Milton and the Drama of History: From the Revolutionary Prose to the Major Poems

Loewenstein, David Andrew , Department of English, University of Virginia
Kerrigan, William, Department of English, University of Virginia
Nohrnberg, James, Department of English, University of Virginia
Turner, James, Department of English, University of Virginia

From his early polemics to his major poems, Milton envisions history as a dynamic, often dramatic and iconoclastic process. His revolutionary prose works reveal that conflict between opposing ideologies can both generate and frustrate reform. The antiprelatical tracts of the 1640s express an ambivalent response to the millennial vision of history: such tracts as Of Reformation and Animadversions depict history not merely as progressive, but as a turbulent, degenerative process riddled with tragic conflict. These early polemics also anticipate the iconoclastic vision of history developed in Eikonoklastes and Samson Agonistes.

Areopagitica offers a more positive response to the conflicts of revolutionary history: Milton's understanding of the historical process in terms of "neighboring differences" and "brotherly dissimilitudes" suggests his desire to embrace conflict as a means of historic regeneration and to reconcile clashing ideologies into a "unity of Spirit.” Milton's regicide tracts, however, revert to and take further the radical, turbulent historical vision of his early apocalyptic tracts; in Eikonoklastes Milton fiercely demolishes both the spectacle and ideology of royalist history. His later revolutionary works continue to confront the politics of history as God's drama: the First Defence of the English People provides a vehement justification of radical history, while the Second Defence offers a more tentative but heroic sense of history as trial. The conflict between Milton's revolutionary vision and his sense of historical uncertainty finds additional expression in the aborted History of Britain and the radical polemics of 1659-1660.

In Paradise Lost the "tribulations" of postlapsarian history involve the trials of just men who emerge at critical junctures in the national drama of God's chosen people. Rather than attempting to move beyond these conflicts through typology, as Paradise Lost does, Samson Agonistes responds with a mixture of pessimism and defiance to the national and historical themes of the revolutionary years; it registers the disillusionment associated with the politics of exile, as well as the rage and power of Milton the apocalyptic polemicist and iconoclastic thinker. By showing how the major poems respond to the themes and tensions of Milton's historical vision in the revolutionary prose, I demonstrate the uneasy continuity between these two stages of his literary career.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Milton, John -- 1608-1674 -- Knowledge -- History, Historical poetry, English -- History and criticism, Lierature and histotry -- Great Britain, Historigraphy, Great Britan -- Historiography

Bibliography: leaves 319-344.

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