Category Archives: Academic

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory.

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of American radicalism, the Diggers an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all.

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fulfill their most radical goals—requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion. They are, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle, the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II’s tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all: a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights in Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected their very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked to any measurable degree.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere, but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew how to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”


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A Gentle, Christian Man: Dickens’ Refutation of the Victorian Gentleman in Great Expectations


Note: The works cited has been removed in an effort to impede plagiarism.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as author Graham Law writes, is his “masterpiece” that is at the same time “unrepresentative” (Law 7). Certainly Great Expectations moves away from the uplifting conclusions of novels such as David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, and the cutting, at times radical societal critique of works such as Oliver Twist  is replaced by a more subtle and pessimistic look on Victorian England (Law). Undeniably, as has been remarked upon by many scholars , Great Expectations is an exploration of the Victorian concept of the gentleman, a title that Dickens felt himself rejected from (Law), and one that is the subject of much of Dickens’ prosaic venom  in the novel. Indeed, Pip’s journey from working class boy to a gentleman of great expectations can be said to mirror Dickens’ own life journey to prosperity, yet Dickens’ autobiographical past is not as critical to Great Expectations as the authorial present moment; one noted by profound disillusionment with the concept of a Victorian Gentleman and the ability of a “poor man with a rich soul” (Smiles) to self-create an identity as one.

Great Expectations  is a novel in which Dickens utterly rejects the idea that a gentleman is defined by high birth and class, an argument perhaps best personified by the works of William Sewell. Yet Great Expectations  is also a novel that rejects the notion presented by Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Smiles that anyone, with enough morale character and elbow grease, could become a gentleman. Then what is a gentleman in Great Expectations, if it is neither men of high birth or men of “rich heart?” In Great Expectations the gentleman is a useless title that is destructive and unachievable, demonstrated by the fact that the gentleman of high birth is one that plays the part of the main catalyst in Pip’s dissolution of character from childhood to manhood, and the gentleman of labor and moral character is ultimately unachievable for Pip; denied him by his actions as a gentleman of high birth – illustrating the thread Dickens is tying between the two concepts and ultimately leaving Dickens unwilling to reappropriate the title for characters like Joe . This is demonstrated by Pip’s inability to reconcile completely with characters such as Joe, a relationship strained during Pip’s idealization of the gentleman in Sewellian terms . Dickens entry into the Victorian debate over what a gentleman was one of dynamic character; it is one where he rejects the concept of the gentleman completely, and endeavors to portray the destructive and ultimately unachievable nature of the title; and in this portrayal is a message that quality and not license is at the heart of being a “gentle Christian man.” In order to explore Dickens refutation of the title in general, one must first demonstrate the fraudulency of Sewell’s definition in the way it diminishes Pip’s strong sense of justice and then move to elucidating just why Dickens is ultimately unwilling to reappropriate the title for Joe.

An understanding of the conservative concepts of what the Victorian gentleman was that Dickens was interacting with is critical in discerning where Great Expectations lies in the debate. William Sewell is famous, or perhaps infamous from a modern perspective, for his very conservative view of what a Gentleman was in Victorian society. In a lecture to privileged school boys, Sewell states, “We have, I think, in England, owing to the freedom of our constitution, and the happy providential blessings which god has heaped upon us, followed the division of mankind which god himself has made, and struck the line between those who are gentlemen, that is, of a higher and superior class, and those who are not, to be ruled and governed” (Sewell 563). In a reply to Sewell who had sent him a volume of these speeches, Dickens’ remarked upon how far apart their views were (Broadview) on the subject, illustrating what is perhaps most obviously elucidated in Great Expectations; the rejection of a class and birth caste system deciding whether or not a man is a true gentleman. To Sewell, and undoubtedly to his ambitious and privileged pupils, to be a gentleman was to be in a position of power in society in which one could govern and rule over others, namely, the working classes. Further, not only was this position over others justified by practical necessity, but by God himself. This conception of a gentlemen, one based in class and family background, is one that is directly counteracted in the prosaic structure of Volume I in Great Expectations in the way that Pip’s sense of justice and his relationship with Joe and Biddy degrade significantly to a point of no return once he is made to feel his class by Estella, and when his quest to become “oncommon” begins; and this is a direct consequence of Pip’s definition of the gentlemen in Sewellian terms.

Pip’s relationship with Biddy is at first one of student and teacher, but it quickly becomes more personal and ultimately demonstrative of Pip’s loss of justice subsequent to his ambitions to becoming a Sewellian gentleman. Indeed, the just Pip admits aptly that “Whatever I knew, Biddy knew” and marvels at her for being an “Extraordinary woman” (Dickens 159).  Yet Volume I highlights Pip’s growing unrest with his situation, and ultimately, Biddy and the life she represented. Biddy is the victim of Pip’s bridge burning attack before leaving for his great expectations, as Pip levies accusations of jealousy at the true-hearted Biddy. Pip says, “I am very sorry to see this in you. I did not expect to see this in you. You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune, and you can’t help showing it” (Dickens 181).  It was not 50 pages prior that Pip was wishing an old, haggered convict hidding in a swamp happy eating; and it seems that Pip’s own anxieties over his class and family background, catalyzed by Estella,  have dissolved his so dearly held virtue of justice in favor of a dishonest “superior tone”(181) which narrator Pip regretfully admits. It’s worth stopping upon that narrator Pip, the flawed character that he is at the time of scribing the novel, still recognizes his actions to Biddy as unjust. It is not coincidental then that Biddy calls upon the specter of a gentleman and of justice, replying simply, “Yet a gentleman should not be unjust neither” (Dickens 181).  In this statement, Biddy essentially summarizes what Pip will only learn when it is far too late in Volume III and highlights the dissolution of Pip’s sense of justice which is catalyzed by his conception of the gentleman as one based in class and family. Pip has become a gentleman, but as he the narrator and Biddy point out, he had become unjust. Indeed, Pip laments that he “cannot get (himself) to fall in love with (Biddy),” (Dickens 163) and only after his revelations of Volume III will he realize how the specter of the Sewellian gentleman  made it impossible for him to love those who would “put him right” (Dickens 163), a fact further illustrated by Pip’s growing mistreatment of Joe.

Joe, like Herbert, is a character that is true of heart and indeed harmed by Pip’s conception of the gentleman as one of opulence and like Biddy is a character treated in a progressively unjust way by “Sir” Pip. At the start of Volume I, Joe is the flawed  gravy-disher that is unable to truly help Pip but is the only one to show Pip warmness; and Pip’s interactions with Joe comprise some of the only heartwarming sections of Pip’s young life. Joe however represents something more than a country simpleton with a good heart, he renders Pip valuable advice subsequent to his crises of identity and Satis House, as the narrator reflects, “This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with, as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics , and by that means vanquished it” (Dickens 105).  Indeed, Joe serves as the materialist to Pip’s metaphysical ambition to become uncommon, offering a few lines later than even the king of England had to begin with the alphabet. Pip’s quest of becoming a gentleman is deeply metaphysical, from his conception of Estella as a princess waiting to be ridding off on horseback to the “gay fiction” of the finches.

Pip’s imaginative, or metaphysical, class affectation is driven home in several scenes in which Pip is ashamed of Joe in the presence of his class superiors, namely the visit to Ms. Havishams and Joe’s visit to London, only to realize later that the entire fault was his. Narrator Pip reflects in the remarkable Chapter XIV, “It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me” (Dickens 141). In a candid moment afforded to Pip through hindsight, Pip can realize how unjust he had been to Joe when he ” was ashamed of him” (Dickens 134) when his abstract notion of the gentleman in Sewellian terms, and his need to create a gentlemanly identity suitable for Estella’s “mischievous eyes,” (Dickens 134) turned him against those closest to him so he could pursue something he admits “I never knew” (Dickens 141).  In short, the gentleman of Sewell, the idea put into Pip’s head by Estella, and the one he will fruitlessly chase to a bitter end is the same gentleman that removed justice from Pip’s relationship with Joe and Biddy. The more Pip desires to be a gentlemen of wealth and taste, the less just he is to his peers and the more blind he is to the injustice he does to others – something he had as a boy been so sensitive to. Thus, the Sewellian gentlemen plays an integral part in the devolution of Pip’s sense of justice in Volumes I and II, physically made real by his geographical removal from Biddy and Joe and emotionally manifested in Pip’s utter emotional desolation at the beginning of Volume III.

Pip is a character of dynamic and fluid nature, however, and indeed much personal progress is made from the beginning of Volume III. In short, the gentleman of class and blood, the gentleman of Sewell, has left Pip spiritually ruined, and it is from this total destruction that Pip begins to make personal progress. Here at the foundation of this progress, after nearly everything has been taken from Pip, he admits, “I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it” (Dickens 353). Here we see a Pip who is utterly devoid of a sense-of-self or any purpose whatsoever. From this point of utter spiritual desolation, Pip does make significant gains as the prose advances. Interestingly, these revelations are coaxed out of him by an assumed death at the hands of a figure from his childhood. Pip’s abduction by Orlick catalyzes a great deal of emergent feelings of justice and empathy within Pip, and the rise in his moral character seems to lead the reader to believe that a happy ending is imminent; all catalyzed by Pip’s belief that he is soon to die. As Pip ponders his imminent doom, he laments, “Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night; none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.. by the thought that I had taken no farewell, and never never now could take farewell, of those who were dear to me, or could explain myself to them, or ask for their compassion on my miserable errors” (Dickens 450). In this near-death moment, Pip almost miraculously is broken from his Volume II stupor and sees the true “great hearts” (Smiles) of Joe and Biddy, and laments deeply that he cannot explain himself to them. Indeed, Pip now reflects that his intentions were “true” but had left him in great “agony” and ponderous with “miserable errors.” In this moment near death, Pip is softened and returns to his sense of justice highlighted above, in this case, to do himself justice; to plead his case to those who cared for him truly and ask for their clemency. In a novel with very little repetition, the repetition of never is also noteworthy in the way it focuses on Pip’s desire to do himself justice in a farewell to Joe and Biddy and deal with them honestly for the first time in many pages. Is this, then, evidence of Dickens support for the progressive notion of a gentleman as one of true intentions and heart? A more finite understanding of what that notion is, is first necessary.

