Promiscuous Listening, Episode 1 Transcript

[Music: Courtesy of]  

00:08 Marissa Greenberg (MG)

Welcome to Promiscuous Listening, where we take a cue from John Milton’s 1644 tract Areopagitica and its promotion of reading promiscuously to learn from the diversity of voices in 21st-century Milton studies. My name is Marissa Greenberg, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to my conversations with scholars about the works of John Milton, and especially his epic poem, Paradise Lost.


00:40 MG

The opening stanza of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost begins:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe, / With loss of Eden, till one greater man / Restores and regain the blissful seat, / Sing, heavenly muse. [1.1-6]

This evocation of the poet’s Muse concludes:

What in me is dark / Illumine, what is low raise and support; / That to the height of this great argument / I may assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men. [1.22-26]

A key word repeated throughout this opening stanza is man: “of man’s first disobedience,” “till one greater man,” “justify the ways of God to men.” The men in these lines are more or less nameable. Adam is the man who first disobeyed God. Jesus is the greater man who saves disobedient humanity. And although it’s reasonable to imagine that Milton aspired to poetic endurance like Homer, Virgil, Chaucer and Tasso, the men for whom this poetic justification of God’s ways is primarily written are 17th-century Christians.

Who is and is not included in the category of men in Paradise Lost? This is a crucial question not only in Milton scholarship today, but throughout the epic’s reception history. Throughout this series of podcasts, we will return time and again to gender, sexuality, disability, religion, and race as positionalities that include or exclude readers from Milton’s epic. Of course, there will be few clear lines drawn by the guests on this podcast. Ambiguity, complexity, the tug and push of the poem, drawing us in and repulsing us – these are characteristics of literature that endures because our efforts to make sense of it are bound up with our efforts to make sense of ourselves and our world. Promiscuous listening, like reading promiscuously, is an exciting journey, not for the faint of heart.

To set us on this journey, I’m thrilled to welcome Dr. Reginald A. Wilburn. Dr. Wilburn, would you mind introducing yourself?

02:59 Reginald A. Wilburn (RW)

Sure, well, I am Reginald A. Wilburn. I am an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where I specialize in African American literature. And my research specifically looks at and examines how African American writers throughout literary history sample the works of John Milton, usually Paradise Lost, but not always, in a variety of artistic or what I would call critical, creative ways. And I’m always invested in in trying to understand the how and why that happens in a particular literary work and how to theorize the fragments of those appropriations across a given text.

03:38 MG

Well, that work is definitely something that I’m hoping we can get to in our conversation. But I want to get there by way of some more, I would say, elemental elements of the epic, especially because we’re gonna have a lot of students listening or even just Milton enthusiasts who may hope that our podcast functions a bit like a classroom, so doing some ground laying as it were. Does that sound good to you?

04:10 RW

Sounds fabulous.

04:11 MG

In my introduction to our discussion today, I talked about the references to two men, including Adam and Jesus, in the opening stanza of the poem. And even as Paradise Lost opens with these references, the first book of Milton’s epic is set neither on Earth where we find Adam ultimately, nor in heaven, right? Instead, we the readers are thrust into hell with rebel angels rather than men. And so, I’m wondering, what do you make of that choice to start in hell?

