- Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Shorter Poetry and Prose
Peter Herman’s recent addition to MLA’s Approaches to Teaching series brings together a great deal of talent. A companion to Galbraith M. Crump’s Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost (MLA, 1986), which professor Herman is now in the process of revising, the volume collects thirty-nine essays by an impressive set of experienced scholars and teachers, covering a wide variety of methods and sensibilities. Experienced and first time teachers alike will find this volume both stimulating and useful.
The book is well organized, moving from the general to the specific. In Part One, Herman offers an introduction to the teaching materials now available (editions, [End Page 46] reference works, audiovisual and online materials, etc.), including a basic “Instructor’s Library” of secondary materials. He then offers (as an introduction to Part Two), a discussion of how the results of a survey led him to the organizing principles of the book. He describes how (and how often) Milton’s various shorter works are being taught today, addressing an array of course contexts and methodological approaches, and finally describing what all of them (and hence all the following essays) have in common: a concern with close reading, with the effective communication of background information, and with the problems presented by allusion.
The first general subsection then introduces a set of central themes and contexts. James Dougal Fleming begins the section appropriately with advice about how to handle the matter of Milton’s biography. The life is unavoidable in the Milton classroom. Happily, its details offer useful opportunities for a teacher prepared to harness the strong reactions students usually have to Milton’s authorial personality. The next three essays offer similar advice about how to handle Milton’s attitudes toward gender, English nationalism, and his Hebraic sources. Each of the essays (by Catherine Gimelli Martin, Andrew Escobedo, and Jason Rosenblatt, respectively) anticipate the kinds of questions that inevitably arise and suggest how instructors can channel the energy of classroom controversy in ways that should push students to find answers on their own. Of these, I found Rosenblatt’s particularly useful for its recommendation of John Selden’s volume of table talk, which offers a lively and economical way of introducing some rather daunting material concerning Milton’s understanding of Rabbinic literature. Rosenblatt’s essay also offers an approach to the divorce tracts that can deepen and complicate the already rich recommendations about that material offered by Martin in the preceding essay. The section concludes with an essay by Angelica Duran that explains the various ways in which Milton’s shorter works can be integrated into surveys of British literature. Offering ways of building on some of the things suggested by Escobedo’s earlier essay, she is particularly concerned with the exploration of issues related to nationalism and internationalism, including some fascinating remarks on how important study of Milton can be for international students trying to get a grip on the basic ideas and assumptions of Anglo-American culture.
The essays in the next section offer general approaches to the study of the poetry, touching on textual history, verse form, the use of visual images in the classroom, and the handling of politics and theology. While all the essays struck me as valuable, I found Stephen Dobranski’s and Elizabeth Sagasser’s particularly so for offering ways of dealing with two kinds of close reading that students often find either vexing or boring. Dobranski suggests how Milton’s “On Shakespeare” can be used to introduce students to textual history in a way that is both simple and immediately illuminating. Sagasser offers a set of lively suggestions for getting students to engage with Milton’s use of poetic form (she is particularly good on how to stimulate and integrate students’ physical, emotional, and intellectual responses to verbal art). In the section on general approaches to the prose, Jameela Lares’ piece on Milton’s use of the Bible in his prose works and Alison Chapman’s wonderful essay...