Spring 2024: Milton and Revolution

This semester’s class will take up the question of revolution. Milton himself wrote in support of the Parliamentary forces over the supporters of Charles I before and during the English Civil War, and he wrote multiple defenses of the overthrow of the monarch and his subsequent trial and execution. Underpinning this political writing are a series of claims about the consent of the governed which resonate through Milton’s other works, especially his late, great poems.

 How does Milton’s revolutionary zeal relate to his theology? If Paradise Lost argues against Satan’s attempts to overthrow God, does the poem represent a change in Milton’s earlier political thinking (as some of his political opponents believed), or does it reinforce that thinking?

Spring 2023: Milton and Fathers

This semester’s class will consider the role of fathers in Milton’s works. We will concentrate on specific characters like Adam and even the original father, God, but we will also take into account relationships between these figures and other characters, with reference to past course topics (like “Milton’s Eve” and “Milton and Gender”). We will also discuss Milton’s own father and the ways in which 17th century fathers were expected to behave. How is Milton either reimagining fatherhood, or critiquing it, and what effect does the presentation of fathers have on everyone else, especially within a fundamentally patriarchal faith like Christianity? We will read Milton’s greatest works, including Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.

Spring 2022: Milton and Gender

This semester’s class will consider the role of gender in Milton’s works. We will, of course, discuss relationships between people, following up on previous semester’s topics (like “Men and Women” and “Milton’s Eve”), but we will also consider how gender works itself out amongst Milton’s angels, and even in relation to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. How does Milton make gender a central element of creation, and in what ways does Milton’s writing complicate our understanding of gender? We will read Milton’s greatest works, including Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.

Spring 2021: Milton’s Holy Spirit

It is perhaps apt that the 2021 course topic is Milton’s Holy Spirit, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly complicated class discussions, and that Milton explores the concept of the Holy Spirit as a means of generating community. Our exploration of community, then, will be practical as well as theoretical.

Building upon the past two classes (Milton’s Jesus and Milton and Fanfiction), this class will investigate Milton’s Holy Spirit, asking both esoteric questions like “is the Spirit a person” and very specific ones about the role of the Spirit in Milton’s poetry and prose, as well as his understanding of its function in the life of believers.

Eve’s Transgression Against Mankind

Eve got duped by the satanic serpent. She was tricked into doing the one singular thing that God told her not to do. Adam is understandably upset because he even warned her not to eat the fruit, but is he completely justified in his actions post-fruit consumption?

Book IX of Paradise Lost finally unveiled the climax the of the poem: the fall of mankind performed by Eve. We see Satan mystically pop over into Eden with the intent of destroying God’s creation that took him six days to make and wreck havoc in just one day. He takes the form of a serpent, which carries too much symbolism for my pedigree to even get into. As Adam and Eve split up for their daily chores, Satan the Serpent follows Eve. He appeals to her beauty with compliments and says that God is not allowing them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because he does not want them to have independence and free will. Eve takes this into consideration and munches on the fruit; thus, mankind has fallen. Adam is horrified when she appeals to him to eat the fruit and join her, but he is too entranced by her sexuality and dooms himself as well.

I found the passage and discussion between Satan the Serpent and Eve to be filled with sexual innuendo, which seems odd and vulgar for a man of religion like Milton was to put down onto paper for the rest of history. I felt that this was a commentary on the seductiveness of women, and I don’t know if these were Milton’s feelings about women, but I can understand that his religious background and time period in which this was written would lead him to believe this. Put simply, if Eve had just submitted and listened to Adam as God had intended, mankind would not be in this predicament. Then, as if the lines with Satan and Ever were not enough to get this point across, Eve seduces Adam because she does not want him to love another woman and would rather have him doomed with her. Too in love with her to think otherwise, Adam decides to be doomed as well to be with her.

Once they have both eaten the fruit, everything essentially goes to crap. They run off to presumably be intimate, and once they wake, they realize the shame that their actions have brought. Their sexuality is now a sin and needs to be hidden, which they accomplish with leaves to cover their genitalia. This led me to make the connection that Milton is making the parallel that a woman’s sexuality is the sin in this instance. Had Eve not been so lustful and wanting more than what she had been granted by God, she and mankind never would have fallen. This is a common theme again in literature of this time period, equating a woman’s sexuality with shame.

So, now what? Where does the story go from here? Is it several more books of Adam and Eve arguing over their poor life choices? What beastly form does Satan take next? Does Raphael come back to talk more about how angels make love? Stay tuned for the next book of Paradise Lost to find out the answer to all of these burning questions!

-Marie Burns Spring ’20


The Battle for…What?

What, specifically, are the two contingents of Heaven and Hell battling for?

Book 6 of Paradise Lost saw the first two days of battle between Heaven’s angels and Hell’s fallen angels. War has begun, but the question that plagues me is the motivation for this battle. God, Christ, and Heaven’s angels have the motive of protecting Adam and Eve on Earth from Satan and Hell’s influence. The angels want to prevent God’s creations from dooming mankind by eating the forbidden fruit. Yet, the motivation for Satan and his crew is unclear.

Satan was not God’s right hand man up in Heaven; that position clearly goes to Christ. Therefore, why would Satan seek to regain his status in Heaven? In Hell, Satan is essentially the king. He can rule however he pleases. He does not have to answer to anyone in Hell, and Satan fighting a war with Heaven will not affect his status of power in Hell. So, the question persists, why fight if he is not fighting to regain his power in Heaven

Revenge for his and his crew’s damnation is a potential motivation. Satan and his crew are still angry that they were banished to the depths of Hell and had to start over again essentially. Yet, is revenge enough of a motivator for an all-out war to begin? What are your thoughts on this battle between Heaven and Hell?

