Reading John Milton
How to Persist in Troubled Times
Stephen B. Dobranski


Contents and Abstracts
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A short introduction frames Milton's story in terms of the current misunderstanding of his character and writings. These remarks begin with a portrait of the poet that was painted at age ten. The introduction then describes a few crucial events during Milton's life and times—in particular, the British civil wars—to frame the subsequent chapters.

1 The Power of Language: "These defenseless doors"
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This chapter begins in autumn 1642, as London was bracing for a possible attack by the king's forces in the British civil wars. Milton's response to the imminent military strike was to write a poem, which he tacked on the door to his house—a testament to his belief in the power of language. The chapter also looks at Milton's early education and language training, and then concentrates on his courtly entertainment, A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle. This drama anticipates the standoff between Eve and Satan in Paradise Lost and celebrates the themes of chastity, nature, and what Milton called "sacred vehemence."

2 Personal Loss: "Weep no more"
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This chapter examines how Milton's commitment to the power of language helped him to cope with the untimely deaths of his two friends, Charles Diodati and Edward King. The discussion of Diodati in "An Epitaph for Damon" provides an occasion for exploring Milton's continental journey (he was in Italy when his best friend died back in London), and the discussion of King in "Lycidas" sheds light on Milton's experiences at Cambridge University (he knew King from their brief time together at Christ's College). Most important, both "Epitaph" and "Lycidas" illustrate how Milton found consolation by embracing poetic tradition and leaning on the classical authors he had studied with his late companions.

3 Combating Injustice: "Need not kings to make them happy"
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The death that, more than any others, came to define the second half of the seventeenth century, King Charles I's execution, was not one that Milton wrote about sympathetically. This chapter begins with the king's beheading and analyzes Milton's arguments for the people's right to remove bad leaders from office. As the king tried to enforce a single national church that emphasized ornament and ritual, Milton railed against religious tyranny and the malignant influence of England's corrupt bishops. He passionately championed free will and the authority of the individual conscience, favoring obedience to God's spirit over both secular and religious authority. The chapter reviews the causes and aftermath of the British civil wars and the ways that the conflict influenced Milton's commitment to liberty and his depiction of rebellion in Paradise Lost.

4 Physical Suffering: "Only stand and wait"
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This chapter focuses on Milton's blindness and his collaboration with friends and students. It is in this context that the chapter examines Milton's troubled relationship with his daughters and his posthumous reputation as a patriarchal tyrant. Several of Milton's sonnets come under close scrutiny here. He repeatedly turned to the tight structure of these fourteen-line poems to meditate on his poetic ambition, his personal suffering, and his political hopes for his country.

5 Free Speech: "Precious lifeblood"
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This chapter continues to trace Milton's belief in the power of language by examining his eloquent opposition to censorship in his pamphlet Areopagitica. Milton did not think that Parliament should completely deregulate the still relatively new technology of print, but he insisted that arriving at truth depends on debate—as he put it, "much arguing, much writing, many opinions." The chapter begins with Milton's being called before a special parliamentary commission and grilled about his allowing the publication of a heretical, Polish book, The Racovian Catechism. But the bulk of the chapter discusses his own controversial writings and his belief in toleration and liberty—not just in Areopagitica, but also in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, which inspired his opposition to censorship, and in his heterodox theological treatise, On Christian Doctrine, which he did not dare publish.

6 Arrogance: "Pride and worse ambition"
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This chapter examines Satan in Paradise Lost, arguably Milton's most compelling and vital character. In the midst of a poetic work based on the first three chapters of Genesis, the author explores his own story. Consciously or unconsciously, he was questioning the ambition that drove him—first to challenge the church's hierarchy, then to oppose his nation's marriage laws, then to dethrone an autocratic king. In Paradise Lost, he tried to write an epic that would out-Homer Homer, and in a possibly stunning self-rebuke he placed at its center a character undone by the sin of hubris.

7 Forgiveness: "Hand in hand with wand'ring steps"
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Details of Milton's troubled first marriage provide a way of analyzing Adam and Eve after the Fall in Paradise Lost. Forgiveness, Milton shows in his poem, is a process, not an event, and must be earned, not passively accepted. A person who commits a wrong needs to own up to the mistake and sincerely feel contrite. This remorse is what Satan never achieves, what Milton learned from his first marriage, and what Adam and Eve are ultimately able to accomplish, together.

8 Resisting Temptation: "He who reigns within himself"
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In the aftermath of the Restoration, as England celebrated its new king and Charles II sought to reinstitute and amplify the absolutist policies enacted under his father, Milton must have been tempted to give up on public life and immerse himself in his studies. Instead, he redoubled his efforts, continuing to write and publish works that addressed directly his life-long commitments to liberty and toleration. The way to resist temptation, he knew, was not as simple as just saying no. Successful resistance required self-possession—that is, an understanding of his own character and principles, which could be achieved only with effort and time. This chapter looks at the depiction of resistance in Paradise Regained and Milton's Jesus as a model of composure and self-knowledge.

9 Doubt: "Strenuous liberty"
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Samson Agonistes is likely the last poem that Milton ever wrote and seems to be one of his most personal works. At the end of the poem, after learning of Samson's death and destruction, his father and friends try to overcome their shock and justify Samson's vengeful act. But Milton raises enough uncertainty in his portrayal that the friends' conclusions are not entirely persuasive. In his final years, reflecting on all that had happened—the civil wars, the death of the king, the restoration of monarchy—Milton now seems to suggest that some situations are morally ambiguous. In Samson, he strikes a cautionary note. Doing the right thing and discerning God's will are not easy, but violence, even when it is a powerful temptation, is always self-defeating.

10 Surviving Disaster: "By small / Accomplishing great things"
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Having lived through war, fire, and plague, Milton must have come to appreciate how hardship can either wear people down or inspire individual acts of bravery. In writing Paradise Lost, he was telling the origin story of needing to stay strong in the face of adversity. The final two books of the epic conclude with the angel Michael describing the long legacy of pain and suffering that Adam and Eve's descendants—that all people—must now accept. It cannot be avoided, but it can be endured, and ultimately—through virtue, patience, faith, and love—it will be vanquished.

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This brief conclusion looks at Milton's reception and his ongoing legacy as a poet for troubled times. It sums up the book's themes and addresses a few of the many writers and thinkers who have admired and been influenced by Milton's writings.