Category Archives: Milton

Virginia Woolf’s Revision of Milton’s Bogey in Orlando


Note: I remove works cited pages to impede plagiarism attempts.

Image result for medieval Virginia Woolf’s relationship with the work of John Milton was a sordid and tumultuous one. In her early life, Woolf saw Milton as an author of transcendent quality, yet she later identified  “Milton’s Bogey” (his sexism), and this reading remains one of the major, most-anthologized 20th century critical reflections on Milton’s work. Much scholarship explores the relationship between Milton’s literary heritage and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, particularly in Woolf’s ambition to find “Shakespeare’s sister.” Though Woolf never seeks Milton’s sister, perhaps due to her conflicted feelings on the simultaneously androgynous and deeply gendered poetics of Paradise Lost, the general move is reflective of Woolf’s desire to go back to history to find female writers who were silenced by patriarchal literary practice. Woolf’s historical fiction project is a markedly imaginative and fantastical one, that at the same time pursues the traditional goals of Nineteenth Century historical fiction. Woolf endeavors to retrospectively construct a nation of diaspora women writers residing in the liminal area of recognized history. Her historical fiction project in many ways reflects Milton’s own of retrospective national salvation from the history of victorious monarchy (or patriarchy, in Woolf’s case). Given this similarity in project, and indeed the active role Milton played in Woolf’s understanding of suppressed female authorship, surprisingly little scholarship has been done on Woolf’s Orlando with regards to this general desire to go to history to find, create, and highlight feminine authorial presence, and the Miltonic influence on Woolf’s gender-fluid, trans-historical work of historical fiction only appears in passing reference in studies of the novel.

The peculiarity of the climactic scene in which Woolf’s titular character changes from man to woman is keenly in dialogue with Miltonic precedent and shows Woolf’s interest in historical, literary revision through referential imagery and language. In Orlando, and specifically in this climactic scene, Woolf shows us not Shakespeare’s sister, but Eve’s. Orlando’s birth as a woman is strikingly mirrored to Eve’s own, yet Woolf represents it in reciprocal terms. The distinction between Satanic, Human, and Angelic that is so fundamental to Milton’s gender politics is fractured in a mock Satanic council scene with three “angels,” the only genderless figures in Milton’s epic, and Woolf casts Orlando in a keenly Satanic light in differentiating her significantly from Eve, “our mother” (PL XII). The significance of Woolf’s inheritance, mirroring, and flipping of Miltonic gender politics in the climax of Orlando is not only one of reference, but the manifestations and inversions of Milton in Orlando flesh out the subtle nuances of Woolf’s envisioned historical fiction project. While the text of Orlando is markedly fantastical, the imagistic basis of the climactic scene is one that seeks revision over radical imaginative creation as several critics suggest. Imagination is surely the avenue through which Woolf seeks this project, but the fundamental project, as exemplified in the climactic gender-swapping scene in Orlando, is for historical and literary revision towards the creation of new, contemporary spaces for literature—a space where Milton’s bogey has been corrected, and true genderless authorial presence is achievable. Thus, Orlando is not a hegemonically imaginative text that breaks from literary tradition towards the creation of something entirely new. Instead, as throughout her career, Woolf constructs a new literary space in dialectical synthesis with past literary trends and tropes—making the text as much a literary, historical one as an imaginative one.

Critical responses to Orlando have increased in recent years in the wake of Virginia Woolf’s rise to prominence in the literary space of second and third wave feminism, and much of the critical responses have been explorations of Orlando’s imaginative thrust. Jane De Gay, for example, argued that Orlando represented a feminist historiography, a reading central to my own, but De Gay argues for the hegemony of imagination in that historical project. De Gay concludes of the novel, “By placing Woolf ‘s feminist historiography in the tradition of Pater and Lee, we can see why Woolf made her fullest and most sustained attempt to rewrite history in Orlando rather than in a nonfictional work: for Woolf, the imagination provided the only satisfactory medium for embracing the lost past” (De Gay 71). De Gay seats Woolf’s project in Victorian essayists Pater and Lee (as well as Ruskin), whose influence in Orlando are certainly less noticeable than Milton, Shakespeare, and other early modern authors at large. De Gay is right, though, that Orlando is Woolf’s most sustained attempt to fulfill the aims of A Room of One’s Own. De Gay’s suggestion of imagination as “the only satisfactory medium” for doing that seems to diminish the literary, historical threads she seeks in Victorian literary circles, though, and Woolf in Orlando has higher ambitions outside of merely embracing or coming to terms with history. Woolf’s task, whether in dialogue with Victorian gender politics and patriarchal publication practices or with the literary ancestry of Milton’s gendered authorship, is to revise. Orlando does not so easily resist non-fictional themes and motifs even in its radical fantasy and magical realism, as much of the text, through its narrator and through the specifically chosen historical chronotopes at work in the novel, partakes in a significant literary critical task that is not in opposition to Woolf’s imaginative framework. Rather, Woolf’s historical revision of literary precedent is the major catalyst in deciphering the imaginative climactic sequence, and indeed, Woolf’s rendering of Miltonic precedence in her prose criticism often engages with the limitations such precedent puts on the literary imagination.

