John Donne, Erasmus, and Religious Warfare

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he work of John Donne has traditionally been subdivided into that of “Jack” and “Doctor” Donne, based in the topical breach that occurs over Donne’s career from the bedroom to the pulpit. Yet as Richard Strier remarks in his article “Radical Donne: ‘Satire III,’” critics have recently sought to find the underlying themes that find vitality in Donne’s work from early to late. One such theme is religion and religious conflict. Donne’s conversion experience is the autobiographical catalyst in the distinction between Jack and Doctor Donne, yet critics such as Strier seek the shared anxiety, tension, and ambition in Donne’s religious thinking throughout his career. Strier makes a compelling case in “Radical Donne” that Donne’s early Satire III (composed at the end of the 16th century) shows a radical coexistence of Catholic and Protestant theology and scholarship. In this essay I want to suggest further that not only does “Satire III” show the marks of an author versed in both Erasmus and Luther as Strier suggests; it also shows a radical desire for peace on a continent fraying and eventually breaking at the seams over the course of Donne’s life, a peace evoked in “Satire III,” the Holy Sonnets, and the Meditations in opposition to the imagery of war. Thus, another critical facet of Donne’s “radicalism” is his desire for peace forged in dialogue with chivalric and classical militarism, Erasmus’ calls for peace, and contemporary martyrology. Donne argues throughout his poetry and satires for a  Christian valiance in opposition to bravery, war, and corrupt princes.

The nature of Donne’s radicalism as defined by Empson and Strier is worth considering further in the context of the language of war and peace in the Satire itself and Donne’s later poems and poetry. For Empson, Donne was a rung in the ladder up to modern political thought, an author that “-[gives] an inherent argument for freedom of conscience” (Empson). Strier is right to suggest that this concept alone was hardly radical for the time period, at least in itself; and Empson’s rendering does suggest a mechanistic view of the relationship between literary project and history that is less prevalent in contemporary criticism.  Empson’s argument is Strier’s springboard though, and the latter does base his own project on the general desire to read Donne as aspiring religiously and politically for a radical harmony between Protestant and Catholic. Strier elucidates, “Donne can be seen to have shown…the perhaps surprising compatibility of three of the most radical notions of the European sixteenth-century: Erasmus’ “Philosophy of Christ,” Castellio’s vindication of doubt, and Luther’s conception of conscience” (Strier 312-3). For Strier, Donne’s radicalism is markedly his own in that it is constructed of conflicting Catholic and Protestant theologies. Such tolerance was a radical notion in the period leading up to the Thirty Years War, an era historian C.V. Wedgewood described as “thick with the apprehension of conflict” (Wedgewood 12).  Strier convincingly makes the case that Donne seeks to synthesize these contradictions in the Satire. Yet there is some merit in Empson’s original critical project to seek not only the hermeneutical, epistemological, theological, and philosophical in Donne’s Satire but also the historical. The historical threat and reality of religious war emerges again and again in the text, making the conclusion of Donne’s Satire not only a call for theological and philosophical coexistence but also an anxious interaction with the threat of religious war.

From the very first lines of the Satire, Donne invokes the language of martial battle and then vanquishes its value with a rhetorical equivalency between Protestant and Catholic that Strier highlights. Donne begins, “Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids / Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids” (ll. 1-2) It is disquieting that we begin this Satire that so ardently argues for radical tolerance with imagery of paralysis. Pity chokes, while “brave” scorn forbids (like a King) tears to flow from his eyes. Catholic and Protestant talking points are immediately invoked in these opening lines. Donne summons the physical, the source of Protestant anxiety, and suggests that kind pity emerges from his body and mind (the spleen representing both) (Strier 286) as well as despair. Such a description complicates a more radical Protestant reading of the body as an instrument of declination and corruption, a complication the early Donne pursues in several of his love poems. With the next stroke of his pen, Donne rejects the notion that authority may assuage the moisture that rises to our eyes, a markedly Protestant critique of Catholic bureaucracy. Authority forbids us only from visibly crying and cannot vanquish the tears “which swell my eyelids.” This is much in line with Strier’s project to find coexistence in the Satire, but I think Donne’s use of the concept of bravery in these opening lines is also significant. Brave scorn, that which prevents us from “weep[ing] sins,” has decidedly martial social connotation to it. Bravery and honor, cornerstones of chivalric nationalism (and what Donne famously attacks in “Death Be Not Proud”), are what enable sin through “forbidding” the poet from ridding himself of that sin.

Only a few lines later, Donne pursues the inability of the martial to absolve sin and the theological differences of the day. Donne continues, “Is not our mistress, fair Religion, / As worth of all our souls’ devotion / As virtue was to the first blinded age? / Are not heaven’s joys as valiant to assuage / Lusts, as earth’s honor was to them” (ll. 5-9)? Donne asks a provocative question that seeks to challenge contemporary readers with a historical equivalency between the classical and the present. Strier is right to suggest that this is not a condemnation of the classical by Donne. Donne questions, as Strier states, how “faire religion” has failed to inspire similar devotion (Strier 288). Yet that very question as Donne has constructed it seeks to blend these eras and to see the tendrils of influence between them. What Donne invokes from the classical is markedly martial – bravery and virtue (the latter word rooted in the Latin vir, which Donne plays with in “Death Be Not Proud”). Donne offers an alternative to that bravery, virtue, and honor that defined the classics and that now prevent the poet from ridding himself of sin. He suggests that to seek the synthesized, general Christian project is true valiance, a surely martial concept. But the rhetorical necessity of the question denotes the anxiety that underlies much of the Satire. Donne desires a radical valiance for peace, but his era is steeped instead in the martial bravery and honor of the classical age. Both sides are accused in this opening section, the “Spanish fire,” and the “courage of straw” that serves as kindling. There is certainly a desire here for religious synthesis, but there is also a profound anxiety over the martial realities of these questions. When Donne writes lines later, “O, if thou dar’st, fear this; / This fear great courage and high valor is” (ll. 16), he is interacting with the martial reality of the day at the turn of the 17th century, where bravery and honor prevent reconciliation and actively push Protestants and Catholics towards war. For Donne, fear is the truly valorous and courageous act, fear of a culture of martial courage, and fear to follow “tyrannous rage” (ll. 105) towards disastrous ends.

The ending of the Satire incorporates much of this martial imagery and the nature of the ending in light of this imagery divides critics. Strier, for example, reads the end as a positively ambivalent one. Strier writes in the conclusion to his own piece, “The integral soul, standing still, refusing to be bound, waiting for a personal revelation that may or may not come, is the final positive image of Satire III” (Strier 312). For Strier, the poet is ultimately not tied down with “fetters,” and the end of the Satire expresses an ideology of coexistence. The martial imagery here, as it does in the opening sections, evokes an underlying anxiety that needs further exploration. In concluding, Donne writes,

“As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell / At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and prove well, / But having left their roots, and themselves given / To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven / Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost / Consumed in going, in the sea are lost. / So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust / Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust” (ll. 103-108).

 

Donne’s conclusion complements the poem’s opening emphasis on tears with Christian imagery of water. It is now tyrannous rage (instead of bravery or honor) that drives the water with haste away from less destructive paths. The image of consumption through a process of movement is undeniably militaristic. Like a war, the river courses through the countryside and destroys as it moves through. This destruction is tied on the sentence level to an abandonment of “roots” located in a “calmer” section, a section without tyrannous rage and “unjust Power.” I think Strier is right to suggest that these roots are not specifically Catholic (as could be inferred by an abandonment of tradition). Donne is instead suggesting a more general Christian ancestry, an ancestry he endeavors in the opening of the Satire to describe as valiant. But here as before in the face of that valiant cause is the threat of tyranny and incorrect choice. Donne’s inclusion of choice in these final lines complicates Strier’s claim that the ending optimistically looks to religious coexistence. Donne undeniably desires such an accomplishment amid the commingled worlds of religion and politics in the late sixteenth century, but the idea remains just that:  a desire. Like the kind pity and deeply felt sorrow of the introduction, this ultimate desire remains challenged by the threat of religious conflict rooted in classical notions of bravery, courage, and anti-tyrannical rebellion.

Before turning to Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Meditations, I want to explore further the nature of Donne’s peace and the intellectual influences and precedents for Donne’s interaction with the threat of religious warfare. Strier cogently argues that a main facet of the religious synthesis at the heart of Satire III, that I argue is put into crisis by the threat of war, is the work of  Erasmus. Erasmus, as critic Robert Allen suggests in his book The Better Part f Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vivies, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535, wrote at great length on what Strier terms “pacifism” (Strier 291). I will argue, though, that Donne’s utilization of Erasmus is not merely one that invokes Erasmus’ universal pacifism but rather a pointed political, historical critique of the religious warfare of the 16th and 17th century – a distinction that can be found in Erasmus’ own critique of corrupt government and chivalric courage. Erasmus’ philosophy of Christ is fundamentally a reaction to the secular, warring, and political machinations of the late Medieval church, and the dialectical and often directly involved shadow of the threat of war in Erasmus is reflected repeatedly in Donne’s Satires and later poetry. Adams describes Erasmus’ conception of war in the following terms, which is a useful entry point to the influence of Erasmus on Donne’s poetic depiction of peace: “His (Erasmus) practical proposal is that leaders on both sides, as rational men pursuing self-interest , should count in advance all war’s costs. When this is done, wisdom will dictate settling disputes quietly by arbitration… when full accounting is made of costs, all military triumphs turn out to be Cadmean: everyone suffers ruin” (Adams 101). Donne’s thesis in Satire III is markedly similar to Adam’s summation of Erasmus’ objection to war. Donne brings the cost of war repeatedly to the center of the Satire, and the central moment of contrast between mistress and faire religion relies on the imagery of chivalric idealism and religious persecution (the courage of straw and fires of spain, for example). While Erasmus, like Donne, ultimately does make a transcendent conclusion that war is anti-Christian and ruinous for all participants, the avenue through which Erasmus makes this meta-critique is specifically late Medieval and Renaissance religious strife. Like Donne, Erasmus aims not only at the abolition of all conflict but also a specific political and historical peace. Donne and Erasmus share a Humanist desire to reform the social and cultural ills (often associated with ignorance in Humanist discourses) towards the end of manifesting a more just society. The consummate Humanist, Erasmus spends much of Erasmus Against War making a an argument that relies on this rhetoric of moving from social ills to transcendent, spiritual solutions and conclusions.

