Life and Writings of John Milton

Course No. 305
Professor Seth Lerer, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
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Course No. 305
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Course Overview

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.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction to Milton's Life and Art
    This introductory lecture places Milton's life and work in the contexts of the poet's own wide reading, his remarkable political life, and the contemporary events and institutions which shaped both Milton's public and imaginative worlds. It calls attention to the immense learning Milton brought to all his activities, while at the same time surveying the central social upheavals that marked 17th-century England. We will look closely at the inner narrative of Paradise Lost. x
  • 2
    Milton's Early Poetry
    This lecture focuses on two of Milton's early poems, which foreshadow major themes and idioms for all his major writings. The stanzaic hymn of praise, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," written in 1629, is widely recognized as his first major English poem. The second poem is "Ad Patrem" ("To His Father"), written in Latin sometime between 1632 and 1638. These poems also stand as statements of what it means to be a poet in the world. x
  • 3
    The pastoral elegy called "Lycidas"—written in 1638—is universally regarded as the poet's first truly great poem. With its form taken from the classical elegy, its theme bearing on the nature of life and death, and its dazzling rhetorical displays, "Lycidas" has long been the benchmark of the Miltonic in literary study. For a poem of less than 200 lines with such a reputation bears witness to Milton's powers of compression and expression. This lecture introduces the student to "Lycidas:" its forms, its themes, its language, and its place in Milton's literary career. x
  • 4
    Political Milton
    This lecture surveys some of Milton's writings on political and social issues. The prose tract Aereopagitica (1645) remains a major statement on the need for a free press and on the pitfalls of censorship. We can see Milton struggling with the problems of patronage and power: problems that look back to his earliest reflections in the "Ad Patrem" and look forward to his struggle not with a literal or a political father, but a divine one, in Paradise Lost. x
  • 5
    Paradise Lost—An Introduction
    Paradise Lost is so rich, vast, and long, it can be approached in many ways. Our goal in this lecture is to inspire the student to read and appreciate the texture of Milton's language and to organize his or her responses along some key lines in Milton's larger literary project. The lecture also seeks to define Milton's epic technique, his notions of history, and some guidelines for a personal, individual experience of reading the poem. x
  • 6
    Paradise Lost, Book I
    This lecture surveys the sweep of Book I of Paradise Lost to explore how Milton creates both his great poetic voice and Satan's great malevolent control. It looks closely at the techniques of Milton's verse to see how he creates a world out of language. And it looks in detail at a clutch of individual words that will distill the tensions and the argumentative and literary effects of Milton's poetry. x
  • 7
    Paradise Lost, Book II
    Book II of Paradise Lost takes us from the political arguments of Hell through the weird and horrific journey Satan makes on his way to Earth. This lecture seeks to explain Book II as part of Milton's encounter with the past. It also shows how Milton exposes the inherent sexuality in allegorical romance, and in the process, how Milton effectively criticizes his poetic forebears. x
  • 8
    Paradise Lost, Book III
    Book III of Paradise Lost represents Milton's attempt to imagine the language of Heaven. Milton offers up a God, a Son, and a set of angels who speak. In so doing, he imagines the speech of unfallen individuals, and furthermore reflects on the nature of his own literary project. When the Son offers himself up to God as the redeemer of Mankind, he becomes something of a hero himself, and his heroic enterprise contrasts sharply with Satan's journey as we have seen it. x
  • 9
    Book IV—Theatrical Milton
    Book IV of Paradise Lost is perhaps the most poetically rich and critically challenging of all the poem's books. Among the questions Book IV asks are: What is the place of human artifice in describing the artistry of divine creation? How does Satan function as "artificer of fraud"? What does it mean to put a woman on the stage: that is, to place Eve as the central character in this drama of the Fall? x
  • 10
    Book IX—The Fall
    There are many ways to understand the Fall of Man. One way is to see it as Eve's tale; Book IV had placed Eve at the center of a complex and potentially already fallen Eden. Books V–VIII are where Adam is instructed in the nature of creation and the future of humankind. It is a story of amazement: of being trapped in a maze, of being astonished at the power of Satanic language, of being awed at Milton's poetry, of being struck by the profound consequences of the moral choice made by Adam. x
  • 11
    Late Milton—Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes
    Late in life, Milton devoted himself to two extended meditations on the nature of scriptural history and the closure of his own literary career. Paradise Regained offers in the epic language of Paradise Lost a story of Jesus' encounter with Satan. Samson Agonistes is a long poem in the form of a tragic play that retells the biblical story of its hero. But in its focus on Samson's blindness, and its emphases on certain images and idioms from Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes becomes another major landmark in Milton's autobiographical journey. x
  • 12
    Milton's Living Influence
    Almost immediately after its publication, Paradise Lost achieved canonical status in English literature. Milton's impact on the literature and culture of the English-speaking world is second perhaps only to Shakespeare and the King James Bible. This lecture traces the key moments in Milton's reception and transformation. We read him today for his grandeur, his eloquence, his anger, his brilliance, and his sweep of mind. x

