Paradise Lost and the Tour de France

Through an article in the Guardian, I found this exhibit of James Straffon’s posters commemorating the 100th Tour de France. To celebrate the 100th Tour de France, Straffon remixes images from the past 99 Tours using John Milton’s Paradise Lost as a framing device. The exhibition is titled 100e and is on display at SNAP in London until 27 July.

My favorites include “Pandaemonium” and “The Verdurous Wall of Paradise.”

The Verduous Wall of Paradise

The Verduous Wall of Paradise

However, as a cancer survivor with some continued mixed feelings about Lance Armstrong, I also find number 91: “Of Darkness Do We Dread” very powerful.


Of Darkness Do We Dread

The use of lines from Paradise Lost is often coy (as in the Verdurous Wall) or can be quite obvious. They are always interesting.

-David A. Harper, 7 July 13

Posted in Milton, Paradise Lost, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Milton and His Daughters

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of taking students in one of my electives to the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. We were there to see some Shakespeare materials, but I can never visit the library without going on a pilgrimage of sorts to the Salomon Room on the third floor. The room is dominated by Mihály Munkácsy’s 1877 oil painting “The Blind Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to His Daughters.”

Blind Milton Dictating to his Daughters

Milton is seated in his chair at the table, his blind gaze fixed toward the floor in front of him as he recalls the lines that (should we believe Milton and Aubrey) had come to him in the night before. His three daughters surround the table. One, perhaps Mary, takes down dictation. Across the table from our perspective, Deborah sits and appears to be embroidering, although it is hard to tell. The eldest, Anne, stands gazing at her father. At least, these are my identifications, but more on that below.

Milton tells us that his verses came to him during the night. In the invocation to Book IX he laments he must change his notes to “tragic,” but hopes the argument will be “not less but more heroic” than traditional epic plots:

If answerable style I can obtain
Of my celestial patroness, who deigns
Her nightly visitation unimplored,
And dictates to me slumbring, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated verse… (IX, 20-19)

Milton worries that if the Muse that nightly  inspires his verses is not actually the source of the words, the inhospitable climate of England and his own advanced age will “damp my intended wing / Depressed, and much they may, if all be mine / Not hers who brings it nightly to my ear (IX, 45-7).

In Munkácsy’s painting, the look of concentration on Milton’s face always seems (to me at least) to reflect his effort to separate his own words from those of the Muse. What a burden to weigh each line and decide if it is worthy of divine inspiration or not!

The account left us by the “anonymous biographer,” a figure Helen Darbishire identified as Milton’s nephew John Phillips, gives us a more vivid account of Milton’s process:

And hee waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good stock of Verses ready against his Amanuensis came; which if it happened to bee later than ordinary, hee would complain, Saying hee wanted to bee milkd. (Darbishire, 33)

My own mental image of this, and how my ever-unfinished stageplay about Milton opens, is of a quarrelsome old man in his bed, calling out through the house that he must be milked while the daughters draw straws to see who has to deal with him, or simply ignore his increasingly frustrated cries while they wait for another amanuensis, such as his nephew Edward Phillips, to arrive.

John Aubrey’s roughshod, scattered notes on the early life of Milton suggests the role of the daughters. He writes, “Deborah was his Amanuensis, he taught her Latin, & to read Greeke and Hebrew to him, when he had lost his eiesight.” and  “Deborah could read to him Latin: Ital. & French & Greek. The other sister is Mary, more like her mother.”

Aubrey doesn’t mention Anne in relation to Milton’s work, and Edward Phillips gives us some idea why. Phillips reports that Milton’s firstborn “was a brave Girl, born within a year after; though whether by ill Constitution, or want of Care, she grew more and more decrepit”(67). Later, Phillips’ account seems to indicate that Anne was developmentally challenged. He reports that Milton trained his daughters to be useful to him, except Anne, who was excused “by reason of her bodily Infirmity, and difficult utterance of speech (which to say truth I doubt was the Principal cause of excluding her).”

It is Edward who first gives us the image of Milton’s daughters as living in intolerable servitude to their father’s muse. Excepting Anne,

the other two were Condemn’d to the performance of Reading, and exactly pronouncing of all the Languages of whatever Book he should at one time or other think fit to peruse; Viz. The Hebrew (and I think the Syriac), the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish and French. All which sort of Books to be confined to Read, without understanding one word, must needs be a Tryal of Patience, almost beyond endurance; yet it was endured by both for a long time; yet the irksomeness of this imployment could not always be concealed, but broke out more and more into expressions of uneasiness; so that at length they were all (even the Eldest also) sent out to learn some Curious and Ingenious sorts of Manufacture, that are proper for Women to learn… (77-8).

Munkácsy’s painting draws me to the NYPL third floor for several reasons. First, as many have noted, it is a dark painting. The room recedes into the shadows around Milton and his daughters. Examining it closely on my laptop I find there is detail back there in the murky gloom – a cabinet, maybe a bookshelf. The light from the window to Milton’s right offers only a transpicuous gloom – a “darkness visible.” And then there are the daughters. The one I think of as Anne, standing in the background… I can’t read her expression, but I always think of Edward Phillips’ report that the girls found their task burdensome. Even Anne?

