Milton’s Distaste for Monarchs

John Milton wrote Paradise Lost (1674) after living in England’s political and religious turmoil preceding the Restoration in 1660, and accordingly the epic is rife with pointed statements and governmental critiques. Though his stance varied slightly throughout his life, Milton’s theology and politics primarily leaned toward Puritanism, especially for the replacement of the monarchy with a free commonwealth (Roberts). Milton was, therefore, an ardent supporter of the English revolution and mourned when the crown was restored to Charles II.  In many ways, his desires for no monarchy, especially one given authority through the church, are reflected in Paradise Lost. Although his epic is an extension of a Bible story, it is much more than that, for he criticizes both God’s authority in heaven and Satan’s in hell.

Milton begins his political statements with Book 1, when, speaking of Satan, he writes “and with ambitious aim/Against the throne and monarchy of God/Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud with vain attempt” (Greenblatt 1947). While one might initially read these lines as a critique of Satan’s actions, upon further scrutiny they appear sympathetic of Satan. Perhaps Milton can relate to Satan’s attempts at a Revolution. Furthermore, the subsequent lines–“Him the Almighty Power/Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/With hideous ruin and combustion down/To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/In adamantine chains and penal fire,/Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms” (1947)–do not act as a justification of God’s booting Satan out, but rather lead the reader to feel sorry for Satan. Surely just questioning God’s omnipotence did not deserve such an agonizing fate, the reader is prompted to ponder.

Satan’s speech after his painful fall is similarly compelling. “Is this the region, this the soil, the clime/ . . . this the seat/That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom/For that celestial light? Be it so, since he/Who now is sov’reign can dispose and bid/What shall be right” (Greenblatt 1951-2). Satan appears genuinely despairing of his forced relocation, and, again, an audience is not led into fearing or disliking Satan but instead questions God’s actions. By rewriting a biblical account that typically goes unquestioned, Milton warns readers against the dangers of unlimited power. Obviously Milton isn’t literally proposing support of Satan, but he is, it seems, craftily disguising a political critique of a single monarch as ruler, especially one given so much power with the church.

Interestingly, this sympathetic portrayal of Satan does not appear to extend past the first book, and definitely not through the poem’s entirety. The shift occurs after the second book, and perhaps this is because Satan sets up his own kingdom in hell. Milton criticized God’s unchecked actions, and, similarly, he no longer sympathizes with Satan after he establishes himself as monarch of hell. Satan, “whom now transcendent glory raised/Above his fellows, with monarchal pride/Conscious of highest worth,” is acting no differently than the God of Milton’s critique in book 1 (Greenblatt 1973). Like the lines referring to God in book 1, Milton again pointedly references a monarch or monarchy, and in the rest of the epic, Milton pens Satan as cunning and fiendish, a much different approach than the tortured Satan of book 1.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is wholly political and reflects his own distaste for the English monarchy. Ultimately, Milton communicates that a single ruler takes away the rights of his or her subjects. This is shown first through his telling of God’s rejection of Satan, and the point is reenforced when Satan’s downfall does not occur with his fall from heaven but, rather, with his establishment of a monarchy in hell.

Works Cited
Roberts, Gabriel. “Milton’s Political Context.” Darkness Visible.


Transforming Traditional Forms.

An integral part of 16th century British Literature is the sonnet, and two of the biggest contributors to English sonnets were Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. One cannot overlook the roles played by Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and Drayton, just a few names whose innovations made long-lasting impacts on sonnet writing, but Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey paved the way for other sonneteers.

As Renaissance humanism spread across Europe from Italy, 16th century England did not hold today’s global prominence, and English was not popular like in today’s world. Accordingly, there was much Italian influence on English writers and thinkers, and one of those influences was Petrarch, a 14th century Italian scholar, whose sonnets served as models for many 16th century poets. When Wyatt began translating Petrarch’s sonnets to English, he made a “move with momentous consequences for English poetry”; “Wyatt introduced into English the sonnet, a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a complex, intertwining rhyme scheme” (Greenblatt 647). Though Wyatt’s translations maintained Petrarch’s content, he began playing with form. Whereas a Petrarchan sonnet is characterized by an octave with the rhyme scheme abba abba followed by six lines with various rhyme schemes, Wyatt follows Petrarch’s octave with a different sestet, usually cddc ee (Greenblatt 647). Wyatt introduces the concept of playing with a poetic form, and he does something that all 16th century sonneteers strive to do: he emulates a classic while still creating his own space within the poetic realm.

