Controversies, #9 (Fall 1999)

"War and Government in Paradise Lost"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #9:   So maybe I inflate this exchange a bit in calling it a "Controversy," but students so rarely can penetrate Miltonic syntax and diction to find the enormously rich layers of satire it contains that I pounced on this one.  (TAsha is one sharp reader!)  Paradise Lost is a particularly important expression of England's emergence into the modern era of politics and social class formation, and to the degree that its version of Hell's "Legislature" sticks in people's minds, it serves as an important cultural marker for what people think makes politics work, for better or worse.  I hereby invite our Political Science and International Relations Department to co-sponsor a team-taught seminar in Paradise Lost and the formation of the modern notion of political process.  Particpants: Natasha Gorski and Arnie.

"PL as Political Satire?-- Natasha Gorski, 11/15/99

        I was so interested in the way heaven and hell were portrayed as sort of opposing political parties. I was watching MPT the other night and there was a special on about how the state of New York came into being. A lot of the images and dialogue in Paradise Lost reminded me of the original colonies hacking it out in congress over how to create a new world. Is MIlton assaulting government or political officials? Or is Milton suggesting politics and religion are very much the same matter, who has more power?

"Roots of Revolution!"--Arnie, 11/16/99

        Natasha asks a great question here. This could take us right back to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which are told on pilgrimage to St. Thomas a Becket's shrine, a virtual monument to religion's claim to primacy in governing human affairs. However, the tale-telling game Harry Bailey organizes is, itself, a foreshadowing of the parliamentary democracy that would overtake the monarchy and the church. Science helped play a role in dethroning (har!) both kings and bishops. A more scientific approach to history made royal claims of absolute power descended from God impossible to maintain once the real story of how royal families won power was told, and we might see Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV playing a role in disseminating that view. Similarly, Donne, Jonson, and Herrick show us the effects science has had on religion's claims to transcendent power. As good neoclassicists, they also look back to Rome and see a very familiar sight as Augustus' empire falls into the hands of criminals and psychopaths like Nero and Caligula, and the pagan religion proves powerless to save the people. What then awaits England? Milton witnesses the answer, and his depiction of the demons' parliament appears to critique both sides in the Civil War. Nevertheless, writers like Milton and Hobbes (Friday) hold out the hope that "right reason," reason guided by an honest and inquiring faith, could somehow heal social divisions and guide the state. However, it only could do so if the printing presses and pulpits of England, the C17's "mass media," remained free from governmental or religious control. That would enable the the nation to benefit from the wisdom of many minds, not just those at the top, and even prisoners in the tower could make their voices heard.

        On Wednesday and Friday (of Fall 1999!), I'm going to refer breifly to Lilburne, Winstanley, and Coppe, pamphleteers who represent some of these competing free-press agencies. I urge you to take a look at the Norton's samples of their prose and to consider how they're shaking up English culture and literature. After Charles I's imprisonment and trial, Lilburne challenged the Parliamentary Council's right to arrest anyone without holding elections to legitimate their rule, and when they imprisoned him, he published a description of their practices and his own defense. Winstanley was a member of the Diggers, Christian communist collective farmers, and his pamphlet advocated abolition of private property and an end to the class system (shades of Utopia!). Coppe was the mass-emailer of their era, a so-called "Ranter" whose A Firey Flying Roll takes radical freedom of the press to the limit. Note especially the Ranters' religious practices. They're a good antidote to the shock that otherwise may arise from your contact with Rochester and the Cavalier members of "The Hellfire Club." We're headed for some rough stuff, folks!