Erasmus’ rhetorical structure in Erasmus Against War strongly mirrors Donne’s own in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations and it is a structure that suggests the connection between Erasmusian peace and the political origination of Donne’s own peace. In the opening argument of the treatise, Erasmus asserts the following about war, “War, what other thing is it than a common manslaughter of many men together, and a robbery, to which, the farther it sprawleth abroad, the more mischievous it is? But many gross gentlemen nowadays laugh merrily at these things, as though they were the dreams and dotings of schoolmen, the which, saving the shape, have no point of manhood, yet seem they in their own conceit to be Gods” (Erasmus 23-24). The last part of the quoted section strikingly mirrors the end of Satire III and Sonnet 10, and the general rhetorical thrust of Erasmus’ description demands further exploration. He begins with a general reflection on the sinful nature of killing, but then returns to the secular in the middle section with his allusion to the chivalric gentleman of the age before ultimately returning to the fact that war makes men conceive of themselves as God. This stop on the secular in the median of a rhetorical thrust towards transcendental synthesis is one that Donne will repeatedly do in his Holy Sonnets and Meditations, and it introduces an anxiety that I highlighted in Satire III and that is at play in Donne’s later work. Resting rhetorically between theological condemnations of religious violence is the anxious rendering (if only to attempt to vanquish the threat with a final, universal coup de grâce) of chivalric bravery and martial courage that Adams is right to suggest is the subject of many early 16th century humanist projects. Like Donne in Satire III, Erasmus must reckon the threat of secular, martial culture in his generalizing rhetoric against war. This rhetorical structure is the one I will highlight in Donne’s later work, and its a rhetorical structure that is for Donne further contextualized with the question of martyrdom in a period of religious war.

The concept of martyrdom for both Erasmus and Donne played a significant role in the way religious warfare was understood, and Donne’s specific interaction with the concept of martyrdom lends further context to the nature of peace in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations. Critic Susannah Monta in her article “When the Truth Hurts: Suffering and the Question of Religious Confidence” usefully places Donne in the environment of 16th and 17th century martyrology in response to religious persecution and war. Monta begins, “Donne’s preordination prose questions common martyrological assumptions, arguments, and rhetoric. His poetry explores the psychological effects of the notion that suffering could confer religious confidence, while his sermons postulate alternative, spiritualized forms of agonistic struggle that both honor intense spiritual quests and confer the benefits of religious confidence without the actual shedding of blood” (Monta 118). As I have argued before, Donne’s alternative agonists are not merely spiritual or escapist theology but rather a specifically political and historical reaction to religious war. Yet, Monta gives a provocative further vocabulary for Donne’s interaction with the threat of spilt blood. Religious confidence, a confidence in election in Monta’s argument, could be conferred without martial struggle. This is a passivity that we found in Erasmus and Donne’s rejection of men who would be gods. Donne’s opposition to Martyrdom, as Monta cogently summarizes, is one that opposes agonizing one’s own death. This is something Donne will satirize and interact with in Pseudo-Martyr and Biathanatos, and it is a central concern that finds life in Donne’s sonnets and meditations. War for Donne is institutionalized martyrdom, the replacement of a valiant faith with a courageous death – a break from providence towards grim, rushing waters.

Monta makes a second important distinction in Donne’s reaction to emergent martyrology. Donne, as the evasive rhetoric of Satire III suggests, is ultimately unwilling to ascribe himself to either Catholic or Protestant notions of martyrdom in the period. Monta writes, “But rather than simply celebrating Protestant and/or Foxean versions of martyrdom instead –  Donne often posits alternative forms of interior, spiritualized suffering and argues that those forms of suffering may confer all of martyrdom benefits – Donne’s persistent engagements with martyrdom undergird his reconciliation of his conformity to the Church of England with his family’s sufferings for Catholicism” (Monta 119). Donne rejects throughout his career the martyrdom of Foxe and Southwell, instead offering a nominally Protestant third partyism in opposition to martyrdom. Yet the autobiographical criticism often offered in response to Donne’s religious experience hampers our readings of Donne’s interaction with historical and political circumstance. Donne’s ambivalence towards martyrdom shares many of the themes outlined in Satire III in his critique of martial valor. Monta accurately suggests that Donne’s discomfort with martyrdom is rooted in his ambition to procure the benefits of martyrdom without violence – to, put differently, have a peaceful martyrdom. I argue that the ambivalence of Donne to Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, when rendered next to his invocation of Erasmus’ commentary on war, is rooted more significantly in a desire for peace between the two splitting religious factions rather than Donne’s personal experience with conversion. It is a hegemony of two currents that are undeniably connected in Donne’s thought, yet that former fear of religious war hampering transcendent peace is represented to a significant degree in the poetry and prose in Donne’s later work. In the Holy Sonnets and Meditations, we find a markedly similar rhetorical structure to that of Erasmus in response to war and Donne in response to martyrdom, and it is a rhetorical structure based not merely in the theological and autobiographical respectively, but also in the historical and political.

Donne’s tenth Holy Sonnet is perhaps his most canonical poem, and has long been read as a reflection on the temporary death associated with chivalric courage and the permanent life associated with “faire religion.” Yet Donne also implements a rhetorical structure found in Erasmus of interrupting a transcendent image with war and chivalric ideology, leading to an ultimate vanquishing of temporary martiality with transcendent spirituality at the end of the rhetorical arc. Donne begins the poem, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreaful, for thou art not so; / For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 1-4). The poem begins with a spondee (in opposition to its generally iambic form) that calls attention to the declarative nature of the poem, and the stresses then hit “proud”, “some”, and “call(éd),” all words that undermine the addressee. The metric form remains important in Donne’s effort to undermine death and establish a dichotomy in the poem between true religion and false “pictures” (ll. 5). Importantly, though, Donne begins with a general retort against death; one that seeks to vanquish the power of death just as Erasmus sought to diminish war to institutionalized petty crime (“manslaughter”). Like Erasmus in Erasmus Against War, the poet differentiates himself from those who would ascribe a greater meaning to death or war. Though others might “call” death powerful, he is not, and the main conceit of the poem is undermining death’s power in this way. Donne’s own rhetoric, though, continues to mirror Erasmus’ as the specter of those would “call” death powerful emerges to the narrative center of the poem.

In separating himself from those he is rhetorically opposing himself to, Donne invokes the threat of religious warfare in the minds of those who call death powerful, and like Erasmus, he must address this issue before getting to his transcendent anti-war conclusion. Donne reflects of the men who march off to war, as he once did, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 7-9). The stresses in this section are also critical, as Donne includes a spondaic section where “slave, fate, chance, kings, men, poison, war, and sickness” are all stressed. The section is not simply a rejection of martial courage or soldiers who go to war. Instead, Donne ambivalently suggests that England’s “best men” go off to war and are led astray and ultimately killed by the string of stressed syllables. Like it was for Erasmus, the problem for Donne is that class of “gentleman” who fancy themselves “to be gods” in “dreams and dotings” (Erasmus 24). The poem heavily mirrors Erasmus’ focus on the fraudulent narrative of death, and here, Donne movingly suggests the costs of that narrative. Poison, sickness, and war itself are all images associated with the religious conflict on the continent in the late 16th and early 17th century, as pestilence specifically killed thousands in armies made up frequently of men who were travelling for the first time (Wedgewood 28). Critically, Donne, like Erasmus, interrupts his narrative on the fraudulency of death to discourse with the very real allure of war to the “best men” of Europe. Led by corrupt princes, the topic of much of Erasmus’ writing, good men in Sonnet 10 could empower death to be that which Donne says it is not. It is a very real threat, represented in this section on the metrical and linguistic level. Donne interrupts his rhetorical thrust towards God with a narrative on those who would see themselves as God. This rhetorical construction is a direct mirror of Erasmus’ language in Erasmus Against War, and Donne’s synthetic and triumphant ending section strives for the same transcendent, though textured, peace Erasmus describes in that text.

Donne’s 10th Holy Sonnet ends in a provocative way that mirrors the rhetorical structure outlined in Erasmus. Donne concludes after his interaction with men who would be gods,

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more Death, thou shalt die” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 13-14). Like Erasmus, Donne concludes by returning to divinity and a transcendent spirituality. The section, though, has divided critics. The nature of the inversion at the end does cast a shadow of ambivalence over the poem specifically in the context of the previously outlined passage on war. In the rhetoric of the poem, chivalric courage and corrupt kings empower death and in doing so die themselves. In the imagery, then, death and its earthly messengers (those kings and wars) are conflated. Thus, when Donne says “death, thou shalt die,” is the aim only the death he originally addressed himself to? Indeed, that original invocation of death is followed in the very opening couplet by those who would call it powerful. The ending puts into center view the crisis of the Humanist project for Erasmus, More, and Donne in this poem. Erasmus renders in Erasmus Against War that corrupt princes can lead men to disastrous ends, as Donne suggests in Sonnet 10, yet Erasmus spends much of the treatise suggesting ways to fix the problem. As with the issue of martyrdom, Donne remains evasive in the Sonnets and even in the Meditations as to what can catalyze the death of death. The necessity of the death of chivalric virtue and martyrdom was evident to Donne and Erasmus before him, yet at the turn of the 17th century the humanist project of More and Erasmus was becoming increasingly estranged from the reality of religious conflict. Certainly the difference can be attributed to genre (between treatise and poem), but in the ending of Sonnet 10 there is a peculiar ambivalence in subject and outcome. Donne movingly establishes the cost of war in that section that interrupts his rhetorical arc (the same rhetorical structure Erasmus uses in calling for peace), and knows it must end in peace, but is ultimately unsure as to how to secure it in this realm. He settles instead for supplicating such concerns to God, and not be a man who fancies himself as God. Yet, the poem is catalyzed by that section that opposes such a transcendental and spiritual conclusion to the very real secular threat of religious war.

The very next sonnet in the Holy Sonnet sequence deals intimately with the question of martyrdom, secular rule, and solutions. In the middle of Sonnet 11, Donne reflects of the crucifixion, “They killed once an inglorious man, but I / Crucify him daily, being now glorified. Oh let me then, his strange love still admire. / Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment” (“Sonnet 11” ll. 7-9). Donne’s description of Jesus as an “inglorious man” is telling to the countercultural persona at work in the Sonnets. Like the persona in Sonnet 10, Donne in Sonnet 11 opposes himself immediately to prevailing notions of “glory,” a central facet of contemporary martyrology. Donne establishes Jesus in this passage in opposition to those forces he had put in death’s party, and it is a distinction that is a very expected one coming after Sonner 10. Importantly for Monta’s context on Donne’s ambivalence to the question of both Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, Donne further enters into the question of kingly punishment. Very much in line with Erasmus’ description of those who seek war as men who think themselves God, Donne describes the pardoning of Kings as fraudulently conflated with true sacrifice. Donne undermines this notion by asserting instead that Jesus himself bore the punishment of mankind. This difference between active sacrifice and secular violence mirrors the distinction Donne drew between “brave men” and “kings” in Sonnet 10, and gives a provocative context to Donne’s views on martyrdom. As in Satire III, Donne evades a dogmatic condemnation of solely secular kingship or anti-tyrannical protestant martyrdom. Instead Donne suggests a third position, a position for political peace and spiritual supplication to providence.