Several Milton critics have keyed in on Virginia Woolf’s readings of Paradise Lost as sexist, emotionally vapid, yet uniquely powerful in their summaries of the major feminist responses to Milton’s work in the 20th century. John Rogers, for example, in a lecture on the power of Milton suggested that, “For Virginia Woolf, especially in A Room of One’s Own, the dead writer Milton exercises an active power at the present moment as he forces his female readers to accept their subordinate place in society; and the text of Milton, and especially of Paradise Lost, therefore has to be seen as an active, persistently malignant conveyor of patriarchal oppression” (Rogers). The activity of Milton’s legacy on Woolf as described by Rogers is key, as Woolf’s utilization of Milton’s gender legacy in literature does reckon its authority and traction in literary circles of her era. Woolf does not attempt to transcend this legacy but directly interacts with it for the purpose of counteracting it through counterexample. Milton, through his characters and his assumption of a male perspective of feminine virtue and experience, enforces a “malignant,” patriarchal authority on Woolf. When Woolf inverts and confuses this gender hierarchy and point of view, it is certainly imaginative but the main engine behind Woolf’s historical project is a revision of literary history, not the invention of totally new perspectives. Reckoning Milton’s power, Woolf instead replaces, challenges, and inverts it—creating a profoundly dialectical and specifically historical product in doing so.

Woolf’s complicated, ever-changing interaction with Milton’s Paradise Lost underlines the way Orlando moves dialectically with Milton’s projec. One of Woolf’s chief problems with the patriarchal system of literature that had existed up to her point, and which arguably still exists, was that male authors were assumed to be telling a story from a male perspective. In an early essay in Vogue in 1924, the young Woolf identified Milton as one of the rare authors capable of circumventing this practice:“[These writers] however, are all of a simple character; the men have been supposed to remain men, the women women when they write. They have exerted the influence of their sex directly and normally. But there is a class which keeps itself aloof from any such contamination. Milton is their leader; with him are Landor, Sappho, Sir Thomas Browne, Marvell” (“Indiscretions”). Woolf interestingly finds many of her authors in the Early Modern period and its classical ancestors, most notably Sappho (who was the subject of many anthologized early modern poems.) Even the lesbian Sappho and the gender-bending Marvell are subservient, for Woolf, to Milton in their ability to challenge fixed patriarchal gender personas. Yet, diary evidence suggests that at this point in her life, Woolf had not read Paradise Lost, at least not with the attention she would later, and was probably referring to Milton’s earlier work, most notably Comus. In Comus, Milton does afford the character of the lady greater mental fortitude than her foolhardy brothers, yet the masque still revolves around the preeminence of feminine virginity in the construction of their virtue—a question central to the three ladies that appear later in Orlando.

Nevertheless, something that Woolf read in Milton’s early body of work denoted a sexless, gender-fluid voice, leading her to read him favorably. Woolf continues, “Feminists or anti-feminists, passionate or cold—whatever the romances or adventures of their private lives not a whiff of that mist attaches itself to their writing. It is pure, uncontaminated, sexless as the angels are said to be sexless.” Critics have long read Milton’s angels in Paradise Lost as androgynous and gender-bending, and indeed the water-spirit in Comus shares many of their qualities. This distinction, though,  between feminist novels and positive, gender-fluid authorship is critical specifically in readings of Orlando. While the book ostensibly avoids explicit feminist advocacy (though one needn’t look far behind the page to find it), it does forge characters that quite literally defy authorial gender persona. Orlando floats from one gender to another rather passively, and the narrator at most proffers normative gender commentary on Orlando’s actions and development. In many ways Orlando takes up this project Woolf in her early life identified with Milton—the creation of authentic personas not tied to authorial gender, while avoiding the necessity of political polemic. Orlando the character does exactly this in their navigation of both the persona of a man and woman, and the vaguely gendered narrator does little to limit Woolf’s creation of a plurality of gender personas within the text. Thus, the project of Orlando’s gender-fluidity is rooted not in imaginative transcendence away from patriarchal literary norms towards a total rewriting, but a dialectical synthesis from the better manifestations of that norm. Woolf admires Milton’s project, at least in her early life, and seeks in Orlando to fulfill its true potential. Four years before she wrote Orlando, Woolf saw Milton as the leader of a sexless prose. But as she read more of his work and reflected more on it the lectures and journals that construct A Room of One’s Own, her reading of Milton changed significantly in the months and year surrounding Orlando’s authorship.

