The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.

Milton in Intellectual and Cultural History
Friday 15 August – Saturday 16 August 2008


“Milton and the Rhetorics of Tyranny”

Tyranny was a principal theme throughout Milton’s political writings and with strong resonance for his divorce tracts, for it was the ultimate form of abuse for any office. The paper first sketches in the moral notions of office Milton and his contemporaries took largely for granted, outlines the understandings of tyranny, and then turns to Milton’s uncompromising employment of these themes over a range of his prose works.

Conal Condren
University of Queensland

“Galileo’s Spots: The Telescope in Paradise Lost”

One problem which has returned frequently throughout the history of interpretations of Paradise Lost is the following: why is Galileo the only contemporary mentioned in the poem? Milton himself famously (and controversially) claims in Areopagitica that he met Galileo when in Italy: “There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.” One can easily see how Milton could forge an identification with Galileo: both went blind, both became political outcasts, both considered themselves geniuses. But such an identification doesn’t explain the suspiciously symptomatic nature of Galileo’s invocation in Paradise Lost, which has troubled interpreters from Dr Johnson to John Guillory and beyond. This paper seeks to analyse Milton’s Galileo-symptom and its links to some other puzzling features of the poem with reference to the intellectual consequences of the “new sciences” of the seventeenth century.

Justin Clemens
University of Melbourne

“Milton’s Animist Materialism and the Body of Paradise Lost”

In Milton studies today, much research has been expended on the philosophy of materialism that informs Paradise Lost, but the poem has not been considered as itself a created thing that exists within the material continuum that Milton is depicting and which exemplifies his animist materialism. This paper explores the connection between Milton's ontology and his poetics and, in the process, offers a corrective to the neglect, in Milton scholarship, of the corporeal substance of Paradise Lost, in particular its oral and aural substance.

Beverley Sherry
University of Sydney

“Milton’s Colour-sense”

To begin a larger study of sensation and in Milton’s work, I examine his perception of colour. I adopt a tripartite distinction of colour: by hue or tint; sheen or texture; and intensity. Which predominates in Milton’s English poems, and when? Individual colour-words behave differently according to tongue. Does the multilingual Milton record colour multilingually? To answer the first question, some other poets are compared with Milton’s English poems up to Lycidas. A focus and turning-point are located in the Companion Pieces. To answer the second question, his Latin and Italian sonnets are examined. The Epitaphium Damonis shows a colour-sense distinct from that of Lycidas. It works with Latin’s different classification of colour. The sonnet tradition’s decorum and artifice make it harder to decide about Sonnet IV. An emerging line of development is traced in the letter on his blindness, and into Paradise Lost, where paradox rules.

John Hale
University of Otago

“Milton and the Fit Reader”

While in a sense all writers write both out of and into a community of readers (otherwise risking unintelligibility), Milton throughout his career appears to make a very special, and strenuous, investment in actively constructing a readership – readers who are appropriate and fit for the hermeneutic tasks he sets them. This Miltonic characteristic is frequently identified and commented on by modern and postmodern critics, giving rise to readings of his work that invoke various writing and reading strategies – such as the notion of “the competent reader,” or the “implied reader,” or the assembling of “interpretive communities,” or the application of “ironic” explanations – that are arguably more twentieth and twenty-first–century than seventeenth. Taking its cue from Milton’s invocation of a “fit audience though few,” this paper explores both the contemporary meaning of such fitness in Horatian and politically circumstantial terms, and its legacy in encouraging “reader-response” approaches to understanding Milton.

Ron Bedford
University of New England

“Miltonic Fictions: Eighteenth-Century Milton and the Invention of Modern Culture”

This paper addresses the question of how Milton’s Paradise Lost fared in the modernising, secularising cultural marketplace of the post-1688 era. It does so by focusing on Milton illustrations, Milton shows, and the function of Milton in everyday cultural life.

Simon During
Johns Hopkins University

“‘Inspired with Contradiction’: Milton’s Conflicting Certainties”

Recently we have been asked to make up our minds about certainty. Should we declare continued allegiance to a supposed dominant paradigm in Milton studies, which holds that Milton is a poet of unqualified certainty, that his works cohere, and that it is the critic’s job to discover and articulate that coherence? Or should we join a new (and Miltonically?) rebellious movement of critics for whom Milton is enmeshed in uncertainty, and from whose perspective the illusion of coherence must be cobbled together out of the recalcitrant material left by the poet? While the form of my question suggests a mediating answer, I do not split the difference. Instead, I will point to important examples in Milton of certainty about and commitment to mutually contradictory positions. Can books do harm and should they be liable to punishment? Is a demonstration of tyranny necessary for the deposing of a king? Is woman lesser than and subject to man? The answer in each case is a firm yes and no. Milton’s recurrent dueling certainties, I argue, arise from a pattern of exceptionalism. The theologically-shaded insistence, often implicit, on a gulf between the self and the rest inevitably unsettles Milton political arguments, for the political is by definition corporate.

