(ENGL 220) This course is a study of Milton's poetry, with attention paid to his literary sources, his contemporaries, his controversial prose, and his decisive influence on the course of English poetry. Throughout the course, Professor Rogers explores the advantages and limitations of a diverse range of interpretive techniques and theoretical concerns in Milton scholarship and criticism. Lectures include close readings of lyric and epic poetry, prose, and letters; biographical inquiries; examinations of historical and political contexts; and engagement with critical debates.
This course was recorded in Fall 2007.
01 - 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.
02 - The Infant Cry of God
Milton's early ode, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (1629) is presented and discussed. The author's preoccupation with his standing as a novice poet and his early ambitions, as carefully outlined in the letter to Charles Diodati, are examined. The ode's subject matter, other poets' treatment of the Nativity, and Milton's peculiar contributions to the micro-genre are discussed, including his curious temporal choices, the competitive attitude of his narrator, and the mingling of Christian and classical elements. The rejection of the pagan world in the poem's final stanzas is explicated and underscored as an issue that will recur throughout the corpus. Additional reading assignments for this class meeting include "At a Vacation Exercise in the College" (1628), "On the Death of a Fair Infant" (1628), and Elegia sexta (1629).
03 - Credible Employment
This lecture examines the role and meanings of the word vocation in Milton's life-long meditation on (and concern for) what it means to be chosen by God. Milton's profound anxiety in the years following his graduation from Cambridge regarding his poetic career and, more specifically, his status as a Christian poet selected by God for greatness is outlined. The topic is traced through Milton's polemical treatise The Reason of Church Government, the poem Ad Patrem, and the author's correspondence. Particular emphasis is placed on Milton's interpretations of the parable of the talents and the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Substantial context on the nature of election and salvation is supplied from the writings of John Calvin and Max Weber.
04 - Poetry and Virginity
Milton's first publication, A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, is examined. Milton's vision of a poet's heaven in Ad Patrem, paired with the letter to Charles Diodati, with its particular emphasis on the need for chastity in poets, is used as a springboard to a discussion of the depiction of sexual ideals in the masque. Revelation 14, 1 Corinthians, and the Apology for Smectymnuus are also discussed at length, as are the poet's biography and the history of the masque's title.
05 - Poetry and Marriage
This second lecture on Milton's masque probes its complex depictions of virginity and chastity. The version of the masque performed in 1634 is compared with the published version of 1637, with particular emphasis on a monologue on the vanquishing powers of virginity that is created for the latter. The poet's commonplace book, specifically his notes on the self-mutilation of the medieval nuns of Coldingham, is linked to images of the body in the masque. Milton's gradual revision of his initial position favoring life-long virginity is described in detail.
06 - Lycidas
Milton's poem Lycidas is discussed as an example of pastoral elegy and one of Milton's first forays into theodicy. The poetic speaker's preoccupation with questions of immortality and reward, especially for poets and virgins, is probed. The Christian elements of the poem's dilemma are addressed, while the solution to the speaker's crisis is characterized as erotic and oddly paganistic, pointing towards the heterodox nature of much of Milton's thinking.
Excellent prep for my high school course!
I’m teaching a class on paradise lost for high school and this was such a great way to help me prepare for the class. These lectures helped me to understand so much more of where Milton was coming from and how his political perspective influenced his religious perspective and in turn influenced his poetry.
I wish there was some way to contact the professor because it seemed as though he was struggling a bit with the concept of God’s expelling Adam and Eve out of the garden. Perviously the professor mentioned Milton’s seeming obsession with the digestive process and I was surprised that he did not reference this in respect to the expulsion (or could you say excretion) of Adam and Eve from the garden. Milton’s view on this seems to be connected with his previous references to food and the digestive process.
Very enjoyable series
The professor obviously enjoys Milton and communicates that joy as well. His enthusiasm and ease of lecturing make him another of the very nice Yale lecturers (and, no, I didn't go there). He criticizes when he feels Milton deserves it but overall the approach is very evenhanded and the emphasis is on the beauty and artistry of Milton's poetry, along with discussions of the prose works, especially Milton's Areopagitica and his justification of regicide.
And, rightly, about half the course is on "Paradise Lost". My small caveat (I would give it 4 1/2 if I could) is based on what I feel are occasional leaps of interpretation -- which the professor DOES often indicate as such -- that seem an academic's need to find "something" new. Other writers are also referenced who support similar leaps.
Anyway, we're all adults here and we can each decide to agree or not, to investigate further or to read the original again more carefully. And I suppose if it gets one to address the works with more attention to those other possibilities (however much I might tend to disagree with some of those possibilities) and widen our scope of accessibility to the works, then it can only help, even if in the end our original interpretations are nonetheless reinforced. They are then stronger for having experienced the friction of alternate views. In any case, I found the course rewarding, sending me back in particular to "Paradise Lost" with a renewed enthusiasm and curiosity.
As with several other Yale courses, and courses from many other universities as well, this is such a great opportunity for those of us who were unable for various reasons to have attended such schools or to have taken such classes to get a taste -- many tastes! -- later in life of what was missed, and to do so basically for free.
I loved these lectures and didn't want them to end. I hope there will be more courses by John Rogers available!