ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 24

 - Samson Agonistes (cont.)


In the final lecture of the course, the analysis of Samson Agonistes comes to a conclusion with an exploration of the poem’s sexual imagery. Milton’s choice of subject matter is puzzled over, as are the ethics of his tragic hero, particularly when compared to the heroes of Milton’s previous epics. The poem is positioned as a means by which Milton ultimately resolves the poetic, religious, and career-related crises of his earlier poem, “The Passion,” and the compelling relationship between the corpus and the poet’s biography is revisited one final time.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 24 - Samson Agonistes (cont.)

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: It’s been said that if Samson Agonistes didn’t exist, then we could say with something like perfect confidence that John Milton could never have chosen Samson for a hero. There’s very little in the Samson story that makes sense in terms of the larger thematic patterns of Milton’s major poems as we have come to know them. Think about Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, Milton struggled to justify the ways of God to men. He attempted to make his religion, his faith, as justifiable and as rational in a lot of ways as he possibly could.

In Paradise Regained Milton rewrote Christian history. He went even further, rewriting Christian history to scrub it clean of the primitive and violent notion of sacrifice in the form of the crucifixion. Fallen man was redeemed, we remember, not because Christ was sacrificed on the cross but because of a much more rational and arguably a justifiable cause: man was redeemed quite simply because the Son of God was able to resist the temptations of Satan. Man was redeemed because the Son was able to behave rationally and obediently – and an unstated corollary here for Paradise Regained is that we can all. We’re all in a position to redeem ourselves, and I think this is why Milton so scrupulously and carefully refers to Jesus either as Jesus or the Son, the Son of God, and never in Paradise Regained as Christ. Of course, we can’t aspire to the status of Christ, which is the Greek word for messiah, which merely means “the anointed one.” That’s something that we can’t be, but as Satan knows, all of us are sons of God. We all have the capacity to do pretty much what the Son of God had accomplished in Paradise Regained.

Chapter 2. Why Did Milton Choose Samson for the Subject of His Final Work? [00:02:07]

Now, when we approach Samson Agonistes, we realize pretty quickly that we have to toss aside immediately any expectation that Milton will be writing a theodicy, an attempt to justify the ways of God. It’s impossible to imagine the justice or the rationality behind the primary actions of this poem. The first question that I think we have to ask ourselves is what could possibly [laughs] have possessed Milton to have chosen Samson, that famous biblical hero, for the subject of his final work. I’m just going to ask you for a moment to think about Samson as he appears in the Old Testament, the book of Judges. I think all biblical scholars agree that the story of Samson had its origins in a primitive and savage folk tale.

Samson was a giant who slayed Philistines with a jawbone and who attached firebrands to the tails of foxes in order to set whole cities on fire. The writer of the Judges version of this tale – which comes much later, of course, than the original tale itself, because it’s a folk tale – the Judges version has done very little to cleanse the tale of what we can think of as its savagery or to transform the tale into anything that we might think appropriate for holy scripture. If the Old Testament Samson can be said to possess any virtues that we would feel comfortable recognizing as virtues, it would have to be Samson’s complete abstinence from wine. It goes without saying that we all applaud Samson’s abstemiousness. Surely this abstinence from wine isn’t in and of itself a sufficient cause for Milton to turn what is essentially a terrorist ogre into an orthodox hero fit for a Christian poem.

Now, look at the front of the handout. This is where I reproduced the end of the Judges version of the Samson story, and so according to the Hebrew Bible these are Samson’s climactic actions at the Philistine Festival of Dagon. You’ll remember that Samson has been blinded, he’s been humiliated, and he’s being forced to make sport for the Philistines; it’s a side show for the main show. Samson called unto the Lord and said:

O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.

And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.

And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein.

Now, Samson prays to God – yes, it’s true: he prays to God, but look what he prays for. He’s praying for vengeance. “Only this once… let me be avenged upon the Philistines,” Samson prays. In an act that can only be called a suicide, and it has been called a suicide for thousands of years now, Samson brings the house down. The dominant impulses here are suicide and revenge, and by any ethical standard available to Milton this story has to be seen as morally and ethically repugnant.