The Earl of Surrey, who was friends with Wyatt and probably very familiar with his form, similarly established distance from his classical model. “Surrey established a form . . . that was used by Shakespeare and that has become known as the English sonnet” (662). This form is characterized by iambic pentameter and a rhyming quatrain and couplet of the scheme abab cdcd efef gg. He was also the first poet to write in blank verse, so in his innovations of the sonnet and poetry in general, he was ground breaking. Again, like Wyatt, Surrey used classical continental poets as models but then turned to his own skill to make changes in form, creating distance from his models.The Norton Anthology tells us that, ultimately, this was the aim of 16th century sonnet writers: “though they understood themselves to be the heirs of a powerful poetic achievement, they needed to make it seem that they were not merely following in the wake of the great Italian, or of anyone else” (Greenblatt 1002).

While there are many moments in literary history in which authors wish to throw away tradition, this period is characterized by grace and expertise. When I think of 20th century literature, both British and American, a period also recognized for its literary innovations, I sense some desperation, a reckless and sometimes bitter abandonment of tradition. In contrast, 16th century Brit Lit feels much more refined, like transforming existing structures into something more beautiful and technical rather than turning backs on convention.

Allegory and Holiness in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene

According to M.H. Abrams, “an allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which the agents and actions, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived by the author to make coherent sense on the ‘literal,’ or primary, level of signification, and at the same time to communicate a second, correlated order of signification” (7).  Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene fits into this category because it communicates a love story, specifically the adventures of the knight Red Cross, while also relaying deeper moral and political messages. 

As Spenser’s allegory progresses, he uses very intentional language to communicate to readers his underlying message. For example, Red Cross, the poem’s protagonist, is thusly named because “on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,/The deare remembrance of his dying Lord” (Greenblatte 782). Red Cross and his quest are emblematic of a Christian’s penultimate pursuit, that of holiness. Accordingly, Red Cross faces various trials throughout book one of The Faerie Queene, trials that are physical in nature but with names that give them a parallel spiritual significance. This occurs first when Red Cross and his “lovely Ladie,” Una, happen upon the cave of bast named Errour. Una warns him, “the perill of this place I better wot then you . . . This is the wandring wood, this Errours den, A monster vile, whom God and man does hate” (Greenblatte 785). Red Cross, though, is “full of fire and greedy hardiment,” and enters the cave anyway.

If Red Cross stands for the Christian on a journey after holiness, his hubris in entering the dangerous cave despite a warning is Spenser’s way of pointing to the perils of pride. However, because Red Cross defeats Errour and her offspring, it seems that Spenser is also encouraging a sort of divine boldness. One cannot necessarily say that meeting Errour is inevitable, since Red Cross could’ve chosen not to enter the cave, but Red Cross’s success despite his pride shows that Red Cross has divine support. Spenser, then, simultaneously sets Red Cross up as a lesson and an ideal, warning his audience against pride but also teaching that when one is pursuing holiness, error–or Errour–will be overcome because of a divine backing. It is Red Cross’s human error that draws him into the cave with Errour, but he is ultimately given the strength to defeat the villain.

Another example of the moral lessons behind Spenser’s tale can be found in Canto 4, when they come upon the “sinfull house of Pride,” in which the “proud Lucifera” parades her six beasts, “sluggish Idlenesse,” “loathsome Gluttony,” “lustfull Lechery,” “greedy Avarice,” “malicious Envie,” and “cruell Wrath” (Greenblatt 817, 20, 22-25). Lucifera’s name leads the reader to associate her with Satan, and when Red Cross discovers bodies in the basement of those who did not have the power to leave the palace, it’s clear that Spenser is using this house to reveal the dangers of unholiness. This is further evidenced by the palace’s appearance, which is “full of faire windowes, and delightful bowres” but “did on so weake foundation ever sit” (Greenblatt 818). The palace is visually beautiful but with a shaky foundation, one that will not last, a lesson that is similar to biblical perspectives on material wealth. Because he represents holiness, Red Cross flees the palace.

The various trials that Red Cross and Una face during book 1 of The Faerie Queene ultimately communicate that a pursuit of holiness is not simple, but rife with distractions and temptations. Red Cross and Una are defended by a lion the entire way, representing divine help, but their journey is still a difficult one. Their decisions are not always perfect, and their knowledge is limited, but they are given the tools they need to succeed.