04:45 RW

Well, without knowing the genius of Milton, of why he would do anything, I guess what strikes me is, I guess, to start as Genesis does would be kind of boring. It would be kind of tried and true, the expected. If the goal is to justify the ways of God to men, there’s a certain drama that’s introduced by starting with the story that we perhaps don’t know so well, right? It’s really only mentioned in a snippet in the biblical texts that were given. And so, I think maybe to start elsewhere, if you will, in an abyss or in a hell space, it allows Milton to perform a type of innovative ingenuity in terms of handling a text that we all know so well. And then I think to start in Hell is just dramatic in and of itself, we have all these mysteries, the mind doesn’t know it enough — heaven or hell — doesn’t know it enough to really understand it. And so, I think it gives more poetic license to work with the intrigue of the story. And I guess for me, whether this was conscientious on Milton’s part or not, what I think is interesting, whenever I think about race and Paradise Lost, is Milton is writing in that moment where the English language is becoming dignified as something worthy to be compared alongside Greek and Latin civilization. And so, I’m also cognizant that he’s also writing at a moment where England is definitely engaging in the transatlantic slave trade. And so, if we think about the properties of English, and trying to demonstrate the wealth, the breath, the culture of this once pagan nation in terms of the world stage, what I find interesting is the ways in which troping with blackness and darkness is operating continent with the dehumanizing practice of slave trading. And it seems to me that you almost need language to reify if not justify, right, the heinous crimes against other people. And so, the proliferations of darkness and blackness in this time, in Milton’s writing, I can’t help but wonder if this sort of working with hell and a tradition of blacks being associated with the devils, you already have this landmark, if you will, that is figuratively associated with the darkness and blackness. And so, whether he was actually saying, “ah, Satan is black” is immaterial to me in so much as he is operating within a discourse that already makes readily available those types of associations of subzeroness, baseness, hellishness, demonic, and so we get all of these tropes and figures that are playing themselves out.

07:46 MG

That’s fascinating. And so, if I’m hearing correctly, what you see going on in book one and book two starting in Hell is if the great argument is justifying the ways of God to men, that argument requires the groundwork be the socio-linguistic project that is bound up with these larger histories of slavery and oppression that he will then use for his political and theological project?

08:19 RW

Yes, but perhaps without being conscientiously aware, because I think what’s intriguing me now is, if 50 years prior, no one of nobility would be caught dead speaking English, by the time that Shakespeare and Jonson and all of the writers’ sort of come up in dignified English language, and then Milton excels them all in my mind by the time he writes Paradise Lost and with Paradise Lost, and he’s writing on behalf of his nation, right? And it just seems to me the more that England’s involvement with the slave trade intensifies, you need language to do that work. And so, it’s, it doesn’t seem so coincidental to me that the language is duplicating the practices so that all of these figures of darkness are pejorative, or they’re negative, or, you know, they’re negatively valued. And I almost feel like in that moment, that historical moment, you need language to justify the practices that anyone should understand is not religious or Christian if you will. So, so yes, I don’t know how conscientious that is. I don’t think I want to make that claim. But it just seems to me the socio-linguistic project is just doing what it does because England is trying to move itself out of the darkness, the darkness in scare quotes, the Dark Ages, if you will, to be this global power. And you do that at that time through language, right, and epic Milton doing it with epic, the most noble form of poetry. It doesn’t get any grander than that because the epic, the genre, it is language based, a limited language could never produce an epic, all of the figurative turn all of the different books, the different conventions require an expansive language, the epic similes, right? It requires a language that can demonstrate to the world, the prestige of culture.

10:16 MG

Okay, two thoughts. One epic also requires and creates a national history that is fundamentally about empire building, right, is about conquest through, including through language.




The second thought I had, as you were talking was, I mean, is there a passage in book one that we might look at to illustrate the dynamics that that we’ve been discussing here?

10:46 RW

Sure. Well, I think you know, even as early as the description of Hell in Book One, the whole the darkness, visible passage, if you will, right in the irony of that, right. The paradox of hell being this dark space dark and yet is lightened with visibility to some degree.


I guess maybe on line 61:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round / Is one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible / Served only to discover sights of woe, / Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace / And rest can never dwell, hope never comes / That comes to all; but torture without end / Still urges and a fiery deluge, fed / With ever-burning sulfur unconsumed: / Such place eternal justice had prepared / For those rebellious, here their prison ordained / In utter darkness, and their portion set as far removed from God in light of heaven / As from the center thrice to the utmost pole. [1.61-74]

Right? And so, for me, and I think my interest in an African American reception grew out of the accumulation of what I saw as enslavement imagery throughout the text. And so even in that passage, right, the prison ordained, right, the darkness and being so removed from God, the light, right, is again, this amplification of the darkness of Hell. Despite the irony of its visible, its darkness visible. So, I think the more we go through from that moment, and we begin to see this accumulation of words that are associated with darkness and negativity and the whole infernal angel camp, I think it’s reinforcing what the culture already understood or was projecting about racial otherness, and blackness in particular.