Donne’s famous “Meditation 17,” written at the end of his life, is a suitable text to finish a discussion on the question of political and historical peace in Donne’s greater interaction with war on the continent. In it, many of the anxieties hitherto outlined come to the fore of Donne’s interaction with warfare. The question of Humanist potential to reform the chivalric, militaristic culture of the day that drove Europe actively to war as he wrote the Meditation is central, as is the general Erasmusian desire for peace in response to secular division. In perhaps his most famous written words, Donne urges the reader, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (“Meditation 17” 1305). As with the Sonnets and is Erasmus’ Erasmus Against War, Donne begins with a transcendent ambition and then interrupts it with this narrative on the threat of religious war. But the threat in the early 1620s, well into the crisis of the Holy Roman Empire that devolved into the Thirty Years War, is markedly less chivalric and classical (as it was in Satire III). Instead, we get a tenor that is thematically kindred with Erasmus in Erasmus Against War. Donne urges his reader, as Adams summarized of Erasmus, to consider the whole cost of war on estates personal and non. The lynch pin upon which he constructs this urge to reason is Europe itself, and provocatively, the water imagery of Satire III. Donne now does not address the general crisis of poor kingship and chivalric courage, but rather the immense human cost that began to soar as the 1620s advanced and Denmark and Sweden entered the war in Germany. Donne no longer wishes to differentiate himself from the militaristic other, he now writes for a radical peace begotten of a radical homogeneity amongst human beings. The influence of Erasmus on this most memorable of Donne’s passages cannot be overstated, and while the variables shift slightly away from a direct opposition to courage and war and towards a universal human kindred there is a shared rhetorical construct at play in the Meditation. Like in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets, Donne interrupts his narrative that seeks a transcendent spiritual peace with the very real threat of war. Erasmus had precedented the rhetorical move in his own treatise against war, and Donne reinvokes the rhetoric in Meditation 17 not only to argue ultimately for a transcendent spiritual supplication but also to render the very real and tragic nature of the wars in Europe as they unfolded. War had gone from a Dutch problem during the period of the Satire’s and Sonnet’s authorship to a generalized, destructive, and irresistible torrent over all of Central Europe. Donne interrupts his ambition in Meditation 17 with this mournful narrative, before ultimately framing his synthesis with the looming threat of war.

In the conclusion to the Meditation, Donne offers a provocative if/then statement on the ambition he has for the written word. Donne reflects, “-if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security” (“Meditation 17” 1306). I had suggested earlier that Donne is often evasive as to real solutions to the problem of war he so intimately deals with in the Satires and Sonnets, but here Donne reveals the fundamentally Humanist and Erasmusian ambition to fight war with rhetoric. Donne the Englishmen, a nation still only liminally involved in the war, urges his readers to partake in his process of reckoning the danger of others to proof against that danger spreading. I argue that we see this ideology at play in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets. Donne has an ambition for his poetry to interact with and counter war as it developed on the continent in the early 17th century. As before, Donne reckons a supplication as the only truly knowable solution to the problem. But as in the Satire and Sonnets, he comes to this conclusion after a rhetorical construction interrupted by religious warfare.

Following in Erasmus’ footsteps, Donne ultimately argues for political peace through a rhetorical trajectory that ends in religious transcendence. In Satire III there is a profound ambivalence at play over the question of religious war and its interference in the procurement of the religious synthesis Donne undeniably desires and as Strier highlights. In the Sonnets, I argue that this rhetoric is enacted, with inspiration from Erasmus, in the way Sonnets 10 and 11 are interrupted by the threat of  war before ultimately finishing with an ambivalent inversion of death. In “Meditation 17,” Donne is less ambivalent about his opposition to war through poetry, and specifically hopes in a Humanist fashion for the reason and reckoning of another’s grave, mortal danger to reform the world around him as it collapsed into war. Throughout Donne’s later work, though, I argue that the religious synthesis Strier is apt to highlight in Satire III is in every case placed consciously next to the threat of war by Donne. The synthesis is thus never truly complete for Donne in his poetry and prose. Donne and his poetry may very well declare that death will die, but Donne never forgets the “brave men” who perish by their thousands in following kings who may never take their own danger into contemplation.


*Note: I do not include works cited pages to impede academic plagiarism.  Let me know via email or a comment if you want the works cited entry for the articles and books cited here.

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Filed under Early Modern, John Donne, Literary Criticism, Literature, Thirty Years War, Uncategorized

Sidney’s Defense of Poesy and the Question of Poetry’s Power in the Early Modern Period


Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy is perhaps the most significant work of literary criticism in English from the early modern period. Sidney’s literary and political theses represent the synthesis in Elizabethan England of developed humanist thought and developing notions of the power of literature to move the individual, self-conscious reader. The nature of the text in general and how much critical legitimacy modern readers give to Sidney’s sprezzatura approach remains a nexus of critical attention. Some critics have focused on the Calvinist anxiety to be found in the text, or what Alan Sinfield calls a “puritan humanism.” Robert Stillman has countered this notion, suggesting Sidney renders not a limited poetry but instead a poetry that is “a vehicle of liberation”. The critical division on which Sidney is more central in The Defense of Poesy has serious implications on how we render not only Sidney’s literature, but his life and death on the battlefield of the Eighty Years war, and his influence on subsequent English poets and playwrights.

The Defense of Poesy serves as a suitable battleground for these debates on the anxiously Protestant or anti-tyrannical nature of Sidney’s body of work. In it, there is both edenic anxiety on the infection of Adam in all men, and transcendent, nearly-revolutionary depictions of poetry as a catalyst in the stooping of heaven to earth. I will argue here that these latter ambitions that Stillman is keen to highlight are hegemonically tempered in The Defense by an underlying anxiety over the potential of these ideals to be realized. This anxiety hampers a reading akin to Stillman’s anti-tyrannical one, but it also forestalls a strictly Calvinist reading of the text. The coexistence of self-creative ambition and the power of virtue to politically alter the state of affairs in England and a deep anxiety with the “profane wits” of the nation and its popular literature tempers Sidney’s aspirations of poetry away from both ends of this spectrum. As a result, The Defense of Poesy is a conflicted text that from line to line moves from lofty aspirations to an anxiety over those aspirations’ potential to be realized.

The topic of virtue is worth considering in relation to the anxiety found in The Defense as virtue underlies a major concern of early modern English thought. Stillman renders the virtuous task of poetry in Sidney as a heroic one, reading Sidney as seeking a juxtaposition between his project and the national realities of England. Stillman argues, “Unheroic nations, his logic suggests, do not value heroic arts-the best products of the muse. Sidney’s coterie audience may well have recognized in this complaint a specific political implication: unheroic times forestall English military intervention against Spanish tyranny, and such idleness is both shameful and perilous-.” Stillman reads Sidney’s frustration over England’s “hard welcome” of poetry as a reflection of an active ideological desire for English intervention abroad, and the idea can be taken further to simply say that Sidney’s frustration here, for Stillman, begets an active, specific response. Yet action seems to be of some contention in The Defense, as virtue, the mechanism Sidney identifies as a self-creative one, requires intellectual skill to attain and follow. Indeed, scholar JGA Pocock suggests in The Machiavellian Moment that virtue in early modern England was at once an ambitious tool for self-creation and simultaneously a source of much anxiety due to that self-creative nature (Pocock Chapter X). Thus Sidney’s self-creative model of virtue as understood through poetry is not buttressed by his critique of England and its relative political inaction (anti-heroism, to use Stillman’s language) in the Eighty and Thirty Years Wars; it is instead put into crisis by it. By his very invocation of poetic convention and political inaction in the latter sections of The Defense, Sidney simultaneously advocates for action and brings England’s present inaction and lack of innovation anxiously to front of the text. Sidney calls for change as Stillman rightly points out, but the text is self-conscious of the fact that this change may not occur due to the “profane wits” of the English public. It is a crisis Sidney does not defer in the argumentation of The Defense.

The aforementioned edenic reference that is the nexus of Calvinist readings can elucidate the tension I am seeking between these two poles in readings of The Defense. In quick succession, Sidney both outlines his radical ambition for the art of poetry and immediately tempers it with the image of Adam and Sidney’s own, if playful, self-knowledge of the lack of interest the anecdote will evoke in general populations. Writing lines before his reference to Adam, Sidney envisions, “Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grown in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature-.” This is a radical sentiment that encapsulates the simultaneously ambitious and tempered nature of poetry as described in The Defense. On one hand, Sidney renders poetry as able to surpass the natural world. Based in the limitless imagination of the author, poetry can transcend the material world and effect another nature. Yet the catalyst for this transcension is the poet’s “own invention,” a national faculty Sidney spills much “ink” to critique in the second half of the defense. That same crisis of virtue through delight (elicited by poetry) emerges even in the sections that seem to most clearly desire a politicized vision of poetry as a mechanism of liberation (as Stillman suggests).

Just lines later, this dynamic of tempered idealism continues in Sidney’s provocative characterization of humanity’s “infected will.” Adam serves as the central image, and even in Sidney’s humorous declination from the high and mighty implications of what he writes, he invokes the anxiety of the inability of poets and readers to reach his ambitions for poetry. Sidney reflects, “-of that first accursed fall of Adam, since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it. But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted.” The wit of the poet is erected, like virtue, yet hampered by a transient, inescapable infection in human will. Yet what surrounds this peculiar interlude colors the section in a less Calvinist light. Before and after, Sidney makes great pains to illustrate the earthly, material, and social value of poetry. Yet he does stop here to consider the anxiety of his rhetorical construction based on self-creation and poetic skill. If these are the two things poesy must be based on to achieve the lofty ambitions he envisions throughout, a deep sense of doubt is cast on the ability of these ideals to be realized. Like England in the wars of religion, may the English reader be paralyzed and incapable in the face of their critically important, literary task?

The eloquent and rhetorical conclusion to The Defense sheds further light on this anxiety found in critical readings of the text and the text’s early interaction with ambition and edenic limitations. Sidney repeats a set of beliefs, based from Christian authority to Greco-Roman precedent, that he hopes his readers will ascribe themselves to. When he interjects himself in this list, what he says speaks provocatively to the simultaneously ambitious and anxious dynamic of The Defense. Sidney compels his readers, “-to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused.” The mystery of poetry, that which delights in its discovery, exists in this profound admission from Sidney for the purpose of obfuscating the process Sidney has so carefully explained from corrupt interpretations. This hermeneutical crisis, the same that plagues virtue, “right reason,” and “right poetry,” is what Sidney associates with himself in the repetitive rhetoric of the conclusion. In his own historical moment (which Stillman is keen to highlight in The Defense), Sidney brings to the front of the text in its conclusion an edenic anxiety over hermeneutical incapability and error in response to poetry. Yet just on the other end of the turn of phrase is that sublime ambition for poetry to discover those mysteries and transcend that which hampers it.

