ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 1

 - Introduction: Milton, Power, and the Power of Milton


An introduction to John Milton: man, poet, and legend. Milton’s place at the center of the English literary canon is asserted, articulated, and examined through a discussion of Milton’s long, complicated association with literary power. The conception of Miltonic power and its calculated use in political literature is analyzed in the feminist writings of Lady Mary Chudleigh, Mary Astell, and Virginia Woolf. Later the god-like qualities often ascribed to Miltonic authority are considered alongside Satan’s excursus on the constructed nature of divine might in Paradise Lost, and the notorious character’s method of analysis is shown to be a useful mode of encountering the author himself.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 1 - Introduction: Milton, Power, and the Power of Milton

Chapter 1. Introduction: Milton’s Power as a Poet [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: For a vast number of complicated reasons, Milton has invited for 350 years now a uniquely violent – and I do think it’s a violent – response to the particular question of his value as a poet. And the violence, I think, of this reaction is due in large part to our tendency to think of Milton and of Milton’s work in terms of the category of power. So I’ve given this first lecture a title, the title being “Milton, Power, and the Power of Milton,” because any introduction to Milton has to confront the long-standing conviction in English letters of Milton’s power or his strength as a poet. It’s practically impossible to begin a reading of Milton without the burden of innumerable prejudices and preconceptions. Milton’s reputation always precedes him. And in fact that’s always been the case even in his lifetime. Even if we’ve heard of nothing of Milton the poet or nothing of Milton the man, we’re certainly, of course, likely to have heard of Adam and Eve and of the story of the Garden of Eden, and so it’s especially difficult to read Paradise Lost without bringing to it some sense of the power of the religious problems, the theological and ethical problems, that that story seems so powerfully to set out to address.

Now readers of English literature talk about Milton very differently from the way they talk about other writers. Historically, it has not been pleasure or wit or beauty that has been associated with the experience of reading Milton. Those are the categories of value that we tend to associate or to affiliate with our other favorite writers, writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, for example. But in our collective cultural consciousness, if there is a such thing, whether we like him or not we tend to think of John Milton as powerful. And the reasons for this coupling of the name Milton and of this idea or the metaphor of power, I think, are worth looking in to.

Power is a conceptual category that Milton brooded on and cultivated his entire writing life. From a very early age, Milton nursed the image of himself as a powerful poet. In Milton we have a man who was able to state – now just think about this for a moment, I take this to be an absolutely remarkable fact – we have in Milton a man who was able to state categorically in his early twenties–so just a few years older than you are now– that the epic poem that he would not even begin writing for another twenty-five years would become an unforgettable work of English literature. Milton anticipated and lovingly invested all of his energy in his future literary power and his future literary fame. He anticipated this power much as his father, a reasonably well-to-do banker, might have anticipated long-term earnings from a particularly risky business venture.

In Milton’s case this investment in power paid off. Milton would eventually come to feel so comfortable with the mantle of power that he was able to do much more than simply rewrite the first books of the Bible (which is of course one of the things that he accomplished in Paradise Lost, and that is itself no mean undertaking). By the end of his life, though, Milton would in effect try to rewrite everything. After he’d published all of his major poems, he began publishing a spate of works that attempted to re-create British culture from the ground up. He invented his own system of philosophical logic. He published a treatise that he had written earlier on grammar, inventing his own system for the understanding and the learning of the Latin language. He wrote a long and detailed history of Britain, attempting to create the meaning of that little island that he always assumed was God’s chosen nation. And finally, and probably for Milton most important, Milton wrote a theology, inventing in effect his own religion; and Milton’s Protestantism looks like no one else’s, before or since. There’s a real sense, I think, in which Milton wanted to re-create all of Western culture or to re-create all of Western culture in his own image. Regardless of what we think of the success of that example or of the appeal of the attempt to do such a thing, the amazing thing, I think, is that Milton felt so empowered even to embark on such an enormous project. And readers of Milton ever since have had to confront not just Milton’s writing but this unspeakable sense of empowerment that underlies just about everything that Milton writes. And so it seems to me that a useful introduction to the poetry of Milton would be a look at some of the various types of power that Milton imagines in his work and some of the types of power that literary history has tended to confer upon Milton the man, the image of Milton the man, and of Milton’s writing.