Woolf’s commentary on Milton in A Room of One’s Own is her most anthologized reaction to the text, but in the context of “Indiscretions,” there is a great deal of nuance to Woolf’s description of “Milton’s Bogey.” The language surrounding her famous designation is significant for Woolf’s vision of historical fiction, and the bodily imagery she associates with it. Woolf begins with a series of conditional statements: “For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think-” (A Room of One’s Own). Woolf, not unlike Scott, Cooper, and the other practitioners of the genre of Nineteenth Century Historical Fiction, centers her vision for literary change on a notion of progress built fundamentally into time. Woolf also advocates for a Lukacsian “common experience” as the catalyst for her new writer. Those new, authentically common writers, unafraid to write their mind and in a literary room of their own construction, need time and numbers to work their change. It is a markedly utilitarian and active construction. Woolf does not render an idealistic destruction of literary precedent with the publication of a single book or a single, imaginative revelation on the page. Instead, the breaking of patriarchal persona norms requires hundreds of years and hundreds of rooms. Orlando, published a year before A Room of One’s Own but very much contemporary with the compilation and construction of Woolf’s most famous text, navigates the inherent problem suggested in Woolf’s historical imagery. Woolf herself can never see the product of her labors in a room of her own. But Orlando, a transhistorical, gender-fluid author across time and space, may explore the progress or lack thereof of this literary project. Thus, while the imaginative project enables Woolf’s literary eye to explore the scope of her historical project, what she looks for and how she constructs each chronotope Orlando occupies is fundamentally in relationship with a historical and contemporary literary purpose.

Woolf’s description of Milton’s bogey takes this greater historical concern and seats it provocatively, for readers of Orlando, in the body. Woolf continues,

“if we . . . see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down (A Room of One’s Own).

For Woolf there is an overarching “Truth” behind the world of “men and women,” and it is constructed in the human being’s relationship to all things. It is an unwieldy notion, but in the context of “Indiscretions” and her invocation of Milton’s unnamed through assumed “bogey,” this reality is an androgynous one in which true expression, free of the shackles of gender, occurs. Importantly, though, Woolf does not attempt or hope to transcend reality even in this wide-sweeping vision of literature after those hundreds of years and hundreds of singular authorial rooms. The end of this process is the assumption of the feminine body by women authors. Woolf does not reject physicality or envision a realm of mutual access and tolerance. Instead, Woolf wishes for the woman author to be able to assume her physical form. “Milton’s bogey,” for Woolf, is the way he constructs Eve’s physical, inborn inferiority. Eve, by her very creation from the rib of Adam, is dependent, weak, and limited. This delineation of Milton’s bogey as a keenly physical one is telling to the nature of Orlando’s gender switch. While it challenges Miltonic precedence, it also does not revolutionize or imagine a transcendent solution. Woolf, for better or for worse,  revises Milton’s vision such that it achieves what Woolf originally read in Milton—an author of genderless prose, rather than an author of feminist prose.

This dilemma, and Woolf’s ultimate inability in Orlando to achieve the kind of imaginative rewriting of dominant gender discourses critics like De Gay seek in the novel, is partly a product of the source rhetoric and text (chiefly, Paradise Lost) that Woolf works within in the novel. Joseph Wittreich classifies Paradise Lost as partaking in a centuries-spanning search for a synthetic, transcendent truth, writing that Paradise Lost is “the quintessence of everything the Romantics most admired . . . the Knower moved by truth alone” (Wittreich 99). Wittreich’s language is markedly similar to Woolf’s own rendering of a reality-spanning truth behind all genders, and critics have long identified capital-T Truth as a major catalyst in Milton’s epic. Woolf adheres to this romantic notion of an identifiable truth behind all social phrases and genders, the kind of truth she outlines in A Room of One’s Own. While Woolf endeavors to revise Milton’s truth, she as an author still adheres to Milton’s general enlightenment thought system. Thus, while Woolf is progressively and actively revising Milton gender politics, in that process of revision there is a significant dialectical limitation placed on her imaginative project—leaving the text unable to reach a radical androgyny or a polemic feminist advocacy.

