits. Milton is writing during a time of turbulence and civil war, and even as he espouses tolerance he imposes some limits.

Milton himself, engaging in a bit of autobiographical self-promotion and spin control, suggested that his intellectual work before and during the English Civil War was concerned with three spheres of human activity. Note that Milton is writing this before he had even written his late masterpieces. Writing as “John Milton, Englishman” in the Second Defense of the English People, Milton reviews his career thus far as a political pamphleteer:

“Asking myself whether I could in any way advance the cause of true and substantial liberty…. I observed that there are, in all, three varieties of liberty without which civilized life is scarcely possible, namely ecclesiastical liberty, domestic or personal liberty, and civil liberty…” (YP IV.624).

Milton claims that he had written about ecclesiastical liberty in his earlier tracts, and that (in the 1640s at least) he felt the “magistrates” had the topic of civil liberty well in hand, so he felt called upon only to handle the problem of “domestic or personal liberty,” and especially that involving marriage and divorce. He also includes the education of children and his tract Of Education in this sphere of “domestic or personal” liberty. Of course, his retrospective look at his career thus far from the perspective of 1654 must include his writing Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Eikonoklastes, and the first Defense. It becomes obvious that, as he looks back over the scope of his publications, Milton has written significant works about all three varieties of liberty that he identified.

With this as background, it is worth asking what role privacy plays in Milton’s concept of liberty. Over the next few months, my blog posts will explore this question, from the political prose such as the Divorce Tracts, the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, and Areopagitica, to the late poetry, including Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regain’d where the final words are:

Thus they the Son of God our Savior meek
Sung victor, and from Heav’nly feast refreshed
Brought on his way with joy; he unobserved
Home to his mother’s house private returned.

Our technological advances mean we live in a world where we are rarely if ever “unobserved” unless we take active measures to be so (you may want to visit Reset the Net if you are interested in taking such measures). It is doubtful that even in our “mother’s house” we can ever be “private.” Perhaps this is why the relationship of privacy to liberty, and liberty to security, is something we might profitably revisit with no less a guide than John Milton.

My plan for future posts on this topic (always subject to whimsy and better ideas):

Privacy, Liberty, and the search for Truth in Milton

Part 1: The Political Prose
Part 2: The Shorter Poems
Part 3: Late Masterpieces

– David A. Harper
9 June 2014


Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Homeland are published by Tor Teen.

Quotes from Milton’s poetry are from the Modern Library Complete Poetry and Essential Prose edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon.

YP = The Yale Prose. The Complete Prose works of John Milton.

Posted in Areopagitica, Milton, Milton's Prose, Milton's Shorter Poems, Of Education, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regain'd, Privacy, Samson Agonistes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

End of Term

This is just a quick note to say that I’ll be uploading a new Milton post soonish… it is the end of term here, which means that Time is thieving quite a bit whilst on the wing.

In the meantime, I did manage to finally take a new astrophotograph for that neglected section of this rather eclectic blog – it is the image of the Sun taken on 11 May.

Viewing the sun through H-alpha (the hydrogen-alpha spectrum) always makes me think of William Blake:

“When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?” O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” A Vision of the Last Judgement (1810).

First light with the Lunt 60mm HaPT (B1200) and my ATIK 314L+

First light with the Lunt 60mm HaPT (B1200) and my ATIK 314L+

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Close Reading from Far Away

“For solitude sometimes is best society,
And short retirement urges sweet return.” (PL , IX.250-1)


I went to the Catskills to read in silence, to pore over a text I love and let it pour over me, to let it remind me why I love it and why much of my intellectual life has been devoted to studying it. The nearest village to the rustic cabin I rented was Big Indian, New York. If you are ever up that way, wending your way along scenic Route 28 past all the villages that were displaced by the creation of the Ashokan reservoir, you can’t miss it. If you pass the statue of the Big Indian, you’ve gone too far.

Big Indian, NY

Big Indian, NY

In a grad seminar at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (more years ago than I really want to say) Professor Wally Kerrigan suggested that the class should read Paradise Lost in one sitting. This wasn’t to suggest a marathon reading/tag-team performance of the sort becoming somewhat popular these days. No, Wally’s suggestion was that we should find a private place and read the poem through from beginning to end. I’m somewhat ashamed to report that, back then, this seemed an unreasonable request. After all, my eldest daughter was still in diapers, another was on the way, and it was the final semester before I would depart for my first gig as an instructor at West Point. I read the poem in chunks, the way most read it, the way we typically assign it to undergrads. Sorry, Wally.

But I’ve realized recently and with some dismay that Milton’s great poem has become something of a resource for me – I read it constantly, but constantly in bits and pieces, through passages encountered in critical articles, conference presentations, and books. I can leaf through the poem quickly to find the passage or two I’m writing about at the moment. I can dip into it like a reference to find some connection, some grist for whatever article I’m grinding out in the servile mill of academic achievement. I’m constantly reading it through the lens of some criticism or another – either the one I’m crafting or one I’m reading and evaluating. Having worked a lot on the poem’s 18th century critics, my reading of the poem is often through their often-idiosyncratic perspectives. Read this way, the poem is put in service of some argument, and I read and reread it – pieces of it, like vivisectioned lexia in Barthes’s S/Z – with its entire context in the background, but without letting it speak for itself, as a whole.

