Teaching Milton

November 30, 2008
Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price. Credit: Les Todd

I discovered the work of John Milton as a boy at Duke in the mid 1950s in three courses taught by three very different teachers. Then I studied him at Oxford for three years, wrote a thesis on him, and returned to Duke where I've taught him since 1958. At times I feel that my relations with his work have lasted as long as he has endured among us—and he was born four hundred years ago, on December 9, 1608.

What has rewarded me so continuously in the work of a man whom some readers find repugnant? When I first encountered him, I was captured by the outright love of beautiful language which drove him. Far more than meaning or moral intention, I felt the urgency of his need to generate memorable versions of the English language; and I began to see how successfully he did so.

Since I was thirteen I'd been aware of a similar love in myself and had written poems and a play which attempted that same power. Unremarkable though my boyish work now seems, I can recall the excitement with which I wrote the pieces. Before I came to read Milton, I'd read Shakespeare in high school—Macbeth and Julius Caesar—and had surrendered to his narrative genius; but my meeting with Milton, some three years later, was of a different order of power—one that's never relented.

Such power is inexplicable—as is all beauty—from the smallest flower to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the giant pillars of Durham Cathedral in England, or Milton's language and structure from his first great poem ("On the Morning of Christ's Nativity") till the late sonnet on the wife who, owing to his blindness, he never saw, and the overwhelming ten thousand lines of Paradise Lost. Yet so important has he been to the core of my happiness and, finally, my survival of paraplegia at the age of fifty-two that I've struggled to convey the mystery of his poetry to as many Duke students as I can reach.

Obviously, my feeling for Milton's work has evolved in those five decades; and that evolution has changed my teaching of the poems (owing to its socketing in a complex political situation, I've never taught much of his prose). Initially, I began a semester's work with several hours of attention to his brief early poems, the matchless "Lycidas" (the greatest of shorter English poems), his sonnets, and finally Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. As the years have passed, and the background of Duke undergraduates has changed radically, I spend little time on the early verse. Comprehending its demands requires considerable knowledge of the world of Milton's early life, and so few Duke students have read enough to prepare them for such an encounter (they've read so little of anything). Now we spend a few weeks on the indispensable "Nativity Ode" and on "Lycidas," and then—with some introduction to the events of Milton's adult life—we move forward to ten weeks on Paradise Lost.

No epic poem in any European language—and The Divine Comedy is not an epic—approaches Paradise Lost in its narrative fascination and the linguistic brilliance with which it evokes its story of the fall of mankind through Satan's temptation of Eve and the rescue of both Adam and Eve from their fall by the grace of God (rescued though they are, their willful disobedience of God's command in eating from the forbidden tree will leave them, and all their genetic descendants, marred by an eternal degree of sin).

A majority of my students today lack certainty about the literal truth of the Genesis story of a fall or the scar of original sin, but I think I convince many of them of the gravity with which Milton advances the old story and his conviction of our ongoing guilt as the children of Adam and Eve. And in recent years, I've found my own answer to the long-unsolved question of the identity of Milton's hero in the poem—is it Satan (as so many believe), Adam, or the Son of God Himself? Surely, though, we gradually learn that the hero of the poem is Eve, when she concludes that salvation for herself, and the husband whom she has cheated, lies in her falling suppliant and imploring Adam's forgiveness. Milton sees that the human race could literally not have continued without her generous gesture.

The scene of Eve's begging and Adam's raising her to upright forgiveness is as moving as any in Shakespeare's tragedies, and nowhere does Shakespeare's verse surpass Milton's power. I've long felt that
most women are better creatures than men. Milton is sometimes thought of as being a misogynist, but the conclusion of his epic profoundly denies that charge. And after a history of four hundred years, Milton is more alive than ever. Male or female, if you missed him in college, it's by no means too late to add his genius to the depths of your mind. Since his power as a moral teacher is as great as his beauty, you may well be a better creature once you read the last line.

Ardent Spirits