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage, 2012.

The Significance of Sir Philip Sidney.

In his “The Defense of Poesy,” Sir Philip Sidney sets out to justify poetry to his audience, specifically Puritan Stephen Gosson, whose attack on poetry in his The School of Abuse is thought to have at least partially inspired Sidney’s defense (Greenblatt 1044). Sidney justifies poetry by arguing that it is not only the basis of all other learning, but it is also more free than all other learning, “ranging only within the zodiac of [the poet’s] own wit” (Greenblatt 1050). According to Sidney, poetry is significant because of its historical role, providing a basis for future philosophy and history, “so that truly neither philosopher nor historiographer could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgments if they had not taken a great passport of poetry, which in all nations at this day where learning flourisheth not, is plain to be seen; in all which they have some feeling of poetry” (Greenblatt 1047). Sidney goes onto to cite the poet “as prophet and creator,” referencing the Roman label of vates, “which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet” (Greenblatt 1048). Sidney answers the charges against poetry and then concludes by saying:

So that since the ever-praiseworthy Poesy is full of virtue-breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since lastly, our tongue is most fit to honor poesy, and to be honored by poesy. (Greenblatt 1082)


While Sidney penned his defense in order to justify poetry, his statements are more important today because of what they tell readers about the context surrounding his writing. Throughout Sidney’s writing, one finds many references to ancient Greece and Rome and various ancient poets and mythologies with which he constructs his defense. The fact that Sidney sees these classics as providing the basis for a worthy counter argument, like the one he is penning, shows their esteemed status. For Sidney and his intellectual audience, it is enough to point to poetry rooted in a classical past; for this audience, with those roots poetry receives its validation.

Furthermore, the need for this defense of poetry at all hints at the beginning of a new audience, or at least a new role for literature. Whereas it had previously been limited to the court and used for court entertainment, we see that it begins to serve a political purpose of promoting a certain agenda–in this case Stephen Gosson’s Puritan one and then an anti-Puritan one with Sidney’s reply. The way in which Sidney constructs his response, though, with his very refined language and classical cross-references, makes it clear that his audience is still primarily composed of England’s literate upperclass, composing of court and church officials. So while we see new political sophistication, with literature serving a powerful purpose, we do not yet see the widespread access to literature and the working class audience that comes with the 18th century.

Ian Watt, Chapter 1.

The emergence of the novel is an important part of 18th century British literature. While I’ve already devoted a few posts to discussing its rise and formation, here is a final post devoted specifically to the first chapter of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1957). While the entire book was seminal in relaying the many factors that contributed to the novel’s production, the first chapter alone is a very enlightening discussion of the philosophical underpinnings.

Watt begins his chapter by explaining that early English novels had very little in common. Authors experimenting with form produced works that were very dissimilar, hardly distinguishable as novels by today’s standards. However, Watt also communicates that the underlying similarity that connects these early novels is their realism. Watt tells us that not only is “Moll Flanders . . . a thief, Pamela a hypocrite, and Tom Jones a fornicator,” but moreover the novels “attempt to portray all the varieties of the human experience, and not merely those suited to one particular literary perspective: the novel’s realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents is” (11). Despite the various techniques and forms used by early novelists, this realism is an identifiable trait of them all. And much of this realism was founded in Descarte and Locke philosophy regarding the individual experience instead of the universal. Emphasis on individual experience is significant in shaping the novel, because while previous literary forms were based on history or fable, communicating large, cultural meta-narratives, for the novel “primary criterion was truth to individual experience–individual experience which is always unique and therefore new” (Watt 13). Rightly named, the novel was the literary vehicle for telling these new and individualized tales.

Watt continues by explaining that, though they used sundry techniques to do so, early English novelists did away with traditional plots. Defoe, for example, ignored the plot forms of Middle Ages literature and instead organized his plot by writing the plausible actions of his protagonists (Watt 14). Furthermore, in making stories individual, plots had to be acted out by specific characters, not general people types as had previously been done. Characters were given individual identities through individual names, with novelists naming characters in “exactly the same way as particular individuals are named in ordinary life” (Watt 18). While characters in previous literature were often given proper names, authors weren’t using the names to create distinct entities. According to Watt, “the early novelists, however, made an extremely significant break with tradition, and named their characters in such a way as to suggest that they were to be regarded as particular individuals in the contemporary social environment” (Watt 19). No longer were characters universal or general; rather, they were given individual names and personalities that often paralleled the lives of readers.