The Defense of Poesy is a conflicted text that reaches with one stroke of the pen towards a transcendent poetry that can fix the ills of society, oppose continental tyrannism, and reveal personal mysteries in a delightful, pedagogical process. With the next, Sidney anxiously renders an understanding that these ambitions may fail to be realized. It is a contradiction and tension that I have argued needn’t be critically vanquished. Within The Defense we find both a deep desire for anti-tyrannical action on the continent and a Calvinistic anxiety over whether such things can be achieved in this realm. Sidney acknowledges it himself and works to think through it in The Defense. In the end, he asks his reader to “believe with me” that the mysteries of poetry can be delightfully revealed and protected from infected interpretations. Yet as illustrated by the necessity of illustrating the boons of poetry in the final lines of The Defense, Sidney knows that for each one of his readers to believe with him, there is a Stephen Gosson or a Plato.

*Note: I do not include the references to impede plagiarism. If you would like a reference to the Stillman articles, let me know in the comments or via email.

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An Introduction to Milton’s Satan, Part 1 (Critical History and Reception)

What matter where, if I be the same?

Milton’s Satan has cast an enduring shadow over literature and the tropes we use to this day to portray the fall of a character from a proverbial (or literal, if you ask Milton) heaven to hell. I’ve written previously on this blog about the modern use of Miltonic theodicy (1) in the much watched television series Breaking Bad(Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Reemergent Miltonic Theodicy). Yet, a student freshly entering Milton or specifically his masterwork Paradise Lost for a survey course at the college level may be less interested in the nuances of the vitality of Milton’s theodical project, and more so on the central critical debates surrounding the epic’s most captivating character, Satan. I certainly remember fondly my first paper on Milton as an undergraduate – a four page answer to the question “does Milton support Satan?”

This introduction, then, will serve the utilitarian purpose of introducing one unfamiliar with Milton’s most (in)famous character. Below, I will cover some of the major concepts one needs to consider when they endeavor to write and understand Satan’s role in the epic by pulling on the history of criticism of the epic, Satan’s transformation, Milton’s religiosity, the mythological roots of Satan’s character, and the political implications of Satan’s depiction in illuminating the beginnings of an answer to the age-old question of just what Milton is doing with his provocative textual depiction of the arch-fiend. In this introduction I will endeavor to include as many references as I can to encourage further study, and I have also included a very basic suggested reading list at the conclusion of the blog.

Scholars in Milton will notice that many corners have been cut and some dialogues omitted. This is a product of several things. Namely that I, like Milton’s Adam, am imperfect. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the intended audience of both the medium and this post itself is better served with introductory materials. This is meant as an introduction and should be treated as such. The primary goal of this post is to help those in Milton surveys and those with some bearing in literary studies  become acquainted with the dialogues surrounding Milton, and provide avenues for further research.

For ease of use, I will break this introduction into multiple parts to be released in the future. These parts will cover the following:

  • (1) Critical History and Reception 
  • (2) Satan’s transformation in the text of Paradise Lost
  • (3) Milton’s Puritanism and Satan’s appeal
  • (4) Charles II and Miltonic Satanism
  • (5) The New Milton Criticism and Satanic ambiguity

A History of the Critical Reception of Milton and Satan:
A unique facet of John Milton’s work and specifically his epic is that it was recognized as one of the finest works of poetry every written in his own lifetime; and because of this his epic has been a lynch pin on which succeeding generations have constructed their ideal literary forms and styles. This is key in understanding Satan as critical reactions to Satan, while now relatively homogeneous, have a conflicted past. In the fourth edition (the first edition to have engravings) of Paradise Lost published in 1688, Milton is proclaimed as Homer and Virgil in one. In his essay “Milton’s Readers,” scholar Nicholas Van Maltzhan highlights the rare celebration of Milton as one of the greatest poets of all time during his life and immediately after. Quoting contemporary critics, Van Maltzhan writes, “Hobart already reports ‘the opinion of the impartial learned’ that Paradise Lost is ‘not only above all modern attempts in verse, but equal to any of the ancient poets.’ Milton’s nephew also proclaimed to continental audiences that the poem “reached the perfection of this species of poetry” (2). To the point, Milton’s characters and his epic were considered a masterpiece by a majority of his audience.

The frontpiece of the fourth edition of Paradise Lost, where Milton is described as Homer and Virgil in one – “To make a third she joynd the former two.”

Yet the admiration of Milton as a master poet began to falter even as he was being immortalized in his fourth edition. In restoration England (Charles II was restored in 1660), specifically on the stage, his epic style was satirized. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras mocks the epic tenor and biblical nature of Paradise Lost, and Aphra Benn lampooned Milton’s concept of “know, yet abstain” (Areopagitica) in her famous play The Rover.  Milton’s erudition and humanism (3) where replaced by libertinism and later moderation. Alexander Pope would famously address Milton’s own effort “to justify the ways of god to man” in his “Essay on Man” by claiming proudly “What is, is RIGHT.” Satan, and all the wordy evil that he represents (which will be discussed in a later part), was robbed of his spiritual fangs by the increasingly secular discourse of restoration and 18th century England. In his ranter-esque (a religious sect from Revolutionary England) assertion that whatever God created on earth is right (4), Pope, in directly addressing Milton’s theodicy, endeavors to undermine the necessity of Milton’s project. This is certainly demonstrative of the move away from both the epic genre and the deeply religious undertones of Paradise Lost in the long 18th century. Ultimately, Satan and all he represented was removed as a serious threat to society and rendered as a product of dogmatic and fearful puritans.

“Beside, he was a shrewd philosopher / And had read every text and gloss over; / Whate’er the crabbed’st author hath, / He understood by implicit faith; / Whatever skeptic could inquire for, /For every why had a wherefore.” -Samuel Butler, Hudbiras (5)

As bourgeois sentimentality rose to prominence on the stage and on the page as the 18th century progressed, Milton’s ideology of temptation became more prevalent. In plays such as Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers and novels such as Burney’s Evelina, the idea of being tempted but refusing began to become more important and specifically linked to Milton his work, from Areopagitica and Paradise Lost. In such sentimental projects, the epic became an orthodox one; a pedagogical tool to warn the tempted away from sin and death. Satan’s character had moved from an overly dramatic relic of a dead ideology to a character of the highest evil – one who, by deception, turned the good and wholesome to the bad and corrupted. The villains of sentimental tragedies and comedies are often keenly Satantic. They have good in them, but abandon it for evil.

Sentimentality, like the libertine dramas of the Restoration before it, faded  into disfavor as society changed in the crucible of industrialization and empire. At the turn of the 19th century, England had undergone great change economically, politically, and socially. Out of this change emmerged romanticism, and the romantics are perhaps the most famous critics of Milton’s Satan. To the romantics, Satan’s heroic struggle against the “tyranny of heaven” (PL Book I) mirrored their own antiheroes like Prometheus, Frankenstein, and the romantic poet.  Shelley claimed his Prometheus was better than Milton’s Satan, if only for the reason that he as the author was willing to allow the character to achieve its full potential.

—“The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.” (6)

The romantics, as Shelley suggests in the above quote, saw Milton’s Satan as potentially out of the author’s control which is still a key point of criticism around the epic. William Blake, another romantic and author of the abortive twelve volume poem Milton, remarked famously that, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Many scholars still debate this very thing; is Milton’s Satan out of Milton’s control? Did Milton’s own grief over the fall of the Republican paradise (7) inhibit his ability to portray a just and kind God who could stand up to the cunning rhetoric of Satan? These are questions outside the scope of this summary, but they are questions that the romantics first raised in their desire to portray Satan as the true hero.

A main point of the romantic defenders of Satan is his Promethean quality. If, as the epic suggests, choice is the most important quality, Satan brings this power to Adam and Eve in an environment (Eden) where they have no choice. In this way, Satan emerges as Promethean; one who gives of himself to give a gift to humanity. A student looking to find reasons to defend Satan should know that this reading is almost universally denounced in modern Milton studies and with good reason, as Adam’s growing anxiety in Eden in the books leading up to the fall prove with very little doubt that Milton has intentionally established that the choice is long made clear to Adam and Eve, and they, our grandparents, chose wrongly in the end.

 photo satanparadise_zps2000234a.png

The picture adorning chapter 1 in the fourth edition of Paradise Lost (on the left), when compared to Dore’s famous 19th century engravings of Satan (seen on the right), demonstrates the impact of the romantics on our understanding of Satan. Notice that Dore’s Satan is much less demonic.

With the rise of institutions of literary criticism at universities in the English speaking world in the 20th century to today, movements in Milton criticism become less definable by era and are thus necessarily designated by critical school. In the heyday of New CriticismWilliam Empson published the famous Milton’s God in 1961 which is still used to frame the debate on the nature of Milton’s Heaven in Book III. Empson essentially makes the argument that the chief source of interest in the epic is the very ambiguity with which critics now wrestle, and to endeavor to explain away these ambiguities via Milton’s religious orthodoxy ultimately robs the epic of all its literary meat. This argument has reemerged in The New Milton Criticismwhich will be covered later.

the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious. (Milton’s God)

In the same year, C.S. Lewis published his much used A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he essentially argues the exact opposite of Empson. Lewis portrays Milton as an orthodox christian spinning a tale of orthodox validation, concluding, “Unorthodoxy must be searched for.” (8) As stated above, contemporary Milton criticism celebrates rather than deflates the importance of Milton’s moments of ambiguity, and Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana is miles away from orthodox. Jesus, provocatively, is not a part of a trinity but rather appointed by merit in Paradise Lost which rather oddly gives Lewis little pause. Because of these facts and a current critical appreciation of ambiguity, Lewis and other critics’ assertions of orthodoxy in Milton have come under fire.

The concept of Milton’s orthodoxy become central to late 20th century Miltonics when Stanley Fish published his canonical Surprised by Sin, which introduced the now common notion that Paradise Lost is a pedagogical text. Satan’s character and his early heroism are but a theological trap set by the ever in control Milton. It is a development of Lewis’ search for orthodoxy, as Fish, in line with his Reader Response critical method, illuminates an orthodox message in Satan’s seemingly sympathetic nature. Instead of demonstrating Milton’s own ambiguous theology, Satan’s character demonstrates a clever textual trap by Milton; intended to ensnare the sinful and then “surprise” them with their own sin as Satan’s evil is slowly, over the course of the epic, revealed.