Samuel Smiles’ “The True Gentleman” is paradigmatic of a progressive urge in Victorian society to claim that any man with sufficient intuition, inclination and good moral character was a “true gentleman..” Smiles elaborates, “Riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman” (Smiles 582). Indeed, the “man with the great heart” of Smiles is identical to Joe’s own dubbing of his abusive father as a man with a good heart (Dickens 83) and Biddy’s own terming of Pip as “ever a man with a good heart” (Dickens 248). These two examples seem to lend a keen sense of ambiguity to Dickens’ acceptance of the idea that any man with a good heart is a true gentleman. Indeed, the latter half of Great Expectations is marked by a significant improvement in Pip’s character as elucidated above, one where he sees more feelingly the thoughts of others and one where he appreciates what he had not before. This notion, that Dickens is supporting a depiction of a gentleman as someone of a good heart only is contradicted by the critical scene were Pip emmerges from sickness to see Joe at his bedside subsequent to the gains he makes in a peculiar and violent event.

Pip’s improvements after his abduction by Orlick and then his subsequent almost idyllic period with Joe during his recovery from what can only be considered a broken heart leads the reader to expect an ending similar to that of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. Certainly Joe emerges as a man of rich heart, caring for the boy who had so rudely treated him in London. Yet in what can only be considered intentional by Dickens in a novel that uses the word “gentleman” ad nauseum, Dickens refuses the title to Joe in the one moment where he can rightly be considered nothing else in Smilesian terms. Pip implores Joe to dislike him for his “ingratitude” (Dickens 483) which Joe ignores and remarks that they were “ever the best of friends.” Pip then proclaims, “god bless this gentle Christian man”(Dickens 483). Why would Dickens use this language, if almost to specifically deny Joe the title, after a sequence where Joe’s good heart has been highlighted so deeply in his self-sacrifice and forgiving heart towards Pip? This is the first appearance of Dickens disinterest in reappropriating the title of gentleman  to his characters that truly resemble one. Indeed, when Joe is truly a good person to Pip, his class status and his title, are truly unimportant which is reflected in Dickens deliberate side-stepping of the term. After Pip’s moral downfall from chasing the title of gentleman elucidated above, Dickens is unwilling to call Joe a gentleman, only a “gentle Christian man,” demonstrating that perhaps, being such a man was all that really mattered; regardless of the license of title associated with “the gentleman.” Indeed, when Joe is forced into an environment of gentlemanliness in Mrs. Havisham’s company, Pip remarks, “that he looked far better in his working-dress… I could hardly have imagined dear old Joe looking so unlike himself” (Dickens 132).  It is no coincidence that Joe, a character who is so very kind to Pip, who is a gentleman in behavior but not in name as per Dickens deliberate use of a similar yet different term, is “unlike himself” in a suit or a mansion. Dickens critique is clear, Joe is a gentle Christian blacksmith, and that is all the license he needs to be dubbed good, wholesome and kind. Pip’s denial of true reconciliation with Joe is then a further elucidation of Dickens’ rejection of the gentleman as a title. Pip’s past quest for gentlemanliness denies Pip reconciliation, with Joe, just as the specter of the Sewellian gentleman denies true Smilesian self-determination.

Dickens’ denial of Pip true reconciliation with Joe is demonstrative of Dickens’ unwillingness to allow Pip’s journey to come to a wholesome end due to the aftershocks of Pip’s quest for uncommoness. Reflecting upon the good times they had spent together, Pip realizes, “I too had fallen into the old ways, only happy and thankful that he let me. But, imperceptibly, though I held by them fast, Joe’s hold on them began to slacken; and whereas I wondered at this, at first, I soon began to understand that the cause of it was in me, and the fault of it was all mine…Had I given Joe’s innocent heart no cause to feel instinctively that as I got stronger, his hold up me would be weaker?”(Dickens 490).  Not only does Dickens deny the title of gentleman to Joe, he denies true reconciliation between Pip and Joe because of Pip’s actions as the Sewellian gentleman. Pip’s past denies him Smilesian self-creation, as the aftershocks of his actions as a gentleman of high class has disallowed him from coming to equal footing with Joe in their relationship. Thus in Dickens’ prosaic construction, the gentleman of Smiles is unachievable and barred by the specter of the traditional gentleman; just as Pip is disallowed present self-creation by past self-destruction. This relationship is best summarized by Joe himself, who says to Pip in apology for not being able to save him from the tickler, “my power were not always fully equal to my inclinations” (Dickens 489). This statement summarizes the ending of the novel with precision, as Pip’s power is not equal to his inclination in reconciling with both Joe and Biddy; and this greater narrative structure, that is, the denial of Pip any sort of happy or reconciled ending, is demonstrative of Dickens’ rejection of the Smilesian gentleman and the title at large.

Great Expectations  is a novel that frustrates the efforts of readers who seek an emotional synthesis for its flawed protagonist, as its deeply ambiguous nature leaves the reader wanting  a finite conclusion to Pip’s personal struggle. As Graham Law points out in his introduction, it is perhaps the ambiguity itself that is driving force of the novel; an ambiguity concerning what a gentlemen is and one’s ability to rehabilitate relationships long strained. By studying Pip’s loss of justice from his acceptance of  a Sewellian vision of a gentleman and Pip’s ultimate prevention from Smilesian reconciliation and self-elevation by the specter of Sewell’s gentleman, a greater understanding of the gentleman in Great Expectations emerges. The gentleman,  in short, is destructive and unreachable for Pip; demonstrative of Dickens own disillusionment with the license the title supposedly represented. Great Expectations is a sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the permanency of “miserable errors” and the inescapable social barriers that surrounded 19th century England. The reader’s duty is that of Estella;  to not be incompatible with the admission of the ambiguity of love and identity in emerging modernity, and give the sad story of Pip’s quest for uncommonness a place in their hearts, and in doing so, witness the folly of chasing license over authentic virtue.

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Knowing Sweet Through Bitter: A Dialectical Reading of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde



              eoffrey Chaucer’s take on Boccaccio’s classic poem “Troilus and Criseyde” is one that honors the original as it innovates and brings in entirely new thematics to the tale. Chaucer’s own version of the tragedy is one that deals intimately with the processes of a happy life and the failure of Troilus to capture that happy life. Of import is the presence of a process within the poem; Chaucer delivers the reader with a keenly dialectical process, one where everything is made known only by its opposite and were all joy must be followed by a period of grief. Certainly Chaucer’s translation of Boethius would make him familiar with the medieval sense of the dialectic which was part of the trivium and deeply rooted in Aristotelian logic. Chaucer’s use of binary dialectics (i.e. the definition of everything coming from its opposite) is but a starting point for his greater exploration of the contradictions of free will and foreknowledge, one that wrenches at the troubled mind of Troilus in Book IV (Grady). Indeed, the entire story is constructed upon this very question – every reader and listener of Chaucer’s poem knows the ending of the story, if not from reading Boccaccio’s own version simply by Chaucer repeatedly telling the reader that the tale is of “The double sorwe of Troilus;” yet Chaucer endeavors to tell the tale nonetheless. By studying the dialectical nature of the triumvirate of main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of happiness as a product of grief, Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination in Book IV and finally Chaucer’s final thoughts in Book V, a greater understanding of the dialectical nature of the story emerges. The dialectics of Boethius, of which Chaucer interacted with deeply, are not simply present in the poem but its main catalyst; the means through which Chaucer establishes his characters in relation to one another and forges the thesis of idealistic love, the antithesis of infidelity and the synthesis of the eighth sphere and the “floures fayre.”

The three main characters in Troilus and Criseyde are emblematic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in the way they represent idealistic love, pragmatism and an interesting expression of their mixture. Troilus, of course, is keenly emblematic of the thesis of idealistic and chivalric love. His falling in love with Criseyde is highly conventional, as his eyes by “cas bifel” upon the maiden, causing his heart to “sprede and rise” (I. 270-275). Indeed, the minute he sees Criseyde he goes from teasing lovers to being the most conventional lover of them all. The Canticus Troili is a case study in Chaucer’s representation of Troilus as the prototypical love-struck individual as Troilus ponders anxiously over his churning heart. Yet, Troilus’ song expresses his own anxiety over his naïve understanding of love, as he sings, “If no love is, O god, what fele I so? / And if love is, what thing and which is he? / If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo? /…When every torment and adversite / That cometh of hym may to me savory thinke, / For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.” (I. 400-406). Troilus struggles intimately with just what it is he is feeling, and the dialectical relationship between his great joy and his great woe. He ponders that if it is his own “lust I brenne,” why then should he be upset if such a harm “agree (him)” (I. 407-409). Reading from a dialectical perspective, Troilus’ woe is a product of his singular nature; he mocks lovers and then becomes one, he cannot live without Criseyde’s faithfulness and so on. The tragedy of Troilus’ character is his lack of any pragmatism and his almost innocent dependence on his love relationship.