Finally, the painting always makes me revisit the mythos surrounding these girls, this romantic picture.

In 1660, at which point Milton had probably been working on his great epic for two years, Anne was 14. Mary was 12. Deborah, the daughter most remembered as his helper, was only 8. Even if Milton worked on Paradise Lost late into 1665, Deborah would have been but 13. How strange it seems that she, not Mary, is recalled as the one who helped him most. Was this because Deborah was known and available to talk with the compilers of the early lives while Mary was not? Or was the youngest really trained up to the task at such a young age, not only to read to her father in languages she couldn’t understand, but to diligently copy down the verses he had gathered in the night? Richardson reports in his later life of Milton that Deborah, later in life, could still recite some Homer from having read it to her father.

And what of Anne? I’ve sought through Milton’s writing for some indication of Anne’s condition and its impact on the Milton household, or on his sensibilities. I’ve found none, although there are times when his concern with bodily sickness is quite evident. Maybe others have found some trace of Anne’s presence in Milton’s poetry or prose?

– David A. Harper, 27 June 13

Mihály Munkácsy’s oil painting is on display in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
References from Milton’s poetry come from the Modern Library edition edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon.
The accounts of Aubrey, both Phillips, and other early lives are from Helen Darbishire, The Early Lives of Milton (London: Constable & Co., 1932)



Posted in Life, Milton, Paradise Lost | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dear Dad, I Hate to Inform You, But…

Now if it has happened that I have been born a poet, why is it strange to you that we, so closely joined by the loving bond of blood, should pursue related arts and kindred ways of life?

It is never easy to beak bad news to your parents. Even if you see no alternative, even if the facts of the matter are beyond your control (“I quit school,” “we’re getting divorced,” “I have cancer,”) there is still that inescapable certainty that you are disappointing them. Take John Milton’s advice: do it in a Latin poem that will continue to be anthologized forever.

Milton’s Ad Patrem is Milton’s admission to his father that he is… (gasp!) a poet. Young Milton was often anxious about how he measured up. If the Sonnet “How Soon Hath Time” is any indication, Milton was convinced at the tender age of 23 that he was a late bloomer. But Ad Patrem is Milton making a stand about his future and pleading with his father to understand:

Scorn not the poet’s song, a work divine, which more than anything else reveals our ethereal origin and heavenly race. Nothing so dignifies the human mind as its origin, and it possesses yet some sacred traces of Promethean fire. 

Up against a sucessful, businessman father who must have wished the money he spent in his son’s education would lead to a secure future, Milton makes a case for the value of poetry and suggests how poets served humanity through the ages. But he knows cold precedent from the ancient world won’t sway his father. He turns personal:

Do not, I pray, persist in contemning the sacred Muses; think them not vain and poor, by whose gift you yourself are skilled in setting a thousand sounds to fitting numbers…

Milton’s father was a talented musician and composer, and the younger Milton cleverly gives him credit for his poetic talent by suggesting that they are kindred spirits. Milton reads past what must have been his father’s outward disdain for an impractical career choice.

Although you pretend to hate the gentle Muses, I believe you do not hate them, for you did not bid me go, father, where the broad way lies open, where the field of gain is easier, and where the certain hope of laying up money shines golden.

Milton thanks his father for not forcing him to become a lawyer or take orders. In fact, he thanks his father for allowing him (after graduation) to further enrich his mind by secluded study “far from the city’s uproar.” His permisive father allows him to learn by providing him not only the time, but resources:

…through your kindness I may learn, through your means, if I care to learn. From the parted cloud appears science, and naked bends her face to my kisses, unless I wish to flee, and if it be not dangerous to taste.

His father’s support has offered Milton seemingly limitless knowledge, knowledge that may indeed be “dangerous” if pursued too far. That he worries such knowledge may be “dangerous to taste” suggests Milton imagines his father offering him the forbidden fruit itself. This has implications for his future masterpiece, the long-delayed return on his father’s investment, Paradise Lost, where the role of knowledge and paternal concern looms large. But as he pens Ad Patrem, this remains far in his future. Beyond blindness, beyond the interregnum and beyond his political pamphlets. The young Milton recognizes that he cannot hope to repay his father’s kindness.

But as for you, dear father, since it is not granted me to make a just return for your deserts, nor to recompense your gifts with my deeds, let it suffice that I remember, and with gratitude count over, your repeated gifts, and treasure them in a faithful mind.

Unlike his greatest creative achievement, Satan, Milton knew how to be grateful, even if he could never hope to repay that “debt immense of endless gratitude” (PL, IV 52).

David A. Harper, 15 June 13

All quotations from Ad Patrem are from the translation available at the Dartmouth Reading Room.

