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Milton For an IB Course in Europe? [Jul. 14th, 2008|07:54 pm]

[yet once more |creative]


What do you think of John Milton? This is his four hundredth anniversary, and a lot of interesting books are coming out about him and his poetry—which, I must confess, I love, even though I EXCORIATE his weird pseudo-Christian theological system, and blame it for much of what is wrong with American Protestantism.

The poetry is magnificent, and I agree that, artistically, at least, he’s of the “Devil’s Party” without even being consciously aware of it. I may substitute Paradise Lost for one of the two Shakespeare plays in the “Part Two” section of my IB Book List (http://edouardalxandre.livejournal.com/530640.html), or I may just do two books of it as the “long poem” of the poetry section of “Part Two,” and do no other poet but Hopkins. (I HAVE to do Hopkins.)

What do you think? I’m one of the few high school English teachers who actually know Milton’s work well enough to teach it to an advanced secondary class. I did so once before, and successfully, in an AP class in South Carolina.

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This article by Stanley Fish, who is perhaps America’s chief living Milton scholar now, in today’s New York Times, is most instructive for the comments that follow it, which make it clear how controversial Milton is, and how much disliked his poetry is by many modern university students. It’s too bad, because they are deeply mistaken about his genius as a poet. It’s not so important, really, what Milton believed; it’s how he believed it that matters:


Please Note: I'm not interested in any feminist-ideological nonsense about Milton here; the feminists are, in my estimation, almost entirely wrong about Milton. He is more of a "feminist" for his period, in my opinion, than they are, for ours.
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Sonnet XII [Jun. 30th, 2007|01:23 am]


Hello again.  I used to be <lj user=aglassyday>, if that matters.  Anyhow.

I am working on updating a paper I wrote during grad school on Milton's Sonnet XII--the duality therein, rare diction choices, etc.--but I'm having a bit of trouble finding scholarship on the sonnet.  I'd like to get a publishable article out of the paper--and a writing sample at the very least--so I want a complete review of the literature.  I've combed JSTOR, Project Muse, MLA Bibliography, and all the rest, and I've found only seventeen or so applicable articles.  Surely, that doesn't exhaust the sonnet.

Or does it?  

I think I'm running into problems due to the fact that Sonnets XI and XII are so closely related to each other (and to the divorce tracts).  There aren't that many articles on Sonnet XI either, however; most people seem to think the tract controversy is more important than the poetry, I guess.  The libraries within my reach don't subscribe to MQ, either, so I can't just go and read through the print archives (though, Lord, I wish I could!).  

And thus, my query.  Have any of you done scholarship or research on Sonnet XII?  Can you point me toward some nook or book I have not yet discovered?   I would be forever in your debt.

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And thus Milton destroyed the fledgling telescope industry [Feb. 14th, 2007|02:20 am]

[yet once more |tired]

After Satan completes his journey from Hell through Chaos, he enters the human universe and begins to head towards the sun:

                        above them all
The golden Sun in splendor likest Heaven
Allur'd his eye: Thither his course he bends
Through the calm Firmament; but up or downe
By center, or eccentric, hard to tell,  (III. 571-75)

Here Milton fudges the question of wheter the universe is geocentric (the Ptolemaic theory) or heliocentric (the Copernican theory). In approaching the sun, is Satan moving towards the center of the universe or away from the center ("eccentric")? A few lines later, Milton refers to how the various heavenly bodies "Turn swift their various motions, or are turn'd / By his Magnetic beam, that gently warms / The Universe" (III. 582-83). The "or" indicates that Milton is unsure whether the stars and planets move themselves, or whether the magnetic force of the sun keeps them in line. (Newton wouldn't come up with his theory of gravitation for a few years yet, which is why Milton speculates that the force in question might be magnetism.)

That Milton was undecided about the astronomical theory of his day is quite understandable. But this uncertainty presents him with a problem: what does it say about his divine Muse if he finds it "hard to tell" which astronomical theory is correct? Why cannot divine inspiration elucidate such matters? Milton attempts to answer these objections in Book VIII, when Raphael speaks to Adam about the mysteries of the universe:

This to attain, whether Heav'n move or Earth,
Imports not, if thou reck'n right, the rest
From Man or Angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scann'd by them who ought
Rather admire; or if they list to try
Conjecture, he his Fabric of the Heav'ns
Hath left to thir disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at thir quaint Opinions wide  (VIII. 70-78)

So God deliberately made the universe mysterious because he likes to have a good laugh at those silly, vain people who believe they can figure out the mechanics of his creation. It's a little bit like modern fundamentalists claiming that God placed dinosaur bones in the ground in order to test our faith.
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Who Needs Checks and Balances? [Feb. 9th, 2007|09:38 am]

[yet once more |thoughtful]

Near the end of Book V of Paradise Lost Satan announces his plans for rebellion to his assembled angelic troops. The only dissenting voice among them belongs to Abdiel, who tries to point out the foolishness and evil of the plan. He and Satan exchange arguments and Abdiel fails to convince anyone. After his final plea, Abdiel gives up and leaves, but not before Milton provides this brief conclusive description:

So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
(V. 896-900)

In an annotation to my edition of Paradise Lost, Isaac Asimov writes:

Perhaps in these magnificent lines Milton is thinking, a little self-pityingly, of himself. In 1660, the Puritan domination over England ended, and Charles II, son of the executed Charles I, returned to the throne; and with him a court that was hedonistic and everything else that the Puritans abhorred. Yet the English celebrated the return with great joy, and Milton, downcast, must have felt that only he remained faithful to the godly doctrines where all else rebelled.

To be sure, it is rather ironic that Milton's faithfulness was to an anti-monarchic doctrine in a crowd of those who roared approval for the king, while Abdiel's faithfulness was to an unthinking devotion to the monarchic ideal against the crowd who seemed to be calling for an end to absolutism.

Actually, I'm not so sure that Asimov is right in characterizing Milton's position as ironic. Such a reading fails to recognize the vital difference between earthly monarchy and divine monarchy.Collapse )
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Who will save humanity? Anyone? Anyone? [Jan. 31st, 2007|09:54 pm]

[yet once more |silly]

I'd like to nominate this passage for the award of Least Suspenseful Moment in the History of English Literature.

                         Man disobeying,
Disloyal breaks his fealtie, and sinns
Against the high Supremacie of Heav'n,
Affecting God-head, and so loosing all,
To expiate his Treason hath naught left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posteritie must dye,
Dye hee or Justice must; unless for him
Som other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say Heav'nly Powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Mans mortal crime, and just th' unjust to save,
Dwels in all Heaven charitie so deare? 

He ask'd, but all the Heav'nly Quire stood mute,
And silence was in Heav'n: on mans behalf
Patron or Intercessor none appeerd,
Much less that durst upon his own head draw
The deadly forfeiture, and ransom set.
And now without redemption all mankind
Must have bin lost, adjudg'd to Death and Hell
By doom severe, had not the Son of God,
In whom the fulness dwells of love divine,
His dearest mediation thus renewd.  (III. 204-26).
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On the Martyr's Feast Day, Remembering the Protestant Taliban That Slew Him [Jan. 30th, 2007|06:22 am]

[yet once more |contemplative]


Today is the Anglican Church’s feast of Charles I, King and Martyr—a saint whom Milton helped to murder.

This is what Andrew Marvell wrote about this dreadful historical event:

From “A Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return From Ireland”

And Hampton shows what part
He had of wiser art,
Where, twining subtle fears with hope,
He wove a net of such a scope,
That Charles himself might chase
To Carisbrooke's narrow case:
That then the royal actor born
The tragic scaffold might adorn:
While round the armèd bands
Did clap their bloody hands.
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene:
But with his keener eye
The axe's edge did try:
Nor called the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head,
Down, as upon a bed.

This was that memorable hour
Which first assured the forcèd power.
So when they did design
The Capitol's first line,
A bleeding head where they begun,
Did fright the architects to run;
And yet in that the State
Foresaw its happy fate.

--A poem that is particularly remembered in England on this day by the Society of King Charles the Martyr.


The legal murder of Britain’s rightful monarch was not only criminal; it was also stupid, because the fanatics like Milton who accomplished it also ensured the restoration of the monarchy by its excess:
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Here is the an account of Charles Stuart’s execution, including the noble speech he made from the scaffold:
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And what of John Milton, the apologist for the King’s murder and his most inveterate and envenomed enemy? He seems to have convinced himself, after some contact with Galileo and other foreign dissidents, that the coming Civil War would be “a fight for the greatness of the Renaissance, for curiosity and truth themselves.”

I will let Diane Purkiss, whose recent history of the English Civil War I’ve just quoted on the subject of John Milton, sum up:

The astounding thing is that this fiercely competitive, neurotic, insecure, emotionally constipated man whose prose writings often bore and sometimes hector did truly have the mind of a genius. Milton’s heart was not even as interesting as a foul rag-and-bone shop; it was more like a draper’s store circa 1950, with flannel cloth in neatly wound bolts. Yet somehow the alchemy of war wrought upon this unpromising material and transformed its baseness into an avalanche of pure gold. From the dry wastes of Milton’s egotism and emotional insensitivity somehow sprang skyrockets of bright angels, cascades of light, the mountains of Eden, and the bejeweled and velvet darkness of the most seductive Satan in Western literature. Of course we can catch glimpses of the splendours to come in the fugal sonorities of Areopagitica, in the starry courts of Comus, in the delicate fragile perfection of Lycidas. But Milton’s great epic still takes away the breath, in part because it is astounding that such grandeur comes from such a difficult man, but it could only have been produced by that war acting on that man. Paradise Lost is arguably among the war’s greatest and most enduring consequences.

--Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2006), pp. 321-22

But let no one call him a Christian; he knows not one thing of the love, compassion and mercy of his Saviour’s teaching; and let no one deny that he betrayed and helped to murder his Sovereign.
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The Poetry of Dissolution [Jan. 25th, 2007|08:04 pm]

So far I have found the metre in Paradise Lost so consistently magisterial, and the variances from the standard blank verse so frequently subtle, that I have a hard time drawing any clear poetic conclusions from it. Nevertheless, I am determined not to ignore Milton's poetry entirely in favour of his theology and allusions, so I want to take a close look at two short passages from Books II and III.

After passing through the gates of Hell, Satan makes his arduous ascent through Chaos towards Earth:

                     So eagerly the fiend
Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet pursues his way,
And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flyes: (II. 947-50).

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Satan and the Problem of Evil [Jan. 24th, 2007|01:50 am]

[yet once more |contemplative]

So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain'd on the burning Lake, nor ever thence
Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag'd might see
How all his malice serv'd but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc't, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd. (I. 208-19)

Here Milton offers his answer to the Problem of Evil, explaining how evil can exist in a universe ruled by an omnipotent and benevolent God. It's one of those pesky theological questions that one one has ever answered to everyone's satisfaction. Personally, I think the best answer appears in the Book of Job, in which God's purpose remains necessarily beyond human comprehension. Milton, however, has promised to "justifie the wayes of God to men" and therefore cannot take refuge in a plea of ignorance (I. 26). So here we see his answer: God allows Satan to do evil because He knows Satan will only succeed in heaping damnation upon himself and bring forth even more good in the long run. (This is the theological doctrine of felix culpa or "the fortunate fall.")

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"To soar / Above th'Aonian Mount": Christianity and Classicism [Jan. 23rd, 2007|12:54 am]

[yet once more |thoughtful]

Paradise Lost begins with Milton's famous invocation of his Muse. This is not, of course, one of the nine Muses of antiquity, but rather the Holy Spirit "that on the secret top / Of Oreb, or of Siani, didst inspire / That Shepherd" (I. 6-8). A Christian epic requires a Christian Muse. According to Milton, the Holy Spirit will serve him better than any Classical Muse ever could, providing sacred inspiration for

                   my advent'rous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th'Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme. (I. 13-16)

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Reading Paradise Lost [Jan. 22nd, 2007|06:24 pm]

[yet once more |cheerful]

There's a scene in Die Hard: With a Vengeance in which a police search team lead by Inspector Cobb discovers an enormous and fiendishly elaborate chemical bomb in the basement of an elementary school. Cobb asks explosives expert Charles Weiss "can you defuse it?" and Weiss, looking doubtfully at the device, replies, "I shouldn't even touch it."

This is the way I have felt about Paradise Lost for some time now. I read a few passages in my first-year introductory English course, but I don't recall that we had much time for proper discussion. I did take a course in 17th-century British literature, but in the Milton section my professor steered clear of Paradise Lost in favour of Samson Agonistes and a handful of essays. (She explained that unless she has time to teach the epic in its entirety then she doesn't teach it at all. I've heard she's reworking the course now so that she can spend one entire semester on Milton, because she feels that's the only way she'll have enough time to handle Paradise Lost properly.) Since then, I have been so acutely aware of Milton's vast erudition, of the poem's towering canonical status, and of the oceans of ink that literary scholars have spilled in discussing it, that I have kept putting it off in favour of less intimidating books.

But enough is enough. I am now in the final semester of my degree, with a light course load, and I've got no excuses. I often write in my Livejournal about what I'm currently reading, and I thought it would be fun to make post regular "update" entries on various passages, allusions, and ideas that I find noteworthy as I work through Paradise Lost. Then it occurred to me that I might as well post them here too. I'm no Miltonist, so the entries may reflect a rather eccentric sensibility, but I think a series of fairly focused entries might be just what we need to foster discussion and help keep this community alive.

What do y'all say?
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