ENGL 204 / ENGL 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Primary Readings checklist: 

  • Lycidas (NA 1791-6).
  • Sonnets: "How Soon Hath Time"; "To the Lord General Cromwell, May 1652"; "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent"; "Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint" (NA 1812-5). 
  • Polemical tracts and pamphlets: "Plans and Projects" from The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty (NA 1796-1801).
  • Paradise Lost:  Bk.  1, all ; Bk. 2, all; Bk. 3, lines 1-587; Bk. 4, lines 1-843; Bk. 5, lines 1-135, 377-512, 600-670, 743-848; Bk. 7, lines 1-39; Bk. 8, lines 249-653; Bk. 9, all; .Bk. 10, lines 68-208, 414-584, 706-1104; Bk. 11, lines 1-384; Bk. 12, lines 466-649.

Milton and Paradise Lost


Reread NA 1220-30; pay particular attention to the discussion of the respective positions of the Puritans and the Anglicans/Royalists and to any mention of Milton, including the effect of the the political and cultural climate in which he wrote PL (= Paradise Lost). As you reread "Voices of the War" (NA 1725-6) and peruse the headnotes to Milton (NA 1771-4; 1790-1; 1811) and the selections from his early works, consider the influence of the civil war on Milton's literary plans and ambitions. Be sure that you are aware of the primary classical, vernacular and religious influences on his work (including Dante and Spenser); the stages in his education; his participation in the Puritan and Revolutionary political movements; his three marriages; his blindness. Know the titles and chronological sequence of his major works, as well as his social background, education, political leanings, literary ambitions, and religious convictions.

I. Milton's Youthful Works and Poetic Ambitions

1) Pastoral elegy: Read over Lycidas quickly (NA 1790-6); don't sweat the details, but note that it is a pastoral elegy written in 1637 in memory of a college classmate, Edward King. As one of Milton's earliest works, it puts him squarely following in the footsteps of Virgil, who, as we recall from our discussion of Spenser, went from writing pastoral poetry in his youth to the epic in his maturity. Review pastoral works read earlier this quarter; know what poets (vernacular and classical) were models for Milton in this regard. Note that the memorial volume in which Lycidas was published included twenty poems in Latin, three in Greek and only thirteen in English, clearly demonstrating the humanist training of these university students who (as Ascham and others advocated) learned to imitate classical poets in part by writing their own Latin and Greek verse. Note classical elements that denote the nobility of poetry (e.g. references to laurels, the Muses, and Orpheus). Note also that the three explicit climaxes in Lycidas combine humanist and Christian concerns: first Phoebus Apollo, the God of poetry, answers a question concerning the reward of poetry (lines 76-84); then St. Peter, guardian of the gate to heaven, answers a question about spiritual shepherds (ll. 108-31); and finally, Lycidas becomes a synthesis of both Classical and Christian "pastoral" imagery: he is in heaven with the lamb of God, an explicitly Christian God who is at once the Good Shepherd and the giver of poetic fame (lines 172-85). 

2) Milton also wrote 24 sonnets between 1630-1658 (i.e. between the ages of 22 and 50). His knowledge of and respect for the vernacular origins of the sonnet form are demonstrated not only by the fact that he wrote five sonnets in Italian but also in that he followed Petrarchan rather than Shakespearean (English) form; note also his use of the "tailed sonnet" form (sonneto caudato) in "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont" (which is not however an assigned reading for this class; for the term, see NA 1812, n. 1). Another formal innovation is his tendency to avoid end-stopped lines, a technique borrowed from another Italian poet, Giovanni Della Casa. This technique is analogous to the Metaphysical poets' desire to emulate the cadences of natural speech because it focusses attention on sentences rather than lines of verse ("On the Late Massacre in Piedmont" also offers a good example of this tendency).  Read over the assigned sonnets quickly (NA 1811-5). Unlike Lycidas (or Donne's Holy Sonnets), most of Milton's sonnets are not explicitly Christian in content; they also diverge from earlier sonnet tradition by their lack of emphasis on erotic love (and by the fact that they do not together constitute a sonnet cycle). Rather, Milton's sonnets betray his interest in the political and religious controversies that dominate his attention during and after the period of Puritan Rule (see esp. the poem dedicated to Cromwell, the military dictator of the Puritan Commonwealth and Protectorate, NA 1813). Two notable exceptions are "When I Consider How My Light is Spent" (NA 1812), which offers a first poetic reaction to Milton's blindness (a theme he will return to in Paradise Lost), and "Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint" (NA 1815), which records Milton's grief at the death of one of his wives from complications of childbirth.  Note that the "night" to which he refers in the poem's final line can be understood not only as his despair at his loss but as a reference to his physical condition.  Since 1652, when he became completely blind, Milton can "see" only in dreams -- or in his poetry.