Woolf’s relationship with Milton was a conflicted one that began with praise before eventually landing in condemnation and a literary ambition to revise his representation of failed feminine physicality. Yet in the wake of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote in her diary of Paradise Lost that, “The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful, and masterly descriptions of angels’ bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror and immensity and squalor and sublimity but never in the passions of the human heart” (Woolf “A Writer’s Diary”). Woolf again focuses in on Angels, the only true androgynous figures in Paradise Lost (along with, provocatively, Satan). Milton’s place and scope is without comparison for Woolf, yet his one true weakness as identified here is his failure to relay human passions and emotions in a meaningful or moving way. It is interesting, then, that Orlando’s titular character and its humorously ambivalent narrator do not seek to do this either. What Woolf identified as Milton’s chief literary failing in her private readings of the epic is not something she wishes to revise in Orlando. Instead, her revisional, historical project focuses in on “Milton’s bogey,” the exclusivity he affords the angelic androgyny that Woolf originally admired in her earliest readings of Milton’s prose and poetry. Woolf’s imaginative project in Orlando is not to transcend literary precedent or write new, hidden narratives—but rather to generalize Milton’s genderless prose to a character of Eve’s significance, one who could exist across the centuries Woolf knew were needed to undo Milton’s bogey. Thus, revision and not imagination constitute the major catalyst in Orlando’s transformation. Woolf is in many ways tied to literary precedent to a detrimental degree as Farwell denotes, yet her project is nonetheless specifically historical and literary.

The striking similarities between the three ladies of Purity, Chastity, and Modesty in Orlando and Milton’s three devils in the famous council scene in Book II of Paradise Lost is striking, and underlines the keenly Miltonic tenor of Woolf’s climactic enactment of the ideology of A Room of One’s Own. The transition sequence is inaugurated by a parade of the three ladies (“the lady,” it’s worth noting, is the central character in Milton’s Comus), beginning with Lady Purity: “First, comes our Lady of Purity; whose brows are bound with fillets of the whitest lamb’s wool; whose hair is as an avalanche of the driven snow; and in whose hand reposes the white quill of a virgin goose” (Orlando). The Lady of Purity is described with the most visual specificity, yet her most meaningful imagistic quality is the quill made of a wirgin goose feather that she holds. Purity, the quality of Milton’s Lady in Comus, and indeed the quality of Adam and Eve before their Satanic corruption, is represented chiefly as a textual construction. Like Adam and Eve, the Lady of Purity writes fictions and endeavors to bring Orlando back to her written realm. Belial, the first devil to speak in Book II’s council scene, is described in a very similar manner. Milton writes of the authorial devil, “Belial, in act more graceful and humane; / A fairer person lost not Heav’n; he seemd For dignity compos’d and high exploit: / But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear / The better reason, to perplex and dash / Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low” (PL II ll. 109-119). Belial is the most beautiful demon of heaven next to Satan as Milton describes him, much in-line with Woolf’s description of Purity’s sumptuous material appearance. Milton’s description of his rhetoric as “dropt manna” in front of poisonous deceit is evoked by Woolf’s subtle, brief placement of the virgin goose feather pen in the Lady of Purity’s hand. For Milton the main ironizing element of the beautiful Belial’s undercover deceit is rhetoric—the failed rhetoric of long and rump parliament. For Woolf, the irony of Lady Purity’s lack thereof is the literary heritage behind the pursuit of her name by Milton and others. The virginity of “the lady” in Comus, and Eve’s carnal lust in Paradise Lost is that which constitutes the deception behind Woolf’s inverted demon. Yet, the central imagery of the characters is shared: ostensible outer beauty hides the active proliferation of corruption. Woolf, in her diary and in “Indiscretions,” is quick to highlight the aesthetic quality of Milton’s writing, yet there is always that bogey, here the early modern power of virginity, wielded in the hands of a mock Belial. The beginning of the gender transition sequence thus illustrates the active revision Woolf pursues in her interaction with Miltonic precedence.