The antithesis of Troilus is his greatest ally in the poem, Pandarus. Indeed, Pandarus is the catalyst of the entire story yet tellingly he vanishes when the lovers are finally united in mutual love. If we accept that Troilus is the thesis of idealistic love, Pandarus is the antithesis of pragmatism. In Book III, as Troilus anxiously invokes the gods to help in this encounter with Criseyde Pandarus crassly retorts, “Thow wrecched mouses herte, / Artow agast so that she wol the bite?”(III.176) Throughout the poem, Pandarus is emblematic of a pragmatic, results oriented approach. He cannot understand Troilus’ invocation to gods to ease his anxiety because he is not Troilus’ emotional peer. He forces Troilus’ letter on Criseyde and manipulates her into meeting with Troilus by having Troilus ride under her window, he sets up the scene in the gloomy bedroom where Troilus lies falsely ill, and he indeed is the mastermind behind the entire love relationship. But Pandarus’ own failures in love cause Troilus to ask, “How devel maistow brynge me to blisse?” As it turns out, Troilus question is a prescient one as Pandarus truly is unable to bring Troilus bliss. In Book V Pandarus condemns the understanding of dreams, even though dreams have been correct in two instances within the poem. Pandarus scolds Troilus by saying, “Have I nat seyd er this, that dreams many a maner man begile?” (V. 1275). Pandarus cannot escape from his pragmatism, even when both Criseyde’s dream in Book I and Troilus’ dream in Book V are both keenly accurate in their foretelling. In this way Pandarus, like Troilus, is unable to reach a synthesis; the two of them representing only one part of what Chaucer presents as love and happiness and instilling the sense of tragedy within the poem.

Interestingly, Criseyde is perhaps the most dual character in the entire poem. Her nature is highly fluid and conflicting, illustrated by the fact that within the first 100 lines Chaucer refers to her death in line 56 and then dubs her “a thing inmortal” on line 103 (Grady). To most readers Criseyde’s character is a reasonable one, as she often finds middle ground where Troilus cannot. This theme is found from her first meeting with Troilus, as she agrees to see him but says she will only do so to ease his heart. In Book V, she agrees to see Diomed if he will relent on his romantic advances, a pragmatic and compassionate response. The narrator tells us, “So that Criseyde / Graunted on the morrow, at his request, / For to speken with him at the leeste — / So that he nolde speke of swich matere” (V. 952-3). In this way Criseyde is perhaps ironically the closest character to a synthesis of idealistic love and pragmatism that we are given, and it is perhaps her reasonable nature that elicits Chaucer’s pity in Book V. Like Chaucer, a dialectical reader cannot absolve Criseyde, but it certainly moves us into Chaucer’s party, in that such a reading elicits one to feel sorry for the Trojan maiden separated from her doomed home and lover. So we see that through a dialectical reading that Troilus, Pandarus and Criseyde are keenly dialectical in their representation; as Chaucer uses the concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to construct his characters and their relationship to one another. Troilus and Pandarus must come together to create the synthesis that is the love relationship centered on Criseyde, arguably the most dual character in the poem. Indeed, the synthesis of Troilus and Criseyde’s love quickly dissolves into despair and woe, and Chaucer deals intimately about whether or not this invalidates the beauty of that synthesis.

Chaucer from the outset of his poem establishes the known end of the story, the first line having established the imminent twin sorrows of Troilus. Immediately following his mentioning of the twin sorrows, Chaucer elucidates the process through which Troilus will tragically navigate later in the poem. Chaucer expresses his intent to tell of “how his aventures fellen / Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie” (I. 3-4). Here Chaucer is not at all diminishing the wele and joie, rather, the language mentions “wo” once; the last tragedy being Troilus falling “out of joie.” Certainly as the story progresses Chaucer makes no effort to at all diminish the joy of Troilus and Criseyde in any way, in spite of the fact that every reader knows of the ever present final sorrow on the horizon. This opposition between “woe and joie” is both the heart of the tragedy and the heart of the truly romantic scenes in Book III, and here in the first lines Chaucer is establishing that very fact. Attached to this fact is the binary dialectical thesis that runs throughout the poem, best described in Book I by one of the frequent soliloquies by the narrator. The narrator states, “By his contrarie is every thyng declared / For how myghte ever swetnesse han ben know / To him that nevere tasted bitternesse” (637-639)? This is the central question within Troilus and Criseyde, as Chaucer endeavors to negotiate whether or not the foreknowledge of Troilus’ fall can negate the flowers faire of the love that illuminates Book III with its beauty. Chaucer begins to elucidate this answer by offering that true sweetness is unknown to those who do not know bitterness. Indeed, the lines immediately preceding this expression is Pandarus’ thesis that he above others could advise Troilus in love, for his failures are exactly what enables him to better advise his friend. In other words, Chaucer acknowledges both dialectical poles; as one necessarily begets the other. In this way Chaucer has not diminished the joy, anxiety and anticipation in the hearts of the young lovers in spite of their foreknown fall, illustrating the tension between foreknowledge and free will that cuts through both Boethius and Chaucer, as is poignantly explored by Troilus himself.

Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination is one that Boethius deals with intimately in his Consolation of Philosophy. Troilus’ debate with himself over the metaphysical concepts of free will and predestination is certainly related to the story but Troilus is much more thoughtful in his explication of the issue than he is at any other point in the poem. A reader can clearly see Chaucer’s own debate with the material coming through, as Troilus ponders the ideas of “great clerkes olde” (IV 973). Within the scope of the story Troilus’ contemplations are of central importance, as Chaucer here is interacting in an almost detached way with the nature of his story; and it’s worth noting that such a contemplation is completely absent in Boccaccio’s version. Troilus begins his exploration by saying that, “For cereyntly, this wot I well, / That forsight of divine purveyaunce / hath seyn alwey me to forgot Criseyde / Syn God seeth every thing, out of doutaunce…/ But natheless, allas, who shal I leeve? / For there been grete clerkes many oon /That destine thrugh arguments preve; /And som men seyn that nedely there is noon, / But that fre chois is yeven us everychon” (IV 960-75). This is the foundation with which Troilus and Criseyde is constructed upon, for every listener and reader knows the end of the story. Does this fact, Chaucer ponders through Troilus, change the crafting and development of the story? This is a keenly dialectical series of thoughts, as fate and choice are opposed to each other in Troilus’ construction. As Troilus continues, he is essentially using the dialectical process to debate himself, bringing up point and counterpoint and using reason to determine a correct answer. He first reasons through whether or not foreknowledge necessitates an event or what the men with “han hire top ful heigh and smothe yshore” suggest; that things happen and thus divine foreknowledge knows of its happening but does not necessitate it happening. Chaucer’s metaphor of the chair is telling, as he certainly used his surroundings to craft the metaphor while he composed his poem. He concludes the metaphor by offering that “And I seye, though the cause of soth of this / Comth of his sittyng, yet neccesite / Is entrechaunged, both in hym and the” (IV 1045). In this dialectical construction Chaucer has elucidated his perceived role in the crafting of the story – to tell of this tragedy necessitates both him as a creative author and the foreknown end, and arguably Boccaccio’s own version. Troilus then ponders over those clerks, of which Chaucer has labeled himself as earlier in the poem, who suggest that all men have complete free will, but this is not Chaucer or Troilus’ conclusion. Troilus’ final conclusion is thus, “So mot it come; and thus the bifallyng / of thynges that ben wist bifore the tyde, /They mowe nat ben eschued on no syde” (IV 1080.) Ergo, Chaucer places himself between the two camps of predestination and free will; and this is certainly where he sits as he writes the very poem – he and his audience all know the end, yet he writes anyway, the final foreknowledge unavoidable “by any means.” Thus the dialectical relationship between fate and free will is one that drives the entire story, one that drives the reader on to an end already known to them; and indeed, what drives Chaucer’s own anxiety over leading his characters to the gallows of shattered love.

Yet Chaucer does not leave the reader with tragedy, he instead leaves the reader one last synthesis; the one between the serene 8th sphere and the beautiful flowers of earthly spring. Ultimately, Chaucer endeavors to reconcile the tragedy of Troilus, dead at the hand of Achilles, and a compassionate higher power. Indeed, Troilus’ entire speech elicits the reader to question why a god should let such a tragedy happen. Chaucer presents the spirit of Troilus as spiteful of the “blynde lust” he felt on earth and the sorrow he endured, and this is much in line with his singular nature highlighted above. Chaucer, however, does not deliver us with such a simplistic notion in his final lines of Troilus and Criseyde. The end of Book V is not a simple condemnation of all things worldly, but in an Augustinian sense, worldly things done incorrectly. Chaucer uses repetition to illustrate the fate of Troilus, writing, “Swich fyn hath all his great worthynesse! /Swich fyn hath his estat real above!” It’s clear Chaucer is condemning very specific parts of sublunary life, and not all of material life. The image of the “floures faire” certainly lends the reader to a certain level of affection for this brief time we spend on earth, and Chaucer is not condemning the sublunary pleasures felt by Troilus and Criseyde just to glamorize the superlunary 8th sphere. In between these two concepts is Chaucer’s synthesis of the passing nature of life on earth and a life after; based in the necessity and beauty of both joy and woe that will end in the most serene of places. Thus the dialectics of opposition are the means through which Chaucer conceives the woe of Troilus and indeed Chaucer’s own effort to leave the reader on a positive note; Troilus never stopped to see the flowers faire, wherein lies the tragedy of the tale, but in the end he still ascended to the 8th sphere, where Mars brings him to residence unknown in heaven.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is a work that keenly interacts with the dialectics of opposition, be it through explorations of joy and woe or fate and choice. By studying the dialectical nature of the three main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of sweetness as a product of bitternesse, Troilus’ debate over predestination and choice and finally Chaucer’s last synthesis of material and spiritual, a greater understanding of Chaucer’s dialectical project within Troilus and Criseyde emerges. The dialectic is not only in the poem in numerous places, but it also is present in its very creation as Chaucer deals intimately with the creation of a story with an already known end; as he struggles dialectically to understand whether or not his sitting in a chair, or Troilus’ fall, is a necessity of foreknowledge or an event simply known by foreknowledge. In any case, Chaucer’s wish for his “litel myn tragedye” to kiss the steps of Ovid and Virgil did not fall on deaf ears; for certainly his tragedy is one of his most read and enjoyed works. That the accounting of such woe should elicit such literary enjoyment is fitting indeed to this keenly dialectical tale.