3) Polemical Tracts and Pamphlets.  The introduction to "Voices of the War" (NA 1725-6) mentions the wide range of "tracts" and "pamphlets" that were written during the twenty years of Puritan rule. This proliferation of literally hundreds of published polemical texts came to be known as the "Pamphlet Wars." Milton was an active participant in these debates, represented for our purposes by the "Plans and Projects" section of The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty (NA 1796-1801).  In this text (dating from 1642), note Milton's concern with the intersection between religion and politics (comparable to that found in his sonnet "On the New Forcers of Conscience Under the Long Parliament," NA 1812 -- also not a required reading for ENGL 203).  Pay particular attention to statements that reveal Milton's literary ambitions and to his comments on his own education. Milton's participation in the public debate of the "pamphlet wars" era also included e.g. arguments in favor of divorce for incompatibility and his Areopagitica (written in 1644), a defense of a free press. The title of Areopagitica is a classical allusion that implies a connection between the ancient Greek tribunal and the English parliament (as well as between the Greek orator Isocrates and Milton himself). Milton's classical education is also felt in the structure of the tract, which follows the rules of classical rhetoric. While Areopagitica is not an assigned reading, be aware that Milton's final argument for freedom of the press introduces the theme of Free Will which he will develop in Paradise Lost: since God made man capable of free will, men should be allowed to choose between ideas (see headnote, NA 1801-2, and e.g. the text found on NA 1804).

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Study Questions for Paradise Lost

In the headnote to PL (NA 1815-6), pay particular attention to discussion of: poem's structure;the epic conventions used by Milton; and the connection between Milton's poetry and his politics. Know the justification provided by Milton and the NA editors for his use of Blank Verse (see NA 1816 and "The Verse," NA 1817) -- and of course you should be able to define "blank verse" and its component parts (blank verse = unrhymed iambic pentameter = ??).

While you are encouraged to read the whole text, you are responsible only for assigned readings.  The assignments are long, but they are neither as long nor as difficult as your readings from Spenser's Faerie Queene. . . Don't worry about remembering every detail of the narrative -- instead, read for a sense of how Milton fits into the literary tradition we have been tracing this semester. An outline will be provided for some parts of the poem -- USE IT!!! It will direct your attention to many significant passages.

As you read, note connections (as well as contrasts) to works read earlier this semester. For example:

1) Consider Milton's use of epic conventions and classical literary motifs, e.g. the invocation of the Muse, twelve-book structure of PL, various classical allusions, the "catalogue" of characters (the "roll-call" of false Gods in Bk. 1), the "descent into Hell," etc. Consider these motifs in light of what you know about the epic tradition. How does Milton both follow his vernacular and classical models and surpass them? What does he have in common with Homer, Virgil, Dante and Spenser? How does his epic differ from each of theirs?