The Lady of Chastity and Milton’s Mammon are next in the mock council scene, and Woolf’s use of a shared rhetoric of fire, ice, and emotional paralysis denotes the provocative inversion Woolf constructs in her own council scene. Lady Chastity asserts her intention that “Rather than let Orlando wake, I will freeze him to the bone. Spare, O spare!’”(Orlando). Satan’s devils are famously resuscitated from their squalor in the flaming pits of hell by Satan’s call to “awake, arise, or be forever fallen” (PL I. ll 330). Here, Woolf constructs Orlando’s sleep as something the ladies would see preserved. They would counter her fire with frost. Mammon argues for the status quo as well, but as before, the imagery is flipped in Woolf’s revision. Mammon asserts that, “Our torments also may in length of time Become our Elements, these piercing Fires / As soft as now severe, our temper chang’d / Into their temper; which must needs remove / The sensible of pain” (PL II ll. 274-8). Mammon makes an argument for paralysis just as the Lady of Chastity does, but rather than quenching flame with its antithesis, he argues that fire will become their base nature—that the elements will conform to their presence. This is where the connection between Miltonic devil and Woolfian lady becomes complex, as the devils and angels in Paradise Lost are the only truly androgynous figures in the text. They are what Woolf admired most about Milton’s writing: sexless.  In the gendered enactment of the council scene in Woolf’s novel, the Lady of Chastity serves not as a reference or mirror to Milton’s devils but rather the angelic and heavenly as described in Paradise Lost. Lady Chastity seeks to stop Orlando from awaking, and wishes to quelch any fire occurring within Orlando. Mammon delivers the ostensible argument being made in Orlando, that the elements adjust to Orlando’s change, but Woolf is still working on the imagistic and sentence level in reciprocals to Milton’s precedent. Where Belial and Lady Purity perform the same function with different variables, Chastity and Mammon perform inverted functions.

The Lady of Modesty continues Woolf’s complication of Milton’s division between devil, angel, and woman. She enters:“Close behind her, sheltering indeed in the shadow of her more stately sisters, comes our Lady of Modesty, frailest and fairest of the three; whose face is only shown as the young moon shows when it is thin and sickle shaped and half hidden among clouds” (Woolf). The lunar imagery here must certainly be a reference to Satan, who is consistently associated not only with the moon but specifically the crescent moon, which adorns his shield throughout Paradise Lost. Yet, the imagery is also in dialogue with the third devil, Beezlebub, who is portrayed in markedly similar ways. Milton writes of the last devil, “Thus Beelzebub / Pleaded his devilish Counsel, first devis’d / By Satan, and in part propos’d: for whence, / But from the Author of all ill could Spring / So deep a malice, to confound the race / Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell” (PL II ll. 377-385). Woolf’s construction seems an imagistic enactment of the dynamic Milton highlights—Beelzebub is only a mouthpiece of Satan’s greater plan just as Modesty only exists in the context of her more “stately” sisters. Modesty’s destination after being vanquished is the least censured one by Woolf (a cozy domestic realm), and here, given the context of her invocation of Milton, Woolf seems to have the least venom for the Lady of Modesty. Beelzebub is a product of his society in Milton’s construction, a mute avenue for Satan’s lunar message, and Modesty is rendered much the same. The pen of Lady Purity and the quenching frigidity of Lady Chastity are more threatening in Woolf’s revision of Milton’s demonic council.

Thus in each case Woolf is working with Milton’s precedent in her mock tripartite council scene to revise the limitations of Milton’s gender politics. Purity writes poisonous lies behind aesthetic beauty like Belial (and, arguably, Milton), Chastity seeks to maintain the status quo like Mammon, though in markedly different ways. Modesty, the least censured of the three by Woolf, is overshadowed and enhanced by her more significant sisters, much like Milton’s Beezlebub. The similarity is not merely of reference, as it underscores Woolf’s historical fiction project at work in Orlando. Like many of her fellow genre practitioners, Woolf’s project is a relatively moderate one; she works within Miltonic literary heritage, incorporating what is beneficial (angelic androgyny) and rejecting what is not (the literary, social power of virginity and chastity). The process, though, is not notable for its imagination, but rather its specific political, historical, and literary roots

