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John Milton: Shaman:

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To ‘justify the ways of God to man’ is not always a rational task

Teskey on Milton: ‘The last major poet in the European literature tradition for whom the act of Creation is centered in God, and … also the first … for whom the act of creation begins to find its center in the human.’

Gordon Teskey, appointed professor of English and American literature and language in 2002, is putting the finishing touches on a book-length manuscript to be published by Harvard University Press under the title, “Delirious Milton: The Poet in the Modern World.”

Delirious? Milton?

Best known as the author of the great Christian epic “Paradise Lost,” John Milton (1608-1674) is generally considered second only to Shakespeare as the greatest poet in English. He was also a committed political actor in a time of turbulence and change. Never one to shrink from controversy, he defended the revolutionaries who tried and beheaded Charles I, spoke out eloquently against censorship, and justified divorce on grounds of incompatibility.

“Delirious” seems the last adjective one would apply to this erudite polemicist and literary heavyweight.

Teskey, however, has something specific in mind.

“Milton represents a watershed in the 17th century in which the artist begins to perform a new and unfamiliar role. Instead of either mirroring the real or describing something that departs from the real, the poet undergoes an experience on our behalf and mediates that experience to us. It’s an experience of prophetic vision made possible by a departure from and a return to truth, an oscillation between delirium and discipline.”

To understand Teskey’s use of the word delirium, it helps to recall the word’s Latin root – lira, meaning the ridge of earth thrown up by the plough. To be delirious is to wander away from that straight ridge, which, for an adept ploughman, provides a guide for the next pass across the field.

Teskey believes that at the most fundamental level, Milton’s delirium comes from the conflict between the authority of God the Creator and the need of the poet to be a creator himself.

“Milton is the last major poet in the European literature tradition for whom the act of Creation is centered in God, and Milton is also the first major poet in the European literary tradition for whom the act of creation begins to find its center in the human.”

Teskey’s identification of Milton as the poet of delirium does not contradict the fact that he was also supremely rational, a scholar steeped in classical learning as well as Christian theology who deliberately worked out the answer to every important question before beginning his magnum opus, a poem intended to “justify the ways of God to Man.”

And yet, Teskey asserts, “there are irrational forces at work in Milton’s poetry,” forces that would find their most extreme expression two centuries later in the work of poets like Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud.

In an earlier book, “Allegory and Violence” (1996), Teskey examines a literary genre rather than an individual poet, but, as in the study of Milton, the results are similarly unexpected. Violence seems the last thing one would expect in the highly structured world of allegory, and yet that rigid structure is the very source of the violence inherent in the form.

In allegory, people, animals, objects, etc., are made to bear an abstract meaning, and it is in the imposition of these abstractions on the material substrate of the poem that the violence has its origins.

“It is a metaphysical violence of forcing things to bear these imprints, and the great allegorists can express this underlying violence in their work,” Teskey said.

In the book, Teskey examines allegories from late antiquity to the Enlightenment, focusing on such outstanding examples of the genre as Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen.”

A native of Canada, Teskey became captivated by the thought and art of the Renaissance when he spent a year in Italy at the age of 19. During that year he learned Italian, absorbed the beauty of the country’s art and architecture, and learned to appreciate the Renaissance ideal, which he describes as “a commitment to the human and the aesthetic and the attempt to make the two coincide.”

Renaissance writers and artists were perfectly well aware that the human realm does not always coincide with the beautiful, but they found value in striving to make it so through the creative process.

“In a way, we wouldn’t want the human and the beautiful to coincide,” Teskey adds, “because then we would be like the Olympians, the classical gods, who are the image of that ideal state. And the Olympians are bored most of the time, which is why they’re so preoccupied with what humans – the ‘dying ones’ as Homer calls them – are doing. It is the non-coincidence of the human and the beautiful which makes humans creative.”

For Renaissance artists, the creation of a work of art could be a way of achieving immortality, of cheating death, an idea Shakespeare expresses in the last lines of the sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” After dismissing changeable Nature as unworthy of comparison with his beloved, the poet ends by asserting that only his verse can confer immortality:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

“In a way, it seems preposterous,” Teskey said. “Being the subject of a poem isn’t going to stop anyone from growing old and dying, but I think what he’s really saying is that only art can stop the flow of time and hold the beautiful.”

Teskey said that he is delighted to be a part of the Department of English and American Literature and Language.

“I’ve read and admired and been a fan of many of the people in the department. It’s very warm, very collegial. Differences of opinion are expressed very directly and articulately, and no one ever feels that their ideas are being suppressed because they don’t adhere to the party line.”

Last fall, Teskey taught a course on the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century. This spring he taught “Renaissance Narrative in Poetry and Prose,” and the first-ever graduate seminar at Harvard on the poetry of Spenser, a writer whom Teskey has studied and written about extensively.

Teskey earned his B.A. degree from Trent University in Ontario, Canada, in 1976, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Toronto in 1977 and 1981, respectively. Before coming to Harvard, he was professor of English at Cornell University where he taught for 20 years.