12:42 MG

So, part of my research has been in the history of law and punishment in early modern England and early modern English literature. And so, the early modern punitive and carceral system is different from our own. But do you see something to be drawn from Milton’s language specifically of imprisonment here, and torture, in relationship to histories of race and enslavement? Is there a connection to be made there? Or is this a point where we are invited to see Milton not as our contemporary but as part of a prehistory?

13:21 RW

Yeah, so I guess what’s interesting to me about that is I don’t know what I can say about that relative to Milton’s time, right? In terms of how he was constructing these images. What has always been fascinating to me, and this is what happened in my graduate seminar, the graduate seminar took with Gregory Colon Semenza of UConn, what most caught my attention the first time — not the first time, like the third time that I was reading Paradise Loss, but the first time I was doing so very diligently — I saw the enslavement imagery that just reverberates about books 1 and 2 and I had one of those questions — one of those ridiculous, and I put ridiculous in scare quotes — one of those ridiculous questions with all of this enslavement imaging, and with Satan and these figures of darkness. I just began to wonder what would early African American writers or readers who are reading Paradise Lost? How could they read these books and not immediately think of the enslavement of their own times? Right. And if Satan believes that he is of injured merit, that somehow he was subordinated unjustly or without due cause, and then he rebels and is punished, and we see consonant with that in American literature, right, these continuing notions of America being a type of Paradise that’s fallen, well, there’s not that for African Americans. And so, when I began considering all of those elements, for me, it’s about not so much what Milton may have meant in assembling these constructs; it’s how they were received. And we all know that we may have our own individual intentions around any communicative act, but we can’t control how it’s interpreted. And so, I think what’s fascinating for me is that there are African American readers who, understanding their times and understanding the significance of a work like Paradise Lost, how that can become a talking book, if you will, to speak out against their oppressions. It’s like Satan becomes someone they know in themselves without the taint of the demonic.

15:37 MG

On that note, side by side with Milton’s metalanguage of race around Satan and around Hell, there’s also this glorification right where Satan is presented almost like one of the epic heroes from Homer, Virgil, right. So I’m thinking in particular, the passage for listeners who are following along this is book one starting at line 283: He scarce had ceased when the superior fiend – Beelzebub is the “he” and Satan is “the superior field” –

He scares had ceased when the superior fiend / Was moving toward the shore, his ponderous shield, / Ethereal temper, massy, large and round / Behind him cast. The broad circumference / Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb / Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views / At evening from the top of Fesole / Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands, / Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe. / His spear to equal which the tallest pine / Hewn in Norwegian hills to be the mast / Of some great admiral, were but a wand, / He walked with to support on easy steps / Over the burning marle, not like those steps / On heavens azure, and the toward clime / Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with fire; / Nathless, he so endured till on the beach / Of that inflamed sea, he stood and called his legions… [1.263-301]

I mean, there’s a lot, I mean, I’m not gonna say this is a straightforward praise or glorification of Satan, there’s a lot going on, right? But his steps are uneasy, for example, right, whereas when we get to Paradise Regained, Jesus can stand atop the pinnacle, but here Satan, even with a spire — but even with that said, there is so much heroic language here. So how do you see the relationship between the racialization that is clearly dehumanizing, and this heroic language that would at least seem to be doing the opposite?

17:43 RW

Yeah, yeah. So, I guess from the standpoint of working with race, as I try to understand it, operating in the 17th century, right. Of course, in the big theological picture, we know not to side with Satan, right? So that a lot of this is poetic adornment. It amplifies the hero, the false hero, if you will, according to an orthodox reading of the text. Metaphorically pushing a century and a half later, and thinking about the ingenuity of reception, if you will, it creates an interpretive space for the abject in American culture, to use the poetic license that glorifies an infernal figure as something that can be transubstantiated, if you will, or translated into something positive from the perspective of Black liberation theology and resistance. So that Milton may use this poetic adornment to advance the theological aims of the story. But once it gets metaphorically translated as a replica of Black experience, one, a culture can invest in that, it can work off with the poetic amplification that was used for something else, to sort of speak personally to the culture, right? And so, this sort of gets at the, I guess, the rebelliousness, right, those who would champion, those slaves who would champion becoming fugitives, as a God-sanctioned act. If this is religiously wrong, Satan becomes someone that they can identify with within the lens of slavery, right? And use that metaphor to champion justice and self-emancipation within a gospel that’s already compromised by satanic practices.

