[Milton-L] "subjective states"

JD Fleming jfleming at sfu.ca
Mon Mar 1 19:55:50 EST 2010


Hannibal, I would clarify by responding that it's not a matter of finding what's already there. (The ur-error of all positivism.) It's a matter of what one chooses to be interested in, among what is already there. The Romantics chose, on an aesthetic model, to be normatively interested in the unique subjectivity that spoke in texts and other expressions; as opposed to the applicable and worldly subject-matter that those expressions or texts had the power to open up. For my money, that is why much Romantic poetry must be reckoned not very interesting. In the same way, it is why Milton's texts, _if the primary thing we can say about them is that they express Milton's subjectivity_, must be reckoned not very interesting. But I don't think that is the primary thing we can say about (most of) Milton's texts. 

Granted, and as I have argued, a great deal of Milton criticism operates on a quasi-biographical model. (All that talk of Milton's career, etc.) But, in my opinion, that is regrettable.  JDF


----- Original Message -----
From: "Hannibal Hamlin" <hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>
To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
Sent: Monday, March 1, 2010 3:03:27 PM GMT -08:00 US/Canada Pacific
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] "subjective states"



There certainly may be a Romantic legacy in some of our readings of Milton (though I'm not entirely sure I disagree with the Romantics on Satan), but Milton's interest in his own subjectivity seems there from the start. How else might one read the opening of Books 3 or 7 of PL, or sonnets 7 and 19 (which I think Keats read pretty well), or the obsessive annotation of the 1645 Poems to connect them to his life, or L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (which seem a kind of divided self-exploration). Is it really just coincidence that the subject of Samson Agonistes happens to have been blind when he pulled the temple down on everyone? I don't think this has anything especially to do with Enlightenment or Romantic poetics but with Milton's own principal obsession -- himself. That may be a little harsh, since Milton was obviously concerned with many other things too. But I'm not sure the Romantics didn't find much in Milton that was already there that suited their interests. 

Responding to Salwa's post, I think the self-presentation of the Romantics and Whitman are fictions. They had just as full a bag of tricks -- poetic forms, rhetorical devices, inherited themes and topoi, allusive backgrounds -- as the Reniassance poets did. They just pretend they don't. That's what originality is all about, not popping into the world in an instant ex nihilo, sui generis, but using your inherited materials with such dexterity that it seems you inherited nothing at all. Whitman read Paradise Lost (and the Bible) as carefully as Wordsworth did, and they both knew a good deal of the Petrarchan tradition. 

Hannibal 


On Mon, Mar 1, 2010 at 5:30 PM, JD Fleming < jfleming at sfu.ca > wrote: 



Hannibal, you write: 

"Milton seems to me just about the most intensely subjective poet I've read, in that it's hard not to feel that almost everything he wrote was about John Milton, whatever else it was about." 

With respect, I must turn that one around. It is precisely the persistence into the present day of the Enlightenment-Romantic poetics of individual expression (what Gadamer calls _Erlebniskunst_) that produces that reading of Milton. 

Also, as I argued earlier, the interesting dog in this fight is not historicized social psychology ("whether Renaissance people had subjectivity"), but historical changes in hermeneutics: that is, in expectations and assumptions about what texts and other artifacts of human expression should do, and what it is to encounter them. 

JD Fleming 


----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Hannibal Hamlin" < hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com > 
To: "John Milton Discussion List" < milton-l at lists.richmond.edu > 

Sent: Monday, March 1, 2010 1:16:08 PM GMT -08:00 US/Canada Pacific 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] "subjective states" 




I'm entering this discussion very late, and if I'm rehashing things already hashed, forgive me. 

I'm not sure I quite buy the characterizations of either Romantic or Renaissance poetry floating about here. Wordsworth claimed it was all about "spontaneous overflow" and all that, but it's also "recollected in tranquility," and in any case the representation of emotion is not the same as feeling it, in any medium, especially one that takes time to produce (over which, of course, any original, actual emotion is likely to be spent). As someone just said (more or less), The Prelude is as deliberative a work as Paradise Lost, whatever their differences . As for the Renaissance, it seems clear enough that there are scads of poems that represent powerful emotion, and what we would call intense subjectivity, whether precisely these emotions were felt by the poets or not. The dilemma here seems a false one, I think. No one probably writes a sonnet, or a sestina, or any other complex verse in the throes of powerful emotion. From what I gather (not being a poet myself), there's rath!
  



er too much counting and calculating involved for it to just gush out onto the page. Yet such poems can represent strong emotion, and this may well be die to the poet's having felt such emotion at some point, or perhaps to having understood someone else's feeling of it, in life or art. Somewhere it seems likely there was something subjective going on. 