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The Flightless Bird: Choice and Concupiscence in Milton’s Comus

         ohn Milton’s Comus remains as enigmatic today as it was when it was first performed on a night at Ludlow Castle in 1634. Critics have since the 18th century struggled with just what affixed the lady to her chair and with just what Milton was trying to say to an audience so scarred by violated chastity in this masque; a highly personal literary form far detached from Milton’s own ambitions of a national epic to transcend time. Yet in this play performed by two children and a teenager, Milton’s ambitions shine through in the gravity of the story, calling upon as Debora Shuger pointed out in her article “Gums of Glutinous Heat…,” Augustinian struggles with autonomy and human nature. Comus is no ordinary masque, but rather, a tale dealing intimately with the later elucidated Miltonic themes of free will and the Augustinian concept of concupiscence, or, a humans desire, sometimes uncontrollable, for corporeal appetites that stand in opposition to reason. By studying the intellectual dialogue the lady has with herself in the opening scene, the insights of Shuger and Augustine in his Confessions and finally by analyzing the last scene in light of both of these insights a greater understanding of Milton’s creative project emerges. The tale is not one of temptation, as critics such as William Kerrigan have suggested, but rather, of free will. By recreating the intellectual source material of Milton’s Arminianism (Fallon), chiefly in Augustine’s Tenth Book of Confessions, critic Diane Shuger has created the dialogue with which Comus interacts; superseding psychoanalytic methods that force the critic to read in modern thematics. Certainly concupiscence plays an integral part in the development of the story, but the lady is not complicit with it; which is an anxiety that permeates Confessions and Comus. Yet in both Confessions and Comus, Augustine and Milton both find a solvent to unchain the bird of their free-thinking mind, a merciful god and the water spirit respectively; the latter arguably a representation of the former. The concupiscence of the gums of glutinous heat is but the vehicle by which Milton illustrates the true crux of the masque, the tension between concupiscence and choice and the prospects of salvation.

The narrative of Comus asserts almost to an excessive extent the lady’s true nature and steadfastness against the allure of Comus, yet the lady herself struggles with youthful curiosity and concupiscence in our first introduction to her. When we first meet the lady there are undeniable signs of youthful curiosity verging on temptation of what Comus represents. Yet, each time in her opening speech we find evidence of temptation, for example, “A thousand fantasies / Begin to throng into my memory, / of calling shapes and beck’ning shadows dire / And airy tongues that syllable men’s names…” (205-208), a refuting antecedent statement immediately follows. From lines 210 to 235, a long and drawn out proclamation of the lady’s utmost faith in both god and the power of chastity unfolds to counter the temptation of the beckoning shadows. To say as some critics have that this scene is purely demonstrative of temptation is selling the “virtous mind” (210) of the lady short. Earlier in the speech the lady wonders about “gamesome pipe” and “bounteous pan” yet again immediately following her wonder is a blunt refutation, “I should be loath / to meet the rudeness and swill’d insolence / Of such wassailers…”(170-180). What Milton unfolds before us in our first introduction to the lady is just the anxiety that one finds throughout Confessions and Comus, as the lady’s reasoning mind counters her concupiscent curiosity. One cannot curtail the sequence into either temptation or steadfast faith; as the lady is in the midst of the battle Augustine found himself in his tenth book of Confessions. In this battle between the mind and the body, Milton is laying the groundwork for the lady’s firm denunciation of Comus in the debate sequence, and indeed, her inability to get up from the chair. An understanding of the latter sequence comes from Augustine’s and Shuger’s analysis.

Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo is a deeply personal work of prose that deals with the Saint’s own anxieties with becoming a person of faith; and these anxieties are keenly reflected in Comus. Critic Debora Shuger elucidated in her article “The Gums of Glutinous Heat” an approach that fits Milton’s own deeply scholastic approach; suggesting that an understanding of Comus must start in the source material from which Milton draws from in his project of free will and concupiscence. Mid-way through Book X of Confessions Augustine uses a curious term to describe concupiscence, writing, “Thou wilt increase, Lord, Thy gifts more and more in me, that my soul may follow me to Thee, disentangled from the birdlime of concupiscence” (Augustine 186). Shuger makes the obvious connection – birdlime is what affixes the lady to her chair given the description of the substance we are given being very similar to birdlime. Further, in the context of Augustine, “wet dreams are birdlime” (Shuger 2). Past the obvious comparison is something Milton tapped into directly in Comus; free will and concupiscence. Wet dreams are demonstrative of a nascent concupiscence in post-lapserian man, yet Augustine struggles deeply with the anxiety of his inability to control them. God must give him more gifts over time for him to begin to break free and fly from the birdlime. Yet Augustine’s solution is not so simple as to put fanatical faith in god’s ability to save him. Augustine wrestles with the specter of trying to both refute sin but also not to fanatically refute it and forge a new kind of concupiscence based in pride. This dilemma is reflected directly in the lady and her brothers. The Lady’s elder brother is perhaps too confident and too zealous about the power of chastity; leading to his extremely hyperbolic speech concerning chastity. Augustine reflects, “Thus in these things I unawares sin, but afterwards am aware of it. At other times shunning over-anxiously this very deception, I err in too great strictness…” (Augustine 190). Ergo, Comus cannot merely be a moralistic story about the power of chastity or the allure of evil to a young woman; it is far more complex than that. Comus is intimately concerned with degrees of faith and their implications on salvation. Shuger goes on to suggest that the English renaissance poets such as Donne and Milton all show a keen anxiety towards human passion and the divine (17). Shuger cogently suggests that poets such as Donne and Milton reflect the title of Augustine’s masterwork in their own work: confession. Shuger writes, “Like Augustinian theology, it dwells on the urgent and unwilled movements of thought and feeling…fascinated both by the soul’s wings and by its birdlimed feet” (17). Comus, then, in short, is an exploration of the flight of the soul and the birdlimed “corporal rind” that keeps it fixed to earth; and the anxiety that is inherently part of this relationship. Comus is a tale of the lady’s choice to fly yet having her feet stuck in the birdlime of post-lapserian man. The question remains then; what is Milton trying to say to his keenly personal audience, and what can be said of the lady’s entrapment and savlation?

The final scene of Comus is what has perplexed critics for centuries, and indeed, upon it the entire story hinges. Yet, Shuger’s insights on the Augustinian roots of Comus offer new and profound insights into the final scene. The first issue is just why the lady is stuck in the first place, if what her brother said was true about the absolute nature of true virginity. Indeed, the spirit refers to the lady as a “true virgin” even while she sits in the “birdlime of concupiscence.” Why then, would the narrator spirit refer to her as a true virgin if temptation is to be the crux of the story? As discussed above, the birdlime is demonstrative of an uncontrollable concupiscence; and this can perhaps help us explain why the lady is silent in these critical scenes. The lady can refute Comus and chose chastity, but she cannot refute the birdlime because it is the very concupiscence Augustine worries over in his tenth book of Confessions. The lady is unable to resist this concupiscence by definition, leaving her trapped and silent in the chair; but this is not the end of being a holy person for the lady. In the baptismal tide of the water spirit Sabrina the lady is freed from the bonds of concupiscence. Certainly, the water spirit is representative of at the very least the divine grace Augustine speaks of in his struggles to overcome the birdlime of concupiscence. Through the forgiving hands of the spirit, the lady is released from her “distress”; a distress deeply rooted in the involuntary concupiscence the birdlime represents. It stands to reason then that the tale cannot solely be a manifesto on temptation because the birdlime does not act upon the lady’s mind but only her body. It is not her mind that cannot escape, illustrated by her cutting debate with Comus, but rather her body. In Augustinian terms, whatever temptation she may involuntarily feel is irrelevant in the way it incurs no guilt or significance in regards to the lady’s chastity or virginity (Shuger 3).  The final lines demonstrate this thesis cogently; Milton writes, “Mortals that would follow me, / Love virtue, she alone is free, / She can teach ye how to climb / Higher than the sphery chime; / Or if virtue feeble were, / Heav’n itself would stoop to her” (1018-1023). Interestingly, the spirit does not say chastity or virginity but virtue. Milton here has switched from the idea of chastity so hyperbolically elevated in earlier passages to virtue. This movement cannot be unintentional, as Milton moves from the “true virginity” of the lady to her true virtue. In previous lines a brother had suggested that virtue, if true, “may be assail’d, but never hurt” (589) and if true virtue is to be hurt, the world is based on “stubble.” So the lady’s liberation then is Milton’s proof that the world is not based on fraudulency or “stubble”, but the divine virtue and grace of the Augustinian, merciful god; a profound message to a family scared by rape and sexual violence. Unfortunately for the young Milton, the family may not have been familiar with his Augustinian source material; which may explain the silence concerning the masque immediately after its performance.