The exit of the sisters is also in dialogue with the previously outlined Miltonic focus on overarching truth, as they fearfully reject what truth Orlando may discover now that she, like Satan, has awakened. Woolf writes of the ladies, “With gestures of grief and lamentation the three sisters now join hands and dance slowly, tossing their veils and singing as they go:‘Truth come not out from your horrid den. Hide deeper, fearful Truth. For you flaunt in the brutal gaze of the sun things that were better unknown and undone; you unveil the shameful; the dark you make clear, Hide! Hide! Hide!’ Here they make as if to cover Orlando with their draperies.” (Orlando). The play on dark and light must recall Milton and his invocation to light, particularly given the Miltonically inflected language of the sisters up to this point. As before, Woolf revises and incorporates Milton’s rhetoric. Light is the universal good in Milton’s Paradise Lost, that which Milton is denied and that which he strives so sincerely to find through the text of Paradise Lost itself. Woolf had previously associated the androgynous Orlando as sitting at the nexus point between demonic and angelic through the language of the sisters, but here Orlando is the source for that light which Milton ascribes only to the Christian God in hsi epic. Woolf is less interested in the difference between demonic and angelic, and more in that sexless characterization she so praised in “Indiscretions” and in her diary. Orlando in her moment of transition is a figure that rejects Milton’s bogey and his characterization of Eve. She is a woman, made of man (her past), who is fundamentally unaltered in the transition. Woolf’s authorial gender is fluid as is Orlando’s, and the Miltonic build up to this watershed attempt to identify the “reality” Woolf highlighted in A Room of One’s Own accentuates Woolf’s synthesis. Created in dialectical rejection and incorporation from Milton, Woolf proffers a revised, tempered vision of the feminine writer recoverable only through the process of historical literature grounded in literary precedent.

Orlando as a revised Eve is underscored as the sisters make their final exit. Like God in Eden in Paradise Lost,  the sisters attempt to clothe Orlando’s naked form:“and Chastity, Purity, and Modesty, inspired, no doubt, by Curiosity, peeped in at the door and threw a garment like a towel at the naked form which, unfortunately, fell short by several inches.” Clothing in Paradise Lost is Milton’s metaphor for civilized existence, from wild, sexual Edenic experience to pastured gardens and a division of labor between Adam and Eve. In Paradise Lost, of course, both Adam and Eve ascent to wearing clothes, though they reflect on how unnatural they are. In Woolf’s revision, the clothes thrown by the Ladies miss, leaving Orlando naked and, in the Miltonic sense, natural. In her moment of birth Orlando is afforded what Eve is not—the endurance of her wild, natural self; her “real” self. In their failure, the spirits, “retire in haste, waving their draperies over their heads, as if to shut out something that they dare not look upon.” Milton’s bogey was something “no human being should shut out” (A Room of One’s Own), and Orlando, Woolf’s great revision of that bogey, is something the agents of literary and patriarchal authority dare not look upon. Woolf’s last inversion of the mock Satanic council sequence is one of vision—Woolf urges her reader not to look away from Milton’s bogey through a remarkably revised and rehashed vision of Milton’s gender politics.

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf struggles with the task of achieving her project for authorial liberation and authentic realism outlined in A Room of One’s Own in her historical fiction project. Rather than a hegemonically imaginative creation of the untold and uncovered female authorial persona, Orlando is in its central scene pulling more on specifically historical Miltonic precedent in its attempt to create new literary spaces. This dialectical relationship between thesis and antithesis in the work creates a tenuous, at times moderate rendering of masculinity as still normative as several contemporary readers and critics note. In her reenactment of Milton’s chief “bogey” in Eve’s character in Orlando, Woolf endeavors to achieve a revision of Miltonic precedence rather than a total rewriting of that heritage. Woolf delivers us a revised Eve that is liberated from Milton’s gender politics, who values her autonomy before her use to masculine culture, and who at the same time seeks Miltonic truth and light in her own authentic way.


Leave a comment

Filed under English, Literature, Milton

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

What matter where, if I be the same?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 photo satanparadise_zps2000234a.png

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Milton’s God. William Empson.

(2) Surprised by Sin. Stanley Fish.

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

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

(5) The Satanic Epic, Neil Forsyth.

(6) The Romantics on Milton, Joseph Wittreich.

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

1 Comment

Filed under Early Modern, Introduction to Milton, Introduction to MIlton's Satan, Milton, Milton's Satan, Paradise Lost, Satan in Paradise Lost, Student

The Importance of the Thirty Years War in Literature and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thirty Years War in Literature:

John Donne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constitutions and the Abstraction of Conflict:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitigation and Synthesis:

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

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

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

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

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

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


(1) Lewalski’s biography of Milton

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

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

(4) Dates for Donne’s work are disputed, but both of these dates I secured from my Norton Anthology. Generally, these dates seem to be in the ballpark from my outside research.
(5) Germany after the Thirty Years War is, in my scholarly opinion, the first example of splatter painting.