Now, it’s true that Milton does make some efforts to clean the story up, to purge the story of some of its most morally offensive elements. I think that’s perhaps one of the reasons why you have all of that violent rhetoric, that language of purgation, that I talked about in the last lecture. Nonetheless, we simply can’t deny the fact that Samson does commit suicide and that the suicide has the singularly satisfying effect of avenging the loss of Samson’s eyes. What is so amazing about this poem is that Samson’s final action – an action that any right-thinking Christian, any right-thinking anyone, would have to find ethically repellant – this final action is approved of. It’s sanctioned by God, Samson’s murderous feelings, his unseemly desire to get even. All of these questionable motives are given a vast divine blessing. It’s a shocking expression of what Freud would call wish fulfillment. This final work of Milton seems from a theological point of view, from the religious perspective, to counter just about everything of Milton’s that we’ve read up to this point. That’s because here every wish, every desire – all of those passionate instincts that the other works were laboring so hard to suppress – all of these wishes just get fulfilled in this poem.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting that Samson Agonistes is wholly unrelated to Milton’s other works. That would be the last thing I would want to suggest. Milton’s obviously imagining the final action of this poem in relation to the climactic actions of his other two major works, and he draws all three of his final works together by placing their central actions at high noon, at mid-day. In Paradise Lost, Eve falls at noon and Milton told us simply – this is on the handout but it’s also on the board – Milton tells us with exquisite economy “she plucked, she eat [pronounced ate].” With this extraordinary concision, Milton narrated that act on earth that initiates the history of fallen man.

In Paradise Regained, Milton describes the action that works really to undo the effects of Eve’s fall. That’s the Son’s resistance to Satan’s temptation, as opposed to his giving in to it as Eve had. In narrating this event, Milton alludes to the grammatical structure of that narrative crux from Paradise Lost, and he employs another sentence of four monosyllabic words, two of them active verbs: “he said and stood.” What was a transgressive action in Paradise Lost is redeemed through what could be seen as the Son’s motionless inaction, his resistance to action, or at least his resistance to any form of heroic action as it is typically conceived.

Now, in Samson Agonistes, Milton simply can’t resist the opportunity to complete this triad of momentous actions. He can’t resist this opportunity to remind his readers, us, of his other two great major poems. So when Samson pulls down the pillars of the temple, Milton describes that action with a closely related grammatical construction – four words, two of them verbs: “he tugg’d, he shook.” I want you to pause just for a moment and to think about how – when we consider this sequence, how shocking that sentence is. With this final catastrophic action Milton seems to take back everything that the Son of God had accomplished in Paradise Regained – this has to be one of the most regressive conclusions in all of English literature. The Son of God had devoted all four books of Paradise Regained to resisting action, to resisting vulgar, militaristic, violent action. He simply did nothing, and he was so adamant in his resistance that Satan was led, you’ll remember, to cry out with complete exasperation, “What dost thou in this world?” The answer to the question was that the Son does absolutely nothing in this world, or he does absolutely nothing except obey the will of God.

But at his climactic, high-noon action Samson seems – it’s amazing. Samson seems also to be obeying the will of God, but his action has a much stronger resemblance to that transgressive act of the willful Eve. Eve had followed her own desire. She had followed her own instinct when she made the fatal decision to eat the fruit. Here at the end of Milton’s career, it’s as if Milton were allowing himself to rethink perhaps the theological implications of Eve’s action. It’s as if Eve’s act were being re-imagined this time as a heroic one. In this remarkable exercise in wish fulfillment, Samson gets to perform his Eve-like transgression, but with a big difference: with the magical blessing of divine sanction. “He tugg’d, he shook”: he performs an action at least as transgressive as Eve’s, but it’s not followed by any of the hideous consequences of Eve’s plucking and eating. It’s as if Milton were saying to God, “Only this once, only this once let an action as bold as Eve’s meet with your approval.”