Comus is a text that befuddles as it illuminates. Critics have for centuries opened up one insight only to find it to be a dead end or on the other hand a Pandora’s box of insights. By studying the lady’s internal debate in our first introduction to her, the insights offered by Augustine’s Confessions and Diane Shuger’s “Gums of Glutinous Heat” and finally the closing scene in light of these insights, a greater understanding of Milton’s great masque emerges. By recreating the dialogue with which Milton interacts in his masque, the perplexing issues in the masque begin to solidify. By utilizing the Augustinian concept of concupiscence which Milton is clearly pulling from, the concept of the lady’s temptation travels from critical importance to irrelevancy in the way both Milton and Augustine elevate the free will of flight over the birdlimed feet of concupiscence. In Comus we see the foundation for the thesis of Paradise Lost. The lady did not “by (her) own suggestion fall” nor was she “self-temped” or “self-deceived.” To Milton and his god in book three of Paradise lost the lady stands in opposition to those who choose sin instead of being victims of the deception of others, namely Comus in this work. Therefore, the lady “shall find grace. The other none.”

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I Am Me: The New Negro in Langston Hughes

I, Too:


Goodbye, Christ:

            angston Hughes was a writer of prolific prosaic, poetic and theatrical production; making him one of the most well known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, Hughes remains a controversial figure of the Renaissance, as his peers considered his “iconoclastic, anti-religious and anti-capitalist poems” to be in “bad taste” (Lewis 257). By rejecting the European sonnet and embracing American poets such as Walt Whitman, Hughes created poetry of unique and indebted character emblematic of the time and place of the Harlem Renaissance. A key thematic in the poetry of Hughes and the Renaissance in general is the formation of black identity by African Americans through creative works, or, the formation of a New Negro as defined by Alain Locke. Hughes navigates the concept of the New Negro in many of his poems, going from the defiant despair of Mulatto to the bittersweet I, Too to the triumphant declaration of his Marxist, secular identity in Goodbye, Christ. Hughes’ poems mirror the renaissance itself, as Hughes works through the conflict of forming a New Negro identity in a society still steeped in racism both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. By studying the assimilation present in I, Too, the resistance in Mulatto, and the declaratory nature of Goodbye, Christ, a greater understanding of Hughes’ conception of the New Negro emerges. Hughes moves from desire to assimilate and “sing” of America to the disillusionment that would send him traveling to Africa, Japan, the Soviet Union and beyond. This led the poet to seek a New Negro identity in the denotative sense of the term, an internationalist and new identity based in the atrocities of the American past and present. Yet in the end, one that rejected an assimilatory solution in favor of a revolutionary one.

Hughes’ I, Too is one of his most famous poems and it elucidates Hughes’ navigation through assimilation and resistance into a greater American society. The poem begins with the reactive relationship that is the foundation of the poem. Hughes writes, “I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother. / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes. / But I laugh, / and eat well / And grow strong” (Hughes 257-258). Hughes here is reflecting the foundational ideology of the Harlem Renaissance, that creation and productivity can raise the perception of African Americans in society, and build their “strength.” With one stroke of the pen Hughes rejects white as normative with the use of “darker” as opposed to dark, and with another he establishes his defiance to social segregation and his mounting strength to fight it. In Hughes’ later works, his ability to laugh off the racism of society seems to no longer be present, but here Hughes’ is assured by the antecedent to his strength; that American society will once and for all recognize his strength and beauty. Hughes continues, “To-morrow / I’ll sit at the table / When company comes / Nobody’ll dare / say to me, / “Eat in the Kitchen” / Then. / Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed / I, too, am America” (Hughes 258). Hughes’ singling out of the word “then” seems to suggest that the date of his rise is not so finite as “to-morrow” but rather at a date when white culture will not “dare” deny his strength and beauty. Inherent in this message is resistance, as Hughes uses imagery such as strength and beauty instead of intellect for example. Yet the final line of the poem suggests the poet’s desire to affirm his role in greater American society. This is perhaps Hughes’ most idealistic conception of the New Negro, one who tills his own strength and is eventually accepted by the greater American culture.  We can see this in the way the poem progresses on a causal relationship; he will eat in the kitchen yet become strong, then he will eat at the table, then American culture will see how beautiful he is and then he will be a part of America. These last two conclusions are ones Hughes would later find harder and harder to make, and this disillusionment can be found in poems such as Mulatto.

Mulatto is a poem of war, murder and rebirth all over the identity of a mixed child of a hateful father; and in its ten syllable lines the imagery of battle demonstrates a marked move from the thesis of I, Too. The form itself is unique to Hughes, as in Mulatto he is utilizing an English sonnet with an alternating rhyme scheme and a rhymed couplet at the end. Certainly the subject matter could not be farther from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and it can be assumed this is just the reason Hughes decided to use the form for his murderously defiant art. Hughes writes, “I will dispute his title to his throne, / Forever fight him for my rightful place. / There is a searing hate within my soul, / A hate that only kin can feel for kin, /A hate that makes me vigorous and whole, /And spurs me on increasingly to win” (Hughes 263). Here we see a catalyst that is starkly contrasted to the food in the kitchen – here Hughes’ protagonist is feeding on hate; a hate born out of his birth and his subsequent rejection by society for his “bastard birth mark.” In this poem there is no reconciliation, no acknowledgement from the white father and a distinct lack of any avenue for the mulatto in the poem to progress. Hughes here is offering a congruent message to the one offered in McKay’s canonical If We Must Die, as the protagonist accepts a brutal reality yet offers in a last push of defiance a profound sense of resistance. Added to this desperate tonality, Hughes utilizes deeply conflicting imagery throughout the poem, demonstrating the broken nature of his protagonist and the desperation the protagonist feels. Hughes continues, ” Because I am my cruel father’s child, /My love of justice stirs me up to hate, /A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled, /When falls the hour I shall not hesitate /Into my father’s heart to plunge the knife /To gain the utmost freedom that is life” (Hughes 263). Hughes asserts hate as a product of love, and life as a product of death; imagery that suggests a profound detachment from the purposed suffering witnessed in I, Too. The protagonist is a product of contradiction and “cruelty” and thus reflects these qualities. This is because he has no avenue with which to create his own identity; the mulatto in Hughes poetic project is a product of his rulers and the society around him, and not the flight of his free thinking mind. In Mulatto Hughes presents us with the problem of forming a New Negro identity in a land built from the ground up on sexual and racial violence; how can one define their own identity in a land devoted to defining it for them through violence and hatred? Hughes finds the solution to this question in Goodbye, Christ.

In Goodbye, Christ Langston Hughes delivers us his climactic and declaratory definition of his New Negro, that is, one who is both strong and beautiful and free from the chains of racist American culture and history. The poem is polemical at spots yet it does more than simply say goodbye to a Christian religion Hughes is clearly repudiating within the text. The poem is more involved in class and religious charlatans (Aimee McPherson, “Saint” Becton) than it is specifically any religious belief. The poem also interacts with the agency poetry grants, a theme keenly ingrained in Harlem Renaissance thematics. Hughes writes, “Make way for a new guy with no religion at all / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME – / I said, ME!” (Hughes 267). The poem in general is very declaratory as it commands Jesus to “make way” and “move on out” of the present. In these lines of poetry Hughes defines himself, that is, declares his own self-determination. There is no father figure who controls him, no white people sending him to the kitchen, but rather the singular “I” and his ability to “say” what defines him and indeed his ability to banish religious authority. Interestingly, Hughes finishes a list of Marxist heroes with “ME,” placing himself in his own canon. This is a new synthesis, as Hughes moves to defining his New Negro. Hughes rejects the cannon of America, and instead attributes himself to an arguably antithetical one, one that would subject him to much criticism and even a senatorial summons in the McCarthy era. To Hughes, this new canon empowers the poet as he continues, “The world is mine from now on – / And nobody’s gonna sell me / To a king, or a general, / Or a millionaire.” This thesis is far detached from either I, Too and Mulatto. Instead of “I, too, Am America” we are given “I am ME!” Instead of “Because I am my cruel father’s child” we are given “The world is mine from now on.” Hughes’ New Negro is one that isn’t enslaved to the whims of “Kings…generals…or millionaires” and Hughes elucidates this idea further in his “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria” as he sarcastically celebrates a new hotel in the light of impoverished African Americans in Harlem.  Thus Hughes’ New Negro is one that is not only self-determined and productive but also free from the class structure and cultural canon that systemically oppresses him. This mix of early Harlem ideology and radical Marxism was Hughes’ final, if not controversial, synthesis on the formation of the New Negro.

Langston Hughes, in spite of his radical ideology and rejection of forms, has emerged as one of the most commonly read authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry has become canonical in American poetry, and emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance. This perspective is perhaps flawed, as we have seen in Hughes poetry that he was often at odds with the core ideology of the Renaissance, and he was criticized by his peers for his radical politics and poems about women of the night. By studying the assimilative themes in I, Too, the desperate resistance in Mulatto and finally the new synthesis of Hughes’ vision of the New Negro, a greater understanding of Langston Hughes as a poet of the Renaissance emerges. Hughes rejected assimilation in favor of internationalist and revolutionary sentiments; sentiments that would send him traveling across the globe and place him at odds with many of his Harlem comrades. In short, Hughes defined his new negro with a new canon, one of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Peasants, Workers and himself; standing against not only Jim Crow and its murderous adherents, but also the leaders who sent African Americans to die in Europe only to see regression at home.