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

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

Leave a comment

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

The Hughes Edition of Paradise Lost and Interpretive Editing

Nothing political to see here, carry on.

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

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

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

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

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

Satan laments his editorial pigeonholing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Leave a comment

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

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic, American, American Revolution, Capitalism, Class, Class Conflict, Dialectics, Early Modern, English Civil War, France, History, Humanism, Imperialism, Intelligentsia, Marxism, Milton, Republic, Revolution, Whig

Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Reemergent Miltonic Theodicy

 photo satainbreakingbad_zps29ea6f4a.png

*Breaking Bad spoiler warning. Turn back now if you have not finished the show.*

“Mr. White, he’s the devil” -Jesse Pinkman, 5.12

As Breaking Bad came to its climactic conclusion, much dialogue occurred on at what point one could consider the series’ protagonist, Walter White, “gone.” At what point, many wondered, does Walter recede into Heisenberg? Some, as it has become clear to me upon traversing the enormous world of Breaking Bad social media, held out hope for Walter deep into the fifth season and even after the season had ended.  After all the violence, domestic and otherwise, some still supported Walter as a vigilante against omnipotent force, one with “unconquerable will” and the “courage never to submit or yield” (PL. I.). Of course, these famous lines were used to describe the prideful Arch-Fiend of Milton’s Paradise Lost  as he gazed over his host of rebellious demons, thrown flaming through the ethereal sky into the burning pits of Hell.

Much like Milton’s epic, Breaking Bad was pedagogically involved with its audience from the start. Walter and Satan in their first appearances to us are vulnerable and courageous, warriors against fate made to feel deep regret at the plight soon to be and presently being suffered by their family and comrades . First impressions, as they say, are important.These first images, of Walter pointing a gun at arriving police in his underwear and Satan lamenting the pain and disfigurement of his once beautiful friend, attach themselves to our imaginations with an anchor of precedence. These original images residing in the heads of viewers and readers serve as a point of comparison for every contradictory piece of information we will discover, explicitly and interpretive, in both show and epic. This contradiction is a function of theodicy; the catalyst with which the ways of god and evil are textually reconciled. 

Theodicy, a text that seeks to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it, and more generally, explain the existence of evil in a universe with a God, was a form popular in Early Modern Europe. Theodicy’s popularity at the time is seemingly a historical singularity, born of the interchange between an Enlightenment desire to explain the machinations of man and nature and a Protestant urge to render an omnipotent and distant god. Certainly the Early Modern theodical projects to reconcile these two things are no longer as apt as they were then. How, then, can the two theodical projects be compared in any way? How can Breaking Bad be considered a “Miltonic” theodicy, if it was born in such disparate historical circumstances? We can begin to find the answer, an answer rooted in the two periods’ fundamental yet obfuscated similarity, in what each story uses as a catalyst for its core crises.

 photo walterwhiteandsatan_zpsca262c1f.png

Milton’s and Gilligan’s catalyst in the dialectical exchange that is theodicy is choice. Evil exists because we have the power to chose, a power inherent in possessing consciousness, a power that takes us to the highest summit and the deepest pit, depending. Choice is the solvent both  Milton and Gilligan apply to the fundamental theological and ideological impasse of a good man turned to abject evil. Choice is at the center of each work, as both anti-heroes consciously ponder their choices in light of personal and social limitations. Satan, in his memorable lament at the beginning of book IV, remarks,

“Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?”(PL. IV. 71-74

Satan’s inner torment is said by some critics to separate the reader from our once heroic warrior, yet to this critic, the tragedy of his character becomes crystallized in this scene of weakness.  Indeed, many Breaking Bad fans celebrate Walter’s journey to “take control of his life,” to, in effect, chose as Satan does in the face of known consequences. Satan elucidates the relationship between his choices and their inevitable consequences, and the outcome tempers his heroic nature and tempers, more importantly, the power of choice in the epic. This unhappy lineage of choice is the precise relationship Walter comes to have with his own choices. Satan has chosen poorly, and his initial choice has limited him to but one choice; infinite wrath or infinite despair. Walter comes to a similar conclusion as Satan, to face what will come with courage and malevolent darkness to ease his woeful condition (PL. IV). Walter remarks before his climactic and character changing battle with Gus Fring, “I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, and those consequences, they’re coming.” (4.12). The fatalistic acceptance of consequences contrasts starkly to Satan’s heroic and rousing speeches and Walter’s once innocent desire for choice, typified by his early expression, “But, what I want, what I want, what I need, is a choice. I feel like I never actually make any of my own, choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems like I never, you know, had a real say, about any of it.” (1.05)