Look at Milton’s description of the destruction of the temple. This is line 1643 of Samson Agonistes and it’s at the bottom of page 590 of the Hughes. According to the messenger who reports the event, Samson tells the assembled Philistines in the huge theater:

“Now of my own accord such other trial
I mean to show you of my strength, yet greater;
As with amaze shall strike all who behold.”
This utter’d, straining all his nerves he bow’d;
As with the force of winds and waters pent
When Mountains tremble, those two massy Pillars
With horrible convulsion to and fro
He tugg’d, he shook, till down they came, and drew
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder…

Milton’s language here of this thunderous trembling, this horrible convulsion, is essentially the language of apocalypse. He’s imagining the scene of destruction as if it were something akin to the end of the world, and the destruction of the temple functions here as if it were a type, or a forerunner, of God’s final destruction of the world at the end of time.

Now the Samson story from the Old Testament is an event that clearly occurred before the Son of God’s redemption of man from the New Testament that Milton depicts in Paradise Regained; but there’s some remarkable sense in which this text describes an event in Christian history that happens after the events of Paradise Regained. In a strange and inverted kind of way, Samson Agonistes describes the fulfillment, the culmination, of the events that were laid out in Paradise Regained. You can see that the last three works seem to sketch in something like chronological order – even though the stories they tell themselves are not in chronological order, they sketch in chronological order the outlines of Christian history. “She plucked, she ate”: we have a representation of the Fall. “He said and stood”: we have a representation of the redemption. “He tugg’d, he shook”: we have something like a representation of the apocalypse. Samson Agonistes in some ways is imagining itself in terms of the closure of a larger thematic pattern in Milton’s literary career, and the astonishing thing about this final action is that it’s so completely transgressive from any ethical or theological perspective.

Look at line 1643, the first line I just read at the scene of the temple. This is Samson: “Now of my own accord such other trial / I mean to show you of my strength, yet greater.” Samson is in no way here attributing – as we think he should – he’s not attributing any of his strength or any of his actions to God. You remember the Son of God was always hungering to do the Father’s will. He was attributing everything, and rightly so, to the Father, but Samson doesn’t credit Jehovah with anything here. He’s not even claiming to perform this action for the greater glory of God.

I think it is possible to read this as an entirely personal act of revenge, and I’m personally convinced that Milton is alluding in these lines to that magnificent speech that Satan had made just before the war in heaven. This is the speech right after Satan had claimed to Abdiel that he was “self-begot,” self-made, “by our own quick’ning power…” Satan had said to Abdiel: “Our puissance [puissance means “power”] is our own, our own right hand / shall teach us highest deeds…” In claiming to make a show of strength solely of his own accord, Milton’s Samson in a lot of ways seems to be echoing Milton’s Satan. He’s reasserting Satan’s sublime but, of course, completely disastrous bid for something like an absolute self- sufficiency. But there’s a difference, and the [laughs] difference is that Samson’s claim to be entirely self-sufficient just meets with all of God’s approval. It’s the damnedest thing. At certain moments it almost seems as if the character of Samson is the character of Satan simply rewritten as the good guy.

Now, in reading Samson Agonistes, we’re witnessing something like an incredible release from all of the laws and all of the constraints and all of the divine ordinances that Milton had been representing for us throughout the earlier works. The other poems from Comus on are all about the importance of the obedience to divine law, but Samson Agonistes is all about God’s special dispensation to break the law. Think about it: Samson is permitted to break the divine law forbidding the marriage to a Philistine. He does this twice. He’s permitted to break the law that forbids the presence of Hebrews at the Philistine festival of Dagon. Samson’s actions simply break through every conceivable legal and moral constraint and all of – why? Why does he get to do that? All of Samson’s behavior, I think, has ultimately to be laid at the door of God, and in this case, it’s an unjustifiable or an irrational or inscrutable God.

Look at Samson’s explanation of his first marriage. He was married before the marriage to Dalila and this was his marriage to the woman of Timna. Look at line 219 of Samson, this is page 557. The Hebrews had a law against marrying outside of the tribe – still a big deal, many people would say. The chorus asks Samson why it is he doesn’t marry a Hebrew wife. [laughs] I love this question. The chorus asks, “Why thou shouldst wed Philistian women…?” Samson responds – this is line 219:

The first I saw at Timna, and she pleas’d
Mee, not my Parents, that I sought to wed,
The daughter of an Infidel: they knew not
That what I motion’d was of God; I knew
From intimate impulse, and therefore urg’d
The Marriage on; that by occasion hence
I might begin Israel’s Deliverance…

I think we are being invited to ask, “Well, how did Samson know that he was motioned of God to marry the woman of Timna? By what sign did God make this approval known?” Samson answers our question and his response is an important one: “I knew / from intimate impulse.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could answer questions [laughs] like that with such an answer, “I knew / from intimate impulse”? It’s important because this phrase, “intimate impulse,” surely implies a sexual passion, a sexual impulse, as readily as it does anything like a mysterious impulsion from God.