This is probably not uncommon among academics, even those of us who specialize in one author or one work. But you know, years can go by this way — and I’m sorry report that years did. I recently realized with something akin to shame that the last time I read Paradise Lost for itself, to enjoy it, was in about 2009. And incidentally, back in 2009, while in the midst of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I read the epic with a particular frame of mind – one just a tad more pissed off at Milton’s God than usual. So this Spring Break I found myself in Big Indian, belatedly following Wally’s advice in a cabin that wasn’t quite snowbound, but was private enough to allow me the luxury of simply reading.

My reading and writing retreat for Spring Break, 2014

My reading and writing retreat for Spring Break, 2014

My willingness – my desire – to go out of my way in order to read and reread without distraction is probably a reflection of my recent concern about how my students (and my daughter, now in high school) read. I’ve become increasingly concerned that for a segment of our population, time spent simply reading seems wasted if one isn’t also streaming a movie on a second screen, checking social media every few minutes, or seeing what is new on Spotify. Have we lost the habit of getting lost among words? Are we in danger of losing the simple pleasure of settling in to read a significant amount of text without stopping every few lines to Tweet or check Instagram or play a few rounds of Flappy Bird? I might not be winning that battle with my students or with my daughter, but for myself I determined this would be the year to inaugurate a new annual tradition to reread the works that define me with the attention they deserve.

By clever course design or by fate, I had no grading to do over the break, so that wouldn’t be hanging over my head. But with a mixture of reluctance and relief, I had to set aside the articles, chapters, and revisions that I’m (still) desperately behind in finishing.  In order to minimize distractions, I used a clean copy of the poem so I wouldn’t be distracted by my previous notes, and an edition without excessive annotation. The paperback Modern Library edition, edited by Wally, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon was perfect.

Reading by oil lamp

Essential supplies: an oil lamp, some honey mead, a wood fire.

For the record, it takes me about eleven and a half hours to read Paradise Lost through. That includes a reasonable break to make a charcuterie and cheese plate to accompany the mead; for, in my opinion, one must quaff immortality and joy somewhere around Book V. It also includes time enough to read some of it aloud, at least those passages that seem to demand it – and there are many.


So what did I learn?

I experienced in a way that I never have before – or at least in a way I had perhaps forgotten – how the poem builds through its entire structure. It actually made me appreciate those passages of the book that Dryden dismissed as “flats” – the scriptural history unfolded by Michael in Books XI and XII. This may have something to do with becoming more aware of the role of the protoevangelium as a sort of riddle that Adam is trying to solve, an unfolding that is all the more powerful because it remains a riddle to readers.

I found connections that I hadn’t consciously considered before, particularly between Milton’s invocations and some of the descriptions and events and characterizations in the narrative proper.

I found a new appreciation for the differences in syntax between characters, particularly as I read some of the speeches aloud in my empty cabin. If, as we suspect, many early-modern readers mumbled as they read (and when did that stop, by the way?), the sound and syntax of these speeches probably resounded for them in much the same way.

Most importantly, up there in Big Indian, I found that I can indeed still silence the voices of four hundred years of critical thought that sometimes threaten come between me and the text. I could listen carefully to the poem itself and hear Milton again. That was worth the trip.

-David A. Harper , 2014


Posted in Academics, Milton, Paradise Lost, reading, teaching | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

“Perfected Knowledge:” Milton’s Crisis in the Humanities

Recently, Nicholas Kristof’s NY Times column sounded a clarion call to lure professors out of their ivory towers and into the public realm. Kristof professes alarm that academics have “marginalized themselves” by becoming increasingly specialized, and by participating in a “culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Kristof’s recap of typical anti-intellectual complaints have led some to point out that the article blames the victim. That aside, Kristof’s column highlights the deep anti-intellectual current in our culture, a Gulf Stream of sorts that energizes much of the current “crisis in the humanities.” The crisis in brief: a turn toward vocational training and increasing disdain for the liberal arts as administrators under pressure to cut costs and increase placement rates weigh “utility.”

In the early 17th century, the Czech educator Johann Comenius was spearheading a turn away from Renaissance humanist education methods and toward a more Baconian model. Gone would be the emphasis on learning passed down through the Greek and Latin classics. Instead, Comenius and his English disciple, Samuel Hartlib, proposed a curriculum focused on the quantitative scientific empirical method that allowed students to interact with the world in substantive ways rather than in the arid realm of philosophy. The foundations of a classical education would be truncated, ideally into new compendiums of knowledge. In short, the new education would be aimed at vocation and be quicker and more “useful” than a humanist education. Sound familiar?

In England, Hartlib turned to a young London schoolmaster to support the cause. John Milton’s resulting pamphlet, Of Education (1644), presents his ideal curriculum as a combination of Comenius-inspired reforms and the solid humanist Renaissance tradition that had produced Milton himself. If his curriculum seems unrealistic, it is only because the poet is singularly untroubled by the practicalities of a 24-hour day. Not unlike some military academies today.

Casting himself in the role of a “public intellectual,” or poetic spokesman for England, years before he would actually fill that role as Cromwell’s Secretary of Foreign Tongues, Milton lays out his curriculum in brief. He lends the matter urgency, explaining, “that which I have to say, assuredly this nation hath extreme need should be done sooner than spoken.” Milton’s belief that England’s educational system needed reform in order to make possible political reform became somewhat of a theme throughout his career. In a sense, and particularly after the failures of the Interregnum, Milton sees a need for “nation building” at home – beginning with education. He was most explicit about this on the eve of the Restoration, as the English people prepared to welcome Charles II and return to what Milton termed “bondage.”* At considerable risk to himself, the blind poet suggested  that (instead of restoring the king) a stop-gap government rule until the English people were educated enough to properly manage a republican form of government.

