Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Happy 400th, Big Johnny

You ask what I am thinking of? So help me God, an eternity of fame. What am I doing? Growing my wings and practising flight.

-- John Milton, Letter to Charles Diodati (1637)

In the second semester of my sophomore year of college I signed up for a Milton course. I had no idea who Milton was, but taking that course (along with one on the Romantics) was the only way I could get out of the second half of the Brit Lit survey. I'd disliked the instructor I'd had for the first half of the survey and I'd heard that the Milton prof was great. . . so, yeah, whatever: sign me up.

It's still hard for me to know to what degree my becoming a Miltonist is due to Milton and to what degree it's due to that particular instructor. All I know is that from the second week I was in love with either Milton or the version of him my professor delivered.

I mean--Milton dreamed vaguely of greatness, but feared he was already too late to achieve it? Hey! I dreamed vaguely of greatness! Milton went back and lived in his father's house for seven years after graduating from college? Hey! I was majoring in English! I'd probably wind up back in dad's basement myself!

As I'm suggesting, my initial feelings of affinity for Milton weren't profound or even deeply-rooted in the works themselves. Still, I think the young Milton is a more sympathetic and recognizable figure to college students than most instructors assume--and for me, anyway, the same held true for the older Milton: I probably only half understood the content of his prose, but I knew I loved its language and the fierceness of that mind.

So while Donne wins most people's votes, it's Milton who's always been my secret boyfriend. (Come to think of it, that might explain some of my actual boyfriends.)

This is something that teachers of Milton have to acknowledge: that the personality of Milton is so central to his works that liking him--that personality--is almost a necessity for liking his works. If you don't respond to whatever you perceive his personality to be, you won't respond to his works. With other authors I try to limit or even eliminate the amount of biographical background I give, but with Milton there's no help for it; the man appears on every page.

So for those who love the guy, it's good news that the week of his birth also marks the birth of a new Renaissance blog--and only the second by a Miltonist.

Fuck the dramatists. This is the year of my boy JM.


Renaissance Girl said...

Yes, yes, yes. Language and fierceness of mind. That's why he's the man, and ever will be.

And just for the record--I refer to Donne as "my boyfriend" with some would say alarming frequency, but that's only because I want to BE Milton, and you can't date yourself.

And yes, I'm having to do all sorts of subject-position realignments to BOTH be Milton AND sleep with Donne, but it's all good. The angels understand:

Let it suffice thee that thou knowest
Us happy, and without love no happiness.
Whatever pure thou in the body enjoyest,
(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
In eminence; and obstacle find none
Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars;
Easier than air with air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, union of pure with pure
Desiring, nor restrained conveyance need,
As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul.

Flavia said...

Ha! Well, actually I do rather want both to be Milton and to date Milton--but for that kind of conjuction, alas, I think our only model is Satan and Sin and Death.

(And speaking of your being Milton: I've just, at long last, got my hands on your first book of poems--for which I paid full price, thankyouverymuch!--and am looking forward to reading it over the holidays.)

Tiruncula said...

Ha! Indeed. I had no idea that the 400th was upon us; shows you how far I've strayed from my own adolescent infatuation with the big guy. I was, though, just fiddling around with a syllabus for next semester to see if I could make room for some of his Latin verse.

As I was clicking through to your birthday post, the announcement of the anniversary also appeared in my inbox via the DNB's life of the day service.

(Am also contemplating being a second-semester sophomore and not knowing who Milton was, but that's a topic for an another post.)

Deliberance said...

Here's to four hundred more! I'm not going to cheat on my BF Donne with a dyspeptic Puritan, but I'll admire him from afar, including the later Milton:

But he though blind of sight,
Despis'd and thought extinguish't quite,
With inward eye illuminated
His fiery virtue rous'd
From under ashes into sudden flame...

(Hmm. Is this how I should be psyching myself up to write?)

jw said...

I dunno about the necessity to find the biography on every page, because, I think, the language and the thought are sufficient.

I just finished teaching a superfast Paradise Lost (survey course = 3 days for Milton. It's a crime, I know), and I specifically avoided all biography until the third day. We read book 1 (or book 2 or 4 or 9, or selections from the rest) with an eye toward nothing but book 1 (2,4,9, etc), and the students were amazing. We didn't let Cromwell into the room, never mentioned divorce or censorship or blindness. We talked about Satan and God and Eve and being stupidly good and angel sex. It was fun. Viva New Criticism! (Just kidding. Kinda.)

Me: "Don't you feel the excitement when 'Ten thousand Banners rise into the Air'? Can't you envision the towering, noble Satan's excitement grow?"

Students (not an exact quote): "We feel! We envision!"

Me: "If anything we've read is awesome, this is awesome."

Students (an exact quote): "This is awesome."

It was the best class of the term, and they were into Paradise Lost, not Milton. You and RG go ahead with your creepy necrophilia, I'll just stick with the text.

(And speaking of RG's poems: I used a poem of her's to begin my poetry course last Spring, so I could begin with something nice and raw -- nothing like a poem about castration to get the attention of all males in class -- and it worked great. We referenced it for the entire term.)

Doctor Cleveland said...

"Fuck the dramatists?" By all means. They'd enjoy that, and they're technically innovative.

But without getting into beefs between the drama/non-drama crowd, can I just give it up in praise of the mighty, mighty Milton, the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, who has always struck me as a kind of ancestor in the best way, the Uncle of English Speakers, with all the family resemblances on the tongue. All praise Uncle Milty!

(And Renaissance Girl's poems are great, too!)

Flavia said...

Tiruncula: re: the second-semester sophomore part: yes, I know. Let's call it public schooling, or growing up in what at the time felt like the provinces. (I also elected to take the "Western Canon" lit survey rather than the Brit Lit one, my freshman year).

But it's one example among many as to why/how, despite being at INRU and coming from a very comfortably middle-class background, I largely felt and acted like a first-generation college student (I'm second-generation).

JW: Well, it's true that in my Brit Lit survey I give relatively little biography (though Milton's idiosyncratic theology is important to the poem, and requires some highlighting); I meant, more, that Milton's personality is THERE, whether or not one engages with it explicitly.

I wonder sometimes whether it's from Milton that I got my feverish conviction that poetic/prosaic style conveys personality--or whether he just reinforced beliefs I already held.

miltonista said...

Woohoo, thanks for the plug!

I'm off now to raise a toast to Mr. Milton. (I'll just pretend it's clear milky juice instead of turbulent liquor that fills my head with fumes.)

miltonista said...

P.S. - Re: "Fuck the dramatists," Timothy Burbery would be puzzled.

Bardiac said...

In grad school, I sat in on an undergrad Milton class (because I'd never read ANY Milton before), and I came away thinking, wow, I am just not smart enough. I could get the basics (and have taught the very basics), but the guy is just way smart! And he thinks his readers are, too.

The dramatists? They can be smart, but mostly you have to really enjoy creative modes of death or hints of sex.

Renaissance Girl said...

Yes--huzzahs for Miltonista: a great addition to the blogosphere.

And what does it say about me, exactly, that I take bizarre and intense pleasure that y'all have been mentioning my work in a comment thread re: MILTON?! Is my secret dream coming true?

(In all seriousness: thanks, guys, for your kind words. Readers for whom one bears so much intellectual admiration are valuable beyond words!)