19:38 MG

Would you say it’s something similar is going on with — and I’m thinking here about Milton’s references to what might be described by racial otherness that’s not necessarily Africans or those directly involved in the American slave trade, right? So, in book 1, Satan is referred to as a Sultan, right? Yes. And then at the beginning of book 2 that happens again, right? Where we get that travesty of God’s throne in book 3, with Satan sitting atop his hellish throne and here again he’s compared to a king of a quote unquote “heathen nation.” So here, Satan is clearly not European, right? And in that way is being dehumanized and demonized. So, for readers, 19th-century readers and authors in America who are reading Paradise Lost through their and America’s experience of slavery, how do those figures from other parts of the world come in?

20:43 RW

I don’t know. I think that’s an excellent question. I don’t know if I can, could speak authoritatively on that. I think your question reminds me that readers can take or appropriate in snippets. And I definitely feel that’s what’s happening among the different writers in the tradition. And, of course, the writers as a whole operating in that tradition are not monolithic. And so, what resonates for one reader may not for another, right? So, I think there’s this whole other dynamic of how Eve gets appropriated by Black women writers in particular, right. So, like, that’s a whole another strand. And so maybe, by focusing on Eve, Milton’s Eve in particular, there’s a larger understanding of, one, I know this larger text, but I’m doing a particular reading that, while it’s not isolated from the book that we call Paradise Lost, it may not be the matter that matters in a given literary moment. But I think that otherness is marked. Right? It is always already marked, as you say, that’s not being European. So, whether it’s African, or, you know, Islamic, or Muslim, or Arab, you know, or the natives. It’s always signifying, it’s that metalanguage of otherness, right? That you are not white, you are not European, you are not English. So, I think that those markers are there. And even your question also reminded me, I’m also fascinated, I would love to do some examination at some point — when I have time, Lord knows when that will be — but the different countries, the different African countries, Milton names throughout the book, and what is that about? You know, and certainly, that could surface as derivative of, you know, Haklyt and all of the, you know, the travels and dah, dah, dah, but by this period, what is the geographical fascination with continental Africa such that these different countries are named, and they’re not Eden? Right. So, I think all of this is to say, I think all of these markers, mark racial otherness, and to even mark continental Africa, that is signifying a metalanguage of anti-blackness, I would argue.


23:01 MG

One thing that I really appreciate you bringing up in your comments is what we in the biz would refer to as intersectionality. So that adaptation of Paradise Lost, even among Black American writers is not monolithic. And then, as you say, right, different writers are going to kind of focus on different characters or elements or tropes, or whatever the case may be, to engage with this profoundly influential poem, and then make it serve their purposes. Yeah, so that I think, is really important to observe. And I would expect that if we were to bring our discussion into the 20th and 21st century and think about how scholars and writers and visual artists and so many are engaging with Paradise Lost, we would see those variations continue, including among individuals who might identify as Black and Muslim, or, you know, as you say, Black women, there’s a whole variety of ways that I think this poem and its adaptation invites us to continue reading and continue to continue studying.

24:19 RW

Oh, Marissa, like you are tap dancing on my Broadway Melody right now. And I’m sure your students or our students will appreciate this right: how Lil Nas X is even echoing if not troping with, consciously or unconsciously, with Paradise Lost as a poetics of queerness or queerness. Right, in a video from earlier this year “Montero,” where he begins with the whole the Edenic scene, where he’s an Adam without an Eve, who is then seduced by a serpent and then he falls into hell and of course by the end of the video he decapitates Satan and become Satan, right. And then he has the whole marketplacement with the Nike Satan shoes to amplify this video, right, and doing this with lyrics that are really celebrating a persona, who knows who he is sexually, and is willing, “you can call my name, I know that that’s not who you are, you’re sort of on the down low and like, I’m kind of like your adjunct whenever you need a good time, and that I’m cool with that. I know who I am, I know who you are. And this works for me.” And embedding all of that within this queer poetics and playing with paradise, the fallenness of it, and championing Satan as a queer poetics of identity. I think all of that is just so fascinating. So, we’re even in this domain in the 21st century, where you can have a hip-hop artist, and pop culture, channeling Milton. I don’t know to what degree he’s read Paradise Lost. I’m sure that whole team knows the story to some degree. But you can’t even channel the Adam and Eve story and privilege Satan and that not be an echo of Milton, the Milton that you and I know as scholars, right. And as Cheryl Walls talks about in her book, Worrying the Line, that some folk can cite a reference without knowing that they’re citing, right, so speaking of intertextuality, some intertextuality is just so richly abundant. We don’t even know that we are troping with Milton.