That Milton saw no artificial divide between the political and academic fortunes of a nation is reinforced by his suggestion in Of Education that students at his ideal academy should study political science “that they may not in a dangerous fit of the commonwealth be such poor, shaken, uncertain reeds of such a tottering conscience as many of our great counselors have lately shown themselves, but steadfast pillars of the state.” Milton’s academy proposes to unite utilitarian or vocational concerns with the ideals of the Renaissance humanists. Education in not for the well-to-do to idle away their time in vain pursuits, but instead to make them useful members of the state:

I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public of peace and war…. These are the studies wherein our noble and our gentle youth ought to bestow their time in a disciplinary way from twelve to one-and-twenty — unless they rely more upon their ancestors dead than upon themselves living.

Small, and located at diverse locations throughout the country, Milton’s academies would decentralize (and demystify) education and bring it nearer commoners.  He lays out a plan of study, exercise, and diet for his notional students. The curriculum carefully strikes a balance between the practical and the lofty –  students must learn languages because no one nation or time has a monopoly on knowledge, but he insists that the readings in these languages be gauged to be most useful or edifying. For instance, his students would study ancient accounts  of agriculture so that they may “improve the tillage of their country, to recover the bad soil, and to remedy the waste that is made of good….” I’ll let you make connections to environmental studies and our own desperate need for a generation who will be stewards of the planet.

Woodcut from Comenius's Orbis Pictus

Woodcut from Comenius’s Orbis Pictus (1658)

Later in Milton’s curriculum, laymen, to include  hunters, fowlers, fishermen, shepherds, gardeners, apothecaries, architects, engineers, mariners, and anatomists, would share practical experiences with the students for a small honorarium. Practical, yes, but only when built upon a the solid foundations laid by the broad, humanist education that would foreground it.

The exercises Milton prescribes are largely military in nature, including lessons in swordplay and military arts of “embattling, marching, encamping, fortifying, besieging, and battering” so that at graduation these students would come forth as if from “out of a long war” ready to serve England.

A desired dialectic between the state of academics and the health of the polity is implicit in Milton’s pamphlet. But, in reality, the divide between popular culture and academic culture would come to a crisis at the Restoration. As Charles II returned, Milton could no longer cast himself as England’s poetic and intellectual spokesman (“John Milton, Englishman”) but only as a lone voice in the wilderness preaching to a people who weren’t able to understand him.* The skirmish between academics and a popular culture, between so-called pedants and dilettante amateur gentlemen scholars, later found expression in the Ancients vs. Moderns debate and would continue well into the early 18th century. For a highlight, see Pope’s Dunciad, where he skewers scholarly annotation and critique.

Kristof’s call for modern academics to come from their cloisters and escape the margins of society highlights how far we have yet to go in closing these divides. While Kristof closes his column by assuring professors that “we need you,” there is an undercurrent throughout the piece that suggests it is “oblivious” academics who need to be brought down to earth by engagement with the world and all that is practical.

At my own school this undercurrent is expressed in worries that military professors will become “too academic” and forget their military roots. Thus, military professors are asked to periodically return to the force (foregoing sabbaticals for research), not to bring their expertise out of the cloister & enrich the military with the fruits of research and learning, but to somehow ground the professors by contact with combat units once again. This seems a shame, since properly sought out and applied academic expertise might provide the best ways to look at the most pressing problems facing a military in transition. Further, engagement by these academics in a wider academic culture may help close the growing “civil-military divide,” certainly at its worst in some corners of academia.

The crisis in the humanities is, when it all comes down to it, a debate about the ends of education. It is what happens when the dialectic that Milton envisioned is replaced by  administrators asking what their “client” needs from graduates, rather than what their students need from an education. Like the civil-military divide, the “academic-civil divide” cannot be bridged in one direction alone, but only through mutually beneficial compromise and mutual education.

– David A. Harper 17 Feb 14

*See Milton’s The Ready and Easy Way (1660).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of David Harper do not represent the Department of Defense or the United States Military Academy.

Posted in Academics, Milton, Of Education, teaching | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

John Milton, Poetry Genius

Milton rewards close reading. Readers have known this for centuries. For my money, Jonathan Richardson said it best in 1734:

A reader of Milton must be Always upon Duty; he is Surrounded with Sense, it rises in every Line, every Word is to the Purpose; There are no Lazy Intervals, All has been Consider’d, and Demands, and Merits Observation. Even in the Best Writers you Sometimes find Words and Sentences which hang on so Loosely you may Blow ’em off; Milton’s are all Substance and Weight (315).

The actor Bradley Cooper recently said it less eloquently in an interview for the January 2014 issue of GQ:

Milton, bro? Milton. Fuckin’—that was the end of it. Motherfucker’s 57 or whatever, blind, dictating it to his fucking daughter-nurse—Paradise Lost? I mean, I just couldn’t… That poem fucking killed me. Satan? That character was un-fucking-believable. I could taste him in my mouth, dude, reading that. I really, really, for some reason, connected with that poem.

Richardson may not have tasted Satan in his mouth, but frankly I think one could do no worse than to be surrounded by sense. Richardson’s warning that the reader of Milton must always be on duty is something that I think deserves our attention as readers and teachers of Milton. I am hard pressed to think of an author who better rewards close attention.