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Your professor

Seth Lerer

About Your Professor

Seth Lerer, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
Dr. Seth Lerer is the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. Before taking this position, he was the Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He also taught at Princeton University, Cambridge University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Lerer earned his B.A. from Wesleyan University, a second B.A....
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Life and Writings of John Milton is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 31.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview Worthwhile, if too short. The instructor provides insight into Milton's life and works. I would have liked more discussion of Milton's historical context. He interprets a lot of Milton's poetry biographically, with focus on Milton's relationship with various "fathers." The lectures on "Paradise Lost" are very good; I have read several attempts to link the poem to colonization and Lerer's is the most convincing. As other reviewers have said, more lectures on "Paradise Lost" would improve the course.
Date published: 2020-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from John Milton, step-father of my intellectual life I bought this course for a song and a dance about 2 weeks ago and found it very easy to listen to. When I was many years younger I began my life with books and ideas reading Shakespeare. I read out-loud to myself in an isolated attic discovering to my amazement that the stammer from which I suffered was not organic. Shakespeare taught me that I do indeed have a voice, smooth and continuous like a mathematical function. John Milton followed soon thereafter and his words seemed to me just as majestic and filled that attic room of mine with sweet auditory delights, well at least to me it seemed so. I call him my literary step-father picking up on the theme Prof. Lerer expressed in the lectures, fathers and sons. Shakespeare would be my first inspiration and Milton my second. Prof. Lerer has a talent of presentation that I have not encountered before in my studies, and I can recommend this series of lectures only with the highest praise and regard. Buy it, listen to it, follow along in the text if you have a copy, and be wonderfully entertained and engaged as I was.
Date published: 2019-08-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from None Wished it Longer Than it is Dr. Johnson’s off-repeated quote on “Paradise Lost” and also my view of this course. I had purchased this course both because it was on sale and also because I quite liked Professor Lerer’s course on Chaucer, but not because I was a fan of Milton. And perhaps my dislike of an enforced reading of “Paradise Lost” colors my overall rating. Still, for all of Dr. Lerer’s passionate and well-reasoned praise of Milton and his importance and influence in English Letters, I remain unconvinced. Even so there was plenty of content in these lectures for me to be able to recommend the course, especially if you are a fan of Milton. And even if you are not, there is much to be learned from Professor Lerer not only about Milton, but also about the many other personalities of the day. As an example, I was especially interested in his lecture on Milton’s influence on Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and therefore on subsequent SciFi. But as Dr. Lerer often points out, many do not like (or even heartily dislike) Milton, but none can deny his influence.
Date published: 2017-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course But too Short This was an excellent course, and I liked Seth's presentation -- both substance and style. My only criticism is that at 12 lectures, this series is too short. I would have liked more Paradise Lost, which gets a somewhat truncated treatment here. Especially good was the situation of Milton in his political context and how his political ideas seeped into and informed his poetical works. I bought Seth's course on Chaucer, which I might listen to soon. The one downside for me was that my CD player fell into my hot tub while I was listening to lecture 4....that's just a cautionary tale to be careful.
Date published: 2017-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative! Listening to this series of lectures really helps with understanding the Book "Paradise Lost." I found it most helpful and the Professor is very passionate in teaching about John Milton's works. I started listening to an audio version of "Paradise Lost" and the story teller is very good, but I wanted to understand the words more and what they meant in the old language. A friend told me about the lectures so I purchased them. You will not be disappointed in listening to the lectures first if you are reading John Milton's works.
Date published: 2016-11-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Profeessionaly done Good coverage both historical and detail. It was helpful to get a view of the times and the family background
Date published: 2016-07-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Justified enlightenment First off...I recommend these lectures and the material covered despite the '3' rating. Buy it, when it goes on deep discount. I first encountered Milton in a survey of English Lit in my first year of college...liked his story (blind guy dictates an incredibly intricate poem to his daughters)...but hated his blank-verse poetry. In addition, to understand his poetry, one needed to be (very) well versed in the deep history of his allusionary characters and obscure words, AND be able to pass the weekly quizzes (that counted for 30% of your grade). Did I root for the devil in Book 2 & 9? Youbetcha! As Dr Lerer says: "God is repetitious, Satan is allusive. Put another way (as we will see thematically in the course of the poem), God is an author, Satan is a reader." And since we all like to read.... But I digress...Dr Lerer proves himself to be the quintessential spokesman for Milton and presents each lecture with unbounded enthusiasm. He clearly know and loves Milton's works and is simply brilliant in some of the resuscitation from Milton's poems. Nobody does Milton better. However, (and you knew this was coming) I have to agree with old Sam Johnson when he said: "noone wished it longer." I tried and retired to read even the good parts of 'Paradise Lost'...and utterly failed, despite the clear explanations from the lectures. Milton simply uses too many words...words that I am continually having to look-up. To sum...I'm of two minds with these lectures. First, I learned a lot about the context of Milton's works and in turn the meaning that heretofore may have been elusive...he was a very smart dude. Second, I cannot read 'Paradise Lost', no matter how hard I try. I got through 'Lycidas' and found it enjoyable. Others have said that 'Samson Agonistes' is a good read (I'll try that one...later). When considering purchase be reminded that..."They also serve who only stand and wait." You'll be rewarded (especially if you have a coupon).
Date published: 2016-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Buy This Course I absolutely love this course! The professor's passion for Milton clearly comes through and you will walk away with a profound love for Milton as I have after listening to the lectures and reading Milton's work first hand. Instead of just telling you about the text, Professor Lerer gives you primary source material while providing background info and a solid understanding of the text. I only wish this were a much longer course with a lecture for each book of Paradise Lost.
Date published: 2016-06-18
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