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Teaching Romanticism XVIII: Miltonic Legacies

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As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, the BARS Review and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This issue was edited by Tess Somervell and Brian Bates.

D. J. Schuldt (Emmanuel College, Boston): Milton and the Romantic Sonnet

I have taught Milton and the Romantic sonnet in the context of two undergraduate courses: a British literature survey and a Romantic literature class. The approach I take is three-fold: (1) introduce the formal characteristics of a sonnet; (2) explore Milton’s innovations to the sonnet; and (3) bring Milton’s sonnets into dialogue with those by Romantic authors. This approach helps students to see Milton’s lasting influence on the form, and it is easily scalable and, therefore, can be used in courses that focus exclusively on Romantic poetry or more broadly on English literature.

Although most students are aware of the traditional English love sonnet, they are not familiar with the sonnet’s formal structure. We differentiate between English and Italian sonnets and build the necessary vocabulary for describing and analyzing them—for example: octaves, sestets, quatrains, couplets and volta. Once students have developed this foundational understanding of the sonnet form, we jump into Milton.

Armed with the differences between English and Italian sonnets, we explore how Milton innovated in the Italian form. His innovations are formal (with the addition of enjambment) as well as thematic (focusing on politics and personal reflections rather than courtly love). We read the following group of sonnets: “Sonnet 15: To Fairfax,” which focuses on a political figure; “Sonnet 18: On the Late Massacre in Piedmont,” which is political though not on a political figure per se; and “Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” which is a personal reflection.

Following these formal and thematic engagements with Milton’s sonnets, we investigate how Milton’s innovations were especially important for (and were continued by) the Romantics. To this end, we read Romantic sonnets that represent both political and reflective themes. Specifically, we read selections from Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, which tend to be personal reflections, political sonnets such as John Thelwall’s “Sonnet 2: To Tyranny,” and selections from Mary Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon, which mix the personal and the political.

1Anna Seward’s “Sonnet to France…” is one of my favorites to discuss because it helps to emphasize the importance of knowing when historical events happen. It was written shortly after the fall of the Bastille when many English poets were celebrating the early days of the French Revolution; knowing the historical context of the poem is crucial to understanding whether the poem is celebrating beheadings or the general fight for freedom. In teaching at a U.S. institution in Boston, I have found that my students’ curiosity is piqued when they realize that the American Revolution is also one of the poem’s subjects.

If a course allows for a more extended focus on Romanticism, we delve more deeply into the sonnet’s history and look specifically at the early Romantic sonnet revival and the resulting debate over the proper form of a sonnet. Before the revival, the sonnet was essentially a dead form and, therefore, was open to re-appropriation. Charlotte Smith, who largely launched the revival through her Elegiac Sonnets (1784), chose to write in the English form and argued in her preface that it was the most viable and emotionally engaging form. Directly opposing Smith, Anna Seward and Mary Robinson maintained that the Italian form was the most legitimate because Milton, whom they regarded as England’s greatest poet, wrote in this form.

Most of the debate-related texts that we read are prefaces and letters by Smith, Seward, Robinson, and Coleridge. Teaching this lesser known literature and literary history is a powerful way to incorporate more women writers into literature survey courses that tend to be dominated by male authors. It also gives these authors their due credit for the influence that they had on more canonical, Romantic authors such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Moreover, this context can provide a historical and analytical bridge for reading other, later sonnets; examples of these include Coleridge’s politically-minded “Sonnets on Eminent Characters,” which draw heavily from Milton’s sonnets on political figures, and Wordsworth’s sonnets, which Wordsworth claimed were inspired by Milton.

Brian Bates (Cal Poly State University): Milton’s Satan, Sin, Death and Gothic Romanticism

2One of the most invigorating classes that I have taught was a first-year seminar called Romanticism & Gothic Madness. The students in this seminar had a wide variety of majors, and they came into the course with markedly different literature experiences and expectations. This class gave me a fantastic opportunity to think anew about why and how British Romanticism continues to speak to university students. What my eighteen-year-old students helped me to see is how deeply Milton’s Satan, Sin, and Death were written into the themes, characters, and tropes of Romantic period literature. More recently, Ian Haywood’s argument in Romanticism and Caricature (2013) about the proliferation of Romantic era visual prints depicting Satan, Sin and Death demonstrates how powerfully this aspect of Milton’s gothic legacy was etched into late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century public discourses. Of particular note, Hogarth’s, Fuseli’s, and Gilray’s prints (below) illustrate Book II, lines 724-726, in which Sin staves off Satan and Death’s near violent encounter.

