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  • Protocols and Provocations: Milton's Gestures of RebellionVol. 68, No. 1–2, Fall 2005 / Winter 2006
  • Joseph Wittreich

Many years ago, the then-President and current Chancellor of the University of Maryland system put to me this question, "Where, Joe, is the humanity in the Humanities?" Then, as now, I answer that question not by championing my discipline but by singling out one of its practitioners, John T. Shawcross. As colleague, mentor, and friend, Shawcross continues to exemplify the Blakean adage, "The most sublime act is to set another before you" (36). One year he was my mentor-large, the reader for what would become a PMLA essay on Lycidas. The next year, he became my senior colleague at the University of Wisconsin; and in that role, he gave me a leg up on my aspirations to become a Miltonist. During the late 1960s, Milton was the poet of the moment, and teaching and writing about Milton under Shawcross' tutelage were always occasions of inspiration, not intimidation. What made Milton a poet among poets was that he forced the questions of "relevance" haunting those times, and what made Shawcross the teacher's teacher was that he never evaded those questions. Through his own relentless interrogations, Shawcross opened the way for me to write about "Why Milton Matters," and it owing to Shawcross' insistence that Milton is inexhaustible, that "rethinking" Milton criticism is a way of revitalizing it, that I can write, yet again, on a topic Shawcross encouraged me to pursue and helped me to develop: rhyme—or lack thereof—in Lycidas.


If we are now at a crossroads in Milton studies, if a new Milton criticism is at last emerging, then that is owing in large measure to John Shawcross who, devoting a lifetime to studying Milton, has greatly expanded the knowledge base of Milton studies while simultaneously altering some of its premises and procedures. Once annihilating M. Manuel's argument that "Real criticism of Paradise Lost begins only with the last decade of the century" (44), Shawcross upends a similar one, again by Manuel, concerning Lycidas: "this great poem seems to have passed unnoticed during Milton's lifetime…. No contemporary printed allusion to the poem has been so far discovered" (12).1 While it is often acknowledged that Lycidas is a coda to Justa Edvardo King Naufrago (1638), that claim begs the question whether Milton's poem is part of a dialogue among poets and, if so, the further [End Page 329] question about the comment those poems make on Lycidas (or what sort of comment Lycidas makes on them), especially in its abandoning a regular rhyme scheme and subsequent questioning of providence and inveighing against a corrupt clergy.2

The poems preceding Lycidas affirm traditions that it transgresses and tout protocols that Milton's poem taunts. They may not "examine Gods decree, / Nor question providence" (173)—"Tis not for thee to question Providence" (187), but Milton does. Other of these poems call into question the very kind of questioning that Lycidas promotes: "Where were ye Nimphs, when the remorselesse deep / Clos'd ore the head of your lord Lycidas"? (193). Justice and justification are already core features of Milton's bold interrogations. Other poems revere the Church and Churchmen whom Milton sternly rebukes (195–96), both within his poem and in the epigraph added to the 1645 Poems. Over time, rather than softening, Milton hardens the sharp political edge of his elegy. Still other poems acknowledge the impropriety of the rhyme they continue to deploy: "The seas too rough for verse; who rhymes upon't tears" know no laws," and grief itself cannot be "fetter[ed]" (181): "Poetick measures have not learn' d to bound / Unruly sorrows" (184). Yet, all these English poems, with the exception of Lycidas, are written in rhyming couplets. Only Lycidas, which promises to "build the lofty rhyme" (192), seems to spurn a protocol it eventually reclaims as a way of figuring the disordered order of Milton's poem and its quaking world.

Years ago now, in Milton 1732–1801: The Critical Heritage, Shawcross drew our attention to a variety of early voices that represented an emerging understanding of Milton's...


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