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Milton: Lecture 1 Transcript September 5, 2007 << back Professor John Rogers: For a vast number of complicated reasons, Milton has invited for 350 years now a uniquely violent -- and I do think it's a violent -- response to the particular question of his value as a poet. And the violence, I think, of this reaction is due in large part to our tendency to think of Milton and of Milton's work in terms of the category of power. So I've given this first lecture a title, the title being "Milton, Power, and the Power of Milton," because any introduction to Milton has to confront the long-standing conviction in English letters of Milton's power or his strength as a poet. It's practically impossible to begin a reading of Milton without the burden of innumerable prejudices and preconceptions. Milton's reputation always precedes him. And in fact that's always been the case even in his lifetime. Even if we've heard of nothing of Milton the poet or nothing of Milton the man, we're certainly, of course, likely to have heard of Adam and Eve and of the story of the Garden of Eden, and so it's especially difficult to read Paradise Lost without bringing to it some sense of the power of the religious problems, the theological and ethical problems, that that story seems so powerfully to set out to address. Now readers of English literature talk about Milton very differently from the way they talk about other writers. Historically, it has not been pleasure or wit or beauty that has been associated with the experience of reading Milton. Those are the categories of value that we tend to associate or to affiliate with our other favorite writers, writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, for example. But in our collective cultural consciousness, if there is a such thing, whether we like him or not we tend to think of John Milton as powerful. And the reasons for this coupling of the name Milton and of this idea or the metaphor of power, I think, are worth looking in to. Power is a conceptual category that Milton brooded on and cultivated his entire writing life. From a very early age, Milton nursed the image of himself as a powerful poet. In Milton we have a man who was able to state -- now just think about this for a moment, I take this to be an absolutely remarkable fact -- we have in Milton a man who was able to state categorically in his early twenties--so just a few years older than you are now-- that the epic poem that he would not even begin writing for another twenty-five years would become an unforgettable work of English literature. Milton anticipated and lovingly invested all of his energy in his future literary power and his future literary fame. He anticipated this power much as his father, a reasonably well-to-do banker, might have anticipated long-term earnings from a particularly risky business venture.
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