Now, probably the form of power that we most readily associated with John Milton involves his position at the dead center of the English literary canon. This goes beyond questioning. He’s an object of worship by British and American institutions of higher education, and my guess is that few of you have failed to observe that it’s practically impossible to graduate from Yale with a Bachelor of Arts in English without having read Paradise Lost either in English 125, or DS Litm or, in fact, in a course just like this one. Those of you who are taking this course because you have to take one of the pre-1800s and Milton is one of those, you are more than entitled to ask why the poet, this poet, Milton, is exercising this institutional sway over you as you go about choosing your courses or perhaps as you experience your courses in some way as having been chosen for you.

It would be utterly inadequate for us to account for this institutional and surreal institutional power that Milton holds over us by stating blandly that Milton is the greatest English poet. That’s the easy answer obviously, and of course it’s not untrue. But we can do better than that. We can anatomize some of the forms of power that have been most commonly attributed to this greatest English poet. There is first the understandable aesthetic power, the power of the beauty of Milton’s verse, an aesthetic power that’s often thought or felt to inhere somewhere in the poetry itself. In fact for readers of Paradise Lost, and this has been an experience now for a few hundred years, it does often seem as if there were some mysterious life force, a pulsating through Milton’s dense and driving lines of unrhymed, iambic pentameter. And now there’s also the power that Milton himself claimed was behind the poetry of Paradise Lost. Milton insisted–and it’s completely possible that he might actually have believed–that God Himself was responsible for composing the poetry of Paradise Lost, that John Milton was merely the conduit for God’s first serious attempt at an epic poem. And so in this perspective we have an image of the awesome power of the Deity Himself thundering away behind every jot and tittle of Milton’s great epic.

But for Milton’s contemporaries in the seventeenth century, Milton’s power really wasn’t at all aesthetic or even religious in nature. Milton’s power was primarily seen as social and political and cultural. This is a wildly anachronistic use of terms, but there’s nonetheless a lot of sense of it: Milton was essentially a left-wing political radical and it was widely feared by his more timid contemporaries that his writings would seduce his readers in to rejecting good, old-fashioned, traditional religious and social values. There was a lot of validity to that contemporary cultural fear. Milton was a revolutionary. He was responsible for writing the first justification for an armed rebellion against a legitimate monarch, the first to publish such a work in, essentially, all of Europe. Milton actually wrote that it was the duty, not just the right but the duty, of a nation to rise up and dethrone through execution an unjust, though legitimate, king. Milton in fact was largely responsible in a cultural sense for the fact that the armed rebellion of England’s civil war, what we think of as the Puritan Revolution, actually led to the execution by decapitation of England’s monarch Charles the First in 1649. And on top of all of this political revolution, the political radicalism, Milton was one of the first intellectuals in Europe to speak out in favor not only of divorce – Milton argued for the right to divorce on grounds of incompatibility – but also he argued in favor of the right to plural marriage, polygamy. He was branded as a radical and dangerous debunker of traditional Christian family values.

Now, many of you know that Milton in his later years was blind, and the fact of his blindness was in his own day frequently cited by contemporary preachers, men at the pulpit, as an example of exactly how God punishes those who dare to write against the king or those who dare to write against the institution of marriage or the family. And Milton’s power for so many of these contemporaries was seen as palpably destructive and truly frightening. Obviously, it goes without saying that today the assessment of Milton as some kind of imminent social threat or some sort of social force in terms of the radical nature of political power – that has taken a sharp turn. Milton is much more likely imagined to wield – and if you have any sense of what the mythology surrounding Milton is, you would have to agree with this – a socially conservative power over his readers.

In the debates ranging for the last thirty years or so over the value of traditional pedagogy and over the value of canonical reading lists, Milton is always cited, invariably cited, as the canon’s most stalwart representative of oppressive religious and social values. There’s no question: Milton is the dead white male poet par excellence in English letters certainly, and his poetry works, at least from this point of view, to solidify those dead white male values, whatever those are, in the unsuspecting minds of his readers, none of whom obviously are dead and many of whom are neither white nor male. Milton’s power from this perspective of the radical cultural critique is really not so different from the power of the late Jerry Falwell or someone like Rush Limbaugh. There is something insidious and culturally malicious and powerful about the social conservatism of what is thought to be his voice.

Now this is the contemporary picture of John Milton and this more or less contemporary picture of Milton as a powerful force of conservatism derives in large part from the English writer Virginia Woolf, who wrote about Milton during the 1920s. It’s Woolf’s image that’s probably the one that’s most firmly rooted in the minds of Milton’s readers today. For Virginia Woolf, especially in A Room of One’s Own, the dead writer Milton exercises an active power at the present moment as he forces his female readers to accept their subordinate place in society; and the text of Milton, and especially of Paradise Lost, therefore has to be seen as an active, persistently malignant conveyor of patriarchal oppression. Now, like all judgments of literary value and literary power and force, the twentieth-century feminist evaluation of Milton, Virginia Woolf’s, has a complicated and long prehistory, and it’s worth our while to look briefly at some of the complicated steps by which an evaluation like Virginia Woolf’s actually comes in to being. So let me take you back. You can now look at your handouts. Let me take you back to the seventeenth century, up to the very beginning of the literary reception of John Milton.

Milton, who had died in 1674, had established himself as a great English poet within twenty or so years of his death. As early as the late seventeenth century, Milton had already entered what we can think of as the English literary canon. For many of his younger contemporaries, he was a canonical authority whose wisdom, whose mere opinions, could be cited as proof, as some sort of indisputable evidence, for one position or another And an extraordinarily ambitious poet like Milton naturally derived a great deal of satisfaction, I’m convinced, in his own lifetime, in anticipating just this kind of posthumous respect and worship, the fantasy of his fellow Englishmen quoting him as an authority much as he himself had for so many decades quoted scripture.

Chapter 2. Lady Mary Chudleigh on Milton and the Priority of the Sexes [00:15:37]

Now, one of the earliest – and I think this is a remarkable fact – one of the earliest citations of Paradise Lost that actually appears in print in the seventeenth century comes from the proto-feminist writer Lady Mary Chudleigh. Chudleigh dared to argue – and it’s an amazing argument, given the time – in 1699 Chudleigh argued that a woman could be considered and should be considered as excellent a creature as a man, that women might actually be as ontologically valuable as men. And in making such a point, Chudleigh naturally had to confront – as writers have for millennia – Chudleigh had to confront the problem of the scriptural account of the priority of the sexes, the suggestion that many readers extract from the Book of Genesis in the Bible that the initial creation of the male of the species, Adam, seems to establish the privileged rank of the entire male sex. And so Chudleigh attempts to demonstrate – and this is the passage at the top of the handout – Chudleigh attempts to demonstrate that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve establishes no such thing. She writes,

Woman’s being created last will not be a very great argument to debase the dignity of the female sex. If some of the men own this [she continues] ‘tis more likely to be true. The great Milton, a grave author, brings in Adam thus speaking to Eve in Paradise Lost [and then she quotes Adam speaking to Eve], “Oh, fairest of creation, last and best of all God’s works.”

The great Milton can be invoked here because he has already been established as an authority. He’s already been established as a figure whose very word possesses something like an indisputable cultural power. So as a very “grave author” – and this is what Chudleigh is implying – Milton can tell us something potentially true about the priority of the sexes.

Of course–and you know this to be the case from your own writing of papers in the English department– like any literary critic who ever tried to write an analysis of anything, Chudleigh has no choice but to nudge the lines that she’s quoting out of context. It’s been said that to quote anybody is necessarily to misrepresent him, and this fact is obviously a very good thing for Lady Mary Chudleigh since Milton would certainly not himself have wanted to suggest that women are superior to men. Milton, in fact, soon goes on in Paradise Lost – right after this very passage that she cites, Milton the narrator berates Adam for his overvaluation of his wife through the character of the Archangel Raphael. I think this is one of the great ironies of English literary history, certainly in the reception of the poet Milton, that one of the very first published discussions of Milton’s epic attempts to enlist John Milton as a proponent of feminism.