2) Milton's "Heavenly Muse" represents the fusion of classical and Christian elements. Note that in addition to the opening of bk. 1 (and thus the poem as a whole, 1.1-26), there are three other invocations of the Muse: 1) the second ("Hail, holy Light..." [3.1-55]) is addressed to an explicitly Christian source of inspiration; it is found at the beginning of bk. 3, the account of the Council in Heaven and Satan's arrival in Eden; 2) a third invocation is found at the beginning of bk. 7 and thus the second half of the poem, prior to Milton's description of the Creation (note that God's creation of the world, one of the climactic events described in PL, is analogous to Milton's creation of a poem which encompasses the cosmos, Heaven, Hell and Earth); 3) a fourth Invocation of the Muse, seen as the spirit of Poetry, is found at the beginning of bk. 9, which describes THE ultimate cosmic "event" of PL: the fall of Mankind (9.13-47). Note the way in which the four invocations together constitute a single text (read sequentially, they make up one larger Invocation that is also Milton's statement of purpose and defense of his own Poetry). Milton's reiterated invocation of the Muse before the most climactic events of his epic recalls Spenser's second invocation of the Muse in FQ 1.11, prior to the narrative climax of FQ 1, RCK's battle with the dragon -- which also recalls the Biblical account of the fall of mankind in as much as it is Spenser's reworking of the serpent in Eden (land of Una's parents, Adam and Eve).

3) In the four invocations of the Muses (but also elsewhere in the text of the poem), note the explicit and implicit references to light, darkness and Milton's physical blindness. How is his physical infirmity connected to the deeper theme of man's inability to comprehend God's will? And whom is he trying to convince? Consider the possible connection between Milton's ambition to "assert Eternal Providence,/ And justify the ways of God to men" (1.24-6) and his own disappointment over the failure of the Puritan Commonwealth (with which he was closely involved as Cromwell's Latin secretary. . . )

4) In claiming to "justify the ways of God to men," is Milton guilty of quasi-Satanic pride? Contrast with Spenser's more modest contention that it is "full hard ... to read aright/ the course of heavenly cause, or understand/ the secret meaning of th'eternall might,/ that rules men's wayes, and rules the thoughts of living wight" (FQ Bk. 1, Canto 9, lines 51-4). Compare/contrast Spenser and Milton in terms of poetic self-confidence and literary ambition.

5) To what extent is Milton's Satan a heroic figure? Compare/contrast with Dr. Faustus. What positive qualities does he embody? Why is he appealing? At what point does he start to lose his charm? How does Satan's temptation of Eve pick up the motifs of overweening pride and the fatal desire to emulate God (traits shared by Satan and Dr. Faustus -- and perhaps by Milton himself)? Consider in this regard Eve's dream in bk. 5, as well as the key passages in bk. 9. What causes Eve's downfall? Is she guilty of pride? Of envy? Of vanity? Is she capable of resisting Satan's temptation? Who is blamed for her fall and why?

6) Note Milton's treatment of Adam and Eve, particularly his opinions concerning marriage and the gender roles appropriate to each sex. Based on the depiction of Eve, what can you deduce about his attitude towards women? How might Aemilia Lanyer react to his depiction of Eve? In addition to the key passages in Bks. 4, 8 and 9 (see outline), note Eve's dream (first selection from Bk. 5); her role during the visits of the Archangels Raphael (second selection from Bk. 5 and summaries of Bks. 5 and 6) and Michael (summary of Bk. 11; Bk. 12). Where would you place Milton in the spectrum of attitudes toward women encountered this term?

7) Consider the depiction of the forces of Good and Evil in this epic, including the treatment of the "Fortunate Fall" (felix culpa) and the question of free will. Compare Milton's Renaissance Christian world view with what you know about medieval religious views (recall our discussion of Everyman week 1) and with the treatment of religious themes in earlier Renaissance works such as Spenser's Faerie Queene and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Compare/contrast the use of allegory in these works. How does Paradise Lost reflect Milton's personal experience of the Puritan revolution and its aftermath?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2005

Click here for Spenser's Faerie Queene study guide

Click here for Pastoral Poetry study guide

Click here for Sonnets study guide

Click here for 17th-Century Women Writers: Poetry and Politics

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