Milton's image and poetics of humanity

Campbell, Walter Gardner, Department of English, University of Virginia
Nohrnberg, James C., Department of English, University of Virginia
Braden, Gordon, Department of English, University of Virginia

Milton's image of humanity is a poetics of humanity: a dynamic, dialogic image that multiplies and explores what Nicolas of Cusa calls "conjectural otherness," a poetics fully responsive to the pathos and ironic complexities of human existence. Critics tend to dismiss Milton's image of humanity as an inferior element of his poetic achievement, usually because they force Milton's texts into a premature or inadequate univocality. In fact, however, an insistent binarism of emphatic alterity, an agonizing, transformative approach of opposites, pervades and characterizes Milton's work. I find four interpretive analogues of Milton's image of humanity in Blake's "contraries," Kierkegaard's revision of Socrates, Valesio's rhetorics, and Bakhtin's dialogics.

L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, two strenuously opposed "companions," are the first extended examples of Milton's image of humanity. Their exaggerated opposition is an exercise neither in renunciation nor in static synthesis, but instead a piercing counterpoint, a music of opposition and alterity sounding within and between them.

A confrontational dialogic also characterizes Satan's progress in Paradise Lost. Here a provocative God continually confronts Satan with gracious opportunities for redemption: the renewal of heaven that precedes his fall, the "Jacob's ladder" that dares him to reascend to heaven, the Sun/Son that he lands on then bitterly renounces, and the moment in which he is struck "stupidly good" before a solitary Eve. Milton's Arminianism and Origen's doctrine of apocatastasis suggest that Satan may not be finally damned until Eve falls.

Prelapsarian Adam and Eve are also continually tempted by "contrarieties": they wrestle with God, the Son, an angel, a devil, each other, the Tree of Knowledge, even Paradise itself, all of which are "provoking objects." Yet Paradise's surprising hazards, its "enormous bliss," its prohibitions, and its defeats (save one), can quicken its keepers toward the glory for which they are created. One of the most provocative and difficult opportunities in Paradise is Adam and Eve's dialogue of gender differentiation and marriage, especially in Book 9's separation scene.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:35:19.

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