A Milton Flashback

A Milton Flashback

I was going through some old mail and stumbled on a link to an article in the NY Times decrying teaching Milton’s Samson AgonistesIs Teaching Milton Unsafe at Any Speed? The core argument is that the poem celebrates terrorism, or rather, that Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton accentuates the fundamentalism involved. According to the Times:

Liberals, he [Fish] says, believe in objectivity, disinterested consideration of evidence, procedural safeguards for justice and above all in the primacy of rationality. “Milton,” he argues, “believes none of those things.”

On September 11, 2001 I was preparing my notes for a seminar on Milton on the twelfth. I was supposed to teach “Lycidas,” a pastoral elegy. “Lycidas” is a flexing of his poetic muscles that neatly avoids the problem of fame by passing judgment on the worthiness of fame not to men, but to God. Its strategy of deferral is interesting, because Milton compares the fallen poet he laments (who he barely knew) to Orpheus. Though Orpheus could charm a stone through his rhetoric, it still didn’t keep him from being torn apart by the Maenads. I feel sorry for poor Milton.

Presenting an elegy on that day seemed so right. And it is a powerful elegy at that, one of the finest in my opinion. A few weeks later, oddly enough, I presented Samson Agonistes. Thoroughout the poem Milton undercuts Samson for his past deeds, and he is in torment that parallels that of Job. In the end, he tears down the temple based on the voice of the lord that he alone hears. Of course, Milton no doubt chose this subject because he was involved in defending Cromwell, and felt himself in a similarly embattled position. To teach a play that involves such single minded devotion to a God seemed really important in the light of September 11th. Right or wrong, who can really say. I haven’t had any conversations with God lately to judge by. Strike the poem from the canon? It seems as likely that we might neatly snip out the story from the Bible.

Milton consistently defers authority to God. I wonder if that might be the firmest lesson involved. Personally, I can’t see following any god that commands you to slaughter innocents. Obviously, Milton’s God condoned that sort of behavior— and he wasn’t Islamic. Does that mean I ask myself “What would Milton Do” just because I read and love his poems? Now that’s a really stupid question. Milton never claims any authority for himself, only for his God— and it really turned out badly both for him and the innocent victims. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

I was only sitting in on this seminar. I felt like I had missed something in my undergraduate career by not spending more time with Milton. I was glad I did, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. What better way to understand the actions of some outraged fundamentalists than by reading another fundamentalist?

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