Date of Award

5-2009

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Legacy Department

English

Advisor

Morrissey, Lee

Committee Member

Rivlin , Elizabeth J.

Committee Member

McGrath , Brian

Abstract

This thesis traces a narrative of John Milton's modernity. My formulation of a
'charitable modernity' is a paradoxical one, and builds on Marshall Berman's theory of
modern life. Modernity is characterized by both disintegration and possibilities for
renewal. Charity, according to Milton, is the means by which different readers are
allowed to read different meanings into different texts. For Milton, a charitable modernity
is a promising thing, because it makes allowance for a democratic kind of government
where people are allowed to govern themselves in part by the way they each read texts
differently. Milton was not always a poet of modernity, though, and as such, this thesis
presents a history of that modernity as developed primarily in Milton's poetry. In 'On the
Morning of Christ's Nativity' (1629), Milton presents an ordinary reading of the world,
one that is not complicated by modernity, and where the mode of speech represents an
irrefutable kind of meaning. In Lycidas (1637), the death of a friend corresponds to the
death of that oral absoluteness of meaning; images and metaphors complicate meaning, presenting a problem for interpretive objectivity and also a possibility for the capacities of individual readers. In Paradise Lost (1667), the Fall corresponds to the ambiguity in the act of interpreting meaning, an ambiguity by which Adam and Eve literally create a democratic state for themselves. This uncertainty is tied crucially to Milton's ideas of reason, which he defines as 'choice.' By reading Milton as a modern poet, we can see a model of democracy in which literacy becomes important, not because it presents an absoluteness of meaning, but because it accommodates a variety of interpretive positions.

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