Now we don’t have to be overly concerned here with what I take to be Chudleigh’s generous oversight of Milton’s generally sexist bias. What’s important for our immediate purposes is her identification of Milton as a cultural authority. He’s a literary power, a figure who could be called upon to supply the voice of tradition in itself. He can be called upon in fact exactly as he is by Lady Mary here. He can be called upon to contradict scripture: and it’s this power to contradict the Word of God that makes Milton a force than which it’s hard to imagine anything more powerful.

Chapter 3. Mary Astell on Milton and the Priority of the Sexes [00:19:42]

Now as you can see from the handout, Milton is discussed in a very different manner a year later in a work published by Mary Astell in 1700 and in an even more remarkably feminist cry for the liberation of women from what she describes and characterizes as domestic oppression. Astell writes the following:

Patience and submission are the only comforts that are left to a poor people who groan under tyranny unless they are strong enough to break the yoke. Not Milton himself would cry up liberty to poor female slaves or plead for the lawfulness or resisting a private tyranny.

So Milton for Astell is hardly the embodiment of orthodoxy that he is for Lady Mary Chudleigh. For Astell, Milton remains the subversive revolutionary whose treatises against the tyranny of the Stuart monarchy, whose treatises against the tyranny of Charles the First established his reputation as a liberator, a liberator of all of the oppressed and enslaved citizens of England, and that’s Milton’s rhetoric; that rhetoric belongs to Milton himself. But Astell resents, of course, Milton here, and what she resents is the limitation of his subversiveness. He refused to extend his critique of tyranny in the political realm to a critique of man’s domestic tyranny over woman in the private realm, in the domestic sphere. It’s as if Mary Astell were saying, “Well, Milton was on the right track. He simply didn’t go far enough. He didn’t extend the logic of his position.”

Now it has to be said that Mary Astell’s image of Milton is probably the product of a much closer reading of Paradise Lost than Lady Mary Chudleigh’s was. Astell certainly seems to have noticed Milton’s notorious and, of course, deplorable line in Paradise Lost about God’s creation of Adam and Eve: “He for God only, she for God in him,” Milton’s narrator tells us of God’s creation of Adam and Eve. Mary Astell is clearly responding to this. Her statement points to a persistent worry, and it’s a worry that exists even now in the twentieth century about the nature of Milton’s power. Is this guy a revolutionary or is he a reactionary? Astell distinguishes Milton’s cry against political tyranny from her own critique, her own cry against the patriarchal tyranny, and in making this distinction she’s exposing something that I take to be extremely interesting. She’s exposing the uncomfortable affinity between two competing, equally progressive social movements. You’ll see this phenomenon manifest itself throughout your reading of Milton, I’m convinced; and what we see here is the strange proximity, and it’s often a very uncomfortable proximity, of Milton’s rhetoric of political liberation to the proto-feminist rhetoric of domestic liberation that is just beginning to emerge at the end of theseventeenth century.

Now in the middle years of the seventeenth century during the English revolution that saw the execution of the king and saw the establishment of a non-monarchic republican government, Milton had practically invented the formal language, the literary language, of insubordination. He developed an entire vocabulary, a rhetoric of righteous disobedience, of resistance, of protest and revolution. And I think it’s a measure of the power of Milton’s anti-tyrannical language that it can be used against Milton himself. A writer like Mary Astell can employ Milton’s revolutionary rhetoric to advance a cause to which John Milton himself would of course have had difficulty subscribing; a dead Milton could exercise a social power that had nothing whatsoever to do with the living Milton’s own social views.