Hopefully, we will receive some more clarity in Book 7, but knowing Milton, we may not ever find out.


Beelzebub: Milton’s Disney Villain?

Beelezebub appeared in the first book of Paradise Lost mainly as the second- in-command character to Milton’s Satan. Yet, as we see in the second book of Paradise Lost, we see Beelzebub becomes more of a voice in Satan’s ear, egging him on to wage war on God for their banishment to Hell. This characterization of Beelzebub reminds me of many of the villains I remember watching in Disney movies while I was growing up.

In Aladdin, Jafar wanted power of Agrabah, so he used mind control over the Sultan to do Jafar’s dirty work. In The Little Mermaid, Ursula wanted control of the ocean; therefore, she put a spell on Ariel in order to obtain that power over King Triton. In Hercules, Hades schemed to take over Mount Olympus and he used Meg to try and stop Hercules from becoming the hero who would foil his plan as well as using his lackeys Pain and Panic to assist with the mission. Granted, all of these villains were stopped by the hero of the story and never achieved their plan of domination. So, what do all of these Disney villains have to do with Milton’s Beelzebub?

I noticed several manipulative traits of Beelzebub that coincide with those of the Disney villains. First, he is the one to suggest a war on God’s newest earthly creation and on man (Adam and Eve). No one else at the counsel meeting (Pandemonium) were suggesting anything near the grandeur of messing with what is regarded as God’s greatest creation. Second, he suggests someone must go scout out this land, and Satan himself volunteers to be that scout. Beelzebub appears to get the only person above him in terms of power out of the picture by creating this mission for Satan to go on.

Is this a calculated move on Beelezubub’s part?  Is Beelzebub relying on the notion that Satan will fall to God in a battle in order for himself rise to power? Is Beelzebub the Jafar, Ursula, and/or Hades equivalent of Milton’s Hell?

-Marie Burns Spring ’20

Spring 2019: “Milton’s Jesus”

This semester’s class will look at the figure of Jesus, both in his pre-incarnational form as the Son and in his human form. How does Milton depict the Son of God? Under what conditions does he qualify for that title? To what extent is he divine? And why doesn’t Milton seem to present the Passion as a central element of Jesus’ life or salvific duty?

Spring 2018: “Milton and Poetry”

This semester, we take up the formal aspects of Milton’s poetry. What decisions are involved in writing poetry, and how do those decisions influence or reflect what Milton wants to communicate through his writing? After studying the sonnet form specifically and writing our own sonnets, we will look at how poetic forms and elements work to create meaning in Milton’s longer works.

“Fit haunt of Gods”: What Does Eve Lose When She Loses Paradise?

In Book XI, when Michael informs Adam that he and Eve must leave the Garden of Eden, one of Eve’s first concerns is the loss of her precious flowers. The language of this lament recalls the earlier description of Eve and her flowers in Book VIII, and I would like to explore these similarities and some possible reasons behind them.

Most obviously, both passages demonstrate the significance which Eve’s flowers hold for her. We learn in Book VIII that Eve’s relationship with these plants is a mutual camaraderie—when she “visit[s]” them, they “spr[i]ng” at her coming (VIII.45-46)—and her reaction to her exile from Paradise in Book XI reaffirms this importance. After hearing Michael’s words, her mind almost immediately turns to the fate of these flowers: “O flow’rs…which I bred up with tender hand/ From the first op’ning bud, and gave ye Names,/ Who now shall rear ye to the Sun, or rank/ Your Tribes…?” (XI.273-279). Eve’s relationship with her flowers resembles that of a parent and child, and she views them as perceptive of and responsive to her care.

Also significant is the concept of Eve as a “Goddess” or “God” which features prominently in both passages. Leaving Adam and Raphael’s conversation to turn her attention to these plants, Eve is described as going forth “With Goddess-like demeanor” (VIII.59). And in her lament in Book XI, just before addressing the plants, she refers to the Garden as the “Fit haunt of Gods” (XI.271). This phrasing seems especially notable. The garden has been her haunt—does she view herself as (or like) a God?

Perhaps also importantly, both passages find Eve occupying an uneasy position in the company of the epic’s other characters. Her choice to depart Adam and Raphael’s conversation in Book VIII follows two books’ worth of conversation between the two men, during which she has been either ignored completely or demeaned to her face (as when Raphael, rather than offering advice to her directly, instead merely tells Adam to “warn/ Thy weaker [VI.908-909]). Similarly, in Book XI, she delivers her lament from an “unseen” hiding place (XI.265) where she has concealed herself upon Adam’s command that, to avoid “offend[ing]” the recently-arrived Michael, she must “retire” (XI.236-237). In both cases, finding herself disregarded and subordinated by other characters, one of the first places to which she turns her attention is her flowers, and, in both cases, a suggestion of God-like status accompanies this action.

Eve clearly finds companionship with her flowers, but does she perhaps find something else as well? Their reliance on and responsiveness to her direction, as she “rear[s] [them] to the Sun” and “rank[s]/ [Their] Tribes” (XI.278-279), suggests that, with these flowers, Eve occupies a role not just of friendship, but, moreover, of creation and power. Considered alongside the subordination she experiences at the hands of Adam and the angels, do these flowers, which rely on her for their growth and organization, offer Eve a sense of control, a chance to be “Goddess-like”? And if so, what effect does Michael’s response to her lament—an admonition to not “set thy heart,/ Thus over-fond, on that which is not thine” and a command that “[Adam] to follow thou art bound” (XI.288-291)—have on Eve’s already tenuous sense of independence and agency?


Annemarie Lisko