3After spending a day exploring the origins of the word ‘Gothic’ and Medieval architecture, followed by a day focused on excerpts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, students read excerpts from books I and II of Paradise Lost. During class discussion, students quickly homed in on the sensational and dramatic nature of Satan’s encounter with Sin and Death at the gates of Hell. Their ready comments focused on Sin’s incestuous relationship with Satan (“Gross”), Satan’s paternity (“Dead-beat dad”), and Satan and Death’s verbal sparring (“Talking Trash”). Students recognized a Jerry Springer-like portrayal of a highly dysfunctional family unwittingly reunited with a surprise twist that leads them to air their perverse desires and aggressions.

Building on these students’ voluble comments, we began closely reading the physical descriptions of these characters and considering how their relationships darkly catalyze and shadow Milton’s epic narrative of man’s fall. While Sin’s violated body introduced students to the concept of the grotesque and horror, Death’s body showed them terror and the sublime (with the help of an excerpt from Edmund Burke). Satan’s past “intellectual” birthing and incestuous coupling with Sin—which leads to the birth of Death and Death’s subsequent rape of his mother (engendering ravenous Hell Hounds)—led us further to see these three as a disturbingly fecund parody of the Christian Holy Trinity. Discussing their perverse relationship helped us to articulate a fundamental theme of the course: the gothic begins when family breaks down. This troubling theme also began to shape our understanding of the gothic as a self-begetting mode of textual recycling and reproduction.

4Satan, Sin and Death’s familial, gendered power dynamics paved the way for our thematic and aesthetic leap into Gothic Romantic literature, beginning with Walpole’s campy triangulations of desire in The Castle of Otranto. Milton’s parodic trinity gave us a treble vision through which to see the French Revolution controversy, narratives about slavery, Shelley’s Frankenstein, De Quincey’s addiction abyss, and several of Blake’s, Coleridge’s, and Keats’s poems. Our readings were anchored by our understanding of the gothic as an incestuous mode of textual reproduction, driven by Satanic desire, altered by female victimization and subversion, and shadowed by the all-consuming power of Death.

Textual recycling, transformation, and regeneration became the operative tropes that governed our discussions about the dynamic energies latent in Gothic Romantic literature. From my students’ point of view—beyond the ghosts, vampires, and zombies—the gothic is so compelling for authors and readers because it remains open to—even inviting—its own deformations and recreations. To test these notions, I had students engage in several written assignments that prompted them to reduce, stitch together, and recreate these monstrous texts. For example, students wrote a short parody or pastiche of Frankenstein’s gothic conventions and textual form. I also had students create a Wordle of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” introduced by a preface that explained their specific word choices and visual design rationale. They then presented these creation-deformations to the class.

As a final project, I asked students to purposely plagiarize (the horror!) and re-arrange excerpts that they chose from several texts that we had read in order to create a thematically focused mash-up, “found gothic text.” Each student then added serious scholarly and/or cryptic marginal or footnoted editorial annotations (a la “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and wrote a preface for that “patch-work” text. This preface carried out a gothic counterfeit/hoax and explained the found text’s governing aesthetic principles and seeming purpose. Through this assignment, I encouraged students to de-familiarize their understandings of reading and writing by participating in the re/creation of gothic form and content. Our continual returns in this course to Milton’s unholy trinity prompted us to reflect on how liberating our past, present, and future selves often involves creatively working through the gothic shadows of our desires.