26:32 MG

Right! I mentioned at the outset that Milton may have — I’m going to indulge in the speculation of what Milton thought, right? Yeah, I’m going to – it’s podcast, I’m going to indulge. And part of this isn’t indulging, right? Throughout his career, throughout his writings, Milton is trying to set himself up to be an iconic figure whose work will continue to influence generations of writers and artists in the future. And he got what he wanted. Yeah. But I don’t think that many people outside of the community of Milton scholars recognize his influence, right? When people think about “Oh, who gets adapted, right?,” they think Shakespeare. They think Jane Austen. Throw in a little Charles Dickens for good measure. But Milton seems to be this kind of quiet yet really pervasive presence in American literature, and American culture, as well as American political thought. I’m not really sure if I have a question here, other than how do you go about alerting students to this pervasive influence without kind of holding up Milton as some kind of icon in the ways that, you know, Shakespeare has been for the past 400 years and that Shakespeare scholars are trying to tamp down if not pull down? Right, pull down the monument to Shakespeare. How do we celebrate Milton’s accomplishments, right, in a poem like Paradise Lost, acknowledge his influence, without making Milton into the next statue that we need to pull down?

28:16 RW

So, I am of the club, I am of the devil’s party, where I want Milton’s monument to remain erect, I think he is all of that and a bag of salt and vinegar, potato chip. That’s African American vernacular for me. And a lot of it goes back to our earlier conversation. Who decides they’re going to write on behalf of their country and do it better than Shakespeare, or profess to do it better than Shakespeare? And in my mind to succeed? I think what I love about Milton is I love his mastery of an English language, right. The tropes, the terms, the 25-line sentences that are correct, legit, that they are philosophically dense and resistant. They force you to make meaning, to understand. And he can talk about your kinfolk. And by the time you figure it out, after reading it 20 or 30 times, it’s too late to confront him. He knows all of the conventions and genres. But when he grabs a hold of a sonnet, it is a sonnet of we’ve never seen before; when he grabs a hold of epic, right — And so for him to profess this at an early age, and then to do it and stand the test of time, such that even Lil Nas can channel that, is fabulous to me. That is fabulous to me. What kind of mind is that? And if we could teach our students to channel that energy, what grand challenge could not be solved in our own times? And I’m very clear, the cure for racism, the cure for any social ills, the cure for diseases, it’s going to come because we will need individuals whose minds are just that sharp and agile and profound, to dare to profess, iterate and dream, and then produce. And so that’s why, you know, I think Milton doing that at the time that he does it, and he’s still, he’s still alive, in scare quote, to tell it. That’s fabulous. I don’t know too many writers who can do that. And as my colleague Rachel Trubowitz says, he’s the game that can’t be beat. You can’t beat the game of Milton. He’s already thought it, he’ll box you into it, but he knows the answers and we’re trying to figure it out.

30:44 MG

But you know, I’m not going to argue against that.


As you were talking, I latched onto the word bravery. It also takes a certain bravery, I expect, to then respond, to write back to Milton, right? If Milton boxes us in, then what kind of mind does it take to find a way out of the box? Or to change the entire shape of the thing, which is what the writers whom you study are doing, if I’m understanding correctly?