Another innovation of early novelists is their use of time. While early narratives relied on a sort of timelessness of plot, the novel sees past actions as influences on the present. This causal connection provides at least some cohesion to the somewhat wild plots. Also providing some framework for the novels was a description of space, details of the historical or physical setting. Some novels provided details of landscape, some of the interiors of houses, others of nature or dilapidated houses (for the Gothic novel), but nonetheless all included these details that were a definite break from tradition.

Descriptions of time, space, and names are all ways in which early English novelists created individualized plots and characters. While early novels were very dissimilar, they are connected in their breaking from Middle Ages traditions of reality being communicated through universal truths. Instead, early English novelists told the very particulars of the human experience.

Link to Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel:

Restoration and 18th Century Theatre.

When the crown was restored to Charles II, English theatre was reopened and discovered new life, producing many comedies, like Sir George Etherege’s The Man of mode, William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, Aphra Behn’s The Rover, William Congreve’s Love for Love and The Way of the World, and George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem. According to the Norton anthology, “these ‘comedies of manners’ pick social behavior apart, exposing the nasty struggles for power among the upper class, who use wit and manners as weapons” (Greenblatt 2199).  Plots usually feature human nature at its worst, with men fighting for women, money, and pleasure. The ideal is presented as a “favored couple . . . [with] true wit and well-bred grace . . . [to] step through the minefield of the plot” (Greenblatt 2199). These comedies, then, use satire and wit as a critique, but one that is light and funny, exposing and poking fun rather than calling for reform.

One of the most popular playwrights of the Restoration Era was John Dryden, who began by writing poetry but wrote plays between 1664 and 1681 (Greenblatt 2208). Whereas Shakespeare’s audience had been fairly heterogenous, Dryden wrote to please an audience drawn primarily from the court, and “in the style of the time, he produced rhymed heroic plays, in which incredibly noble heroes and heroines face incredibly difficult choices between love and honor” (2208). Dryden also later wrote text for operas, another newly emerging form.

In contrast to the comedies and heroic dramas of Restoration theatre, 18th century drama took a more serious turn. As the audience widened in the 18th century with the emergence of new literary forms, English theater adapted accordingly, with wit being replaced by sentimentality. In these new sentimental dramas, “goodness triumphs over vice.” Furthermore, they “deal in high moral sentiments rather than witty dialogue and . . . embarrassments of [their] heroines and heroes move the audience not to laughter but to tears” (Greenblatt 2200). Virtue is ultimately victorious, like in Steele’s The Conscious Lovers, in which “the hero would rather accept dishonor than fight a duel with a friend” (Greenblatt 2200). With this sentimentality, we see the stage being set for the Romantics and their emphasis on nature and the sublime.

a widening audience.

With today’s accessibility to literature in many forms, it’s at first difficult to understand the significance of the wider audience that accompanies the 18th century. But, when considering the previous constraints on literature, both its production and reception, it’s easier to understand the important role of 18th century audience changes.

Previously, literature had been limited to royal settings, with writers being sponsored by the royal family, members of the court, or society’s elite.  With writers like Samuel Johnson, however, we see that it becomes possible for a person to make a career out of writing, something that was not previously possible. Furthermore, with the increased number of publishers in London alone, it is clear that the demand for literature was growing.

The increased publishers made it possible for authors to survive on writing, and the new, broader audience supplied the increased demand for literature. A more urban and literature population meant more of England’s middle class is reading. The audience wasn’t limited to England’s middle class, but also included the working class. As England’s economy boomed, more people, especially women, were hired as household servants. With their salaries and the newfound lending libraries and publishing houses, they could access literature, contributing to the demand.

With England’s wealthy economy, its infrastructure also improved. Accordingly, a new highway system was introduced, making in-country travel more feasible. These highways contributed to the literary production because they allowed for the spread of literature, they enabled rural Englanders access to literature housed in cities, and they provided rural authors with access to urban publishing houses.

A wider audience and the rise of the novel are closely tied together, because the increased demand led to an increase in money generated from sells, which worked together to give authors the space to play with new forms. As novels were generated, the audience continued to grow, and as the new forms attracted more people, literacy continued to rise.