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Milton and Hope: The Structure of a Feeling in the English Revolution


"Raphael Warns Adam and Eve" Illustrations to Milton's "Paradise Lost", William Blake, 1808. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Date: Thursday August 14, 2014
Time: 6:30 to 7:30 pm
Venue: McMahon Ball Theatre, Old Arts Building, The University of Melbourne
Presenter: Nigel Smith, Princeton University

‘Hope’ is treated thoroughly and theorized in Paradise Lost. In contradistinction to the deliberate exclusion of hope from Dante’s hell, Milton’s recently fallen angels debate their range of options with the intention of regaining lost hope, and enforced by an evident residue of hope. Perhaps this is a false surmise (after all, Satan explicitly repudiates hope at IV.108), or perhaps it is Milton refusing to acknowledge the Augustinian premise that evil excludes hope. Such a view chimes with William Empson’s dramatic comparison of the fallen angels’ plight with those of the feelings of prisoners of war. Only when God’s logic asserts itself - that the temptation and fall of man is finally a demonstration of His love because man will be redeemed and Satan defeated – only then do we see demonic despair without hope and the way is clear for the Satan of Paradise Regained. Adam and Eve recover from despair after the Fall by understanding that through repentance they can have hope, an understanding that is apparently seeded by elements of grace placed in mankind to protect them from the consequences of the Fall, but one that has for some commentators made the Son’s atonement, the usual foundation of Christian hope, seem unnecessary.

Hobbes defined hope as ‘appetite’ and as such a passion to be controlled by the sovereign power. Perhaps a Hobbesian reading of Paradise Lost is one appreciative of Milton’s unusual approach. I’ll be discussing Milton’s treatment of hope in his prose as well as his poetry and placing it in the context of theological and philosophical tradition, not only theological (and anti-theological) republicanism, but also other popular and elite political and legal theories. I’ll discuss the view that Milton’s understanding of hope was connected etymologically and affectively with place: the human (and apparently angelic) need for land possession or belonging. I’m also interested in how significant literary tradition and literary theory was for Milton’s ethics as well as his prosody, and how we deploy Miltonic knowledge today.

Nigel Smith is currently William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Princeton University.  He is co-Director of the Center for the Study of Books and Media at Princeton, to which he came from the University of Oxford, England, in 1999. He has published mostly on early modern literature, especially the seventeenth century; his work is interdisciplinary by inclination and training. His interests have included poetry; poetic theory; the social role of literature; literature, politics and religion; literature and visual art; heresy and heterodoxy; radical literature; early prose fiction; women's writing; journalism; censorship; the early modern public sphere; travel; the history of linguistic ideas. The authors he has covered include Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Hobbes, Margaret Cavendish, Katherine Philips.  His major works are Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (Yale UP, 2010; pbk 2012), a TLS 'Book of the Year' for 2010, Is Milton better than Shakespeare? (Harvard UP, 2008), the Longman Annotated English Poets edition of Andrew Marvell's Poems (2003, pbk 2007), a TLS 'Book of the Year' for 2003, Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660 (Yale UP, 1994) and Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford UP, 1989). He has also edited the Journal of George Fox (1998), and the Ranter pamphlets (1983; revised edn. 2013), and co-edited with Nicholas McDowell The Oxford Handbook of Milton (Oxford UP, 2009, pbk 2011).