Posted in Milton, Milton's Shorter Poems | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Panopticon Eden

In Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, there are these amazing round sandbar/reefs. They look like huge lily pads when you spot them from H3, high above. When I lived in paradise on the bay, I used to kayak out to these reefs in the middle, drop an anchor, and stand in knee-deep water looking up at the mountains. Then I would snorkel the edges. There are few experiences like going beyond the warm, sandy edge of the reef and diving down into the liminal region where the water suddenly gets deeper, darker, colder. That is where the really fascinating stuff hides in the coral. It is also, of course, where the predators come to hunt. Hammerheads. Lots of them. I always got goosebumps watching the yellow fins of my snorkeling partner disappear into the darker waters below. It wasn’t the temperature difference. It was the existential thrill of being on that edge.

Like swimming into the deeper water, any transition from higher levels of security to higher levels of freedom can be simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

John Milton’s prose and poetry, composed during and after the English Civil Wars and Interregnum, constantly navigate the numinous space of possibility between security and freedom. After the fall of Charles I, anything seemed possible. The emboldened (and rather unhappily married) Milton asked Parliament, “How about divorce? Or maybe polygamy?” After wild years in which there were few restrictions on the press, Milton’s 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica balked at the reimposition of censorship and argued for toleration of sects and schisms. And even as the Interregnum ended and Charles II was on his way to renew what Milton considered a hateful, paternalistic yoke, the blind poet published daring pamphlets arguing for alternative governments and pleaded his countrymen to maintain as much liberty as possible.

One of the debates about Paradise Lost, dating from its very first readers, has been about genre. Early critics such as Dryden and John Dennis argued that the poem couldn’t really be an epic or “heroick” poem, because it ends unhappily. Joseph Addison wished that the ending of the poem was more abrupt, because Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise is melancholy. Richard Bentley, in 1732, rewrote the ending to make it at least more hopeful. But one of the earliest English critics saw it a different way. “P.H.” (traditionally identified as Patrick Hume) was offended by one of the illustrations in the 1688 folio because it showed Adam and Eve being expelled too roughly:

Adam and Eve being "shoved out" of Eden

Adam and Eve being “shoved out” of Eden

“The angel led our Parents, loath to depart from their beloved Seat, in each hand, which the Designer of the Copper Plate has not well exprest, representing him, shoving them out, as we say by Head and Shoulders.”

Hume suggests the text provides a more gentle exile, one that may signal hope. And why not? Milton’s prelapsarian Eden isn’t stagnant, it is quite lovely. But there is a sense in which Adam and Eve’s stepping forth into the wider world is a relief. In fact, without getting into the entire “fortunate fall” debate, the entire affair always smacks a little of liberation. Paradise is a bit of a police state, an example of what happens when one gives up too much freedom for dubious security.

When Satan approaches our universe, having easily escaped Hell where his daughter/wife Sin and son/grandson Death have been intrusted with the keys and strike no difficult bargain to open the door, he is watched the entire way by the Father (and readers). Lighting upon the sun, we find there is an angel stationed there keeping watch on paradise. Uriel is keen-eyed enough to see from his perch on the sun that Satan, reflecting on his crimes atop Mt. Niphates, is no cherub. Readers then see Eden from Satan’s point of view as he nears the walls of paradise. Walls? Well… yes, it seems like there are multiple fences around Milton’s paradise:

So on he fares, and to the border comes,
Of Eden, where delicious Paradise,
Now nearer crowns with her enclosure green,
As with a rural mound the champaign head
Of a steep wilderness, whose hairy sides
With thicket overgrown, grotesque and wild,
Access denied; (IV 131-137)


“Access denied?” That doesn’t seem so welcoming, does it? And yet, there are higher fences still:

                               and overhead up grew
Insuperable highth of loftiest shade,
Cedar and pine, and fir, and branching palm,
A sylvan scene, and as the ranks ascend
Shade above shade, a woody theater
Of stateliest view. (IV 137- 142)


But wait… we still aren’t “in” yet. Higher and higher we climb:

Yet higher than their tops
The verdurous wall of Paradise up sprung:
Which to our general sire gave prospect large
Into his nether empire neighboring round. (IV 142-145)


Again… “wall”? The sense I get here is of navigating ever higher up a steep embankment, crossing circling fencelines and always seeing the object of my interest in the distance. Once he gets to the wall, Satan looks for a way in and finds there is only one gate. No matter (for Satan); he simply “At one slight bound over leaped all bound” (IV181) and enters Eden.

Eden is also patrolled by a squad of angels, one of which spots Satan whispering in Eve’s ear as she sleeps, giving her dreams that question the one arbitrary rule of paradise. The patrol kicks Satan out of the garden, but not for long. Eve wakes up troubled, but still innocent. She listens intently to the angel Raphael’s story about the war in heaven and the angel Abdiel’s heroic solitary stand against Satan. This, I suggest, paves the way for the first (ever) marriage argument, and the first argument about the balance between security and freedom.

Liberty vs. Security in Eden

Liberty vs. Security in Eden


Eve wants to garden alone. She wants (impetuous request!) time apart from Adam. Privacy, perhaps. She just can’t get anything done with him around. And the garden is getting dreadfully overgrown:

For while so near each other thus all day
Our task we choose, what wonder if so near
Looks intervene and smiles, or object new
Casual discourse draw on, which intermits
our days work brought to little… (IX 220-23)


If she could just go garden… you know… over there… alone, she’d get more done. But Adam isn’t having it. After all, he can’t even text her while she’s gone. And it might be dangerous if she is alone. Ever.

Eve makes an argument for liberty over security, probably recalling Abdiel’s brave stand against Satan’s rebellion. She begins by asking why Adam doesn’t trust her. What probable cause can he have to doubt her? Adam answers that their adversary is formidable and crafty (after all, he seduced angels into rebellion) so they are safer together. But Eve senses that all is not well if one has to live in fear:

If this be our condition, thus to dwell
In a narrow circuit straitened by a foe,
Subtle or violent, we not endued
Single with like defense, wherever met,
How are we happy, still in fear of harm? (IX, 322-26)


Eve asks, “Just what kind of perfection is this if I have to look over my shoulder all the time? How can I be happy if I have to give up my freedom?”

Let us not then suspect our happy state
Left so imperfect by the Maker wise,
As not secure to single or combined.
Frail is our happiness, if this be so,
And Eden were no Eden thus exposed. (IX, 337-41)


Eve makes a pretty good point that living in a police state doesn’t seem so happy. Absolute security makes for frail happiness. Of course, soon after this spat she is tempted by Satan in the form of the serpent, eats the apple, and we find ourselves at the border of Eden, facing that “nether empire” and about to dive off the edge of the reef.

Like eighteenth-century readers, we can see this as a melancholy moment. But there are possibilities, too. Sure, there will be no more dinners with angels, but also no more patrolling angels and high walls. As they leave the garden, the dirae facies of the angels left to guard the empty garden might have reminded Adam and Eve of the surveillance state they were leaving behind.

This, of course, is leaning too heavily on the fortunate fall tradition. But as E.W.M Tillyard once wrote, it is easy to believe that had Milton himself been in the garden he would have eaten the forbidden fruit and written a pamphlet defending that choice. There is just something that tastes of relief in the freedom offered Adam and Eve in the wild expanse outside those high garden gates. After all, “the world was all before them….”

We might consider what world we want to make of it as we continue to debate the balance of liberty and security.

-David A. Harper, 11 June 13

The opinions here are my own and do not reflect those of the United States Military Academy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

All references to Paradise Lost are from the Modern Library Edition edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon.

Posted in Areopagitica, Milton, Milton's Prose, Paradise Lost | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Much Writing, Many Opinions: A Review of John Leonard’s Faithful Labourers

Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost, 1667-1970, John Leonard.
Oxford. 853 pp. 2 Volumes. May 2012. ISBN 978 0 19 968180 8

The challenge for any reception history of a great poem is to give due coverage to the criticism without burying the poem.        – John Leonard (vii).

We long ago passed the moment when a true variorum edition of Paradise Lost was advisable (or perhaps possible). Like the “wanton growth” that plagues Adam and Eve as they try to keep the walkways of Paradise tidy, criticism on Milton’s great poem has accumulated in such heaps of (sometimes unwelcome) abundance that it threatens to impede rather than illumine our path through the poem. John Leonard states at the outset that his “aim is to uncover the poem, not bury it” in criticism (x). The result is a two-volume reception history that sets the riches of over three centuries of criticism before our eyes and ushers us along multiple pathways full of delights and wonders that might have eluded us without Leonard’s faithful labors.

Before Leonard’s volumes, the most recent attempt to survey the critical history of the poem was Paradise Lost 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary edited by Miner, Moeck, and Jablonski (2004). The resulting volume remains useful, but is also an apt illustration of the problem. The editors opted to produce variorum-like commentary, keyed to book and line numbers, but without including an edition of the poem itself. As a reference for a particularly interesting passage, it can be helpful if one knows what one is looking for and realizes that this isn’t all-inclusive. In contrast, Leonard’s approach to the reception history of the poem is, as he admits, “an unusual decorum” (ix). His extensive survey of criticism from the year of the poem’s publication until 1970 traces nine different paths of critical inquiry through three centuries of debate and exploration.

Leonard’s work can be used as a reference if one wants to dip into any one of these controversies. With the exception of the first three, each chapter explores a discrete subject from 1667-1970, including “Milton’s Style” (three chapters), “Paradise Lost and Epic, “Epic Similes,” “Satan,” “God,” “Innocence,” “The Fall,” “Sex and the Sexes,” and “The Universe.” The chapters create a narrative that traces a particular theme through the criticism of the poem in discrete chunks, with the great benefit of putting particular critics into conversations with one another. Although each discrete topic thus “resets” to trace the theme from 1667 onward again, this has surprising benefits. This organization allows one to discern the outlines of certain “lineages” of critics who engage these topics. Recently, for instance, David V. Urban (“Surprised by Richardson,” Appositions 2012) has pushed back against claims that Stanley Fish’s influential Surprised by Sin (1967) was strongly influenced by C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942). Careful attention to Leonard’s chapters on style, Satan, and God will perhaps provide some lost perspective about Fish’s debts to Lewis. More surprises are likely to be unearthed as these critical conversations are explored and unravelled by Leonard’s readers.


Fathful Labourers (Volume 2)

Leonard’s volumes can be read cover-to-cover as well as dipped into by subject. In fact, the first three chapters exploring the controversy over Milton’s style deserve to be read as a unified narrative. These chapters are haunted by the figure of F.R. Leavis and the “anti-Miltonists” of the early twentieth century. Even as he introduces the earliest critics upon the poem’s style, Leonard is sensitive to moments that will provide ammunition for the “Milton Controversy” to come. Leavis looms large. Some have said it is significant that readers of Paradise Lost view Eden initially through Satan’s eyes. Here, our earliest views of the poem and its critical landscape are through the most uncomfortable bifocals: we see through the eyes of the earliest critics as well as those more skeptical ones of Leavis.  Readers are continually reminded that the critical conversation is careening toward an inevitable confrontation with Pound, Eliot, Leavis, and the other “anti-Miltonists” as Leonard traces the foreshadowings of their fall back to the ambiguities and unresolved questions left by earlier critics.

Throughout these three chapters, readers are constantly aware that Leonard is aware of Leavis reading over our shoulder as we read the earlier critics. Leonard is at his most sensitive as he traces the manner in which ambiguous (and sometimes not-so-ambiguous) words of praise by earlier critics would be turned to disparaging use by the anti-Miltonists to come. For instance, in one of the later instances, as Matthew Arnold proclaims in 1888 that “Milton has made the great style no longer an exotic here; he has made it an inmate amongst us, a leaven, and a power,” Leonard reminds us not to rest easy. He reads Arnold with an uneasy eye toward Leavis: “Arnold’s use of the word ‘inmate’ will not reassure twentieth-century anti-Miltonists who view Milton’s style as a suffocating prison” (159).

When the “Milton Controversy” finally arrives in about 1917 (around page 169), we have been suitably admonish’d and forewarn’d. Leavis’s thunderous announcement that “Milton’s dislodgment… was effected with remarkably little fuss” still has some shock-and-awe power, but we’ve been well prepared by Leonard. The battle is almost anticlimactic by the time Christopher Ricks (the hero of this particular drama and a few others as well) “routs the Leavisites” in 1963. Perhaps that is as it should be. It is clear what side Leonard is on, and from the outset he promised he would not feign neutrality in this or any of the critical debates he traces for us. In fact, Leonard’s honesty as a critic is at its most laudable when he proclaims that “Leavis was always an honest critic” even though “honesty is not the whole story” (181).

These chapters are Leonard at his best. Not only because we often see him exercising his own formidable critical acumen on the crux in question, but also because he so enjoys issues of style. It is fitting that he includes a section entitled “Doing what he Described” (a remark from the Richardson’s 1734 criticism), for Leonard seems to see these chapters on style as a playground in which he can also “do what he describes.” Not only does this appear to invite more of his own critical performances, but he playfully appropriates the language he discusses. These chapters abound with puns and hidden treasures, to include a “six-degrees of separation” moment relating Eve to Sibyl Fawlty. The more charismatic critics, particularly Richard Bentley and F.R. Leavis, give Leonard priceless material. Anyone who has heard Professor Leonard give a talk can hear him “doing all the voices” as he quotes their most bombastic or outrageous critical moments.

Leonard’s playfulness doesn’t disappear in the later chapters, but it isn’t as obvious as when he is dealing with matters of style. There is a later moment in which he invokes This is Spinal Tap. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is there. The title I’ve used for this review, “much writing, many opinions” is from Milton’s description of Civil War London in Areopagitica, which Leonard invokes in his introduction to the volumes. It aptly describes not only the corpus of critical response that Leonard reviews, but his achievement here as well. Often, his many opinions are just the leavening that the critical tradition requires.

Samuel Johnson famously (and spitefully) said of Paradise Lost that “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Ironically, despite this reception history being a hefty 853 pages long, one of its shortcomings is that it is not longer. Ending the critical review at 1970 may have been necessary due to the volume of criticism since that date, and I’ve heard that a sequel may be in the works. That would be good, because ending these volumes in 1970 leaves the uncomfortable impression that Stanley Fish’s reader-response critique of the poem stands unassailed. William Kolbrener has aptly described Milton critics as “Milton’s Warring Angels” engaged in a seemingly unending battle to cast Milton as orthodox or heretical, and to characterize Milton’s God as “good” or “bad.” Leonard’s chapters on Satan and God treat this controversy fully… up to 1970. It is unfortunate that ending prior to the vigorous (and largely successful) later responses to the likes of Patrides, Hunter, and Fish will leave some readers dissatisfied.