31:19 RW

Yes, yes. Well, that’s what I find fascinating, right. I call Paradise Lost a secular-sacred scripture. Because from a Black perspective, the secular scripture, of course, would be the Bible, right? And so, all of our writings, all of our interpretations, are shot through with bias. And so, when Milton takes liberties with this sacred poem, because otherwise sacred poem but it can’t speak to the religion that was foisted upon Africans that demanded they be servile and obey their masters. There has to be another religious component, and yet there’s an intellect to understand that Milton is the person worth quoting. Right. And of course, Black writers know Shakespeare and they know all of the other writers, but because of Milton’s stature in politics, in literature, in religion, to signify on Milton and to understand this, this allegory as a cultural metaphor for the Black experience, and then to project it back to white readers who believe for the most part that Blacks are three-fifths human, it’s kind of, it’s kind of hard to say to someone, “you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re inferior, you’re intellectually inferior,” when they’re quoting Milton to you, you know. You can quote Shakespeare. And that makes a statement to, but Milton comes with so many more layers of packaging, intellectual packaging. And so, I think, from a Christian perspective, to replay the story of Paradise Lost in a Christian country that professes to be a new city on the hill, a new Jerusalem, if you will, what a striking critique, right. And so, I think, for Black writers to see in that the fallacy, to use literary tradition, and the canon makers that white enslavers revere, or that white American culture reveres, I think it’s sort of recognizing the loophole and the fallacies of judgment and of intellect and of religious doing, that creates the way out to do the subversive work. So yes, that those minds could see into that projected back and record it for 21st-century eyes, I think is it is a heroic feat.

33:40 MG

If you were to recommend a book or a writer with whom someone interested in these subjects might begin, who would you suggest we start with?

33:54 RW

I think, in some ways, Phyllis Wheatley is a great starting point since she’s the first. But it’s kind of challenging because, unique to this tradition with Black writers, they do it in snippets, right? So, it’s not so much that you have these extended passages where you can certifiably look at it and say “yup, that’s Milton, dah, dah dah, dah, dah, dah dah.” Rarely is that done. Rarely is Milton packaged like that. And so, you really have to have a database understanding of Milton. You have to understand the template of the story, I guess, and then see how different poetic instances channel in snippets those pieces. So, a lot of the stuff that I did in my book, I had to do that through snippets and piecing the archives together. And what I love about the project that I’m doing now is it’s based exclusively on fictional works. So even when Francis Harper has a couple of novels where she’s troping with Milton, again, they’re in isolated moments. If you didn’t know it, you drive by and not see it, you keep reading. At one reading moment, she actually quotes a particular text. If you know that it comes from Milton’s political treatises, then you know it, but that’s pretty much it. It’s just sort of this appropriation that’s just there, like making a very local statement. But in the novels, I think, like a novel like Sutton Grigg’s Imperium in Imperio, I think, because it’s a novel, you can begin to see these figures of him conscientiously pairing good against evil, and sort of working with Satan and the angels, right, and what it means to sort of revolt against God. So I think that’s a text. I think the novels that I’m working on now, the one by Charles Chestnut, The House Behind the Cedars, is just fascinating, because it’s kind of buried within the middle of the novel. It’s like, as you’re reading it, I think you’re a questioning reader, “Am I reading too deeply? Or is this really Milton?” And then in the middle of the novel, Milton is named, right, which I think does this fabulous thing for the entire reading experience, both before and after. And there my argument is that the house behind the cedars, it becomes a conceit, a trope throughout the novel, it is continuously named, like maybe 20 times throughout the novel, and I think he is, Chestnut is troping with the bower from Paradise, Adam and Eve’s bower. And it becomes this interesting way to talk about racial passing and the secrecy of race and blackness, right? So, I’m finding in the novels, there’s probably more room for students to really see it without the spot hands-on coaching. And then I think definitely, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Are Watching God to seeing Janie as a reincarnation of Eve, Milton’s Eve is black. And then there’s Toni Morrison’s Paradise, like duh, but, but um, I think when you know the story, and you consider how “lost” is silenced on the title, but then looking at the different dynamics, and even as early as the first chapter, she calls these women, these Black Eves, right. So yeah, I think that those are some really interesting novels to begin, and then maybe you can backtrack into looking at the more isolated snippets and to sort of see how I’ve been threading them in my first book, Appropriating Milton or Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt.