Katherine Fender (University of Oxford): Milton, Blake and the Sublime

Over the past few years, I have taught—and sometimes introduced—Blake’s works to undergraduate students in a variety of contexts. He has been a core figure in each and every version of my annual syllabus for Paper 5—‘Literature in English: 1760-1830’ on the undergraduate English course at Oxford, where I have also recently supervised a Paper 7 undergraduate dissertation focusing on Blake, forgiveness and selfhood: a study which devoted special attention to Blake’s Jerusalem. Additionally, I have taught the ‘Romantic and Victorian Poetry’ module to a number of seminar groups—comprised of a mixture of second, third and fourth year students—at the University of Warwick: a course which has consistently dedicated a week of the syllabus to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in recent years. Outside the tutorial room and into the public domain, I have also collaborated with the Ashmolean Museum in the context of its University Engagement Programme in order to render Blake’s works accessible to the wider public as well as to the academic community. In conjunction with the Museum’s ‘William Blake—Apprentice and Master’ exhibition, I co-ordinated a number of projects and events, including live performances of a selection of Blake’s poems by undergraduate students from the Oxford University Dramatic Society.

In these diverse contexts, across these various groups of students and year groups, almost all of my tutees shared one mixed sentiment on encountering Blake’s works: awe and terror. The students found Blake’s words—and images—weird, wonderful, rich, confusing and refreshingly ‘different’ from many of the works that they had studied hitherto. However, the prospect of thinking, writing and, especially, facing examinations about Blake and his works also terrified them; they were worried about how to find a foothold in Blake’s colourful yet chaotic mental landscape. As such, I always endeavour to coax students into Blake’s works with not only a few select recommendations for secondary reading, and an emphatic suggestion to look at Blake’s watercolours, illustrations and the various versions of his plates on the online ‘William Blake Archive’ (http://www.blakearchive.org/), but also some conceptual ‘carrots’: in particular, the Blakean notion of ‘contraries’—and the idea, rhetoric and legacy of the Miltonic sublime.


All of my students at Warwick had already studied Paradise Lost in detail. A year-long module, ‘The Epic Tradition’, is compulsory for Warwick English students during their first year at the University; it affords a number of lectures and seminars specifically to Milton’s text, and culminates in an examination at the end of the year. Many of my Oxford students, though, had only recently (and rapidly) read Paradise Lost as part of their syllabus for Paper 4—‘Literature in English: 1660–1760’—the preceding term, and so they were understandably not as confident in discussing or even alluding to the stylistic details of Milton’s text. As such, one of the secondary texts that I always strongly recommend to my students is Joseph Crawford’s Raising Milton’s Ghost: John Milton and the Sublime of Terror in the Early Romantic Period (2011). Beautifully written and bursting with helpful insights into Milton’s legacy in the Romantic period, it is an ideal text to which students can refer and respond in tracing the influence of Milton in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature; Chapter Six is particularly useful, as it offers an in-depth case study of Milton’s influence on Blake’s works.

With even a cursory understanding of the Miltonic sublime, students are in a much stronger position to approach texts like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—or any of Blake’s prophetic books. Focusing on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as an introduction to Blake’s works, as per the Warwick syllabus, has worked extremely well in my teaching experience. The text lends itself to consideration of the Blakean notion of ‘contraries’, as well as Blake’s theological views; students always enjoy close-reading ‘A Song of Liberty’, not only in the political context of the 1790s, but especially in relation to the rhetoric and images associated with the Miltonic sublime. In turn, reading any of Blake’s works through the lens of the Miltonic sublime enables students to consolidate their understanding of key Romantic ideas such as revolution, the imagination and the sublime. It also affirms Milton’s Romantic reputation as a remarkably sublime individual, as well as writer: the embodiment of the sublime, as well as an artistic agent of the sublime.

W. Scott Howard (University of Denver): Milton and Blake—The Poetics and Praxis of Adaptation

This essay concerns a graduate-level course for creative writers, literary scholars, and cultural theorists in the Department of English at the University of Denver. Compared with doctoral programs that establish boundaries among fields, methodologies, and time periods, our curriculum blends creativity with critique. The class investigates adaptation through literary forms (drama, poetry, prose) and related fields (cinema, history, philosophy, visual art). While our primary focus addresses the 16th and 17th centuries, our work also charts trajectories from Plato to the postmoderns. We will study schools of thought and artistic practices that have deep roots in earlier times, such as the poetics of the sublime and theories of indeterminacy, contingency, and eidetic making. We also will recover a vital conversation (from Jacopo Mazzoni) about poetic fictions and simulacra that animates relationships between Milton’s Paradise Lost and Blake’s Milton: A Poem.