As nobody shall wish this review longer than it is, I will wrap this up with the verdict that these volumes deserve to be on any serious Miltonist’s bookshelf. Unfortunately, however, they are priced to be found only in the libraries that can afford them. This, of course, is a problem in academic publishing as an industry, and isn’t unique to Oxford or this particular work. The pricing of “low volume sales” editions does what it describes and sets the conditions for “low volume sales,” no matter how necessary and lovely a work may be.

– May 27

Posted in Book Reviews, Milton, Paradise Lost, Samuel Johnson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Thir Song Was Partial”: Milton and Partisan Political Discourse

Thir Song was partial, but the harmony
(What could it less when Spirits immortal sing?)
Suspended Hell, and took with ravishment
The thronging audience.

With the end of semester rush, my musings have been more occasional than I intended. Granted, it has been a slow week or two in Milton news since the 3D-printed gun bonanza. True, Husker Du’s Grant Hart is releasing an album based on Paradise Lost, but that doesn’t merit a blog post until I can review it. Seriously – who can get too much of Husker Du or Paradise Lost? (Shhh… quiet there @DrSamuelJohnson!)

But this week, as I’ve watched the partisan rhetoric heat up once again in my social media feeds, I have found myself reflecting on the passage from Paradise Lost, Book 2 (552-5), above. Here, the fallen rebel angels pass their time in Hell singing of their deeds in Heaven’s recently concluded civil war, complaining bitterly against that “fate” that caused their “free vertue” to fall to “force or chance.” The fallen host is clearly confused or in denial about both their virtues and the reason for their defeat. As the Miltonic narrator says, the song was… partial. It was sung in parts, but it was also partisan.

Milton knew a thing or two about partisan politics. As Claude Salmasius found out to his chagrin, Milton could take partisan rhetoric to new levels in his political pamphlets. It is sometimes easy for us to forget this Milton, Milton the mud-slinging propagandist. Although it hasn’t always been forgettable for many critics. The bite of Milton’s political prose prompted good Dr. Johnson for one to snort that Milton of all people shouldn’t complain of “evil tongues.”

It is important to note that even though Milton acknowledges that the song of the fallen angels is partial, he also is able to appreciate the harmony. The song “suspends Hell” – holds the entire audience of fallen angels in rapt attention, and also gives them reprieve from their torment. The argument of the rebel host is, of course, inadmissible. But Milton requires that we admire the Orphic power of the harmony. They may be in the wrong, but that jam – it is worth listening to.

Devil Went Down to GeorgiaRemember that Charlie Daniels Band song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? We are meant to appreciate the fiddler’s folksy “Chicken in the bread pan,” but you have to admit the demonic band conjured up by Satan can play a mean electric fiddle too. They hold their own, in my opinion.

At this moment, I wonder if Milton’s appreciation of even the fallen angels’ song isn’t a model for civilized political discourse. Partisan, yes. But harmonious still. Areopagitica, written long before Paradise Lost, long before Milton’s ultimate disappointment upon the Restoration, allows for just such toleration. Indeed, toleration is critical if one means to find truth.  Milton’s metaphor here is that of building a temple.

And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world; neither can every peece of the building be of one form; nay rather the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderat varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.

True, Milton is concerned primarily with religious toleration, and the qualifiers here give pause. Milton allows for “moderate varieties,” “brotherly dissimiltudes” “not vastly disproportional.” But the scope of what is allowed becomes clear on reading Areopagitica. The groups and sects that some were calling “schismatics” were apparently still to be considered “brotherly.” Only those who would argue against toleration itself could not be included because intoleration itself would end all progress. Thus, Milton excludes very few from the contiguous society he envisions (sorry, Catholics).

Throughout Milton’s poetry and prose, the key power of toleration is that it allows the vital exchange of ideas necessary to exercise virtue by demanding the development of choice and reason. To the pure all things may be pure, but one cannot be pure unless there is the possibility of not being so (a key doctrine that Milton develops in both Christian Doctrine and Paradise Lost).  Essentially, for a republic to succeed, an educated populace has to navigate conflict through reason and choice. If there were no partial songs, there could be no true harmony.

I wonder. Can political discourse today recognize contiguousness without demanding continuity? Can we find our way to harmony even if our songs are clearly partial?

After all, even in Georgia, the Devil admitted defeat:

The devil bowed his head because he knew that he’d been beat.
He laid that golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny’s feet.
Johnny said: “Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again.
cause I told you once, you son of a gun, I’m the best there’s ever been.” 

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”


-21 May 13

Image by Giulianobrocani.

Posted in Academics, Areopagitica, De Doctrina, Milton, Milton's Prose, Paradise Lost, Salmasius, Samuel Johnson | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Would John Milton Defend Your Freedom to Print a Gun?

By now you’ve probably heard about Cody Wilson’s fully functional, 3-D-printer-produced handgun. Last weekend, Wilson successfully test fired the “Liberator,” and posted its design on his non-profit company’s website. A 25-year-old student at the University of Texas Austin, Wilson is fond of invoking a mash-up of political ideology to justify freely distributing the designs for these plastic, untraceable, and perhaps undetectable objects. Suggesting that 3D printing allows a world of “equality” where everyone can print their own firearm, Wilson refers to the likes of Camus, Baudrillard, and Foucault in his interviews.