Chapter 4. Virginia Woolf on Milton and the Priority of the Sexes [00:24:03]

Now we’ll fast forward a couple of centuries and look at Virginia Woolf. By the time we get to Woolf in the early part of the twentieth century, Milton has come to be associated with essentially all of these ways of thinking about power, however contradictory they are. He’s the very voice of traditional wisdom for some, as he was for Lady Mary Chudleigh. And he’s the voice of political subversiveness for others, as he was for Mary Astell. He’s the friend of women everywhere, at least for a few of his female readers in the eighteenth century, and for many he’s the very embodiment of oppressive patriarchy.

I mentioned earlier that it’s Virginia Woolf who’s largely responsible for our sense of Milton’s identity as an oppressive patriarchal literary voice, but Virginia Woolf, too, had inherited these contradictory ways of thinking about Milton and about Milton’s power. And you can see from the handout that in 1924, Woolf is beginning to formulate her dazzling feminist critique of the masculine traditions – what she thinks of as the masculine traditions of literary writing – and she’s not just one of the first literary critics to reveal that most famous writers have been men (everyone had already, had always known that), but she’s one of the first literary critics to reveal that most famous writers have been writing as men, exerting the influence of their sex (that’s to use her language) in a manner that implicitly glorifies their masculinity, implicitly glorifies all men.

But this is not so [she writes in 1924] with Milton. There’s [and this is Woolf’s amazing argument here] a small group of writers whose work [and I’m quoting her] is pure, uncontaminated, sexless as the angels are said to be sexless and Milton is their leader [she tells us].

Like Lady Mary Chudleigh, Woolf holds up Milton as a powerful authority. He’s almost a mythological figure who can sanction, who can authorize this revolution in women’s writing that Virginia Woolf is beginning to prophesy here early in the twentieth century.

But this of course, as we know, is only one of the ways in which Milton’s power, or what Woolf thinks of as his leadership, can be thought of. In 1928, and this is the next quotation on the handout, Milton has come to represent for Virginia Woolf a very different type of cultural force. Near the conclusion of the perfectly extraordinary book A Room of One’s Own, Woolf elaborates on her prophecy of a feminist future, a world in which women can be viewed – a literary feminist future – a world in which women can be viewed as writers of no less stature and of no less power than men. So this is Woolf I am quoting:

For my belief is [and I’ll have to skip around a little bit] that if we live another century or so and have 500 a year each of us and rooms of our own, if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think, if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.

Now the language is intentionally and really sublimely opaque and apocalyptic here as Woolf imagines what might have happened to Judith Shakespeare had she been given the cultural opportunities of her more privileged brother, William, but the anticipated triumph of women writers can never occur, according to Virginia Woolf here, until we look past “Milton’s bogey” – until we look past “Milton’s bogey.” She’s ingeniously vague about what Milton’s bogey is. I have puzzled over this, I’ve puzzled over this phrase for years, and I’m not even remotely satisfied that I have a clue what she means: but Milton’s bogey would seem to be, I think, that frightening shadow that Milton casts over wives who might find themselves identifying with the subordinate Milton’s Eve. Milton’s bogey seems to be the specter hovering over women poets or women writers who may find in Milton an identification of poetic strength with masculinity itself.

Now Woolf doesn’t try to explain exactly how it is that Milton is shutting out the view, and she doesn’t try to explain what the view would look like if it weren’t shut out. But in citing the power of what she claims to be this Puritan bogey, Virginia Woolf really suddenly reveals, I think, how difficult it is even for her to shut out entirely the real–or it might just be the bogus–power of John Milton. At the very moment that Woolf advises women readers to look past Milton’s bogey, she finds herself in the peculiar position of echoing the poetry of John Milton. This is, I think, an unbelievable thing to have happen at one of the formative moments of twentieth-century feminism. She’s alluding here, I think, to one of the most famous passages in Paradise Lost in which Milton is asserting nothing other than his poetic power.

