ENGLISH 9129A ~ The Value of Milton

Professor John Leonard

Fall Half Course.

The primary question to be explored in the course will be: “Of what value is Milton today, when so many of his own values have been called into question if not outright rejected?” Milton has traditionally been celebrated as the primary English poet who puts liberty at the centre of his vision. But whose liberty? Hostile critics have argued that he cares about no one’s liberty but his own. Critics (and arguably Milton himself) have also elided and often confused two quite different kinds of liberty: liberty as the opposite of tyranny (the freedom to do what one wants) and liberty as the opposite of necessity (to freedom to obey authoritarian commands of one’s own volition, not as a puppet). By a close reading of all of Milton’s texts, but especially Areopagitica and Paradise Lost, this course will ask the question “of what value is liberty if it is nothing more than the liberty to consent freely to tyranny?” We shall also explore the question of whether Milton was a Puritan and what Puritanism meant in the seventeenth century. Other topics for discussion will include: ecocriticism (especially in Paradise Lost and the early poems); Milton and science (was Milton an anti-intellectual?); Milton and atheism (can atheists find value in Milton’s poetry?); Milton and women (was Milton a misogynist?) and Samson Agonistes and terrorism (is Samson Agonistes a “work in praise of terrorism?” and is it possible even to put in a good word for terror in a tragedy?). The central question throughout the course will be: Can Milton be valued today even if his values conflict with the social, political, and moral imperatives of our own time?

View the course syllabus here: English 9129A.