So it was perhaps inevitable that Wilson would eventually invoke John Milton to defend this supposed revolution in printing and radical freedom. I’m going to quote Wilson from a video found on Slashdot, because he is worth quoting verbatim and at length as he talks about Milton:

“Milton’s Areopagitica is essentially the spiritual analog that I’m holding out for people. Which is more to do not about like why guns are good. It’s more about why like speech and information is good. Why like you just must reckon with, you must be free to reckon with whatever ideas that you can. It isn’t enough that a society can just withhold things. That doesn’t befit you as a moral agent. That doesn’t allow you to exist or to, that doesn’t allow you to fully exercise your capacity as a human being, as a moral agent. That’s what I want this to be more about. Not to get stuck in debates about, well we can have semi-automatic rifles but let’s not have automatic rifles. Like Obama said, those belong on the battlefield. No, no, no, the battlefield is the mind, you know what I’m saying? Like the battlefield is culture. Let’s make people, let’s make individuals reckon with these ideas themselves.”

Would Milton defend the right to print guns?

Would Milton defend the right to print guns?

In fact, if one goes to Wilson’s website for Defense Distributed and clicks on the link for their Manifesto, it links directly to Areopagitica at Dartmouth’s Milton Reading Room. I’ve provided some thoughts on Milton’s statements about gunpowder and arms elsewhere on this blog. Here, however, Wilson’s argument seems to rest on Milton’s claims concerning the free press in Areopagitica, an early political tract that influenced the founding fathers of the  United States. Wilson hangs his hat on Milton’s suggestion in Areopagitica that pre-publication censorship is unnecessary and that the free flow of ideas should proceed unimpeded. After comparing books to meats both clean and unclean, and quoting the scriptural exhortation that “to the pure, all things are pure,” Milton brings in the authority of Selden to show that

all opinions, yea errors, known, read, and collated, are of main service and assistance toward the speedy attainment of what is truest. I conceive, therefore, that when God did enlarge the universal diet of man’s body, saving ever the rules of temperance, he then also, as before, left arbitrary the dieting and repasting of our minds, as wherein every mature man might have to exercise his own leading capacity (ML 938).

Wilson, however, in one fell swoop applies Milton’s argument about ideas to objects, and ignores Milton’s important qualifications. In the passage above, Milton is quick to point out that there are still limits even to diet (the “rules of temperance”) and suggests that it is every “mature” man (not every man) who might be able to consume even bad ideas and books without risk of contamination.

Milton was no anarchist; not even a “like principled one” such as Wilson described himself in an interview with Glenn Beck. In my previous blog on Milton and gunpowder, I suggested that even as the returning tyranny of monarchy approached England’s shore, Milton was careful to qualify the right to bear arms by limiting arms to the “well-affected” either in a “standing army” or a “settled militia” (ML 1123-5). In Areopagitica, the “well-affected” are the right-thinking, the “fit though few” who follow right-reason toward truth and good. Like the founding fathers of the U.S., Milton recognized that there had to be some limits on liberty, some authority that would keep chaos of the mob in check.

If in The Ready and Easy Way, his last-minute plea to avert the return of monarchy, Milton was not for “radical liberty” quite the way Wilson imagines, he certainly wasn’t in Areopagitica. Pre-publication censorship may be abhorrent to Milton; but note what rights Milton does allow the presumably well-affected State:

As for regulating the press, let no man think to have the honor of advising ye [parliament] better than yourselves have done in that order… that no book be printed unless the printer’s  and the author’s name, or at least the printer’s, be registered. Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libelous, the fire and executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy that man’s prevention can use (ML 965).

Milton, who would later serve as a licenser under the Protectorate (however liberally he might have interpreted his role), was far from advocating untraceable, unaccountable publication of ideas (especially if those ideas happened to be Catholic). Even in his most impassioned pleas for liberty, Milton knew precisely what he was resisting, and insisted that representative government could not function without an educated populace that could understand the same.

With this in mind, ask yourself how Milton might respond to Wilson’s claim to Beck that he is “just resisting.”

“What am I resisting? I don’t know… I’m not sure.. but they can never eradicate the gun from the earth.” -Cody Wilson.

– 7 May 13

[Updated 8 May]


*All Milton quotations are from the Modern Library’s The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon.
For more on Cody Wilson’s printed gun, see:
The New Yorker, “A Gun, A Printer, an Ideology” (May 7, 2013)
Foreign Policy, “Meet Cody Wilson, the anarchist behind the world’s first 3-D printed gun”

Posted in Areopagitica, gun control, Milton, Milton's Prose, The Ready and Easy Way | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Weekend in Miltonia: Jamaica Kincaid, Paradise Lost, Tyranny, Injustice, and Marathon Readings

You are not you, but—in your mind’s eye, something bigger than you is going on.
                    – Jamaica Kincaid on invoking myths in everyday life.*

Great (and surprising) Milton references keep rolling… last week, I wrote about how Vice President Biden referred to “When I consider how my light is spent” in a speech honoring military families. This week, Salon reports that Caribbean novelist Jamaica Kincaid surprised an audience at PEN’S World Voices Festival of International Literature by reading from Paradise Lost instead of from her newest novel, See Now Then.