Close reading is a skill that seems diametrically opposed to the tendencies most prevalent in our undergraduate students these days. Technology is constantly putting new demands on attention – training us to pay attention for shorter and shorter spans of time punctuated by anxious wiping of smartphone glass or scrolling through Facebook feeds. The deep attention required to do close reading is hard to come by. (If you just clicked that last link and were distracted by Hayles’ article about deep and hyper attention, welcome back from the rabbit hole of medium-driven irony).

John Milton, Poetry Genius

John Milton, Poetry Genius

One way to foster close reading, however, is to put technology to work. Enter Poetry Genius. Poetry Genius, an offspring of Rap Genius, fosters close reading by providing a free, open, and easy to use annotation platform. Through crowd-sourced annotation and discussion of annotation, the site promotes close reading as a way to engage a text and other readers. It also allows one to create a sort of digital edition of a work that can link references, echoes, and allusions into one big beautiful ball of language and sense.

A quick example or two might suffice to show how this works particularly well with Milton. Take a quick look at the Poetry Genius version of Eikonoklastes, particularly this annotation at the spot where Milton skewers Charles for plagiarizing Pamela’s prayer.

As you can see, the annotation directs readers to the corresponding moment in Eikon Basilike, which itself contains an annotation inviting readers to compare Charles’ purported prayer with Pamela‘s. One can imagine further annotations to highlight the similarities or (better) differences between the versions of the prayer.

Another, more playful, example is this annotation that points out linkages between the Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino film Devil’s Advocate and Paradise Lost, De Doctrina Christiana, and Areopagitica. Through an offbeat popular culture reference, the connective tissue of Milton’s soteriology begins to take shape across his diverse corpus.

You can even find Cooper’s comments on Paradise Lost annotated on the Poetry Genius site.

Poetry Genius was originally designed to remain an open platform, meaning all posts are public. This is, of course, a nice way to teach the final step of the writing process (publication) and to encourage thoughtful and well-written interactions through social media. However, instructors wishing to remain somewhat private or who want students to start with a clean text can create a “cloned” and annotation-free copy of a text for their class to annotate. The posts are still public, but remain out of the mainstream of the site’s traffic and are prefaced with a warning that this version is intended for your class alone.

Milton has the distinction of prompting the first-ever annotated English literary edition, the 1695 folio edition of Paradise Lost with 300+ pages of annotations by the somewhat elusive “P.H.” or Patrick Hume. Inviting students to follow in Hume’s footsteps and annotate Milton as they read allows them to enter into a dialog with Milton and with other readers of Milton. If they remain “upon Duty,” such annotators might tease out sense and meaning that they would otherwise miss.

As part of its crowd-sourcing strategy, the website is gamified. It rewards annotators with achievement points for posting annotations and for giving feedback and suggestions on those posted by others. But the real reward for students at all levels is learning to read closely and think deeply about texts that have “substance and weight.”

– David A. Harper, December 2013

Poetry Genius has a short introductory video here:


Jonathan Richardson from Early Lives of Milton, Helen Darbishire, ed. 1932.


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Find Him Eyeless in Gaza

Last night, October 14th, I had the pleasure of attending a dramatic reading of Samson Agonistes (directed by Michael Sexton) at the Red Bull Theater in Greenwich Village. Milton himself wrote that his  dramatic poem “never was intended” for the stage. I therefore count myself privileged to have seen it performed twice now. The first of those performances, at the 10th International Milton Symposium in Tokyo, adapted the drama to the strict formal requirements of a Japanese Noh play. Its stylized representation of the characters and concern with “karma” as an operative force within the drama set it apart from anything one might imagine upon reading Samson Agonistes.

The reading at the Red Bull caused some concern when advertised on the Milton email list. Along with others on the list, I worried about the description given in the Red Bull program and website:

Samson Agonistes


“The biblical hero, imprisoned, blind and without his hair, faces God in this lyrical, violent epic.”


It was rapidly pointed out on the (sometimes less-than-patient) list that Samson clearly has regrown his hair in Milton’s poem, that the apparent absence of God makes a face-to-face showdown unlikely, and that “epic” is a particularly unfortunate word choice here.

And yet, the performance was lovely and true to the text in word and spirit. In fact, the 90- minute reading gave me new insight into the work in the way that only well-rehearsed and directed performances might. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the talk back, hosted by Jeffrey Miller of Montclair State University, so my thoughts may unintentionally echo or conflict with topics discussed there. But here they are: some thoughts about Samson Agonistes after a performance in Greenwich Village.

Pacing: Milton may not have intended Samson Agonistes for performance, but in the reading I was struck by the pacing. It moves quite nicely, punctuated as it is by the comings and goings of Samson’s comforters and antagonists. The 90 minutes went by quite quicklyf or the audience, and perhaps less so for Samson (Robert Cuccioli) who had to stand for the bulk of the reading. And yet, by the time Manoa (Richard Easton) urged the final messenger to spill the tale of what happened at the temple, the audience could feel his frustration. It is time – tell us the end. This creates the kind of sympathy and meta-theatrical synchronicity that would be applauded in a work for the stage.