We will examine the poetics and praxis of adaptation via kindred works that dynamically bridge early- and post-modern eras, including: Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603-23) and selected reconfigurations, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967), Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (1979), Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), and Martha Ronk’s why why not (2003); Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) and W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995); Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World (1666) and Danielle Dutton’s Margaret The First (2015); and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667–74) as illustrated by Blake (1807–08), John Martin (1823), Gustave Doré (1866), Carlotta Petrina (1933), and Mary Elizabeth Groom (1937), and as robustly challenged by Blake’s Milton: A Poem (1804-18) and by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

Our comparative analyses will be informed by a selection of critical, historical, and theoretical works, including Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), Michael Taussig’s Mimesis and Alterity (1993), Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (2014), and Heidi Brayman Hackle’s and Ian Moulton’s Teaching Early Modern Literature From the Archives (2014) among other resources, such as The John Milton Reading Room, and The William Blake Archive. We also will evaluate our primary and secondary materials as adaptations in their own right—that is, as highly mediated objects of artistic, cultural, and intellectual production. Students, therefore, will pay special attention to relationships among texts, images, and interfaces.

Paradise Lost and Milton: A Poem are central to these interdisciplinary and multi-modal perspectives. We will examine the many forms of adaptation involved in Paradise Lost, such as generic hybridity, dialogism and polyvocality, accommodation and syncretism, and especially tropological synergy—all of which quickened Blake’s attunement to “what mov’d Milton … Viewing his Sixfold Emanation scatter’d thro’ the deep / In torment! To go into the deep her to redeem & himself perish?” (lines 16-20). We will consider illustrations of the epic’s critical passages by Blake, Martin, Doré, Groom, and Petrina that dramatize, in different ways, tensions between recognition (anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia), which will guide our interpretations of Blake’s Milton.

6Blake’s second series of drawings (1808) for Paradise Lost underscores that multidimensional crux. All nine illustrations limn moments of transformation in Milton’s text when literary forms, psycho-dynamic personae, and poetic figures simultaneously converge at the juncture of recognition and reversal where the simulacre excites and exceeds representation. Blake’s deft attention to Milton’s tropological synergy engenders eidetic forms of regenerative inspiration that escape binary systems of degenerative memory. Blake’s concern with polysemous figuration liberates his drawings from earlier narrativistic and histrionic renderings of Paradise Lost—such as, respectively, Henry Aldrich’s (1688) and Francis Hayman’s (1749)—and also distinguishes them from the later symbolic realisms of Martin, Doré, Groom, and Petrina.

This diversified context of visual works will shape our investigation of Blake’s cosmology and Milton: A Poem in dialogue with S. Foster Damon’s A Blake Dictionary (1965), Robert N. Essick’s and Joseph Viscomi’s critical edition (1993), and Diane Piccitto’s Blake’s Drama: Theatre, Performance and Identity in the Illuminated Books (2014). Blake’s illustrations of Paradise Lost resonate throughout Milton: A Poem, which amplifies liminal dynamics between anagnorisis and peripeteia—from the Title Page’s interruption of the poet’s reified ego (“MIL     TON”) to the pivotal moment of Milton’s self-annihilation and regeneration:

I in my Selfhood am that Satan: I am that Evil one!
He is my Spectre! in my obedience to loose him from my Hells
To claim the Hells, my Furnaces, I go to Eternal Death. (ll. 30–32)

In this instant (among countless others in Blake’s Milton) the poetics and praxis of adaptation evades representation (mimesis), thereby constituting an autonomous reality (simulacrum) actualizing an embodied potentiality (entelechy) within a context of contingent temporalities. This formulation draws upon Mazzoni’s theory of the poetic simulacrum from his treatise, Della difensa della Commedia di Dante (1572), which will bring our studies full circle from Plato and Aristotle to Milton and Blake, to Kristeva, Taussig and Drucker.

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