The big question still remains: how can you tell the difference? Samson Agonistes is the only one of Milton’s last works to imagine a world in which God is neither visible or audible. On some level he had been visible in Paradise Lost, he was no longer visible but he was audible in Paradise Regained, and now he’s none of those things. The deity simply doesn’t assert himself anywhere authoritatively in this text, and of course that’s one of the reasons why Milton chose to write this piece in a theatrical form, a dramatic form, in which God couldn’t possibly be seen as a character. The only evidence we have for the presence of a divine will at all is the extremely equivocal evidence of Samson’s intimate impulse. Milton won’t let us know absolutely whether Samson is really inspired by God to destroy the Philistines or whether he’s crazy and just thinks he’s inspired by God to kill the Philistines.

Milton knows that there’s nothing like incontrovertible evidence to prove that Samson is a divinely inspired freedom fighter, a freedom fighter rather than a terrorist, or what seems at the end of the poem to be something – I don’t know. We would have to call him something like a suicide bomber. This is why the critical controversies surrounding Samson Agonistes – a set of controversies that have been surrounding the poems for about twenty years now – why they really came to a head almost immediately after 9/11. That Milton could be seen to sanction a single man’s destruction of thousands of people, an act that might only be imagined to be divinely authorized when there’s no evidence in the text that it is absolutely, definitively divinely authorized, had come to seem more troubling than ever after 9/11.

Of course, Milton is not anywhere sanctioning mass slaughter, but he is insisting that there’s never anything in the world like definitive proof of God’s authorization of anything. We just have to believe in our authorization. It’s Milton’s amazing reticence in this regard that set off, after 9/11, a kind of panic among certain Miltonists. John Carey, the distinguished Miltonist at Oxford, the Miltonist at Oxford – and you know this from the piece that was included in the packet – John Carey had been pushed to a – I don’t know, I think a risible, maybe even a hysterical, critical stance toward this text by Milton’s unwillingness to proclaim on the question of Samson’s authority to kill so many people.

In Milton’s other poems – and, it goes without saying, in the real world of all of our everyday lives – one is simply not permitted to act upon all of one’s inmost impulses and desires. We’re constantly being called upon to be rational and to resist those temptations for the greater goal of the obedience to the law. The Son in Paradise Regained was able to begin his work of Israel’s deliverance by suppressing his hunger, by suppressing his passion, and by suppressing even his interest in the beauty of classical civilization; but Samson, who certainly in this text something like a type of Christ, begins Israel’s deliverance by acting on his hungers, by acting on his passions and desires. The intimate stirring of his loins might be one of those things energizing his actions. Milton gives us in this poem a powerful alternative, a scandalous alternative, to the traditional obligation to subordinate one’s desire to the will of God, and in this play, in this text, one’s deepest, one’s darkest desire turns out in fact to be the will of God.

That’s as shocking as anything else it seems to me. Think of Paradise Lost. Milton’s great achievement in Paradise Lost, and it really was a magnificent achievement, was to structure the poem as a theodicy. He took what he took to be the irrational God of the Judeo-Christian tradition and he remade him into a reasonable and justifiable embodiment of law, to a large extent. By the time we get to Samson Agonistes, it’s almost as if you could feel Milton’s relief, a sigh of relief, now that he’s been released from the pressure to write a theodyicy. “Thank God!” you can hear Milton saying. “I don’t have to write a theodicy anymore. I don’t have to justify God anymore!” Here at the end of Milton’s career, you have something like an extraordinary release from all of the strictures of justice and all of the strictures of reason that Milton had set for himself and that Milton had submitted himself to.

According to the Aristotelian theory of tragedy, the climax of a tragedy is supposed to be cathartic for the viewer, or perhaps for the reader – originally for the viewer. It’s supposed to purge or to release all of those pent-up passions in the audience. But I think there’s a way in which the climax of Samson Agonistes functions as much as a catharsis for the poet as it does for the reader. Look again at page 591 – this is line 1647. I think we have an image here of this cathartic release as it has been inscribed by Milton into the poem itself within that passage that we just looked at. At the very moment that Samson acts of his own accord and brings the massive pillars down, here at line 1647, “As with the force of winds and waters pent / when Mountains tremble,” and then “he tugg’d, he shook.” When Samson pulls the pillars down it’s as if a dam were breaking. The force of winds and waters that have been pent or penned up have suddenly been released, and you can see an emblem, I think, for the powerful release that Milton is allowing his own religious imagination. Milton’s water has broken and it’s as if he were giving birth to yet another fantasy theology, this theology just being that much more fantastic than anything he had come up with before. This is essentially a theology that Milton’s contemporaries would have called antinomian. He’s generated a text in which divine will isn’t ever opposed to human desire; God’s will and man’s will are simply the same thing – nice work if you can get it.

Now, there has been another release in the Miltonic imagination as well. In Samson’s show of strength at the festival of Dagon, you have an act of sacrifice that saves the Hebrews from their Philistine oppressors. Samson’s sacrifice at the temple has to readers for a long time now – and I think this seems unmistakable – has a resemblance to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. A lot of biblical commentators, in fact, in Milton’s time agreed that Samson’s action, because his arms are outstretched, was something like a prefiguration of Christ’s crucifixion. There is something like a sense in which Milton in this poem is allowing himself – and he’s really allowing himself for the first time here near the end of his life – to represent this pivotal moment in Christian history, the crucifixion. Milton, like the Bible, has Samson’s arms outstretched on the massive pillars as if in direct imitation of Christ’s posture on the cross.

Look at the very beginning of the poem. Actually, look at the little place before the very beginning of the poem. This is Milton’s note on the form of tragedy. It’s on page 549 of the Hughes. This note starts to explain why Milton has chosen this genre, the genre of dramatic tragedy, for his final work. So Milton is laboring here to justify his decision to write a tragedy, and he cites others who have written tragedies themselves. This is a little over halfway down – no, this is near the bottom of page 549. Milton invokes Augustus Caesar: “Augustus Cesar also had begun his Ajax [his tragedy, Ajax] but unable to please his own judgment with what he had begun, left it unfinisht.” Look a couple of sentences down. Milton invokes a tragedian, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory Nazianzen who was able to finish a tragedy:

Gregory Nazianzen, a Father of the Church, thought it not unbeseeming the sanctity of his person to write a Tragedy, which he entitl’d Christ Suffering.

I think it’s clear that Milton is thinking of the genre of tragedy here as the literary form best suited to the subject of Christ’s passion, Christ’s suffering on the cross. Milton, of course, we know had tried to represent Christ suffering on the cross once before. But just like Augustus Caesar who wasn’t able to finish his tragedy, Ajax, the young Milton had left his initial attempt at the story of the Passion unfinished. Perhaps you’ll remember the little note that Milton had appended to that early poem, “The Passion,” that we read at the beginning of the semester. The poem just ends abruptly, you’ll remember, and Milton writes: “This Subject [of the crucifixion] the Author finding to be above the years he had, when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinisht.” Well, here at the end of his life, Milton’s finally able to finish the unfinished poem, “The Passion.” Samson Agonistes ends with that magnificent line, “and calm of mind all passion spent.” That line speaks on one level to the fact – it speaks on many levels, but on one level it speaks to the fact that Milton has finished “The Passion,” that Milton has finally acquitted himself of the debt that he incurred when he left that earlier poem, “The Passion,” unfinished.