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Predestined to Revolution: Puritan Rhetoric and Themes in Tom Paine’s Common Sense

Common Sense:

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:

A Model of Christian Charity:

            homas Paine’s Common Sense is one of the greatest insights into the revolutionary fervor that swept the American Colonies in the 18th century and the revolutionary sentiments expressed in the prose give keen details on what drove the colonists to take up arms and fight the most powerful Empire of their time. Common Sense was widely read by Americans, and its impact on the formation of the United States cannot be overlooked. Yet, Common Sense is itself profoundly impacted by the hundreds of years of colonial history that lead up to that revolutionary moment. In Common Sense,  Paine appeals to many different Americans; ranging from utilizing biblical criticism to harkening back to the days of the pagan Roman Republic. Yet throughout all of these appeals a common thread is woven through them all. This common thread is the American experience of the Puritan dynamic, or the Puritan influence on the radicalism of Paine; but more specifically, the Puritan elements in how Paine envisions America and what modes of persuasion he chooses to use. By studying rhetorical similarities between Jonathan Edward’s “Sinner’s in the Hands of God” and Paine’s Common Sense, and analyzing the thematic similarities between John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and Paine’s depiction of American Destiny and equality, a greater understanding of the Puritan influence on Common Sense can be gained. The inherent messages of Puritanism, from Winthrop’s concept of the city on a hill, to the violent urgency of Jonathan Edwards polemical orations, are profoundly ingrained in Common Sense. Common Sense influenced American political formation just as Common Sense was influenced by the radical Puritan conceptions of urgency, inevitability, destiny and equality.

Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and Common Sense are at first glance utterly opposed to opposed to one another, and ideologically they certainly are. Yet rhetorically, the two documents share much common ground. The concept of urgency in Puritanical writing is due to the ever-present ideas of doom and judgment within Puritan thinking. The urgency of the situation each author sees his audience in is found throughout each document, and this sense of urgency is used as persuasion within both pieces. Edwards expresses a uniquely puritan concept of urgency by writing, “How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?” (329). In this passage, Edwards implores the audience to not wait even “one moment” and suggests that those who value their souls must do something immediately or suffer eternal damnation. This also introduces an interesting contradiction within Edwards, and that is the all-powerful nature of god seems to defeat the concept of urgency being necessary, and this is where Edwards brings in the threat of heinous fates to those who do not seek out god to overcome this contradiction. Edwards reasserts this point by stating that those that do not seek forgiveness immediately are subjecting themselves to nothing less than spiritual destruction. Paine uses a similar construction, writing “Wherefore since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake, let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats, under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child” (40). This passage paints a picture of the urgency that Paine has portrayed throughout the piece, as Paine weaves present and future as if they are directly related to their actions in this moment. Paine also introduces the idea of the society, or future society, which depends on these actions. This is Paine’s use of some terrible fate to befall the land if his readership does not act immediately. Paine suggests that violence will come upon their children if the readership does not do something this instant about English tyranny, and those who do not act with urgency are subjecting their children to violence. In this rhetorical interpretation, Paine has made loyalists and non-revolutionaries as those who would allow future generations to suffer violence under the boot of the English King because of their own timidity or idealistic lack of historical urgency just as Edwards has portrayed those who do not seek salvation as those who do not value the precious nature of their souls. Paine uses the threat of British violence and Edwards uses the specter of an ultimately powerful and wrathful god, both as a means to the end of creating a profound sense of urgency within each piece. The idea of urgency is a fundamental pillar with which the rhetorical argument of each piece is built, and while Paine rejected fervent religious ideology as expressed in Edwards, here we see him utilizing a distinctly Puritan tool of persuasion, that of the great urgency all sublunary souls find themselves in. This urgency is contradicted with the inevitability of salvation, damnation and Revolution, and the same contradiction is found within Common Sense.

The concept of inevitability is one that profoundly impacts both Common Sense and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The inevitability of judgment and the anxiety that went along with that is steeped in Puritan writing as seen in Bradstreet, Rowlandson and many others. Puritanism is rife with contradiction, and the relationship between urgency and inevitability is another example of this, as Earthly actions do not impact salvation under their predestined ideology, yet Edwards stresses the urgency highlighted above. In perhaps the most famous words of the speech, Edwards compares all humans to a spider upon a thread. Edwards writes, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked” (325). Edwards has established a situation in which a sinner’s destruction is inevitable, and the soul’s eternal punishment hangs upon a thread tied to an all-powerful God’s whims. The language is highly Puritanical as no human can know the whims of god, yet it is “dreadful” to “provoke” such an all powerful entity. Edwards manifests the contradiction highlighted earlier; on one hand, an all powerful god has the audience members hung over the pits of hell in which they might be dropped at any moment, and on the other, they must repent and seek Christ; suggesting that they have some level of control. This contradiction can be found in Common Sense as Paine uses the same metaphor and adjusts it to his purpose. Paine writes, “Emigrants of property will not choose to come to a country whose form of government hangs but by a thread, and who is every day tottering on the brink of commotion and disturbance; …inhabitants would lay hold of the interval, to dispose of their effects, and quit the continent” (43). Paine once again associates a possible outcome with what will happen if the American people do not cut off the British government “hang(ing) but by a thread.” Paine establishes a set of circumstances that will not only hurt the American people but result in the destruction and abandonment of their lands, much like how Edwards establishes a cruel fate for the spider upon the string. In many ways Paine has taken Edward’s canonical metaphor and turned it on its head, with the American people taking up the role of an all-powerful god, holding the fate of the teetering British Colonial Government in their hands. To oppose the inevitable destruction of the fraying thread holding British rule in America together, is to oppose a historical certainty to Paine, yet Common Sense is filled with a desperate sense of revolutionary urgency highlighted above. Thus Paine is an author of dynamic character, accepting both enlightened secularism with one stroke of the pen, and utilizing famous puritan metaphors and concepts such as urgency and inevitability with the next.

Common Sense cannot be limited to the rhetorical realm, however, as the document is extremely political and nationalistic. Paine fills the prose with enlightenment concepts such as democracy, republicanism and checked authority; yet Paine invokes the deeply puritanical concepts of destiny. John Winthrop elucidates the concept of the destiny of the American people perhaps more famously than any other Puritan writer. His “A Model of Christian Charity” outlines the great idealism that swept puritan communities when they first established colonies in the new world. Undoubtedly, the ideals expressed in Winthrop were never fully realized, yet this incubatory conception of American destiny and nationalism were to have a profound impact on their future manifestations found in Common Sense. Winthrop writes, “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill”(135). This is a canonical passage that illustrates with keen precision what Edwards conceives the new land of the puritans to be. Firstly, this new world is one that will be above, quite literally within Winthrop’s metaphor, the rest of the civilized world. The puritans will live on “a city on a hill,” for the rest of the world to behold as the god that is amongst its people will empower these people to fantastical feats. Secondly, this new civilization has a unique transformative power to all of the world. This moment is unprecedented to Winthrop, as he compares Puritans to the Israelites of nearly 4000 years ago, illustrating the two people’s shared destiny and potentiality for world changing power. Paine uses this exact logic in his appendix to the third edition of Common Sense. Paine writes, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now” (63). Here Paine takes Winthrop’s concept and revitalizes it for the American revolutionary generation. Paine, like Winthrop, calls upon ancient biblical references to, in Paine’s case, demonstrate the climactic historical nature of the American Revolutionary moment. Paine also uses Winthrop’s concept of the potentiality of the American people to impact the entire world. To Paine, the American people have it within their power to forge not only their own nation but a new world entirely. This elucidation by Paine is similar to Puritan expressions of their shared destiny in the new world upon establishing colonies in New England. Thus, Winthrop’s earliest constructions of American Nationalism and destiny laid a sturdy foundation from which subsequent manifestations of nationalism and destiny in American literature and political dialogue would base themselves upon, and this influence is found in Paine’s portrayal of the American revolutionaries as holding the power to remake the world within their hands.

Yet another contradiction inherent in the American puritan experience was the spiritual equality preached by Protestantism opposed to the fundamental Puritan idea of predestination. Winthrop navigates intricately through this contradiction in his work. Winthrop writes, “From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the common good of the creature, man” (126). Winthrop is creating a very fine distinction between earthly successes and spiritual successes in this passage, suggesting indirectly a certain level of equality between all humans. Any earthly success is merely for the glorification of the community and god, and does not show anything about the true nature of the successful person. Indeed, Puritan thought would evolve to consider economic success as a marker for elect status, yet in this early stage Winthrop is elucidating a more idealistic view. Because of the contradiction highlighted above, Winthrop toes around advocating for any kind of economic equality but instead says that the class differences that defined colonial society were simply “for the glory of his creator.” In this construction, Winthrop has established a relationship in which humans are equal by birth, unequal by function and “god.” From a modern perspective, the contradiction seems inherent. If all members of the “city on the hill” are born equal, why are some better off than others? This is a critical question that is still asked in America, and Paine suggests an answer very much in line with Winthrop. Paine writes, “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance; the distinctions of rich, and poor, may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh, ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice” (24). Interestingly, from a man who would go onto participate in the French revolution, Paine’s argument concerning equality in Common Sense is much in line with Winthrop’s. The precise relationship outlined in Winthrop is outlined in Paine; that is, that ‘all men are created equal’ and the inequalities seen in any capitalist society stem from something else. Paine does not invoke any holy base for hierarchy or even argue that it serves a function in society as Winthrop does, but cryptically claims inequality can be “accounted for” without considering “oppression and avarice.” This passage is perplexing, even within Common Sense, as it is unusually lacking in specifics; as compared to Paine’s amazingly detailed analysis of British naval might. The perplexing nature of the passage is a product of the contradiction highlighted above manifested in Paine’s own time of the growth of southern slavery. Thus equality of birth is stressed by both authors, yet neither author can go any further with this idea due to the inherently contradictory nature of Puritanism and in Paine’s time, the contradiction of American revolutionary rhetoric and slavery.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is as revolutionary as it is indebted to past expressions of American mythology such as Jonathon Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” By highlighting the presence of rhetorical urgency and inevitability in both Edwards and Paine, and analyzing the political presence of destiny and equality within Winthrop and Paine, a greater understanding of the Puritan influence on Common Sense emerges. Common Sense marks a unique departure from Puritanism that is at the same time heavily indebted to the Puritan foundational ideology that permeates American culture. The fundamental radicalism of the Puritan experience laid the groundwork for the development of a revolutionary movement in the colonies. The questions of individualism and communalism, equality and hierarchy, and predestiny and duty still pervade American society to this day. All of these questions arose in the Puritan period, and they are reckoned with precision in Paine’s Common Sense. In this one mass appeal, Paine brilliantly uses multiple influences to create a synthesized call for revolution. In Paine’s hybridization of enlightenment thinking and age old Puritanical rhetoric and themes, the American Revolutionary generation found the blade with which to cut the thread holding King George the Third over the pit of bloody revolt.