Humor: Yes. Humor. In conjunction with pacing, I noted the moments at which appropriate laughter happened. There was some nervous laughter earlier in the performance that seemed out of place. But there were genuine moments of mirth, such as when old Manoa blithely says, “I cannot praise thy marriage choices, Son…” in response to Samson’s litany of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his wives (420). Also, some of Dalila’s lines seem fittingly delivered in ways to add levity – for example at 746, her line,  “though late” — delivered as a somewhat ironic aside — drew a good laugh. Other more obvious moments belong to the Chorus, who tend to comment wryly on the exchanges they’ve just witnessed and thus punctuate and speed along the tragedy.

Characterizations: I realized that in the past I’ve been too harsh on the Chorus (Dakin Matthews, Stephanie Roth Haberle, and Robert Stanton). On stage they seemed more kindly and less holier-than-thou. In fact, they seemed less like Job’s comforters and more like actual comforters. Dalila (Christina Rouner) remained a conundrum. While I’ve written long ago about how she serves a similar therapeutic & mirroring function that Eve does after the Fall in Paradise Lost, now I’m not sure what to think. And that, I think, is the point of a performance like this.

Linguistic Riches: In all, I was reminded of how rich Milton’s language remains in this spartan poem. Echoes, connections, rhymes, and playful language that glide by, barely registering on the page, were evident on the stage. The performance has revived a rousing motion in me that finds in Samson Agonistes the sort of playfulness and linguistic inventiveness that Stephen Booth discovers in Shakespeare’s sonnets. To change “obloquie” and “venereal trains” to “silent obsequie and funeral trains” is, indeed, the trick of Samson Agonistes.

For a closet drama, Samson Agonistes is very readable. In fact, this might be something to consider if you are teaching it. It would help if, as during this reading, a train could rumble by exactly when the temple was being pulled down offstage.

Key words that jumped out at me during the reading: zeal. inevitable. light/sight/insight.

– David A. Harper

The Red Bull Theater hosts a variety of Jacobean productions and readings of rarely performed and new plays. Check them out at this link.






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Defenseless Doors: Milton and Restoration Studies

Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,
Whose chance on these defenseless doors may seize,
If ever deed of honor did thee please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms;
He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call Fame on such gentle acts as these…


Milton’s playful sonnet requesting leniency from Royalist forces expected to ransack London is titled in the Trinity MS as On his door when the City expected an assault. I like to imagine that it was, indeed, posted on his door. And I invoke it now as Milton studies appear to be under threat of a different sort of assault.

Milton's PlaqueThe proposed reorganization of MLA divisions is not, of course, as worrisome as the  sacking of a city. But even with all hyperbole set aside, the draft proposal presents a challenge to Miltonists and other scholars of the periods concerned.

The (draft) proposal:


Paragraphs 79-80 suggest collapsing current divisions “16th Century British,” “Literature of the English Renaissance Excluding Shakespeare,” and “17th Century British” into one division renamed “British Early Modern.”

Paragraphs 82- 83 suggest collapsing “Restoration and Early-18th-Century British” and “Late-18th-Century British” into a new division named “The Long 18th Century.”

The result of these proposed changes would be to make an already imperfect division even less so. Milton would be lost somewhere between a “British Early Modern” and “The Long Eighteenth Century.”

This isn’t simply an issue for Miltonists concerned about having fewer opportunities for panels and less visibility as a legitimate field of study, but should also concern others who don’t wish to see the unique features of Civil War and Restoration literature obscured. Even the current division, “Restoration and Early-18th-Century Literature,” tacitly assumes a continuity from 1660 into the first decades of the 18th Century that, frankly, isn’t there. This new division and the codification of an ever-longer 18th Century will add even more divergent periods together, benefiting none.

As a someone who writes often about Milton’s 18th-century afterlives and has greatly enjoyed attending the last couple ASECS annual meetings, I know that there is a place for Milton in these larger divisions. And yet, I can’t help but fuss that he isn’t of either of them. And if faculty searches may align with these division in the future, now more than ever scholars like me will find ourselves having to explain how we fit in – essentially advocating for a subdivision that speaks toward both larger divisions but also has its own unique concerns and literature.

While I am hesitant to suggest an “Age of Milton” or a separate division for Milton alone, I do think it is reasonable to ask that MLA divisions recognize the quite distinct  discontinuities between the literature of the Civil Wars and Restoration (from about 1649 onward) and those of the Early Modern period and 18th Century. I can’t pretend to have the answers, particularly for an end date for any “Restoration” period. I am drawn to 1732 as the date of Bentley’s edition of Paradise Lost, but others have proposed that the defeat of the last Jacobite threat marks the end of a longer “Restoration.”

Chances are, the divisions will be restructured as in the draft proposal. None-the-less, it worth having these discussions and making our voices heard in the comments of the draft. If you are an MLA member, you may do this by clicking here.

My only hope is that if we can’t protect Milton from the assaults of time, we do no harm.

And he can spread thy Name o’er Lands and Seas,
Whatever clime the Sun’s bright circle warms.
Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ Bow’r

-David A. Harper 13 Sept 13

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All Fall: Grant Hart’s Paradise Lost

For those who know me, it probably isn’t a surprise that I’m writing about former Husker-Dü drummer and songwriter Grant Hart’s new album on my Milton blog. For those who think it odd, I would suggest considering that this album’s lineage reaches back to John Dryden’s earliest adaptation of Paradise Lost. As I mentioned in my last post, Dryden’s opera, completed only seven years after Milton’s epic was first published, was certainly an “update” of Paradise Lost. Dryden’s rhymes corrected both the style and politics of Milton’s poem and made it palatable for Restoration court culture. Re-printed far more times than Paradise Lost throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man was certainly Restoration “pop culture.” The Argument is simply the latest attempt to update Milton.