Now, we’re left to wonder why Milton is able finally to represent an act of sacrifice not unlike Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Why suddenly is this heretofore unrepresentable event representable? I think Milton’s able to complete this representation of the crucifixion because he’s been able entirely to re-imagine the dynamics of sacrifice. Now in the New Testament in the Gospel of John, we’re told that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to save that world. The Father willingly sacrificed the Son, but in Samson Agonistes the hero sacrifices himself. Samson sacrifices himself of his own accord, as he tells us, in fulfillment of his own private motives, in fact, and it’s only once Milton can supply the act of sacrifice with something like a complete sense of self-determination that finally he can admit it into his poetic canon.

I think this poem is completely overwhelmed by events that had previously been left unfinished or suppressed in Milton’s earlier works. If I’m right about that, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the resurfacing of another desire that had so consumed Milton at earlier stages in his career, and that is the desire for fame. You remember what Milton had written to his friend, Diodati, in 1637. Milton had written: “You asked me what I am thinking of? So help me God, an immortality of fame,” the young, twenty-nine-year-old Milton had written, but he soon corrected himself. In Lycidas fame was denigrated as “that last infirmity of the noble mind,” and in Paradise Regained it’s denigrated even further. Fame was a temptation offered by Satan to the Son of God that, of course, the Son of God was able to reject without wincing.

But here at the end of Samson, the prospect of earthly fame – I’m talking about good, old-fashioned secular fame – is granted the dead Samson and is granted to him without the slightest apology. It’s Samson’s earthly father, Manoa, who labors to ensure his son’s fame. Look at the last page of the poem. This is page 593. Manoa says at the top of the page:

[I w]ill send for all my kindred, all my friends
To fetch him [“him” is the dead body of Samson] hence and solemnly attend
With silent obsequy and funeral train
Home to his Fathers house…

I’ll interrupt myself here just for a moment because I’m going to ask you to think of the possible counterpoint that that line that I’ve just read has with the end of Paradise Regained, “Home to his Mother’s house private” he “return’d.” Manoa continues:

[T]here will I build him
A Monument, and plant it round with shade
Of Laurel ever green, and branching Palm,
With all his Trophies hung, and Acts enroll’d
In copious Legend, or sweet Lyric Song.

Now, the “shade / Of Laurel ever green” is not an honor typically bestowed upon the great biblical heroes, but it is an honor bestowed upon great poets – at least, in the classical tradition. That’s why we have the phrase poet laureate. You have in this incredibly moving tribute that Manoa has given Samson the promise of eternal fame that has been the desire of great poets as long as there have been great poets. The monument built for Samson here is something like a displaced version of Milton’s own monument. Maybe this is a moment that can compete with the “livelong monument” that Milton had imagined that was the monument of Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s tomb, of which the young Milton had written in his first published poem.

Chapter 3. Final Thoughts on Milton [00:35:32]

Now, as you can see from the bottom of the handout, from the passage taken from one of the earliest biographies of Milton – and this is also included in the Hughes – “Milton at his death was buried at the churchyard at Cripplegate where about thirty years before he had, by chance, also interred his father.” Like Samson’s body at the time of his death, the body of John Milton was returned, as it were, home to his father’s house. Now we’re told here very carefully that this happened by chance, but it’s surely not a leap to assume that Milton was himself responsible for the instructions for his place of burial and that he was thinking on some level of the burial of Samson when he arranged to have himself buried next to his father, or near his father. It’s as if by returning to the father’s house, Milton could guarantee for himself the promise of fame that had been bestowed upon Samson.

Look at the middle quotation on the handout. As John Aubrey wrote in his Life of Milton, Milton had during his lifetime achieved a considerable measure of fame; he didn’t have to wait for after his death. According to Aubrey, for several foreigners – and I love this detail, it’s wild to imagine – for a lot of foreigners coming over into England in the seventeenth century, the only inducement to make the trip was to see John Milton. More specifically, the inducement for foreigners to come to England was to see the house and chamber where he was born. It’s like a tourist attraction. This is, of course, the father’s house, and in his life, the Milton home had become this Mecca just like the one that Manoa is planning for Samson.