This is on the handout. The blind poet calls on the Holy Spirit to assist him in the composition of the epic. He asks the Heavenly Muse at the end of the passage to help him “see and tell of things invisible to mortal sight,” and Milton’s going to need this additional help from God because, as he says – this is near the middle of the passage – because “wisdom at one entrance is quite shut out.” Milton’s blindness, the fact of his blindness, has shut out his view of the visible world, which would ordinarily present itself to him through the entrance of his eyes; and this shut-out will enable him, will help him, explore the invisible world of divine truth.

Now when Virginia Woolf writes that Milton’s bogey has shut out the view of his female readers, she seems to be suggesting that the specter of Milton blinds women to the things that they should be seeing, the most important truths out there in the world. How troubling though – this seems undeniable – and how strange that Woolf really at her most radical is echoing the very words of the power that she’s opposing! It’s almost as if she were saying in some way, in a post-Miltonic world, which is the world that we all live in, it’s impossible fully to look past Milton’s bogey; that the rhetoric of power, the literary strategies of power, and in some cases the very experience of power, have become inextricably tied and indebted to Milton. And in this great prophecy of twentieth-century feminism, Woolf is essentially proposing a cultural revolution. And it’s as if the text here were telling us that whether we like it or not, whether we like Milton or not, the language of revolution is one that is forever and always indebted to that bogeyman John Milton, as Virginia Woolf had written, “Milton is our leader.”

Chapter 5. Milton, Power and the Revolution against God by Satan [00:32:20]

Now some of you I’m assuming will already have read Paradise Lost and so it will come to you as no surprise that the representation of power for which Milton is most celebrated is the power exhibited in the failed revolution against God, the revolution against God by Satan and his fellow rebels. My guess is that our sense of Milton’s power, however that power is imagined, is intimately related to the way in which Milton himself represents power in the characters of Satan and of God in Paradise Lost. Look at the next passage. This is from Paradise Lost. Satan and the rebel angels have been roundly defeated. They’ve been humiliated by the Son of God and the other priggish loyalist angels so they are pained, utterly humiliated. They’re prostrate on the burning lake of this miserable new realm called hell, yet nonetheless Satan pulls himself together and begins to analyze, to theorize, his situation. He describes for us his own power that somehow manages to survive even a terrifying and humiliating defeat like the one he’s just experienced. So this is Satan:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to overcome?
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who from the terror of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall. (I.105-116)

Now we might at first think that Satan’s vaunting here is the product of nothing more elevated than hate and a desire for revenge, but Milton’s doing something truly extraordinary. I think that the imaginative achievement here in Satan’s speech is easy to miss. Satan finds it ignominious and shameful to lower himself to God, to bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee and deify His power, but this kind of submission is shameful not because it’s simply always shameful so to debase oneself. It’s an ignominy and a shame because it may very well be – I think this is without question what Satan is implying here – it may very well be that God is not actually omnipotent. Would an omnipotent, would a truly all-powerful God actually doubt the extent of His own empire? In Virginia Woolf’s terms, Satan is trying to look past God’s bogey. He tries to get behind the highly theatrical, the culturally constructed illusion of God’s power, and you can hear Satan saying, “Well, so what if we lost? We may have lost this battle, but the important thing is that God revealed a terror of this arm, of our strength. A fear of the military strength of the rebel angels is what was manifest in this war. God was so afraid of us that He actually doubted His hold on His own empire, an empire that He was only actually able to maintain because of good luck or something like superior military firepower, but certainly nothing as grand and as absolute as omnipotence.”

This is an amazing thing for Satan to say after his fall. Even the expulsion of Satan from heaven was not sufficient to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the legitimate authority of God. That Satan is still able to doubt the legitimacy of God’s power is a testimony to the complexity, I think, of the analysis of power in Paradise Lost. No power, not even God’s power, can be irresistibly and indisputably proven. Satan refuses in this speech to deify the power of the conquering enemy, and in this refusal Satan resembles no one so much as John Milton: John Milton, the political leftist who refused to deify the power of the English king Charles the First, who so many of his contemporaries considered to be God’s anointed; John Milton who wrote hundreds of pages of anti-monarchic propaganda until King Charles’s head was safely severed from his body. Like Milton, Satan is in the business of demystifying power, of exposing political or cultural power as something that is not simply inherently there or naturally there. Power is something – and this is what we learn from a reading of John Milton – power is something that is created by a human process of deification, a process of king-worship or a process of God-worship or book-worship or a process, for that matter, of poet-worship.