While the New Milton Criticism avoids such efforts to dissolve Milton’s ambiguity, Fish’s critique was central to Miltonics for the latter half of the 20th century and still holds measurable critical support at the academy. Over the course of history, in sum, Milton and his most famous character have moved freely between the usually rigid categories of hero, genius, hack, villain, and god. This is critical in understanding Satan as whether or not Milton has full control of his archdemon is in much debate to this day, and it is a debate with many sides from many eras. In the next part, I will cover the way Satan develops as a character over the course of Paradise Lost itself, and highlight some hurdles and lynch pins for those readers with “sympathy for the devil.”

 

Further Reading on Milton’s Satan (included in each part):

Critical editions and collections of short criticism with essays about Satan:

(1) The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter Herman, Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge UP. 2012.

(2) The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge UP. 1999

(3) Paradise Lost. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Teskey. Norton. 2004.

(4) Milton’s Selected Poetry and Prose. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Jason Rosenblatt. Norton. 2010.

Introductory/notable critical works that are about/have sections on Satan:

(1) Milton’s God. William Empson.

(2) Surprised by Sin. Stanley Fish.

(3) Milton and the English Revolution. Christopher Hill.

(4) A Preface to Paradise Lost. C.S. Lewis.

(5) The Satanic Epic, Neil Forsyth.

(6) The Romantics on Milton, Joseph Wittreich.

(7) Representing Revolution in Milton and his Contemporaries, David Loewenstein.

Footnotes:

(1)An explanation of evil in a universe with a god, or, as Milton put it, “to justify the ways of god to man.”

(2) From Von Maltzhan’s essay The Cambridge Companion to Milton, cited above, Page 243

(3) Reading and use of classical texts, in this context.

(4) For more information on ranterism, see Lawrence Clarkson’s “A Single Eye”

(5) http://archive.org/stream/cu31924013360841/cu31924013360841_djvu.txt

(6) http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/PShelley/prompref.html

(7) The English Commonwealth, headed by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector

(8) A Preface to Paradise Lost,  C.S. Lewis

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The Civil War and the Importance of Historical Theory

The monument to the 54th Massachusetts in Boston, MA. 300,000 African Americans joined the Union Army, and many historians credit the change in Union strategy in 1864 to this development.

he American Civil War has always lingered in the hidden caverns of american nationhood, whether it be in the way we understand the Civil Rights Movement as a continuation of the 19th century conflict, or in the hushed reverence we give to the Gettysburg Address in our English classes. As the country presently puts its foot down one more time on the issue of the confederacy, the climactic event of the american national experience has surged into the popular discourse of the day. As a student of the conflict and a member of an organization that seeks to preserve the physical memory of the Civil War, I looked on these developments with excitement.

Mirroring the conflict itself, my excitement was met with a somber recognition that it should never have taken a terrorist attack to elicit this debate. The fault is not with those who have recently come to advocate for the destruction of confederate imagery on our nation’s buildings, I applaud them, the fault lies instead with our retelling of the event in our history classrooms and on the pages of history journals and popular historical publications. In an era where enrollment in history classes is plummeting and where the importance of an institution for the study history is being doubted by “program prioritization” at universities across the country, the events in Charleston offer a grim and terrifying reminder of the importance of the way we study history at the academy and the ways we write about it in our publications.

For the better part of the 20th century, the Civil War was portrayed as a tragic failure to compromise that broke apart old army college buddies and houses across the country. Amidst the slaughter of hundreds of thousands towards the defeat of slavery (sorry – “state’s rights,” and “union” according to Shelby Foote and Gary Gallagher, respectively) a few “authentic geniuses” (2) emerged to seek what sanity they could in this cataclysmic struggle. Happily, the social history movement of the 60s and 70s attacked the great man romanticization that dominated Civil War historiography, but there is still more work to do. In Ken Burn’s massively popular documentary, for example, the army of Northern Virginia was called “the greatest army in the history of world.” (3) Later in the series, Shelby Foote was inexplicably allowed to say that the two “authentic geniuses” of the war were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forest. If only the South Carolina Senate could vote to make putting those two names next to each other illegal.

This idea of “authentic geniuses” is a good one to frame a short discussion on how the way in which we have depicted the Civil War (the historiography we have utilized in studying it) at the academy and in popular media has stunted our national discussion on the continuing relevance of the Civil War. Implicit in such a discussion is the fact that history is important, and the work we do at the academy with it has significant impact on people living right now.

Foote said WHAT?!

Shelby Foote’s assertion that the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and the First Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan are both geniuses is not as out of place as you might think in the historiography of the Civil War. Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, a major motion picture, portrays Stonewall Jackson as a deeply religious man who actually liked black people (4). The film’s predecessor, Gettysburg, decided to portray Pickett’s Charge, a battle in which thousands were gunned down in an insane frontal assault ordered by the equally mystical Robert E. Lee, as a a quirky reunion between confederate general Lewis Armistead and union general Winfield Scott Hancock – two old West Point pals.

This odious great man theory, or an approach to history that sees the actions of heroic individuals as central rather than the political struggles of millions, serves a specific purpose in that paralyzing historiography of the Civil War that social historians righteously attacked. When a conflict of millions for the liberation of millions is reduced to the heroism of a handful of men, the political content that defined their decisions to fight for the union or confederacy is lost in a haze of personal traits that serve only to make the event theatrical.

For example, Bruce Catton claimed in his book A Stillness at Appomattox, that Union soldiers saluted Robert E. Lee as he rode off into the sunset, having butchered 300,000 of their friends. Later historians of the event have found no evidence for this, and the anecdote has generally been written off as pure falsehood. The falsehood is reflective of much of what we find in the above mentioned movies and similar popular histories – the deep political divisions between confederate and unionist, the disagreement on whether it was righteous under the lord to own another man, whether it was economically fair to do so, whether the declaration of independence and the founding ideals of the United States of America should include all men – are lost in a dramatized great man narrative that supposes that these divisions would be dropped as soon as the bullets stopped flying. Nathan Bedford Forest and Abraham Lincoln would reconcile, the confederate flag and the american flag could fly simultaneously – all because the great men who fought this war held within their hearts magnanimous mercy, forgiveness, and mutual respect.

The move to vanquish politics under the smoke and mirrors of great men is a clever one, as through the ripples the Civil War sent through society grew a growing radical sentiment for a more generalized liberation and a radical stomping out of confederate ideology. By robbing the conflict of this political content, the nascent american myths could endure – compromise is the american way, republican democracy can cure all social ills, and peaceful protest is the way to true change.

But as current events prove so magnificently, the political content at the heart of the Civil War and in the hearts of the men and women who fought in it, can be hidden no longer. The social history of authors such as James McPherson have begun to turn the page in Civil War historiography, but the historiography of eras past still propagates the idea that confederate ideology holds no political content and is merely a reflection of personal identity (a direct product of the depoliticization described above). In opposition to this group has grown a new generation of union soldiers, armed not with rifles but with climbing equipment, picket signs, and keyboards. Our historiography must nurture the sentiment that the Civil War was a fundamentally political struggle in which millions of people made a deliberate decision to fight for freedom and to fight for slavery. That same choice is now before us.

American history as a field has always been dominated by exceptionalist and great man ideology. Yet just as the political movements of the 60s and 70s created an environment for challenging and reevaluating those dominant methods, modern historians must react to the events unfolding on our streets and upon the glow of monitors across the country. Our history can unfold this much obfuscated conflict, and show that in an era not so long ago Americans fought for the liberation of the mistreated and enslaved for political, religious, and economic reasons. In such a message holds the catalyst for a national reckoning, where studious eyes find a political truth in the dim and flaring lamps of an every growing camp (5).

Notes:
(1) Excluding James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom, which is an excellent text that garnered well deserved acclaim and popularity.
(2) To use Shelby Foote’s terminology
(3) I wish I was joking.
(4) Roger Ebert was right when he said it’s a movie only Trent Lott would enjoy.

(5) See: Battle Hymn of the Republic:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

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The Importance of the Thirty Years War in Literature and Politics

The Spanish tercio stands depleted during their defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Rocroi, 1643

Few sometimes may know, when thousands err. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

hen a young John Milton sat down to write Latin poetry in his dormitory at Cambridge in the mid 17th century, many themes catalyzed his pen to put words to paper. Yet a preeminent anxiety in the formative Latin poetry of the young puritan was  the cataclysm he observed from across the English Channel (1). As his own government meandered in defending its supposed Protestant allies and advocated for peace, the Protestant armies of Denmark, Bohemia, and Sweden were progressively turned back and crushed by the catholic powers in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. James I even failed to send troops to save his own son-in-law, Frederick V, when a catholic host annihilated his dwindling host at the Battle of White Mountain.  All of this impressed deeply on Milton and his revolutionary generation; the feudal order had waged war against the estates (the growing middle class) in light of a failing legal system in the Holy Roman Empire, leaving millions dead and the core rivalries and contradictions of society unsolved. It was but years after this era that the axe fell on Charles I and a transatlantic tradition of republican resistance to monarchism was born.

In a time before Cromwell, Paine, and Robespierre, there was this most unfortunate era; where the dying feudal order rife with contradiction brought on the wings of political paralysis the deaths of millions. An era where the core contradictions of society where not dealt with but subverted by emergent nationalism (secular and non) and imperial ambition. The damage was worst in Germany, where the population would vote the war as the most devastating in the country’s history in the 1960s (2*). In many ways, the roots of 19th and 20th century German nationalism were first sewed in the disastrous fragmentation of Germany after the Peace that ended the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Despite these long reaching consequences, the war is but an afterthought for even scholars of the early modern period. Like World War I, the Thirty Years War draws less attention than its more substantive ancestors. As James Joyce proved in Dubliners (perhaps too well for some readers), paralysis can be just as meaningful as great leaps forwards and backwards. In the perilously fixed limbs of German society in the mid 17th century we find precedent for the keenly militant tone of many of our most treasured early modern authors such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton; and I will argue that to ignore the Thirty Years War is to shut out a major avenue for understanding their work. What’s more, in the history of the Thirty Years War we find remarkable similarities to our own time (some of which I will cover below) and equally remarkable warnings against the problems of imperialism, abstraction, and dedication to aged constitutional provisos.

It it for this latter reason that I have taken a break from writing my thesis (fleeing like Frederick V from the Catholic League, in other words) to write this on the 2nd anniversary (to the day) of Waiting for Putney. In that time, we’ve reached over 110 countries and collected tens of thousands of unique readers. I certainly did not expect the late night, caffeine-induced sermons about Cuba and Milton that began this blog to lead where it has, and I thank each and every reader for their attention and thought. Like a good puritan, I will celebrate this milestone by ruminating on the near collapse of western civilization and the ways in which said collapse mirrors our own time.