Stephen Fallon
University of Notre Dame

“‘Th’ Omnific Word’: The Logos in Paradise Lost”

Milton’s portrayal of the Logos in Paradise Lost comprises a critique of contemporary philosophers who effectively distanced and de-centred the Logos, by discounting the spirit’s ability to write God’s word on the human heart, and by minimising the substantial connection between human beings and their Creator. Milton responds to such philosophers in Paradise Lost with a poetic affirmation of human beings’ capacity to perceive and even to become one with the logos. The task of perceiving God’s ways and acting according to right reason then becomes a moral and spiritual obligation. Milton’s opening prayer to the Spirit for instruction and illumination is a model for the Christian, whose task is to accept God’s “offerd grace” (3.187) and to give “Prayer, repentance, and obedience due” (3.191) so as to be softened and ultimately redeemed. The representation of human beings’ relationship to God, the Son and the Spirit in Paradise Lost therefore supports an argument for human freedom and responsibility and a justification of the poet’s own capacity to apprehend and communicate sacred truths.

Juliet Lucy
University of Queensland

“Dissolving Allegiance to the Acknowledged Power Supreme: Milton, Casuistry and the Commonwealth”

Milton’s status as a political thinker has enjoyed a somewhat chequered history. Derided by the first Tory party, and always a questionable figure for conservatives, his reputation as a republican and radical has also undergone a number of mutations. A progressive figure for nineteenth-century radicalism, by the twentieth Milton fitted neatly into what J. C. D. Clark characterised as old hat and old Whig teleologies of political development. However, as Civil War historiography has gone through its own confusions and revolutions of understanding, so too has Milton’s status as both a political theorist and polemicist in chief of the Commonwealth regime. This paper will trace the shifting interpretation of Milton’s politics and seek to place his writing in the 1650s in the context of the great case of conscience concerning allegiance to the power in plenary possession of the state.

David Jones
University of Queensland

“Milton’s Concept of History and Progress”

Milton generally accepted the Christian view of a historical teleology that followed a linear course from Creation to Apocalypse. However, Milton also identified a countervailing process of cyclical decay and corruption. Such a cyclical pattern is not inevitable, for Milton maintained that with God’s providence, mankind can replace the cyclical pattern of the past with a future pattern of progress and redemption. The paper will focus on Milton’s identification of, and reliance on, these two patterns of history. Areopagitica will be read as an example of Milton’s manifesto for the progress of the English Reformation and for its presentation of the grim alternative. Milton’s preference for linear, progressive movement will then be examined via his poetic method of prolepsis. Equally, however, in Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes and the late prose tract The Readie and Easie Way, Milton displays a pessimism concerning the England of the Restoration, and moves into an individualistic conception of faith and redemption. Despite his experience of defeat, however, Milton’s belief in progress and revolution was the legacy which he left to later generations. The paper will focus on how this picture was adopted by William Blake in his “prophetic” poem Milton.

Timothy Wong
University of Queensland

“Antimonarchism, Antiformalism, and Republicanism in Milton’s ‘Regicide Tracts’”

The “regicide tracts” are now commonly read as works in which Milton repudiates monarchy as a form of government for fallen mankind. I will argue that, in these works, Milton’s main concern is not with affirming or condemning constitutional forms but with defending those who tried and executed Charles I, who is identified not as a king but a tyrant. Pursuing this concern, Milton asserts the importance of three particular “powers”: the power of members of political societies to choose whatever form of government they want (including monarchy); their power to make the laws to which they and their rulers are subject; their power to command the armed forces. As long as the people possess these powers, the particular form of the government to which they are subject is of secondary importance. Moreover, Milton espouses the Aristotelian view that monarchy is by definition a true and just form of government, and one which in some circumstances may be the best for humans. It is because Milton does not repudiate any form of government that he can praise particular monarchs, emperors, and protectors (such as Alfred, Edward, Moses, David, Trajan, Christina, and Cromwell). On a definition of republicanism in terms of the repudiation of monarchy, the regicide tracts therefore do not qualify as an expression of republicanism.

William Walker
University of New South Wales

“The Invention of Reason: Milton and the Theology of Secular Politics”

Historians have often spoken of the founding moment of Western liberal politics as the triumph of secular reason over religious intolerance. But a reading of Milton’s political writings of the 1640s and 50s destabilises this narrative of the relation between religion and politics. The paper explores Milton’s deployment of “nature” as a political norm, together with his appeal to the canons of rationality and reasonableness. Milton’s appeals to nature and reason are framed as non-partisan appeals to a norm which can adjudicate objectively between competing political and juridical claims; but this construction is precisely a partisan intervention against competing theologies, and its coherence depends entirely on the theological narrative that underwrites it. An analysis of Milton’s deployment of “nature” and “reason” thus uncovers some of the forgotten theological assumptions that were driving the emergence of discourses about individual rights and popular sovereignty in the seventeenth century.

Benjamin Myers
University of Queensland

“Just Concent: the Politics and Poetics of Music”

Milton as a defender and performer of music is one of the challenges to the idea of Milton as a solitary genius that unites this symposium. This paper will touch on his musical education, his responses to the musical iconoclasm of the Reformation, his collaboration with the royalist composer Henry Lawes, and the uses of music in his epics, including the applicability of his theological materialism and examples of the concinnities of sound and sense in the audible material of poetry.

Diane McColley
Rutgers University

The daily program for the symposium can be found here.

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