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Milton Now pp 129-148 | Cite as

Uncouth Milton

  • Christopher Warley
Chapter
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Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)

Abstract

Despite being an obnoxious self-promoter always happy to point out what an important poet he was and would be, Milton throughout his poetry embraced the uncouth—the anonymous, the unknown, the humble, the tasteless—as a vital ideal. The uncouth was important for Milton’s art first because it resonated with his religious convictions. “They also serve who only stand and wait” (Sonnet 16, line 14):1 Christians serve God to serve, not to make a name for themselves; that is why “they” are only “they.” But the Miltonic uncouth moves well beyond the confines of seventeenth-century religion. Devotion to the uncouth is a commitment to using art in the service of equality in the world. Christianity promises a transcendent equality after death; Miltonic art demands equality in life. This demand is one of the things that still feels so modern about Milton’s poems: their championing of the quotidian and the non-noble against the pretenses of aristocracy, of those without a name against those who name themselves too much. And so while the word appears in Milton’s poetry only nine times,2 uncouth names a question and possibility at the very center of Miltonic art. The most notorious appearance is the end of Lycidas, when out of nowhere a third-person voice announces that the poem has, apparently all along, been sung by “the uncouth swain” (line 186). This uncouth frame is the realization of the structural core of Lycidus: its effort to represent the uncouth and to let the anonymous speak.

Keywords

Human Condition Force Finger Oxford English Dictionary Paradise Lost Homely Person 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Quotations of Milton are from John Milton: The Major Works, ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). Subsequent references to the poems and the headnote for Lydias will be cited by line number or, for the headnote, page number.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Donald M. Friedman, “Lycidas: The Swain’s Paideia,” in Milton’s Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem, New and Revised Edition, ed. C. A. Patrides (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), 281–302; 284.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Stanley Fish, How Milton Works, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 259.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See Merritt Y. Hughes, ed., A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton, vol. 2, The Minor English Poems, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972): “The passionate desire for fame, like that for knowledge and for beauty, was a characteristic of Renaissance man fully shared by Milton” (662). Balachandra Rajan pulls out some of the political implications of this passionate desire when he argues that the digressions in the poem are probably better thought of as “the attack mounted by the higher mood against the pastoral form” (Balachandra Rajan, “Lycidas: The Shattering of the Leaves,” in Milton’s Lycidzs, ed. Patrides, 267–80, 270)Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Though he does not explicitly consider Lycidas, see in particular David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
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  7. 9.
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  11. 16.
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  13. 27.
    For an eloquent summary of the problem, see J. Martin Evans, The Miltonic Moment (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998): “Milton’s unexpected introduction of a third-person narrator at the end of a first-person poem violates one of the oldest and most fundamental covenants governing the writer’s relationship with his reader: the implicit understanding that the genre of the work will remain constant, that a play will not turn into an epic halfway through, or vice versa” (108).Google Scholar
  14. 30.
    Alexandra Gillespie, “Chaucer and Lydgate in Print: The Medieval Author and the History of the Book” (doctoral thesis, Oxford, 2001);Google Scholar
  15. Annabel Patterson, “Couples, Canons, and the Uncouth: Spenser-and-Milton,” in Reading between the Lines (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 36–54.Google Scholar
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  17. 33.
    See Michael McKeon, “The Pastoral Revolution,” in Refiguring Revolutions: Aesthetics and Politics from the English Revolution to the Romantic Revolution, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 267–89: “Pastoral is a cultural mechanism whose poetic and ideological function is to test the dialectical fluidity of dichotomous oppositions” (272). Pastoral is fluid in the dialectical sense of what Adorno, speaking of Hegel, calls a “dynamic” that is “itself a dynamic of fixed and dynamic elements” (Theodor Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993], 143). The fixed elements are both necessary and constantly betraying their own instability.Google Scholar
  18. 34.
    George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesy: A Critical Edition, ed. Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007): “The poet devised the eclogue long after the other dramatic poems, not of purpose to counterfeit or represent the rustical manner of loves and communication, but under the veil of homely persons and in rude speeches to insinuate and glance at greater matters, and such as perchance had not been safe to have been disclosed in any other sort” (127–28). I take Puttenham’s famous pronouncement as a symptom of a more general anxiety, not a signal of particular political programs hidden in pastoral.Google Scholar
  19. 36.
    William Shakespeare, As You Like It (3.2.11–19) in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. Gwynne Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).Google Scholar
  20. 43.
    See Leah S. Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton (New York: Routledge, 1996), 218;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), 113–38.Google Scholar
  23. 45.
    Lawrence Lipking, “The Genius of the Shore: Lycidas, Adamastor, and the Poetics of Nationalism,” PMLA 111.2 (1996): 205–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Christopher Warley

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