[Milton-L] On Vergil/Milton and Pullman

David Ainsworth dainsworth at ua.edu
Wed Apr 1 16:00:16 EDT 2009

Oddly enough, I think this discussion of Vergil and Milton best 
articulates my feelings about where Milton succeeds and Pullman fails. 
I found His Dark Materials to oversimplify Milton to the extent that it 
drew upon him, while the trilogy also managed to proceed indifferently 
along magical-realism paths as if ashamed of its genre.  Where Vergil 
and Milton's epic poems both demonstrate their authors' skill within 
their chosen genre and offer their own critiques of its function and 
conventions, Pullman, I felt, wanted to critique but lacked consummate 
skill within the genre he chose.

Rowling may disavow knowledge of the genres inherent in her writing (or 
fantasy, at least--I'm not certain she ever depreciated the British 
school novel), but her writing demonstrates mastery of their tropes and 

If pressed, I'd rather discuss echoes of Milton's work in writers like 
Gaiman or Pratchett over Pullman, however overt the latter is about 
Milton's influence upon him.  The first two are revolutionaries within 
their genres in ways equatable to Vergil and Milton; the latter, I 
believe, is not.

David Ainsworth

Watt, James wrote:
> All Blessings on Dr. DiCesare for his kind response.  I was, of course, exaggerating
> in my remarks and didn't (and don't) mean to suggest that either Vergil OR Milton
> are imperialist flacks or that they have any sympathies with Caesars (or Popes!).
> But both great men DID take pre-existent mythic accounts which both before and
> after them continue to be read by apologists for military glory and racial supremacy 
> as celebrations of archetypal heroes of a sort quite antithetical to the teachings and
> practice of Jesus of Nazareth.  Of course Milton's wonderful War in Heaven is a
> comic masterpiece subverting the entire process from Cain to Napoleon, from
> Achilles to Hitler.  What I meant was that our Milton must have admired Vergil
> for his consummate mastery in destroying while seeming to preserve the Roman
> myth.  His own practice, still only barely recognized, of making over a primitive
> and parochial 'creation myth into a thoroughgoing celebration of Christian humility
> is precisely the same kind of breath-taking performance.  Oh, and Dr. DiCesare's
> book is, if you haven't read it, essential.  Again, many thanks.
> Jim Watt   
> ________________________________________
> From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Mario DiCesare [dicesare1 at mindspring.com]
> Sent: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 4:13 PM
> To: John Milton Discussion List
> Subject: [Milton-L] On Vergil
> Jim Watt's lively comment prompts some animadversions on Vergil and Rome, and some
> gentle modifications of his statement. While it is generally true that for most of
> the first 19 centuries after Vergil's death, he was thought to be a front man for
> Augustus, two important qualifications need to be made. First, throughout the ages,
> there have been vigorous dissenters from what seemed to be received opinion. (Craig
> Kallendorf, among others, has devoted a fair amount of space to studying some of
> them in recent years.) Second, the imperialist interpretation of "The Aeneid" has
> had a very rocky history in the last half-century and more.
> Few Vergilian scholars and critics consider Vergil anything like a propagandist for
> Augustus any longer. That notion has been thoroughly discredited, at least in this
> country. Much was made for a time of an "optimistic" European school of criticism
> and a "pessimistic," mostly American school. Whatever the merits of such
> classification, the fact is that a host of first-rate scholar-critics have read the
> poem as quite other than a paean of praise for Augustus -- such as Wendell Clausen
> (of the so-called "Harvard School") and including such as Michael C. J. Putnam ("The
> Poetry of the Aeneid," 1965, and other works), Adam Parry, R. A. Brooks, R. D.
> Williams, A. J. Boyle, and Richard Thomas, among others. To these one should add
> Roland Austin, the distinguished British editor of several books of "The Aeneid"
> published by Oxford. Austin did not, I think, belong to any school, but his superb
> commentaries on individual books of "The Aeneid" reflect many of the same views.
> Parvulus inter magnos, I might also cite my own book on Vergil, which developed
> quite independently of the "Harvard School" from its first complete draft in 1963-64
> to its publication (Columbia UP, 1974).
> It is difficult to think that Milton himself would have viewed Vergil as
> pro-Augustus; I know of no clear evidence on this question, but the spirit that
> animates "Paradise Lost" seems to me hardly distant from the spirit that animated
> Vergil's great critical poem.
> Mario A. DiCesare
> Watt, James wrote:
>  > .... If anything comes through P.L. for those of us (few certainly --and probably
> less likely to claim the 'fit' title) who love epic, it's that he truly loves his
> great mentor Virgil for his cheerful dedication  to a hopeless task: acting as a
> P.R. man for a bloody crew of fascists, trying to put a positive spin on one of
> history's biggest land grabs by making the case for ROME (for Christ's sake! I am
> tempted to say anachronistically)!  Working for Caesar is like trying to make Donald
> Trump into a benefactor of the Arts.  But both our poets are true to something so
> much greater than their putative models; they make out of the mess of reality a
> glittering ideal --and so inspire their readers to doing the same in their own
> little lives, leaving something behind for their kids to believe in, something to
> help them survive the latest version (the one sold by political hacks and cynical
> priests) with their souls intact and their eyes on the stars....
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