37:25 MG

I mean, please correct me if I’m wrong, but it would also strike me that, in addition to some of the work that a bit blunter about Milton’s, the engagement with Milton, also prepares us, for those of us who don’t necessarily know, the tradition of Black writing in America. You know, maybe some people even need a bit of a history lesson on, you know, the contexts from “The 1619 Project” forward — would some of these texts also, kind of, give perhaps a bit better of a sense of where these writers are coming from, literally.


Yes, yes.


The lived experience that they are drawing on, in addition to, as you say, this profound knowledge of poetry, of the Bible, as well as Milton’s prose, that pushes back against stereotype. It’s also saying, “yes, there is this body of knowledge that is yours — you know, quote, unquote, yours — that is now mine.” But there’s also the knowledge that comes from living in a hostile world, in a particular body that is racialized and gendered and the ways in which those histories come together with Milton to form something new.

38:48 RW

Yes, yes, I agree.

38:52 MG

Well, thank you. This has been an amazing conversation. Were there any, were there any topics that you wanted to talk about that we haven’t had a chance to touch on?

39:03 RW

Not so much topics, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, I think, you know, particularly for our students, and hopefully, for any faculty who are listening, I think Milton throughout history kind of comes and goes. I think we are in a moment where his writings are so salient to the present times. And I can’t help but think when all of us are aware of how there’s a culture that’s always willing to defame the worth, significance, value of the humanities, and the liberal arts in general. And I say for those students, particularly our liberal arts students, and our humanities majors, our English majors, who care about having a life of purpose and transforming it for the better: Literature is where it’s at. Literature is lit. It is the vocabulary, we become leaders because of words and our ability to conceive and, I think, I just want, we don’t do enough messaging, I think. And we don’t get enough shine. And beyond the academic walls of why the work we do matters, why is it important to read and to critique, and to master the language and to transform it. And so, I think, you know, the only topic that I’d want to make sure that we put out there is to keep encouraging our students, that this is a good work, and you can do anything, there is no career where the skill sets we train, and educate you to master, would not be an asset. And that’s just in the domain of careers. I like to tell my students, given all of the skill sets that we produce as literary scholars, who would not want us in their lives? We are leaders, we are counselors, we are confidants, we are empathic, right? We are iterators, we are creative, we could see and hear around corners. Any a social cluster that you find yourself in, I think we would be an asset. I know that we’d be an asset. And I think Milton is a model for exemplifying that.

41:08 MG

Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Yeah, even though there are certainly times when I hate Milton, with a fiery passion, I will say. He does demonstrate the kind of work that you’re describing, right? He uses language, not only to critique, but to take action, right? They may not always be actions with which we, as 21st-century readers, agree, right? I’m not gonna say that I’m totally on board with his version of the right to divorce but, you know, the ways in which he takes his mastery of language and uses it in the service of, for example, pedagogical reform and political liberty. However much I am not simply suspicious but rejecting of the myth of meritocracy, right, the idea that Milton seems to really believe it, right, if you study hard enough, right, so he not to say that he is a perfect model. But in terms of as you were saying, like what we as readers, as writers, who can understand and communicate with language, Milton does offer some really powerful inspiration, I think, for all of us.

42:41 RW

Yes. And Marissa, you know, as you’re saying, you’re also reminding me that to hold him up as a model for good, bad, or indifferent, I don’t think is a disservice. Because in that he is not perfect, he’s no more perfect than we are, right? And so, when we look into ourselves, and we look at where, you know, where we are now, with gender and pronouns is not where we were when I started graduate school. And so we’ve had to grow and assume new habits and new political perspectives. So, we’re just as flawed as Milton but just in different ways. And I think if we can hold up a mirror to ourselves, it humbles us, which doesn’t mean we can’t have the critiques that we have of Milton — God knows I have mine. But when we do that, we have to also look at our shortcomings too and in that we are just as human as he is. Maybe not as sublime but we just as human.

43:38 MG

Well, that seems like a perfect note on which to conclude thank you again so very much. This has been an absolute pleasure.

43:47 RW

Great. Thank you. Same here and and kudos to you for doing this fabulous archival work and podcasting work. This is just outstanding.


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