The Thirty Years War in Literature:

John Donne

Literary scholars of 17th century British literature find themselves in the uncomfortable position of reading literature only years apart that is rapturously different. This has resulted in the quite awkward “long 18th century” which includes the literature written during the rule of Charles II and James II. This rapture in literature was caused chiefly by the English Revolution, but the war that ravaged Europe in the time leading up that fateful struggle left indelible marks on the literature of canonical writers from Donne to Bunyan. In many ways, the necessity of the awkward “long 18th century” was brought about by the militancy and violence that loomed in the fearful caverns of British thought leading up to the English Revolution, and the Restoration’s delightful (or utterly repulsive, as it is for this author) flight from themes of religious ideology, the question of legitimate political violence, and the prospect of universal truth is a direct response to these themes transported from Europe’s tragedy to all the kingdoms of Christendom. Here, we will look at the work of John Donne to find the threads of war that separate so profoundly early and late 17th century British literature.

The specter of war in British literature can perhaps be seen most profoundly in the work of John Donne. Writing well before the English Revolution, John Donne put pen to paper in those troubling years in which the German crisis became generalized to include all the powers of Europe (the late 16th and early 17th centuries). Throughout Donne’s work we find repeated attempts to synthesize the two ever-splitting protestant and catholic factions. Scholars have justifiably attached this theme to Donne’s own struggle with conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism but his textual attempts to bring together these factions reflects a more generalized reflection on their failure to do so as Europe descended into war. “Death, Be Not Proud” and “Meditation XVII,” two of his most famous works, both reflect a desire that extends beyond the merely personal or national  to unite the warring churches of Christ. Both are written after his conversion to Anglicanism (the former a Holy Sonnet, the latter part of his much celebrated Devotions upon Emergent Occassions) (3), and both are written (~1620 and ~1623 respectively)( 4) right as the Thirty Years War emerged as a major international conflict. Let us first look at “Death, Be Not Proud” as it was written right as the Thirty Years War broke out. The poem ends,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (Death, Be Not Proud)

The all-important “we” in the second to last line anticipates Donne’s later focus on depicting the universality of Christians and humans in general. Of note, this universality is built here on the back of a condemnation of martial force and the chivalric nationalism that accompanies wars to this day. This general fear of war created by the temporary truce between the Dutch and Spanish was a tinder box in the minds of Europeans – and Donne here remarks that Death is itself a slave to fate that dwells in war and sickness. This idea of slavery to fate and war reflects the writings of thinking men across Europe at the time, highlighted in great detail in the opening chapters of C.V. Wedegewood’s chronicle of the war. War seemed inevitable, but all wanted to avoid it. This is repeated in Spanish, German, and English literary circles. In 1620, a year after top catholic officials had been thrown out of a three story window into a pile of crap (literally), Donne here strives for reconciliation and warns against the appeal of religious war. Donne hopefully declares that death and war will die in the face of an eternal life given by Christ. It is a hope he will quickly lose as the war in Germany became more violent.

By the year 1623, the Bohemian protestant state had been crushed by the Hapsburgs and in the very year Christian the Younger (a protestant) was defeated at the cost of nearly 13,000 casualties at the Battle of Stadtlohn. We see the events of the exponentially multiplying war on Donne in his famous Meditations. In one of his most famous moments of prose, Donne writes in Meditation XVII,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

Far from the confident declarations of the previously cited sonnet, Donne here replaces hopefulness with a universal sorrow. Ever clever with his language, Donne even fits in the term “continent,” almost certainly a reference to the events occurring “on the continent.” He continues to assert that each and every death, the bodies washed away by the tens of thousands in Germany  make “Europe (the) less.” As the bell tolled for thousands of men fighting for religious freedom, profit, and nation, Donne defiantly, if not hopefully, asserts that the war that presently rocked Europe lessened all the parties involved. This change in Donne’s tone, from one of hopeful declaration and persuasion to defiant and universal sorrow at the loss of Catholic and Protestant alike is elucidated with greater detail by the events of the Thirty Years War. Donne’s dealings with Catholicism had certainly ended by this time, but he still found himself deeply entangled in the questions that tore Europe apart.

Donne’s interaction with these themes that were anathema to restoration writers is but an example of how the Thirty Years War fractured the short 17th and long 18th centuries. In our understanding of the literature of this time period, the importance of the Thirty Years War and the intellectual environment it created cannot be overstated. To read Donne, Marvell, Milton, Winstanley, and Bunyan without an understanding of their view of the European cataclysm from across the Chanel is to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald without rendering the effects of the First World War. Let us turn now to some of the similarities to be found between our era and this tragic one, and endeavor to point out some of the pedagogical remedies for that paralysis to be found in studying the history of the era.

Constitutions and the Abstraction of Conflict:

The Surrender of Jülich, by Jusepe Leonardo (1635).

One of the more striking qualities of both the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution is that the revolutionaries and warriors in each case attempted to hold to ancient constitutions and traditions while massacring each other in heinous numbers. When Ferdinand (the Holy Roman Emperor to be) infringed upon Protestant privileges in Bohemia, they had retaliated by throwing his officials out a window. When the Bohemians went to the Protestant Union (a group of protestant German princes put together for self-defense) to ask for money and support, the Union was horrified at the Bohemian’s violation of the ancient ways of the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand headed the state that supposedly was controlled by these various documents, but he cared less about its provisos than his supposed enemies. While liberal Lutherans condemned the actions of radical Calvinists in an effort buy clout with the catholic institutions of power, the Hapsburgs imprisoned and killed both groups.

This confusion and political moderation born of an attachment to aged documents originating in the era of Charlemagne certainly reflects similar developments in the United States. While constitutional rights are thrown out the window by a growing surveillance state and an increasingly violent police presence across the country, leftists and rightists alike urge a return to the Constitution’s promised rights. This idea that present failures in governance are due to a corruption of some core set of rights or national values (German and American, respectively) dominated 17th century German politics. The problem with this rendering in both eras was the supposition that this set of rights and values were born in universal time. “German Values” in the 17th century were the same as the values of Arminius (the Germanic general at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and Charlemagne; and “American values” in the 21st century are the same as the values of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When new variables were introduced (the protestant reformation, and the derivatives economic collapse of 2008) , the aging legal documents of each country came under fire. In both cases, the battle was fought in the courts, and in both cases, the results were disastrously inconclusive. 

In Bohemia, the protestants urged Ferdinand to adhere to the “Letter of Majesty” in which Rudolf II (the former Holy Roman Emperor) had promised them equal rights to practice their religion. As the militantly catholic Ferdinand began his campaign to dissolve the provisos of this letter, the case was taken to several courts across the Empire. Different verdicts were given, allowing Ferdinand to continue with his campaign while legal confusion prevailed. This lead to the militant action in Bohemia (the aforementioned defenestration), which was in turn condemned by protestants as previously mentioned. So the courts of the Holy Roman Empire ensured both militant retaliation and the recreation of the conditions that would replicate violence through paralytic moderation and adherence to outdated legal codes.

In the United States, the failure of courts to convict those responsible for the economic collapse, the War in Iraq, and those responsible for police violence created a similar sense of militancy that erupted most notably in Ferguson and Baltimore. These acts of militancy, just like that of the Bohemians, was condemned by their supposed comrades on the left and right. These activists must seek legal recourse, claimed the moderates, to a problem rooted in legal ineptitude and paralysis. Thus we see a self-replicating cycle that spins on the axis of assuring violence by legal failure and then condemning it. German intellectual circles spun on this circle while thousands of men, women, and children were butchered on the battlefield and in besieged cities. This cycle is not self-sustaining, though, and as war escalated in the mid 1620s, leaders endeavored to obfuscate constitutional precedent by the abstraction of conflict to an almost ludicrous degree.

As war escalated and moderates hurried to justify it, governments and leaders needed the constitutional organs to raise money and armies. The Hapsburg dynasty had long tasked the emerging bourgeoisie with funding its armies against Ottoman invasions, and when the dynasty asked for money to fight protestants the burghers were less than willing to cooperate. To mitigate outrage, leaders used mercenaries to an unprecedented degree. Battles of the Thirty Years War were not uncommonly fought by Spaniards (ostensibly ruled by the Hapsburgs) fighting for the French against the Hapsburgs who fielded an army of Dutchmen. In the Jülich succession crisis of the 1610s, for example, France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs all fielded mercenary armies to secure a tiny parcel of land close to the ever-warring low countries all because the leader of the tiny nation of Jülich passed away and a quarrel over who was to succeed him (and what religion that person would be a part of) erupted. Just what each individual soldier was fighting for was deeply ambiguous. In reality, kings and emperors alike were using the funds of the state for personal empowerment and political maneuvering for themselves and their families. This was a fact not lost on the emergent bourgeoisie, and the enslavement of feudal aristocracy to this set of political principles would be paid back in part at Whitehall, Yorktown, and the Bastille.

Thus the supposed guardians of the ancient German values violated them consistently and hid it through the abstraction of conflict through mercenaries and feigned religious and national fervor. In our era, conflict is abstracted in numerous ways. Armies are relatively small in number, and mercenaries are commonly used by the US and its allies in the middle east. A physical abstraction is also a luxury afforded the american ruling class. In any case, a movement for a radical remaking of the German state textured with the realities of the day may have prevented thirty years of war. Instead, moderates clung to ancient traditions as the ruling class violated them for personal gain at the cost of millions of lives. This question of the ruling class being disparate from moderate elements that continually tried to court them brings us to perhaps our clearest lesson from the Thirty Years War.

Mitigation and Synthesis:

Mercenaries put civilians to the sword (that randomly adult looking baby isn’t going down without a fight) in Sebastian Vrancx’s “Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years War.”

The chief lesson of the Thirty Years War for us today is one that teaches us how we should construct our movements for change in systems paralyzed by unchecked ruling classes and failing justice systems. In Germany in the 17th century, much like 21st century America, political movements cling to constitutional precedence and endeavor to find ways to best mitigate the failures of the economic system of society. Coming to the end of the Thirty Years War should help us understand where such politics lead, and should also give us a gloomy warning that holds hope in its recognition.

The end of the Thirty Years War is perhaps why it is not studied to a great degree. The outcome of so much death was essentially total ruination and utter paralysis with almost no positive outcomes. Yet as I mentioned before, in the paralysis of Germany we find potential salves for that paralysis that as we have seen is so similar to our own. As Kings and Emperors sent thousands to their deaths, a growing sense of distrust in central government understandably blossomed in war-ravaged Germany. This lead to the utter fracturing of Germany in the Peace of Westphalia (5). Small principalities were split into several land grants the size of central park in New York City. This way, reasoned German intellectuals, the privileges promised to Protestants that started the war could be secured so long as they found a neck of the woods that was sympathetic to them or had a Protestant prince.