The Argument, Released July 22 2013
The Argument, Released July 22 2013

Grant Hart’s album, released 22 July 2013 by Domino Records, is not simply inspired by Paradise Lost. It is, like Dryden’s opera, an adaptation. One need only peruse the track list to get a feel for how the album reworks Milton’s epic.

Track List:
Out of Chaos
Awake, Arise!
If We Have the Will
I Will Never See My Home
I Am Death
Letting Me Out
Is the Sky the Limit?
Golden Chain
So Far From Heaven
Shine, Shine, Shine
It Isn’t Love
War in Heaven
(It was a) Most Disturbing Dream
Underneath the Apple Tree
The Argument
Run for the Wilderness
For Those Too High Aspiring


While at least one reviewer suggested the title of the album derives from the “argument” that precedes each book of Milton’s poem, the title track more clearly refers to Adam and Eve’s argument. This, the finest track on the album is not, as I first suspected, the marital spat that occurs when Eve suggests she garden alone, but instead encompasses the debate that occurs when Eve offers the forbidden fruit to Adam.

As with many adaptations of Paradise Lost, Satan looms large throughout. His point of view is represented without break for the first ten tracks. This Satan is somewhat plaintive, even whiny at times. His finest moment is probably in Awake, Arise! as he motivates his fallen host to rouse themselves to action. He shows appropriate scorn of the Son he describes as “His precious little wonder / rolling in with his great thunder.” Satanic resolve in defeat is also present as he vows:

We will build a whole new kingdom
to oppose the old one up above,
we will conquer, we will not liberate,
I will dictate, I will dominate,
I will focus my unending hate
to destroy that which he loves.
(chant: Awake, Arise! or be forever fallen)


Satan’s promise to “conquer” without pretense of liberating seems in 2013 somehow refreshingly honest in its open malice.

At other times, the Satanic project seems undermined by the music. The raising of Pandemonium in If We Have the Will is accompanied by a carnivalesque, hurdy-gurdy like sound. The plot to find and overthrow man, also revealed in this song, seems somewhat out-of-place here. However, Stanley Fish might appreciate how this song makes the fallen host seem silly and questions the “heroism” of the preceding track.

Satan’s journey out of Hell casts him as an exile in I Will Never See My Home, the arch-fiend at his most plaintive. We may find some sympathy for the devil here as he bids farewell to the happy fields of heaven. This is followed by the scenes in which Satan encounters Sin and Death. Death is a hard rocker, as one might expect, but the refrain reminds me of a Disney song from Beauty and the Beast. Sin’s song also seems cartoonish, a dark Jessica Rabbit seducing listeners in a cartoon cabaret. Not that this is necessarily inappropriate;  these allegorical figures have given Milton’s critics fits since Addison.

For a Miltonist, the song Golden Chain is perhaps the least forgivable on the album. Satan approaches the created world and spies Earth. Grant sings, “The world it hangs from a golden chain suspended from the sun.” And worse, “The earth is chained to a ball of flame that burns forever more.” The liberties with Milton’s cosmology here are cringe-worthy. In Paradise Lost, it is, of course, the entire created universe that hangs from Heaven by a golden chain.

From here, the plot moves quickly. We get an interlude with Uriel and Satan on the Sun (So Far from Heaven), and then Adam sings a love song to Eve (Shine, Shine Shine). Raphael apparently comes to give his warning even before Eve’s dream in It Isn’t Love. The War In Heaven is Raphael’s account of Satan’s rebellion. We hear Klaxons and machine gun fire, along with a loop of voices in combat (“come on, fire!”). The repetition, and something that sounds to my ear like wind-up toy soldiers, may hint at the futile nature of the combat as the Father leaves his angels equal in power to fight for three days. In any case, the battle isn’t resolved in this track. The Son enters the fray in Glorious. Jingoistic, hubristic, and annoying, this Son would make anyone want to rebel. He reveals the darker side of his nature with the lines:

Glorious… yes I am.
Glorious you know, you know I am.
They call me a prince of peace;
they are half way right.
Stand clear — the thunder-god is here to fight.


Following on the heels of this, Eve has her dream, and then the temptation happens. We listen in Underneath the Apple Tree in the place of Eve as the serpent, with a retro old-time radio huckster voice, sells us snake oil about the effect of the forbidden fruit. The Argument between Adam and Eve is without doubt the best song on the album. While many of the other tracks are curiosities that would suffer if detached from the concept album as a whole, The Argument is genuinely a good tune. Somber and redolent of the Fall, it is well worth a listen.

After the Fall, Adam and Eve Run for the Wilderness, exiled from the garden. The album wraps up with For Those Too High Aspiring, a song that seems to make the entire story a cautionary tale about “biting off more than you can chew.” It presents the results of the fall for man (“every step brings you closer to your death,”) although it may suggest Satan has also failed. The best bit of this closing song is a refrain of “Whoa whoa whoa” which I can only hope is spelled “woe woe woe” on the lyric sheet.

Like Dryden’s opera, there are some important deviations from Milton’s epic in this adaptation of Paradise Lost. Characterization, of course, is tough to accomplish in an album-length project, so we should perhaps excuse the fact that only Satan really receives this treatment. However, while Adam gets his moment in Shine, Shine, Shine, Eve’s speaking parts after her dream and after the temptation do not provide us much sympathy for her. The best “argument” in Milton’s poem, Eve’s prelapsarian debate with Adam about the tension between liberty and security, seems a lost opportunity to paint Eve in a sympathetic light here.