Now later on in Paradise Lost, Satan comes to the conclusion that that old man in heaven who had assumed the authority to issue all of those arbitrary decrees – Satan finally relents and concedes that He is actually an omnipotent God and that that God actually is, or was, the omnipotent creator of all things. But despite this enormous concession and this realization, Satan is still justified, I think, in his cynical demystification of God’s behavior before the defeat of the rebel angels. And Satan complains now that God never bothered to demonstrate to the angels just how powerful He was. And so this is the last quotation on the handout. Satan again:

But He who reigns
Monarch in Heav’n, till then as one secure
Sat on his Throne, upheld by old repute,
Consent or custom, and his Regal State
Put forth at full, but still his strength conceal’d,
Which tempted our attempt and wrought our fall. (I.637-642)

Satan’s saying that before the war in heaven, God’s power just seemed like any other king’s power, as if God sat on the throne of heaven merely because of those humanly constructed reasons of tradition, or of old repute or consent or custom. Now alas for Satan, it turned out that God’s monarchy was actually based on genuine strength. It wasn’t simply that God just happened to be wearing the crown and just happened to be sitting in the best chair; but in Satan’s articulation of what we can think of as a dialectic of power and authority, he provides us with a useful analysis of the problems besetting any understanding of power. The kinds of authority established by the bogeys of tradition and custom and conservative tradition are not always distinguishable from the kinds of authority that are based on genuine strength. Even if we locate a source of some kind of genuine strength, authoritative strength, it’s still usually possible, as it is for Satan, to argue that that power is really at base just the concealed product of custom or what we would think of as cultural construction. To be a king, one need merely put forth one’s regal state, one simply needs to act kingly.

Now I raise the matter of Satan’s critique of God’s power because the evaluation and the criticism of Milton, and especially of Milton’s poetry, has hinged for a couple of centuries now on a related set of questions about this poet’s power. Is Milton powerful for the very straightforward reason that he’s in possession of this tremendous literary strength, this unimaginable talent? Or has Milton only seemed powerful because of the traditional religious values with which he is so intimately associated? Does Milton only seem powerful because he has the force or the strength of the age-old literary canon behind him? Does Milton only seem powerful because he’s the very literary embodiment of patriarchy and masculine bias?

It goes without saying that these are questions that it’s impossible for us to try to answer certainly now, but Milton lets us know later in Paradise Lost that Satan was wrong to embark on his dangerous deconstruction of divine power. Milton ultimately is a pious man and wants us to frown on Satan’s critique of the Judeo-Christian conception of divinity. But regardless of Milton’s ultimate dismissal of Satan’s position, Satan’s analysis of power, and of God’s power especially, isn’t that easily dismissible. And that’s not simply because Satan bears such a strong resemblance to Milton, as, of course, he does. I’m convinced Satan looks ahead to us as well. Satan resembles us as readers as we attempt to dissect and to anatomize the power of Milton’s poetry. I would go so far to say that something like a satanic sensibility may be one of our best guides in our reading of Milton. It’s Milton’s Satan who best prepares us – I’ll throw this out here at the end of this lecture – who best prepares us to explore what we can think of as the labyrinth of Miltonic power. He puts us in a position to explore that truly weird but undeniable process whereby the very word “Milton,” the name “Milton,” stops referring to a particular middle-class Londoner who was born in 1608 and begins to embody the very essence of that strange and inexplicable phenomenon that we call literary power.

So the lecture is over. For next time, make sure that you will have read at the very least Milton’s great poem, and he wrote it when he was only twenty-one years old, “The Ode on Christ’s Nativity.” And read, of course, the other two poems that were assigned for the class. But we’ll be focusing on what we call “The Nativity Ode.” Okay, that’s it.

[end of transcript]

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