This desire for decentralization is extremely prevalent in modern american politics. After the economic bailouts and fraudulent wars in the middle east, a profound apathy underlies a distrust in governance that is matched only in the Civil War era in American history. This relationship of failed constitutions and the growth of a desire for decentralization is a dangerous one, as the history of the Thirty Years War can teach us. In the aftermath of disastrous decentralization, Germany became an economic backwater reversed only with the growth of nationalism and militarism in the early and mid 19th century. When Germany finally came together it partook in two World Wars and was the home of unprecedented nationalism and centralization.

The problem then as it is now is not with central government. It is instead, as it was then, rooted in the failure of resistance movements to seek synthesis and not merely mitigation. By shackling the protestant cause to aged documents, resistance movements in the Holy Roman Empire were unable to reach the universality John Donne so desired. Instead, protestants were stuck in a cycle of courts and alliances that continually failed them and lead to their utter destruction at the hands of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. In the United States, topical activism attached perilously to appeals to the ethics of the government officials and the documents by which they rule prevents a more universal critique of the capitalist system.

Modern activists must not fall for the Hapsburg lie that courts and representative diets can fully amend the contradictions of society and must equally avoid the diffusion of ruling class “justice” systems. We must instead follow in the footsteps of the bourgeois revolutionaries who succeeded in dissolving the paralysis of late feudalism left in the wake of the Thirty Years War. In England, America, and France, revolutionaries changed the question from one of constitutional precedence to one of “cruel necessity” (6) and the new life of an unburdened, revolutionary state (7). Like them, we must seek the contradictions of our day and find syntheses, imperfect as they be, for them. By seeking synthesis and shifting the questions of political resistance away from aged constitutional precedent and legal mitigation, we can achieve what the Bohemians and Germans could not. We can finally declare with John Donne that “death,” the deaths Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and so many others, “thou shalt die.”

Notes:

(1) Lewalski’s biography of Milton

(2) The general facts expressed in this post are taken from Peter Wilson and C.V. Wedgewood’s histories of the event. I recommend them both.

(3) The title itself suggests his interaction with something beyond the merely autobiographical.

(4) Dates for Donne’s work are disputed, but both of these dates I secured from my Norton Anthology. Generally, these dates seem to be in the ballpark from my outside research.
(5) Germany after the Thirty Years War is, in my scholarly opinion, the first example of splatter painting. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holy_Roman_Empire_1648.svg#/media/File:Holy_Roman_Empire_1648.svg

(6) By legend, Cromwell said this after seeing Charles I’s body

(7) I’m mirroring Robespierre’s language in his famous declaration that Louis must die so that we (France) can live.

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Filed under Andrew Marvell, Early Modern, History, History of the English Civil War, Horatian Ode, John Donne, Meditation XVII, Milton, Modern, Movements, Puritanism, Thirty Years War

The Hughes Edition of Paradise Lost and Interpretive Editing

Nothing political to see here, carry on.

“-producing editions is one of the ways we produce literary meaning” -Jerome McGann,  The Textual Condition

hen I first read John Milton, I was a sophomore in college at DePaul University. In that early survey course that set me on my current literary path, we used Merrit Hughes’ Complete Poems and Major Prose as our text. I still have the edition and it has an almost totemic quality for me, being the first edition through which I was able to meet Milton in the process he highlighted in Areopagitica. In subsequent undergraduate semesters I would place the book in a plastic bag to protect it from my commute, and I sheathed it with care in bubble wrap when I moved away from home. In those early years of my study of literature, the nature of the edition and its extensive footnotes (that often take up more than half the page) were beyond my consideration. The professor for the course would often derive interpretation and explicit understanding from the footnotes, and I for many semesters of study thought nothing of the theoretical implications of the footnotes or the presentation of Milton’s work in the Hughes’ edition. They were there to help me objectively understand what was going on in a very allusive text written many centuries ago, and nothing more.

In defense of my naivety, such oversights are common with my students in first year composition. Books are often treated as intrinsic items dropped without interference from the intellect of the divine author, perched atop the throne of authorship with a fist planted on a thoughtful chin. In an era where reading is declining, many students feel that if they have found it in a book it must be true simply because they went to the trouble to procure and skim the damn thing. Even amongst literature students, we often only consider editorial concerns in spectacular cases such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Henry James’ Daisy Miller when two substantially different editions of the same text exist.

Yet the way editors such as Merrit Hughes frame texts with paratextual footnotes, end notes, prologues, epilogues, introductions, and indexes fundamentally alters how we as readers interact with a text. We will read a postmodern novel differently if the introduction is written by Toni Morrison and engages with the dynamic of race in the novel just as we will read a Renaissance text differently if it is neatly filed under a section titled “Tracts” in an anthology. The frame we put around a text is central in the creation of the boundaries of genre and criticism by which we understand literature (1). I am not here to suggest that we should shatter these boundaries and reach for a euphoric, true understanding that transcends editorial limitations. I am instead here to advocate, with Jerome McGann, that these boundaries must be understood and openly acknowledged as fundamentally interpretive and not a mere question of objective understanding. Understanding the editorial heuristics used in the creation of a book (not a text) is critical not only in understanding texts as products of a “living intellect” (2) but also understanding literary criticism in general as a richly diverse field with many heuristics.

Specifically in the Hughes’ edition of Milton’s work, we find footnotes and editorial structure that favors a very specific reading of Milton by exclusion more than by dubious inclusion. This is useful in our understanding of editorial work as hermeneutical, as the move to exclude key insights in favor of others is fundamentally interpretive and  dependent on a critical choice. Throughout the edition, we find a consistent favoring in Hughes’ footnotes of Shakespearean and classical allusions. As we will see in two key portions of the epic, Hughes ignores critical interregnum allusions in favor of occasionally convoluted classical or Shakespearean explanations. A reader who has read my blog to any measurable degree (3) will know that I personally favor political criticism and a Marxist heuristic when criticizing literature, yet as highlighted above it is not that Hughes’ has made an interpretation that is the problem. The problem lies in the nascent acceptance of footnotes and other paratextual information as something that does not fundamentally alter the way we understand a text. When we look at the Hughes’ edition of Paradise Lost, we find the opposite. A distinct reading of the epic is encouraged, and another is discouraged.

Satan laments his editorial pigeonholing.

Book II is perhaps the most famous book of the entire epic, as the reader is shown via three speeches by leading demons the political dynamics of the Satanic citadel of Pandaemonium. The beginning of Book II is commonly studied for its display of what Milton establishes as faulty rhetoric and reasoning as the epic progresses. Interestingly, Hughes gives almost no political background in the footnotes for the three speeches that so intimately interact with the politics of both the Monarchy and the Long Parliament.

This can be seen most clearly in Satan in his sections of Book II.  In the first lines of Book II Satan is depicted as sitting on a “Throne of Royal State” to which he was raised by “merit.” Hughes makes a footnote of this, but instead suggests a connection to Spenser’s description of the throne of Lucifera, incarnate pride. Of course, Spenser derived his own depiction of a throne which he described as adorned by “a cloth of state” from English experience. Rather than alluding to what many college students will be ignorant to in the description of the throne as a symbol of everything wrong with the English Monarchy both spiritually and with regards to secular political formations, Hughes chooses to allude to a Spenserian reference to classical myth. The throne is fundamentally an idol, which was critical to Milton and his generation’s religious attacks on the institution of Monarchy. This is, certainly, worth at least mentioning with a footnote to denote to a reader that Milton is making a specific political reference.

Such cases are not cherry picked, however, as Hughes continues to lead the reader into a classical interpretation of the epic. Later in Book II, Satan is described as rising from his throne in the following terms,

with grave [ 300 ]
Aspect he rose, and in his rising seem’d
A Pillar of State; deep on his Front engraven
Deliberation sat and public care;
And Princely counsel in his face yet shon,
Majestic though in ruin: sage he stood [ 305 ]
With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of mightiest Monarchies; his look
Drew audience and attention still as Night
Or Summers Noon-tide air, while thus he spake.

Hughes footnotes the section, but suggests again that Milton is referring to the myth of Atlas as relayed by Spenser. Hughes here ignores a rather clear reference between Milton’s work – a rare and profitable critical insight. In Eikonoklastes, a critical text for any who wish to understand the way Milton constructs Satan’s character, Milton refers twice to “pillars” in the context of being covered in the gold of fabricated zeal. The concept of fabrication is key, as on the very same line Milton uses the concept of an engraving – an undeniably artificial metaphor. What’s more, what is graven on Satan’s face is taken directly from Eikonoklastes.

These were not some miscarriages onely of Goverment, which might escape, but a universal distemper and reducement of law to arbitrary power; not through the evil counsels ofsome men, but through the constant cours & practice of all that were in highest favour: whose worst actions frequently avowing he took upon himself; and what faults did not yet seem in public to be originally his, such care he took by professing, and proclaiming op’nly (emphasis is mine), as made them all at length his own adopted sins. The persons also when he could no longer protect, he esteem’d and favour’d to the end; but never, otherwise then by constraint, yeilded any of them to due punishment; thereby manifesting that what they did was by his own Autority and approbation (4)

Clearly, the insights from Eikonoklastes, something written by Milton himself, are critical to understanding the nature of the artifice Milton is describing here. It is not merely an artifice as can be discerned by reading what is objectively happening, it is an artifice based specifically in kingly lucre and pomp. In such a rendering, this section becomes central in understanding Satan as the catalyst in the demonic councils’ evil. Just like Charles I, Satan is making through open proclamations his sins the sins of everyone present. These insights are judged as less important than a Spenserian reference to classical myth.

Such an interpretive move has impacts beyond its point of origin. In Book III, compassion “appears” on Jesus’ face in a direct comparison to the graven care of Satan. The latter suggests an active display while the former is of a divine nature. Where Satan is a “pillar of state,” an image Milton previously in his career associated with gold, Jesus rises from no throne and engraves nothing but what is of his true nature. It is fairly important to realize that Satan is associated promptly with material wealth, falseness, and idolatry as well as the classical and Spenserian characters Hughes is keen to highlight. That is what is at the heart of Paradise Lost, the synthesis between classical and worldly failings and the hopeful look towards something new with “providence” as our guide.

The Hughes edition, as I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, has a special place in my heart and it is in many ways a very effective edition for a certain kind of reading of Paradise Lost. Yet, as I have endeavored to show here, critics as well as students need to be aware of the fact that editions and all the paratextual information they hold are not inert. Editions, especially for undergraduates reading texts with substantial and occasionally cryptic (to the modern reader) allusions, are key in the construction of literary meaning. The Hughes edition of Milton’s epic offers a lot of information for the potentially ignorant, yet it ignores other rather obvious insights from the world of Milton’s politics. This is fundamentally an interpretive move, and must be understood as such in order to accurately understand texts as something to be interpreted and not merely understood. Reading texts like Paradise Lost should be considered as walking from Eden with a guide of editorial providence and a myriad of choices to make, yet it is too often portrayed as the great satanic lie – that one item holds the key to everlasting knowledge.

Endnotes:

(1) Jerome McGann highlights this dynamic with skill in his book The Textual Condition, which I recommend to anyone interested in the editorial shadow cast on literary criticism.
(2) Milton, Areopagitica
(3) Or even read the “About” page

(4) http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/eikonoklastes/text/index.shtml

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Filed under Editing, Footnotes, Historiography, Hughes Milton, Jerome McGann, Merrit Hughes, Milton, Paradise Lost

The Center Cannot Hold

Forward to a bright future of ..forward…ness

Not long ago I sat in a Medieval History course at my undergraduate institution. That day’s topic was the Spanish Inquisition, and we had prepared by reading a chapter in our textbook that highlighted the glory of Al-Andalus, the terror of the inquisition after its fall, and the merciful harboring of Muslims and Jews within the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Beyazid the Second with an executive order for their protection. Ottoman failures aside, I expected that day to participate in a lecture condemning religious hatred and The Inquisition of the Catholic Church. As the professor began, she asked us what our impressions of The Inquisition were, and we responded as we should have – torture, executions, and repression. She glibly and triumphantly retorted, “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” The professor went on to highlight in great detail  the “real” Spanish Inquisition where material conditions made certain events inevitable and out of the control of the people who committed the crimes. Such is the danger, it must be said, of “the middle.”

One who traverses academia will be all too familiar with the promised land known as “the middle.” In the mystical land known as “the middle,” all ideas come to wine and dine in extravagant intelligence pageants displaying opulent intellectual fairness and nonpartisan reason. The middle isn’t just the promised land of academics, of course, but the society at large. Children are taught the value of every opinion, college students are put through endless peer (sic) review, “movements” of detached reason against supposed frothing at the mouth religious individuals have cropped up(1), President Obama is praised for his nonpartisan approach to immigration, and “across the isle” became a failed rallying cry for national unity in spite of political differences.

A Whig American historian will tell you that “moderation” is part of the American spirit, as American as civilian collateral damage and a hard day’s work. Never mind the 600,000 soldiers who died in the middle of the 19th century, the atomic bomb(s), or the millions of slaves brutally beaten into service – the true american way is fancied to be taking two extremes and bringing them to an agreeable middle. Mythos, fictional as it is, has impact. It is for this reason that we must discuss here the danger of the middle intellectually and politically. At our universities and in our departments, through postmodern middle-worship, we have marginalized ourselves into the disagreeable position of borderline pointlessness. Politically, we have paralyzed ourselves into believing the critical contradictions of society can be navigated by mutually agreeable compromises. As current events illustrate with crystal clarity, this is not always the case. While we at the university and at the capitol building search for an agreeable intellectual middle, thousands are butchered for naught but their born identity, millions are homeless in a nation with millions of empty domiciles, and violence rages across urban environments gripped with systemic oppression and hopeless employment situations.

Like William Butler Yeats in his anthologized “The Second Coming” (2) we must conclude that in our age of extremes “the centre cannot hold.” Unlike William Butler Yeats, we needn’t feel like a falcon who has lost his way. We need only to do the truly hard work, the work of recognizing the radical nature of our social maladies and the radical nature of the solutions to these problems. If we can do this, Yeats’ “rough beast” will be of our own making – its origins at the very least not mysterious as they were to Yeats and his generation of the Great War.

Being Unbiased and Other Pipe Dreams

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” -Karl Marx, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach

There is a deep held belief in academia that to reach the promised land of the middle, we have to be “impartial” and free from “bias.” We must first address this before we can establish how this and the middle itself has lead to an utter marginalization of the academic fields. Naturally, the supreme unbiased arbiters of all things reasonable, arch-enemies of the barbaric analysis of Marxists, first to the front line of the historical specificity battle, need to understand the origins of their own analytical method of unbiased critique.

I know a time when capitalism didn’t exist seems nearly impossible to imagine, but in the revolutionary years of the 1640s and 1770s, an approach based on detached reason was in fact rebellious. The grandly named Enlightenment set the stage for these approaches. Enlightenment thinkers from Milton to Jefferson endeavored to “justify the ways of god” (3) in the former case and declare the natural rights of  well off white men in the latter case. Of import, these narratives always reached for nature and detached observation or explanation of the state of things on earth presently. This is Enlightenment thinking. Even the devoutly religious Milton endeavored to define an English “nature” in his History of Britain. The conditions of earth justified god or elucidated the natural rights and qualities of man. Through “unbiased” observation of history and nature, Early Modern thinkers justified their actions in a discourse opposed to the impersonal dedication to feudal monarchs. Milton in his famous Areopagitica portrays himself as a mere messenger of history, spending page after page on histories of Greece and Rome.

I think most postmodern critics will notice quite clearly the true bias behind both thinkers and many Early Modern thinkers who endeavored to pursue social science (Hobbes, for example). Yet, this search for “unbiased” analysis continues, in spite of its historical invalidity. What’s more, by even picking this critical heuristic (the goal of unbiased and impartial analysis), one has already become biased towards Enlightenment notions of the critic. Our critical methods,  to put the point most frankly, are social and thus political. Postmodernism’s rejections of metanarratives is biased towards the conditions of the late 20th century; an age of extremes and the failure of big men and big ideologies. Marxism is biased towards analyzing the heightening of class division in eras of unrestricted capitalism (the 19th century, for example). The point here is that you have to chose. You cannot be impartial and apolitical. The very means by which you endeavor to achieve impartiality are themselves tied to historical, social, and political conditions. Give it up. We are biased creatures. We must chose a method we believe to be true, and we must defend and propagate it (4).

Now, the fact that human thought inherently suggests bias is no reason to condemn all of humanity as degenerate louts who bit the apple. Rather, our ability to chose and advocate are redeeming and distinct qualities. By removing these qualities from our theory (theory is one of the few things that trickles down these days), our departments and courses have been robbed of their intellectual meat. Departments have preached impossible impartiality and have removed the true fruit of the work we love – developing and integrating schools of thought to help us better understand -and change- the world. We have been reduced from active participants in our world to mere passive observers seeking one arcane truth over another. We have, in short, marginalized ourselves.

Scholars could tell you what a certain word means in a sentence from 1634, but they would genuinely struggle with telling you why any of this is important. This is a direct product of seeking “the middle” via an impossible impartial and unbiased approach. We have robbed our books, historical events, and social phenomena of our own participation in them. Paradise Lost is an elaborate theological trap for unbelievers. Life during the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century wasn’t that bad. The Battle of Verdun was actually waged by generals who tried their best with what they had. Yes, all of these are actual opinions I have heard in the classroom and read on JSTOR. The madness has to stop. We are not unbiased and cannot be. We all use derivative heuristics and radical assertions of uncompromising truth. Put the bias back in theory, abandon the quest for the middle, and you put the person back in theory; and in doing so, you make our fields potentially relevant to anyone instead of a group of 15 people on any given Saturday at the local library.


Reality and Contradiction:

Outside of academics the glorification of the middle is rampant and, quite frankly, incredibly dangerous. As we look on, thousands of Palestinians are killed by Israeli super weapons for firing rockets that only killed Nazis (in 1943) with massed fire that Hamas does not have. Yet, when the truth is so very clear to anyone who would look, many still hold to the glorification of the middle. John Kerry, after receiving a punitive phone call from Washington for suggesting carpet bombing civilian areas was maybe a bad idea, presently preaches the necessity of both sides to “come to the table.” In such a situation, it seems amazing for anyone to suggest middle ground, but it is quite common if one is to traverse the sulfurous pit that is comments sections on articles about the conflict in Gaza. In politics, even more so than in academia, the center cannot hold. It always falls back to one way or the other.

Similarly to Yeats feeling of powerlessness, many onlookers looking for moderation in Palestine conclude that both of the warring sides are to blame, that a solution between the two sides is impossible, and quite oddly that the two sides will always hate each other . This is the dangerous and potentially deadly side effect of seeking the middle in situations that require something more. This is not an unprecedented phenomena. The great compromise of  1850 lead to the bloodiest war in American history. Neville Chamberlain was a true intellectual and compromised with Nazi Germany. England urged the Holy Roman Empire to talk it out with its rebellious protestant princes, which was followed by a pithy period of war lasting thirty years. Alexander II freed the serfs in the Russian Empire. The founding fathers decided, in good faith, that an African slave was only 3/5 of a person, which itself lead to the aforementioned “great compromise.”

The fact is, societies have critical contradictions that can be solved only by the radical road. Compromise and “the middle” only prolong these contradictions. Would it truly be better, you ask, to have waged the Civil War in 1850? Yes, yes it would have, for a number of reasons. Contradictions must be solved and not avoided, for by avoiding them through the moral detachment of the middle and compromise, one only prolongs the festering of that synthesized contradiction; which is a circumstance that hardly bequeaths moral supremacy. Instead, such a position suggests a true indifference to the suffering of others so long as we may uselessly grasp for stability. Let history be your guide. When contradictions arise, they must be addressed with force and radical means, not with bills and edicts that side-step the issue. Solutions can be difficult and far from moderate. Reality is like that – our tasks are sometimes difficult. That does not change the fact that we must do them.

This overwhelmed powerlessness many feel, the anxiety that Yeats felt when he looked at a world in ruins, is not all that surprising when we see that our international community and ideology is based chiefly around the quest for the middle. If the UN cannot find a solution to the slaughter in Gaza, what hope do we, the people, have? We must conclude with Yeats, in such a rendering, that we are powerless in the creation of the new “beast” from Bethlehem that is our future. As alluded to above with regards to academic theory and its detached pointlessness, when we make ourselves observers we truly are powerless to fashion that beast. When we seek the middle in situations that have none, we make ourselves impotent.

Our world and ourselves need not be this way. As highlighted above in academics, history, and politics, the center cannot hold – and that’s a good thing. Our world is rife with contradiction, our classrooms and departments full of troubles and challenges. By attempting to remove bias and reach a transcendent analysis, we have made ourselves incapable of analyzing our world as it stands. We have removed ourselves from our world, and in doing so, removed what drives us to speak (5). As John Milton once remarked on writing, when a deep desire for truth is matched with a deep desire to express it, all other things fall into their places (6). When many begin to abandon the middle in favor of a true analysis of the critical contradictions of our society and the potentially radical solutions to them, and are further catalyzed to speak of such things, then, certainly, “the centre cannot not hold,” and a future of our own making from Bethlehem will “come round at last.” (2)

Footnotes:
(1) Query “New Atheism” for more information, or take a look at this atrocity (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Main_Page)
(2) http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html
(3)http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/pl/book_1/, line 26
(4) “Must” doesn’t imply that we do not already do this, whether we deign to admit it or not.
(5) Postmodern discourses often stress the importance of finding voices.
(6) Milton, “An Apology for a Pamphlet”

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