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Our Power Sufficient

Our Power Sufficient: Finding a Literary Voice from Milton and His Readers

Incessantly, and to his reading brings not / A spirit and judgment equal or superior / And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek /Uncertain and unsettled still remains, / Deep-versed in book and shallow in himself” (Milton, PR 4.322-7)


            A history of reading of Milton’s great epic is something of a daunting prospect; for so many have read it, loved it, hated it, denounced and celebrated it – how could something encompassing so many experiences, from the 17th century to today, be accurately captured in one brief gaze? Author Alberto Manguel, himself an author of an even wider scope – the history of reading entire, led the way for the start of my exploration and for that I owe him thanks. Manguel elucidates, “Like the act of reading itself, a  history of reading jumps forward to our time – to me, to my experience as a reader – and then goes back to an early page in a distant foreign century” (Manguel 23). So, then, let the temporal shifts begin at my own experiences, and expand to the readings of those before me that sculpted my own synthesis on the value and meaning of Paradise Lost.

I first encountered Milton in a survey on literature of the English Restoration, when the professor idly mused at the groping, mad and blind Milton and his epic of lost revolutionary prospects manifested in an epic of biblical proportions.  The epic itself interested me in the culturally literate way I understood it; the fire of hell and the din of angelic battle narrating the lost hope of paradise and the tragedy found therein. What roused me from my doodles was one final afterthought by the professor, that this mad protestant revolutionary had never recanted the beheading of King Charles I, the singular person who signed the warrant not to do so, and lived out his life under house arrest; deprived of light and surrounded by a society that had executed many of his friends. The loss of so many friends, drawn and quartered in public, was worth a thousand versions of his “Lycidas” written for his fallen friend Charles Diodati, but we instead receive Paradise Lost. This image captured me immediately – what courage it must have taken, what intellectual integrity it required to scribe anything at all, let alone “things unattempted yet in prose or rhime” (PL I). I immediately painted a version of my own Milton, a promethean figure from a failed revolution, which as I was to find out, was not entirely uncommon. John Keats for example, a romantic Poet, had a similar impulse upon seeing a lock of Milton’s hair. Keats reflected, “O, what a mad endeavour  / Worketh he / Who, to thy sacred and ennobled hearse, /Would offer a burnt sacrifice of verse  / And Melody!” (Keats). James Henry Hunt would also reflect on seeing a strand of Milton’s hair, an apparently inspiring collection of dead cellular matter, reflecting, The living head I stood in honored pride, / Talking of lovely things that conquer death. / Perhaps he pressed it once, or underneath / Ran his fine fingers when he leant, blank-eyed, /And saw in fancy Adam” (Hunt). So I, a 21st century student, had begun to undertake the work long in the process of envisioning Milton in a  way not so dependent on the actual Milton – the poets of romance sparked by a strand of hair, and I sparked by an anecdote of resistance to Monarchy. I followed this anecdote with my vision of Milton to a survey on Milton, where both would be challenged, destroyed, and recreated.
I arrived in that survey much like
Paul Bäumer arrived on the western front in Erich Maria Remarque’s classic, ignorant to the reality of the scholarly “war” and holding an image firmly in the abstract of Milton and his epic. Manguel highlights perhaps what I hoped would be true of the course, writing, “However readers make a book theirs, the end is that book and reader become one. The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world’s text; thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading” (Manguel 173). Learning more about my envisioned Milton would certainly lead to a greater appreciation of the hero and an opening a Pandora’s Box of insight and enrichment. Sadly, like Paul Bäumer, the reality was somewhat disenchanting for me. My first disillusionment was keenly Miltonic – several students in the class openly mused over how they had not read a single word of Paradise Lost and had looked up plot summaries on Wikipedia. Citadel of modern knowledge that it is, the source robbed Paradise Lost of the beauty of actually reading it, and indeed, this was an anxiety of Milton himself. Scholar Nicholas Von Maltzhan remarks in his article “Milton’s Readers” that in the antebellum years Milton had become cynical over “the common reader” and their lack of “understanding,” or as the epigraph of this section illustrates, Satan is learned in books but “shallow.” In this moment of bitterness, caused by the fact that Milton had survived being executed only to be ignored by students who didn’t have the time for his work, I agreed with antebellum Milton – what faith is there in the “common reader?”

This frustration was compounded by my expanding understanding of criticism on Milton. I first encountered C.S. Lewis in this class, who famously made the argument that unorthodoxy had to be “searched for” in Paradise Lost (Lewis) – an idea certainly opposed to my view of Milton as an author of revolution. There was then Empson, who countered Lewis with the memorable saying, “the reason the poem is so good is because it makes god so bad” (Empson). This was an argument I could get behind, being the Milton-as-Revolutionary reader that I was, but Empson was quickly superseded by Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin published a mere five years after Empson’s Milton’s God.  Von Maltzhan accurately describes Fish’s argument as one of synthesis between the two camps of Lewis and Empson – one that placed the reader at the center of the epic, his or her readings being demonstrative of Milton’s greater purpose – justifying the ways of god to man through a pedagogic experience of being surprised by sin. Support for Satan, or even the suggestion of ambiguity in his character was considered to be demonstrative of Milton’s goal to illustrate the fallen nature of humanity. Fish’s analysis now dominates academic circles, be it either to agree and teach or to reject. Such a reading, which intends to empower the reader within the text, seemed to me to make a binary of Paradise Lost, one where I couldn’t find any evidence of that first anecdote that first drew me to Milton, and one that rendered Milton an orthodox figure incapable of writing a piece rooted in radicalism. In short, Milton went from fiery revolutionary to the proverbial “old, dead, white” man. The class ended so rapturously different for me than it had begun, I had all but given up Milton and my vision of him, that of the revolutionary, as wrong and misguided. I felt as Satan did in Book 4, lamenting, “Is there no place left for repentance, none for pardon left?” (PL IV).  Was the epic filled with such beautiful insights destined to fall to the gutter, unread and if read, read as a book of orthodoxy? Had it always been read this way? Could modern critics reconnect Milton the pamphleteer and Milton the poet? It was in this place that I entered the senior capstone class, where a history of reading and a congruent topic I had been studying catalyzed my own interest to take another look at the epic from a historical study of its reception to see one last time if I could turn up the Latin Clerk of the Commonwealth instead of the dusty theologian.


The learner always begins by finding fault, but the scholar sees the positive merit in everything. – Hegel’s Philosophy of History

From the ashes of conservative criticism and critical hegemonic dominion on the epic rose the authors of the past – romantics, cavaliers, dialecticians and more that lead me to construct a dialectical heuristic in understanding and discovering the true value for me of Milton, his readers and Paradise Lost. This heuristic is based on Hegel’s dialectic, commonly understood as thesis, antithesis and synthesis but more specifically it is the conflict of the abstract and the negative forming the concrete. With this in mind, and under the umbrella of a history of reading – I looked to Paradise Lost. What can be found using such a heuristic is that Paradise Lost has from conception served as a dialectical lynch pin for many generation’s effort to make concrete their abstract motivations and movements. Such a relationship occurred immediately after Milton published his epic and occurred during his life time, and continued through the restoration, romantic, modern and post-modern epochs. Surveying such a history is required before I can elucidate what this research lead me to conclude using this heuristic.

The period of the English Restoration, where the Commonwealth had been dissolved in favor of the beheaded king’s son, Charles II, was a  period were conservatism quickly moved to erase any history of the radicalism that had so recently enveloped the country. To this end, Cromwell’s bones were robbed from his coffin – a coffin Milton himself carried to its resting place, and the head was removed and placed on a pike on London Bridge. It was in this environment that Paradise Lost was written and published in 1667.  The reactions to Paradise Lost were at once numerous and opposed to one another. Von Maltzhan highlights, “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” (Von Maltzhan 243). Immediately we see Milton, while he still alive, already being included in a history of reading himself – compared to Homer and Virgil, a judgment affirmed by some and attributed to “impartial learned” readers. Indeed, the front plate of the 1688 fourth edition of Milton, now published after his death, affirms him as “the both in last” (Virgil and Homer in unison, form Milton). Immediately Milton has entered into a history of reading debate, where canonical figures are compared to a poet of the present, something rarely seen in our age.

This reaction, to either celebrate or condemn Milton,  continued as the restoration became finalized and the revolution rescinded into the annals of memory. Many poets now lampooned Milton and the puritanical thought system he represented. The most obvious examples of this is perhaps the work of Samuel Butler, whose Hudibras tells the tale of a Puritan knight who is much like Don Quixote, deluded and foolish – carried on by myths he had read; myths, very much resembling Milton’s own. Butler remarks upon Sir Hudibras’ philosophy by saying, “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.” (Butler) Butler, himself a courtier of Charles II, had no reason to celebrate Milton’s “wherefores,” and we see here the dialectic of Milton’s readers. Butler, by lampooning the puritanical intellectual, a negative for his abstract vision of restored England, makes concrete his critique of the interregnum and his renunciation of everything the Commonwealth had stood for. Hudibras, published in the 1670s, was a favorite of king Charles II, a true comedy of the destruction of the Commonwealth, an event that was to Milton the fall – the “bringing of all our woe” (PL I 1-10). This dialectic, one where generations make concrete their relationship to Milton and his epic, is one that continues through the restoration and into the romantic period, perhaps the best known era of Miltonic reappropriation.

The romantics, in short, loved Milton and more specifically, his Satan. Satan is the Byronic anti-hero to end all Byronic anti-heroes, and it was William Blake who famously claimed that Milton was a true poet and was thus “of the devil’s party without knowing it”(Read). This statement has been in the crosshairs from 20th and 21st century critics every since, itself demonstrative of modern criticism’s need to make concrete its objective, historical criticism on the back, or the negative, of romantic criticism. To the point, the romantic period saw the reciprocal dialectic of the one that dominated restoration literature. Instead of using a reading of Milton as a catalyst in the construction of counterrevolutionary sentiment, the romantics, many of whom were politically revolutionary themselves (Byron and Shelley, to name a few), went to none other than Virgil and Homer in one to make concrete their radical world view through an interaction with Paradise Lost. Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” tells the tale of Prometheus, who like Satan, battles against insurmountable odds, yet Shelley makes a key distinction about his hero in comparison to Milton’s in his introduction to the work. Shelley writes, “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.” (Shelley). This quote demonstrates with precision the dialectic I am highlighting – Shelley goes to Milton to make concrete his vision of a hero in this case. Shelley reaffirms his positive vision of rebellion in an interaction with Milton, taking what he likes, dispatching what he doesn’t, and producing a product that is a synthesis, or a concrete, of authorial, generational interaction with Milton.

It is not uncommon for modern critics to shrug off romantic views on Milton (i.e. Carey suggesting sympathy for the devil being a symptom of Freudian neurosis(Carey)), but in doing so we are partaking in their work – to find Milton, an author from the publishing of his great epic that has been lost in political and religious reppropriation of generations in search of making concrete their vision of literature and the world through the cultural capital of Virgil and Homer in one. Indeed, the romantic’s vision of Milton is one that carries much cultural capital itself, perhaps illustrated by Gustav Dore’s famous inscriptions of the mid-19th century. Satan as the classical hero is a notion that did not escape critics in the 17th century to this day (Von Maltzhan), yet the engravings to the 1688 fourth edition of the epic depict a keenly and notably demonic Satan. It is the famous engraving of Book 1 done by John Baptist Medina where Satan, adorned with a Greco-Roman robe, rouses the rebel angels from their fiery pits.  Yet well after Romanticism had faded into but influence, their vision of Satan endured – as seen in Dore’s engravings. Is it Dore’s depiction of General Satan leading his host against the host of heaven that remains in our cultural imagination. It cannot be doubted the romantic’s reading of Paradise Lost, and subsequent artists’ return to it as seen in Dore, is a product of the epic’s pedagogic role, as noted by Margaret Thickstun in her Milton’s Paradise Lost: Moral Education, but also its keenly dialectical role in the way it has historically been used to make concrete certain generations view of themselves in a literary and personal way as seen in the works of Butler and Shelley (one to reject it, one to embrace and change it), and other writers time does not allow; namely Byron, Alexander Pope, Virginia Woolf and others. In summary, by studying the Restoration’s dialectical interpretation of Milton, including both those who heralded the work as Virgil and Homer in one, and those who lampooned the blind and defeated writer an appreciation for Milton’s immediately historical, Hegelian dialectical role emerges. By also studying the romantics depiction of Milton, Satan and the epic and their lasting impact on how Paradise Lost is imagined, a greater understanding of the way Paradise Lost has functioned in history as a book of both pedagogy and dialectics emerged, two themes necessitating a more detailed look.


“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” Milton, Areopagitica

            C.S. Lewis throughout his Preface to Paradise Lost remarks, as many critics before him (Von Maltzhan) on the failed aspects of the epic, in the way God’s language is flat, and Satan’s so alive with rhetoric.  Indeed, Empson, C.S. Lewis’ critical adversary, remarked, “his modern critics still feel, in a puzzled way, that there is something badly wrong about it all. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy” (Empson). Empson makes this conclusion in his polemical, anti-Christian way,  but his idea is what the historical, Hegelian dialectic and pedagogical role of Paradise Lost is. Paradise Lost is a book that guides the reader, but is at the same time, deeply invested in what the reader brings to it, as illustrated in Surprised by Sin. I had in my earlier, enthusiastic thought-space conceived of Fish’ argument as one that denied the epic to the reader in trying to give it to him or her, but after having undertaken a history of reading of the epic I return to it; with one caveat.

As Milton highlighted in his critically important “Areopagitica where he argues against censorship, books are the “purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bread them” (Milton). It is not surprising then, that Milton includes his reader so intimately in his epic, hoping that his epic finds, “fit audience, though few” (PL VII) and the first epigraph notes that a reader must bring his own judgment to a text, or be “shallow” (PR). Is it perhaps because of this that Fish’s argument and focus on reader-reading relationship leant itself so well to Milton and Paradise Lost, yet my original trepidation of Paradise Lost being a test of one’s fallen state remains. Can we so easily pin down Milton’s “efficacy and extraction” as to assume his desired impact on his readers, and further, can we assume that Milton’s mission to “justify the ways of god to man” does not include himself; living in such dire circumstances as elucidated above? When I studied the historical reading of the epic, and the variant arguments that all, as Hegel says, had merit, I began to look at the epic itself as perhaps being a catalyst in the dialectical role it has served. I concluded, with Empson, that the ambiguity in the epic is the main driving force within it but I also concluded that this ambiguity leads to no finite end, but instead is the value of the epic itself. In our debate with Milton in reading his epic, we discover multiple avenues of criticism and interpretation that are all valid and discernible within the text; leaving Milton’s mission to justify the ways of god to man historically and presently in motion, a motion defined by its dialectical history and present, one where abstract visions of religion and politics are made concrete by reader’s interaction with the text. Readers who are “fit” and bring a “spirit of justice” to the text, unlike Satan, create depth not shallowness – and in doing so, partake in the historical task Paradise Lost has created since its inception. The epic, in short, is a pedagogy created in motion – where Milton tries to justify the ways of the divine to himself and his reader, and in the process, renders an epic that serves to the reader what it served to the author – an exploration in existence, the divine and the relationship therein.

Paradise Lost has historically been a book of dialectical rejection and acceptance as a way to make concrete our abstract concepts of society and literary criticism as elucidated above. Thus, Paradise Lost’s value in the canon, and indeed its current historical moment, is not so much self-contained in the text or to be found therein; but rather its value can be found in the dialectical interaction of it with its readers, a value that can never truly depreciate over time, that is of course, if it is still read. The text is left so open to interpretation that the book functions as a dialectical catalyst, a pedagogical exploration of the divine, and as Von Maltzhan writes, “our being in the world in relation to the the divine, whatever that may be.”(Von Maltzhan). By studying the history of reading of Paradise Lost and by utilizing Hegel’s dialectic in doing so, I was able to find the Latin Clerk of the Commonwealth, one that struggle to justify the ways of god to man to himself, to his readers, and to all time. Paradise Lost, then, emerged to me as just that- a struggle; one that took place from authorship, publication to this very moment. It is in this struggle that I found the Milton that first came into my consciousness and the very same historical struggle that reignited my passion for the epic. In short, the value of Paradise Lost is in its pedagogy, the way it makes concrete our abstract notions of faith, rebellion, justice, sin and so on. Milton may not like how one reads his epic, and that, perhaps, is precisely the point.

Works Cited

Butler, Samuel. “Hudibras.” Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of            English Literature. New York: Norton, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan.”The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Cambridge:   Cambridge      UP, 1989. N. pag. Print.

Empson, William. Milton’s God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1965. Print.

Hegel, Friedrich. “Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History.” N.p., n.d. Web.   10 June 2013. <;.

Keats, John. “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milto’s Hair.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June   2013. <;.

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford UP, 1961. Print.

Milton, John, and Merritt Y. Hughes. Complete Poems and Major Prose. New York: Odyssey,    1957.   Print.

Maltzhan, Nicholas Von. “Milton’s Readers.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. N. pag. Print.

Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Viking, 1996. Print.

Nield, Chris, and James H. Hunt. “A Reading of ‘On a Lock of Milton’s Hair'” The Antidote.         N.p., 17 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 June 2013.

Read, Sophie. “Milton and the Critics: The Reception of Paradise Lost.” Darkness Visible:            Resources for Studying Milton’s Paradise Lost. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013.             <;.

Shelley, Percey. “Prometheus Unbound: Author’s Preface.” Prometheus Unbound: Author’s          Preface. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2013.    <;.

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