Now, one of the reasons, I think, for which we love or for which we hate the poetry or anything about John Milton involves the degree to which he wrote about himself. Milton, I think, more than any other poet – certainly any other poet before him – has invited, I think, a unique fascination with the intimate habits of his mind and for some of us, even a unique fascination in his daily life at home. I think the desire of Milton’s readers, or a lot of Milton’s readers, to imagine the poet at home is an interesting one. At least, that’s one way to explain the strange, and for me the wonderful, artifact that I photocopied for you on the other side of the handout. This is a document that I used to receive – it’s a version of a document that I used to receive every couple of years from the Friend’s of Milton’s Cottage group in America. It’s the form letter representing the now long-standing movement to raise funds in order to restore what is the only surviving house that Milton actually lived in – and its website is something like miltonscottage.com. You can find information about how to get there and so on and so forth if you’re interested.

This is the cottage at Chalfont St. Giles that Milton had moved to in the 1660s when the plague was sweeping through London. The organization dedicated to restoring this house is known as The Friends of Milton’s Cottage. The president of this group, as you can see, was – I don’t believe he’s the president anymore – was one Dr. Ronald G. Shafer, and he used to send Miltonists just this fundraising letter every few years. I mention this curious artifact not at all because I’m asking you to give to the cause – I think the cottage is probably in good shape at this point – but I offer it to you to give you a sense of the peculiar impact that John Milton has had on his readers. I think that impact can be measured by something like the almost pagan desire to memorialize the physical presence of this heroic poet that has seized so many of his readers.

Now, of course the ostensible project here, as you can see from the handout, is simply to restore Milton’s home, but I’m convinced that there’s something profounder going on, and it’s the deeper project informing a labor of love like a restoration project such as this one. I think that the underlying desire really behind such a project is – and of course this would only be unconscious or it’s a kind of fantasy project – but it’s the desire to return Milton to his home. The Friends of Milton’s Cottage are just like the friends that Manoa mentions in that final speech at line 1730: I “will send for all my kindred, all my friends / to fetch him hence… / …home to his Father’s house.” It chokes me up. There’s something so moving about Manoa’s plea and there’s something, for me, moving about Dr. Ronald G. Shafer’s plea.

The relation, for me at least, is that there’s something about Milton, just as there’s something about Samson, that resists ascension and resists transcendence – just by all of the talk of heaven the actual corporeal body seems so stubbornly to remain. You remember that that was the case in Lycidas to a large extent, and it’s this case in the final poem as well, written thirty years later. I think there’s something profoundly Miltonic about our own materialist interests in Milton, an interest that keeps coming back to the bodily facts of his life and his home and his everyday surroundings but – more generally than that and more importantly than that – an interest in the material facts, the fact of materiality of everyone’s life and of life itself. The importance, the value and the beauty of the physical is one of the things that we learn, that we get from a reading of John Milton.

Now, if I have been unorthodox in some of these lectures – and I would be deeply ashamed to think that I haven’t been at least a little [laughs] unorthodox – it’s been in my sharing with you my fascination with Milton’s life and Milton’s biography. Well, actually, I think it’s my interest in Milton’s own extraordinary tendency to write autobiographically. There’s an unparalleled self-absorption at the heart of Milton’s writing, and this sublime self-absorption, I think, of so many of these texts demands something like an equally passionate absorption in the life of the person who authored those texts. Like the foreigners who traveled to England during Milton’s own lifetime, I have found myself pursuing Milton with a kind of – and maybe it’s creepy, maybe it’s not; you can decide – but with a certain voyeurism. Something in me has always wanted to peer in to Milton’s house and chamber, or at least to think of these poems in some way as Milton’s house and chamber. If I’ve managed to arouse in you even the slightest tendency to this sort of critical voyeurism, then on some level I feel that I will have accomplished something.

And so I want to end this semester by thanking you for the enormous efforts that you’ve put into this class. For a lecture class, I know that this requires a lot of work. I want to thank you more generally for the work that you have performed, and I take this work to be the intellectual equivalent of the restoration project undertaken by Dr. Ronald G. Shafer: the work that you performed in restoring the greatest – if not the home, then the greatest of all English poets himself. So I will see you all at the exam, but before I sign off, we have to thank our two perfectly magnificent teaching fellows, whom I am going to embarrass by asking them to stand up just so we can applaud them and acknowledge them: David Currell and Matt Valdiviez. So, I will see you all at the exam.

[end of transcript]

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