In engaging the theodicy of Milton’s poem, Hart’s adaptation shares some traits with Dryden’s and goes beyond them. Where Dryden seemed to leave out the Son, possibly as unseemly to present in poetry or on the stage, Hart’s Son is insufferable in his cameo moment and lives up to Satan’s dismissive early description of him. Like Dryden’s version, The Argument give us no hint of the Son’s exaltation, or his offer to be incarnated. After the fall, Michael does not provide the protoevangelium, so there is no hint of a fortunate fall. These features combine so that, more so than in Dryden’s attempt, Hart’s rendition is all fall; however, it is a hell of a ride.

– David  Harper, 24 July 2013


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John Milton and “A Royal Issue”

As I write this, the world (or at least the 24-hour news channels) waits breathlessly for Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, to have her baby. Yesterday, I was momentarily befuddled by a headline on one of the supermarket magazines that declared she would have her baby while under hypnosis. Apparently this matters. And if it matters, John Milton should have an opinion.

John Milton thought about royal babies a bit differently. In his brave, last-minute plea for the English people to avert the Restoration, Milton was very clear that one of the evils of monarchs was exactly that they multiply. Milton begs the English people to halt the Restoration. Not just because he thought they were putting their necks voluntarily back into the yoke of monarchy, but because kings are expensive. In The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, Milton explains:

“… a king must be adored like a demigod,  with a dissolute and haughty court about him of vast expense and luxury, masks and revels, to the debauching of our prime gentry both male and female…” (1119).

Not only that… but kings inevitably marry.

“There will be a queen also of no less charge, in most likelihood outlandish and a papist, besides a queen mother such already, together with both their courts and numerous train…”

Then there will be the royal babies.

“… then a royal issue, and ere long severally their sumptuous courts, to the multiplying of a servile crew not of servants only but of nobility and gentry, bred up then to the hopes not of public, but of court offices, to be stewards, chamberlains, ushers, grooms, even of the close-stool…”

Milton suggests that once you let the King back into England, not only will he require great expense for upkeep, but royalty multiplies. Beyond the “royal issue” of princesses and princes there is also the creation of new nobility to serve the growing royal family. Milton finds the entire enterprise debasing because those who will orbit about the royals in hope of preferment will not be thinking of the common good, but instead about their own advancement. As Milton puts it, “the lower their minds debased with court opinions, contrary to all virtue and reformation, the haughtier will be their pride and profuseness.”

The Coronation Procession of Charles II

The Coronation Procession of Charles II

Royalty, Milton recognized, is an industry. It is an ever-growing concern that has the creation of new royalty as its primary goal. The newstands, magazine racks, and 24-hour “baby watch” news coverage of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy seem only to confirm that this dynamic hasn’t changed all that much.

Only now, it isn’t a new nobility that waits patiently in the wings to cash in on the latest addition to the royal family. Instead, it is an enormous and insatiable media industry.

 -David A. Harper, 22 July 13

 All references to The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth are from the Modern Library Edition edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon.



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Outward Show Elaborate: Dryden’s “State of Innocence”

For some time now, I’ve planned to post about some recently released Milton-related music. Former Husker Dü drummer Grant Hart’s new album The Argument, based on Paradise Lost and an unpublished William S. Burroughs’ science fiction story Lost Paradise, releases on 22 July. On 15 July, Darren Hayman and the Short Parliament released Bugbears, interpretations of English Civil War and seventeenth-century folk songs. But since I’m writing a chapter about John Dryden’s rhyming opera The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man and his critiques of Paradise Lost, it seems fitting to preface my reviews of recent adaptations of Milton’s epic with a little thought about this earliest.

Dryden probably finished writing The State of Innocence in late 1673 (perhaps as a wedding gift to Mary of Modena and the Duke of York), and it apparently circulated heavily in manuscript before it was printed 1677. The opera was certainly the result of the visit Aubrey reports Dryden made to blind poet when he got wry permission to “tag his points.” Such tags were the little metal tips people of fashion were putting on their tassels. Milton (and later Marvell’s) reduction of Dryden’s rhyming effort to mere ornament is fitting. From its dedication to Mary onward, Dryden’s adaptation is singularly concerned with external show rather than intrinsic worth.

“Like those who have survey’d the Moon by Glasses, I can only tell of a new and shining World above us, but not relate the Riches and Glories of the Place. ‘Tis therefore that I have already wav’d the Subject of Your Greatness, to resign myself to the Contemplation of what is more peculiarly Yours. Greatness is indeed communicated to some few of both Sexes; but Beauty is confin’d to a more narow compass: ‘Tis only in Your Sex, ’tis not shar’d by many, and its Supreme Perfection is in You alone.”

Dryden’s hyperbolic praise of Mary’s beauty seems to anticipate Adam’s idolatry of Eve. He tells Mary: 

“You have subverted (may I dare to accuse you of it) even our Fundamental Laws; and Reign absolute over the hearts of a stubborn and Free-born people tenacious almost to madness of their Liberty.”

In Dryden’s formulation, Mary’s person is “a Paradise,” her “Soul a Cherubin within to guard it.” Curious that her soul is subservient to her physical beauty. At one point he proposes to turn to the qualities of Mary’s mind, but admits he is unable to do so. “I can proceed no farther than your Beauty,” he confesses.

Mary of Modena, circa 1673.
Mary of Modena, circa 1673.

Dryden’s inability to move beyond outward ornament is indicative of the content of the Opera.

Missing in Dryden’s adaptation is the inner machinery of Milton’s epic. In The State of Innocence, the war in heaven happens offstage prior to the opening of the first scene and is never revisited. We get no insight into the causes of Satan’s rebellion. No exaltation. No Sin and Death. No Abdiel. Most importantly, there is no reference to the Son and the operation of grace. After the Fall, there is mention of penitence aplenty, but the opera is curiously graceless.

Dryden only attempts to engage Milton’s theodicy and replicate some of the inwardness of Paradise Lost when Raphael comes to warn Adam. Here, Raphael is curiously both more effective and more troubling than in Milton’s corresponding moment. Dryden’s angel tells Adam about Lucifer’s manipulation of Eve’s dream the night before, something he omits in Milton. But instead of relating the nature and consequences of Lucifer’s disobedience, Raphael engages Adam in a futile argument about free will. The conclusion of this discussion leaves Adam (and most readers) more puzzled than ever about the nature of free will and God. After the angelic delegation leaves, Adam complains:

Since Angels fell, whose strength was more than mine, 
‘Twould show more grace my frailty to confine.
Fore-knowing the success, to leave me free, 
Excuses him, and yet supports not me.

This Raphael has offered no practical examples such as Satan’s rebellion and Abdiel’s obedience. More than ever, Adam seems predestined to fall.

More indicative of Dryden’s focus on the outward rather than inward is Adam and Eve’s relationship in the opera. Where in Milton, Adam had tried valiantly to explain companionate marriage to Raphael (surely the worst marriage counsellor in literature), in Dryden’s version Adam’s attitude toward Eve reinforces the angel’s worst fears. 

In Paradise Lost, Adam admits to Raphael that despite his knowledge of Eve’s secondary creation, she seems so perfect that he often forgets himself and considers her superior:

Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in her self compleat, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, vertuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded, Wisdom in discourse with her
Looses discount’nanc’t, and like folly shewes;
Authority and Reason on her waite,
As one intended first, not after made.

Raphael replies with “contracted brow” that Adam should not be so overpowered by Eve’s seductive powers and by the pleasures of sex. Adam is quick to correct Raphael’s misapprehension:

                                 half abash’t Adam repli’d.
Neither her out-side formd so fair, nor aught
In procreation common to all kindes
(Though higher of the genial Bed by far,
And with mysterious reverence I deem)
So much delights me as those graceful acts,
Those thousand decencies that daily flow
From all her words and actions mixt with Love
And sweet compliance, which declare unfeign’d
Union of Mind, or in us both one Soule;
Harmonie to behold in wedded pair
More grateful then harmonious sound to the eare.

Milton’s Adam could be correcting Dryden’s superficial praise of Mary here. He is quick to explain to Raphael that it is not only Eve’s “outward show” that he values. This Adam perceives things “inward” in himself and Eve, a depth that Raphael (and maybe Dryden) seems unable to fathom.

Much has been written about Dryden’s Eve. She is more vain than Milton’s, confessing to Adam that she accepts him as a pale substitute for her own image in the fountain: “I, next myself, admire and love thee best.”

Adam is similarly less complex. In Milton, he’s watched Eve’s creation and recognizes that she is part of him. He knows that they have, in a sense, been separated and seek reunion. In Dryden’s version, Adam reacts to her beauty in a manner recalling Dryden’s dedication:

Made to command, thus freely I obey,
And at thy feet the whole Creation lay.
Pity that love they beauty does beget:
What more I shall desire, I know not yet.
First let us lock’d in close embraces be;
Thence I, perhaps, may teach my self, and thee.

Adam’s haste to figure out sex resembles more the pair’s lustful sex after the fall in Paradise Lost than Milton’s lovely description of the first night in the bower. Indeed, Dryden’s Eve suggests that she can do no better than give Adam sexual pleasure (of which he is apparently capable of more than she is).

Heav’n from whence Love (our greatest Blessing came)
Can give no more, but still to be the same.
Thou more of pleasure may’st with me partake;
I more of pride, because thy bliss I make.

Both Dryden’s Adam and Eve suggest that they have achieved the height of happiness in love and sex. Unlike Milton’s innovative paradise where there is the possibility of ascension over time and through the right contemplation of creation, Dryden’s paradise is static. Outward show is all and all there is.

If this is disappointing, it is because we want Dryden’s adaptation to be more true to Milton’s creation. Like those disappointed with the movie adaptation of World War Z, we miss the subtlety, depth, and even frustrations of Milton’s epic when we read Dryden’s opera. It is telling, however, that throughout the Restoration Dryden’s was the more popular publication. Nathaniel Lee tells Dryden why:

To the dead Bard, your fame a little owes,

His was the Golden Ore which you refin’d.
He first beheld the beauteous rustic Maid,
And to a place of strength the prize convey’d;
You took her thence: to Court this Virgin brought
Drest her with gemms, new weav’d her hard spun thought
And softest language, sweetest manners taught.

However unsuccessful an adaptation we may consider The State of Innocence, Dryden successfully dressed up Milton’s creation, tagged points and all, and made it appropriate for the Stuart court. One can find no better description for it than Adam’s early (and importantly revised) description of Eve. It is:

in outward shew
Elaborate, of inward less exact.

-David A. Harper 21 July 13

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