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Milton and the Poetics of Freedom

by Susanne Woods

Publication Year: 2013

In our contemporary Western culture, “freedom” is a powerful term with elastic meanings and contradictory uses; it has both driven rebellion and justified empire. John Milton’s world, like our own, struggled to understand freedom within what was already considered a heritage of political and personal liberty, compounded in the seventeenth century by theological questions of freedom. In this important new study, Susanne Woods reveals Milton’s central place in the evolution both of ideas of freedom in English-speaking culture and in creating a poetics that invites readers to enact the freedom Milton defines. For Milton, we find, freedom is fundamentally about human choice; God gave humankind genuine free will, with reason and the light of conscience to enable choice. True freedom comes from who one is, formed and asserted by the choices one makes. This is true for the reader as well as for the author, Milton believed, and the result is what Woods terms an “invitational poetics.” By locating freedom in thoughtful choice, in other words, Milton must offer his reader opportunities to consider alternatives, even to his own well-argued positions. In six chapters, Woods examines these invitational poetics on several levels: as they develop in Milton’s prose and early poetry, in theory as well as practice; as they are expressed within prose sentences and lines of poetry through choices of diction and syntax; and as they inform character, plot, and genre. Chapter 1 connects Milton’s most famous statement about his ongoing interest in liberty with debates that preceded him. Chapter 2 shows Milton’s Elizabethan predecessors grappling with the possibilities and limits of poetic indirection; Philip Sidney, in particular, provides an underappreciated rhetorical and theoretical foundation on which Milton’s invitational poetics could build. These background chapters allow us to see Milton’s evolution toward a poetics of choice, followed by their confident manifestation in the great poems. Later chapters consider Paradise Lost as Milton’s grand disquisition on knowledge, choice, and freedom; and Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes in relation to the ambiguities of choice and vocation. Finally, Milton is situated in relation to the most influential seventeenth century political thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and Woods examines the influence of Areopagitica on political culture since Milton’s time, placing Milton’s ideas in a tradition that leads to modern contestations of freedom.

Published by: Duquesne University Press

Series: Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

This book had its origins so far back it is embarrassing to admit the length of its gestation, but, more sadly, that also makes it impossible to fairly represent all the very kind colleagues and friends who have cheered it on. The topic grew...

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pp. 1-12

This book presents John Milton as an important voice for defining freedom within the contestations of English-speaking culture, for making it central to individual and cultural self-definition, and for creating a poetics that invites his reader to...

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1. Early Modern Liberty: Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, English Cultural Self-Definition, and Divine Right

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pp. 13-38

“There are, in all, three varieties of liberty without which civilized life is scarcely possible, namely ecclesiastical liberty, domestic or personal liberty, and civil liberty,” Milton famously asserts in his second Latin Defence of the English People.1 With these categories Milton in mid-career described...

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2. The Poetics of Freedom: “The Poet Collingbourne” and Sidney on Politics and Poetics

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pp. 39-71

Milton was born during one of the richest eras of experimentation with the English language, producing among other things a greatly expanded vocabulary. According to Norman Blake, “although many words were being borrowed from 1400...

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3. Milton’s Early Poetics of Choice: The 1645 Poems, Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, and Areopagitica

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pp. 72-102

Milton published his first book of Poems in 1645 at a time when his energy had been devoted to prose controversy. Most of the work included is from the 1630s and suggests some interest in patronage, the usual route to success as a poet. Even some of the Latin poems in this volume hint at a poet...

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4. Knowledge, Choice, and Freedom in Paradise Lost

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pp. 103-143

It is now commonplace to see Paradise Lost as “pre-eminently about knowing and choosing.”1 Its stated purpose, to “assert Eternal Providence, / And justifie the wayes of God to men,” emerges from a complex portrayal of freedom as God’s essential gift to humankind, and, after the Fall, of Providence as...

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5. Freedom and Vocation in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes

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pp. 144-171

Milton chose Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes to be published together in 1671, and to give the more ambiguous Samson the last word.1 The works differ in genre (the first is a “poem” on the model of what he had earlier called a “brief epic,” the second “that sort of Dramatic Poem which...

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6. Areopagitica’s Reception History and Modern Contestations of Freedom

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pp. 172-198

Over the course of the seventeenth century “freedom” went from meaning primarily a social condition (not under the control of another) and a set of privileged exemptions from certain jurisdictions (the “liberties” of the universities or the guilds) to describing a personal condition of self-determination...


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pp. 199-254

Works Cited

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pp. 255-276


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pp. 277-289

Back Cover

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p. BC-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705941
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820704661
Print-ISBN-10: 0820704660

Page Count: 295
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies