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Main page » Multimedia » Audio » Life and Writings of John Milton

Life and Writings of John Milton


12 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture)
Course No. 305

Taught by Seth Lerer
Stanford University
Ph.D., University of Chicago

There is no disputing that John Milton (1608–1674) is considered one of the supreme writers in the history of English letters, and indeed in world literature. "All things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of Milton," said the great critic and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Yet, for a number of reasons, many modern readers are unaware of the pleasures of his often complex poetry and prose.

This lecture series examines the life and work of this English poet in order to understand the richness and depth of his poetry, its ways of representing 17th-century English life and culture, and its impact on later writers and on English literary history as a whole.

With these lectures by Professor Seth Lerer, winner of the Hoagland Prize for undergraduate teaching at Stanford University, you learn about Milton's works in all their fullness. This course is designed to be rewarding whether or not you have read Milton's works in the past.

Professor Lerer gives you both an introduction to Milton's achievements and a means by which you can cultivate your own thoughts and opinions about works including Paradise Lost and Areopagitica.

You also study:

  • Milton's early poetry
  • "Lycidas"
  • Political Milton
  • Paradise Regained
  • Samson Agonistes, and more.

Reading Milton Productively and Enjoyably

Professor Lerer describes his course as "an invitation to the modern reader to find ways of enjoying, appreciating, valuing, and even struggling through a poetry that says as much about human nature and political life now as it did over three centuries ago."

Professor Lerer illustrates the links that connect Milton's biographical and cultural milieux to the imagined worlds of his verse, frequently in the form of lively readings of the poet's works themselves in the appropriate English accent and pronunciation.

To understand the depth of Milton's poetry, it is necessary to learn about his personal struggles, spiritual aspirations, and political passions.

John Milton: A Brief Biography

Educated at St. Paul's School and Cambridge University, where he received a Master's degree in 1632, Milton aspired towards a career in the Anglican Church, but philosophical conflicts with Church doctrine and his own burgeoning interest in writing distracted him. Steeping himself in the classics as well as more contemporary writings, in 1638 he took a European tour where he met many of the major thinkers of the day, especially in Italy.

Milton already had a respectable portfolio of work, including poems "On Shakespeare" (1630) and "Il Penseroso" (1631), the lyrical elegy "Lycidas" (1638), and sonnets.

Milton then turned his considerable intellect towards prose—specifically political and religious pamphlets. Reflecting the turbulent times in which he lived, Milton attacked such controversial issues as Church reform, divorce, freedom of the press, the rights of kings and subjects, education, Christian doctrine, and government and constitutional reform, often using examples from his own life.

His growing Puritanism and political radicalism coincided with the rise of both in England and Milton increasingly cried out against tyranny, even writing a justification for the execution of Charles I.

During the Interregnum, when Oliver Cromwell held control after the execution of Charles I, Milton was rewarded for his tireless political pamphleteering. Parliament appointed him Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State (1649–1659). Though his poor eyesight eventually lapsed into total blindness in 1652, Milton carried on both his political and literary work with the help of aides.

Milton's political career ended with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. He was fined and briefly imprisoned for his involvement. He then embarked on what would become the greatest achievement in his literary career, Paradise Lost.

A Poet of the Self

"Milton is a great poet of personal struggle and spiritual devotion, and the theme of this course is the place of autobiography in writing poetry shaped by political events and biblical narrative," says Professor Lerer. "Milton is a poet of the first person singular, a poet of the self, and this course illustrates the ways in which he places that self at the center of all his writings."

Professor Lerer also explains how the psychologically aware Milton used his own life story to elucidate ideas about authority and rebellion. You come to a detailed sense of the fluency with which he employs modern and archaic language in his rhetoric, as well as images and characters from the vast span of the Western tradition.

Nor do you overlook Milton's profound—and profoundly important—concern with religion, theology, and the authority of Scripture.

Professor Lerer offers you guidance to reading Milton while considering the sometimes formidable historical and literary references that are an important part of understanding his writings.

For all his lofty erudition, Milton treats basic, timeless themes:

  • Sin and judgment
  • Authority and revolt
  • Love and hate
  • Pride and humility
  • Ambition and failure.

Then too, his concerns about the nature of marriage, the experience of colonialism, and the problem of individual spiritual authority remain very much with us today.

"Milton's greatness has been awesome to some and stifling to others. One important concern of this course, therefore, is how literary criticsand how we ourselves—respond to Milton," continues Dr. Lerer.

In learning to feel the living pulse of Milton's world, you join generations of readers and authors, including William Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, and Mary Shelley, who have taken inspiration from his genius.

Paradise Lost alone could easily be the subject of an entire course. Here, however, Professor Lerer chooses not to restrict himself to this unique masterwork, but rather to make it manifest in the context of its maker's life and larger career, to give you a foundation on which to build your future enjoyment of Milton.

What You Will Learn

After an introductory lecture on Milton's life (Lecture 1), Professor concentrates on the first major poems Milton wrote: the ode "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," the Latin poem "Ad Patrem" ("To His Father"), and the famous elegy "Lycidas."

Lectures 2 and 3 invite you to read these poems closely for their aesthetic and personal meaning.

Lecture 4 looks at the political Milton.

Dr. Lerer next focuses on Paradise Lost (Lectures 5 through 10), Milton's great poem. He examines the human books of Paradise Lost: the sections that trace the creation and Fall of Adam and Eve, Satan's temptations, and Milton's own struggles with his poem (Books I, II, III, IV, and IX).

Each lecture focuses on the depth and details of a particular Book of the poem to illustrate Milton's literary technique, the drama of his poetry, and the philosophical and social themes he explores.

Lecture 11 looks at Milton's final major works, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, in terms of the major themes of Paradise Lost and of this course: the relationships of fathers and sons, the nature of social obedience, the heroics of moral choice, and the imagery of blindness, light, and vision (both physical and spiritual).

Lecture 12 illustrates the ways Milton had an impact on later literature, criticism, and teaching, especially the making of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) and on 20th-century debates on teaching literature.

Course Lecture Titles

1. Introduction to Milton's Life and Art
2. Milton's Early Poetry
3. “Lycidas”
4. Political Milton
5. Paradise Lost—An Introduction
6. Paradise Lost, Book I
7. Paradise Lost, Book II
8. Paradise Lost, Book III
9. Book IV—Theatrical Milton
10. Book IX—The Fall
11. Late Milton—Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes
12. Milton's Living Influence

NOTE: This is a personal "thank you" to this site, and I hope to be able to upload more materials. Those who can, please help uploading more TTC or TMS stuff to this site. These materials are wonderful for our listening training and to get more vocabulary (besides learning more and more!). Hope you enjoy!

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Tags: English, Milton, writers, history, University, poetry, culture, impact, 17thcentury, lecture, later