So we see that choice is central in each epic, but more importantly, that choice in both is refracted through a lens of past choices. These past choices are themselves refracted through a foreknowledge of concrete consequences, consequences bred of a break with society, heavenly and non. Satan breaks with angelic hierarchy, and Walter breaks with civil law to ease their “suffering” (PL. IV) born of a tragic flaw (pride in both cases). The consequences, as each character predicts, come down upon them with tremendous effect. Satan writhes as a deformed serpent for all eternity, and Walter fades into his feared death as a look of relief emerges from his disheveled features. Such is the price for waging war against omnipotent force.

Of note, this bringing of destruction from a combination of personal choice from within and environmental consequences from without brings to the fore the crux upon which both stories move to their grander underlying narrative. It is where choice meets society that both show and epic connect across time and place, where they illuminate the same human struggle in Milton’s time and in our own; and that struggle is the power of the individual to battle the “omnipotent force” of a perceived unjust society.

It is here that we must make the distinction between the show and epic, as the former urges the viewer to oppose this unjust society and the latter urges the reader (as Stanley Fish highlights brilliantly) to see how just society falls to the ignorant and the prideful. They are, ultimately, different sides of the same coin. Where Gilligan endeavors to elucidate the fallen ideals of a society, Milton highlights the fall itself and the conditions upon which its occurrence was understandable and “justifiable.” Critically, both anti-heroes fail in their efforts. Their failure, itself a contradiction of that first image we are given, is pedagogical; a pedagogy deeply involved with the material conditions of a fallen society surrounding both epic and show.

To that point, in both Milton’s society and ours, irreconcilable contradictions erupt every day. The value of a hard day’s work and outsourcing, the american dream and growing static unemployment, the value of the individual and skyrocketing medical costs, puritanical destiny and counter-revolution, the eternal rule of the saints and Charles II, the Areopagus and the hangman. Satan attempts to solve these contradictions, but he goes about it in the wrong way and fails, just as Walter does. Both epic and show, in short, exist to navigate and illuminate these contradictions and counsel us through the pedagogical, theodical process of plotting the course of one who breaks free from the shackles around them, only to contradict this with their inevitable re-shackling under the mounting pressure of consequence. Each’s course is a failed one, and in our, the readers, traversing of this path, lies a profound message. We are to, like our grandparents Adam and Eve, walk forth from this failure. Yet each tale counsels us to walk a different path, the course of which is only ours (with a little help from providence, literary and non)”to choose” (PL. XII 647).

So we return to choice. A fitting way to end, as is it choice that moves both epic and show to their own tragic and satisfying endings. In its use of Miltonic theodicy in secular American society, in its reappropriation of Miltonic choice (a tempered choice) and Miltonic renderings of man and society, Breaking Bad and its creator Vince Gilligan have achieved something extraordinary in modern television and fiction at large. As Milton did for his fallen Restoration readers, Gilligan reminds us of our ultimate power to choose. The power is ours to choose against Walter and Satan, to choose against their creation and rise to power, to choose against their torments.

Our sympathy for each character is nothing to be ashamed of (as some Miltonists are a little too eager to suggest), but rather it is to be rendered as the beginning of an understanding of both show and epic’s true purpose. We admire Walter and Satan’s courage and bravery, and we admire their battle against unjust societies and hierarchies (in the case of Milton’s epic certainly a product of an increasing secular interaction with the work). We admire their ability to choose. In their failure and their incorrect choices, we discover the power residing in the text of Paradise Lost and the movements of Breaking Bad. It is a power that resides there because it resides in both author and reader; it is the power to chose a path, together not alone, where a Walter or a Satan would never have come to be.

Further Reading on Milton’s Satan and the Theodicy of Paradise Lost: (If you like Breaking Bad and haven’t read Milton, read Paradise Lost!)

Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 160-74. Print.

Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 144-59. Print.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. “Paradise Lost.” Milton and the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1978. 354-412. Print.

Rogers, John. “The Political Theology of Milton’s Heaven.” The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter C. Herman and Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 68-84. Print.

Von Maltzahn, Nicholas. “Milton’s Readers.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 236-52. Print.

Leave a comment

Filed under AMC, Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman, Literature, Milton, Milton's Satan, Paradise Lost, Satan, Theodicy, Walter White

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic, Early Modern, English, Literature, Milton