There seems a good deal of subjectivity in, say, certain poems of Wyatt and Surrey, as in the former's connected with Cromwell or Anne Boleyn and the latters with Henry Richmond. That they also wrote verse that was more formulaic doesn't negate this. Nor does the fact that such poems are also intricate, allusive, ironizing, and such. Sidney's Astrophil and Stella seems to me as sophisticated an exploration of subjectivity as exists in verse, and it seems likely that in some ways it must in some parts connect to his experiences with women like Penelope Devereux (not that there were many like her). That's not to say the sequence is biographical in any way, though bits may be, nor is it to say that Sidney was representing his own subjectivity precisely in Astrophil. 

The anachronism argument seems to like a sort of intellectual Mobius strip -- once you get in, you never get out. I'm highly skeptical of arguments that claim Renaissance minds and manners were utterly alien to our own, just as I am of those that claim they were identical. The idea that there was a radical shift in subjectivity seems to me unlikely, or at any rate impossible to prove, though it may be that the conventional representation did change, for some, at some points. 

On the other hand, Milton seems to me just about the most intensely subjective poet I've read, in that it's hard not to feel that almost everything he wrote was about John Milton, whatever else it was about. Perhaps Lycidas is not what we all feel an elegy should properly be, but the genre can admit a range of possible relationships between elegist and elegized. Renaissance poets were perfectly cabable of writing very intense, apparently heartfelt elegies -- Surrey's on Wyatt, Henry King's Obsequy on his wife -- but it was not necessarily the strong, personal emotion that was most important. 

Hannibal 


On Mon, Mar 1, 2010 at 3:23 PM, JD Fleming < jfleming at sfu.ca > wrote: 


Yes: the issue is not an historicized social psychology (using technical terms like subjectivity that are, in any case, useful only to the extent that they are tautological), but an hermeneutic history. Wordsworth's (or Shelley's, or Keats') presentation of his own thoughts and feelings as the proper subject-matter for poetry is not inevitable or unquestionable, but historically characteristic. Post-Kant, art should be about individual and "subjective" feelings; accordingly, we get art about individual and "subjective" feelings. (There is a continuity, and not a reversal, between Coleridge the maddened seer and Coleridge the transcendental philosopher.) But it really doesn't have to be that way, as Renaissance materials teach us. 
JD Fleming 


----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Gregory Machacek" < Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu > 
To: "John Milton Discussion List" < milton-l at lists.richmond.edu > 

Sent: Monday, March 1, 2010 10:26:43 AM GMT -08:00 US/Canada Pacific 
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] "subjective states" 




I don't know how well this maps onto Greene's proposed voices, but it seems 
to me that there really is a sea-change regarding how subjectivity enters 
into post-Romantic versus pre-Romantic poetry. In post-Romantic poetry the 
poet's subjectivity (idiosyncratic life experience and perspective) is 
often the overt subject of the poem. Wordsworth wants us to know about a 
boat-ride he took when he was a kid, exactly what emotions it stirred up in 
him, and exactly what reflections it prompts in him when he remembers it 
now. Early modern authors no doubt *had* much the same subjectivity 
(idiosyncratic life experience and perspective) as later authors, but 
generally preferred to let it enter into their poems in a more indirect 
way, by working variations on conventional generic topoi. Sonneteers 
expressed whatever they did actually feel about their loves by playing 
variations on fire and ice, blind Cupid and his bow, etc. Whatever Milton 
felt about King, he manifested it in a poem where one shepherd mourns a 
lost fellow shepherd. Knowing that Milton didn't actually drive sheep 
afield with King makes Johnson fault "Lycidas"; where he expects a 
heartfelt direct tribute, Milton just works variations on pastoral motifs. 
Knowing what we know about Milton, we think we can read his subjectivity 
(concerns about career, etc.) back into his particular reconfiguration of 
the pastoral motifs. A poet with no beloved at all could write a sonnet 
sequence, just by working variations on the given motifs. Many of the 
sonnet sequences seem to me just such exercises. But no doubt even the 
poet who elected to write a sonnet as a purely artificial exercise played 
the conventions the way he did because of his idiosyncratic life experience 
and perspective. 

Greg Machacek 
Professor of English 
Marist College 

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James Dougal Fleming 
Associate Professor 
Department of English 
Simon Fraser University 

"to see what is questionable" 



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-- 
Hannibal Hamlin 
Associate Professor of English 
Editor, Reformation 
The Ohio State University 
164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall 
Columbus, OH 43210-1340 
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/ 
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com 

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-- 
James Dougal Fleming 
Associate Professor 
Department of English 
Simon Fraser University 

"to see what is questionable" 

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-- 
Hannibal Hamlin 
Associate Professor of English 
Editor, Reformation 
The Ohio State University 
164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall 
Columbus, OH 43210-1340 
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/ 
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com 

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-- 
James Dougal Fleming
Associate Professor
Department of English
Simon Fraser University

"to see what is questionable"


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