Kincaid explained the choice by explaining she wanted to do something “unusual,” and by relating that when she was seven (!!) Paradise Lost “formed very much [her] feelings about tyranny and about injustice – simplified, because the poem is very complicated.”

Seven? I was planning on starting my children off with Il Penseroso and L’ Allegro. Now I need to reconsider when the great epic (not great “myth,” Salon!) is appropriate.

Kincaid says she is really “pissed” about the perception that she is always pissed off, and that people say she is angry “only because” she is a black and a woman. Does Kincaid’s use of Milton suggest that old (dead) white men have been equally incensed at injustice and tyranny? Of course Milton paid the price for speaking truth to power as well, scorned as a “divorcer” and reviled as a regicide not only during the Civil War and Interregnum years, but for decades after his death. Not bad company to be in, really.

On those marathon readings of the poem: I was busy using the blackest grain to launch high-powered rockets this weekend, so I didn’t attend the intriguing Upstart Creatures marathon Paradise Lost production and meal(s) in NYC. If anyone did… please let me know about it! In fact, I’m curious about the recent interest in marathon readings of Paradise Lost. I’ve read it in a sitting before, on advice from a former professor and great Miltonist, and found it a far different experience from reading it in chunks. But the marathon reading makes it multivocal and public, and I wonder about that dynamic with such a meditative and syntactically winding poem.

* Alyssa Loh. Jamaica Kincaid: People say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman. Salon.

Posted in Milton, Milton's Shorter Poems, Paradise Lost | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

They Also Serve: VP Biden Deploys Milton

Every so often, Milton crops up in ways that surprise even the most dedicated Miltonist. In remarks at a “Joining Forces” event on 30 April, Vice President Biden quoted Milton as he honored military families:

But it’s not just about the returning veterans. We know there are families, and particularly you men and women in uniform know the sacrifices your families make to allow you to serve. The English poet John Milton once said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” And literally, hundreds of thousands, millions of wives, husbands, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers — they’ve stood and waited. And we owe them as well, because they have served as well.*

Milton’s words come from Sonnet 19, “When I consider how my light is spent,” in which Milton imagines God coming to him for an account of what he has done so far with his life, and especially since the onset of his blindness at the age of forty-three. At the end of the poem, Milton dismisses the image of an impatient God by recognizing that all creation — in idleness or movement — serve that higher will. The “taskmaster” of Sonnet 7 is mollified by the acknowledgtment that even those who wait are serving.

This unexpected bit of Milton hit home today, since over the past couple days my family has once again packed out our house to move yet again — and I was (again) unable to be there to help them.

The Vice President’s use of Milton’s words aptly characterizes the service of our military families by tapping into Milton’s idea of unceasing service. However, the service our military families differs a little from Milton’s grand notion.  For one thing, there is little of Milton’s uncomfortable suggestion that these services might be unconscious or unwilling (the “yoke” of Sonnet 7, the service of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost), although my daughters often remind me that they didn’t enlist. Finally, while the service of military families may indeed be all-encompassing, they do not often have the luxury to “only stand and wait.”                                                                                                                                    – May 1



Posted in Milton, Milton's Shorter Poems, Paradise Lost | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Milton, Star Wars, and the Ever-Evolving Blog

This week, along with many of my readers, I’m in the end-of-semester grading crush. As I grade each essay in this unending stack, I try to keep in mind this passage from Areopagitica:

Books [or student essays] are as meats and viands are: some of good, some of evil substance… [B]ut herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.*

I’m pretty sure the schoolmaster in Milton was simply affirming that “to the pure, all things are pure” …even comma splices. Anyway, I’m going to take the easy way out this week and simply point out some changes I’ve made to the blog itself. On the right-hand panel, I’ve added RSS feeds with calls-for-papers for conferences that may be of interest to Miltonists. One searches the web for Milton-specific CFPs. The others are 18th century and Renaissance CFPs, piped in from UPENN’s CFP list. If the long-restoration existed (follow that link to see why this is an issue), I’d have a link to those CFPs, as well.

I’ve also added a feed that finds references to Milton in the news. It isn’t perfect, but this weekend it alerted me that April 27th was the anniversary of Milton’s sale of Paradise Lost to Simmons for a total of £20 (#epicdeal), and today it served up this gem that connects Milton to Star Wars on the Return of the Jedi’s 30th Anniversary and links Satan to Emperor Palpatine by far less than six-degrees of separation. Do with that what you will!

I’m always open to suggestions to make this site more useful as I continue to refine it.

-April 29

* As usual, all quotations from Milton are from the Modern Library Edition of The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon.
Posted in Academics, Areopagitica, Milton, Milton's Prose, Paradise Lost, teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment