Living Texts: Interpreting Milton

By Kristin A. Pruitt; Charles W. Durham | Go to book overview

John Milton, Object of the Erotic Gaze?

ANNA K. NARDO

In 1790, a coffin purported to be John Milton's was exhumed and rifled. Subsequently, a lock of hair assumed to be Milton's fell into the hands of poet and essayist Leigh Hunt, who showed it to his friend John Keats, who was so moved that he penned a poem on the spot. Hunt later gave the lock to Robert Browning, who kept it under glass near his writing desk.1 Milton might have been amused at the irony: the remains of a revolutionary apologist for regicide, who once wrote a treatise entitled “IconBreaker,” had now himself become a relic.

Despite the inconsistency, the Victorians venerated Milton— the sublime Puritan, the champion and martyr of English liberty, the author of their great national epic, Paradise Lost—as a kind of Protestant saint. The life story of such an exalted cultural hero was so well known that, in an 1855 review of Thomas Keightley's An Account of the Life, Opinions, and Writings of John Milton, George Eliot could claim “the principal phases and incidents of Milton's life are familiar to us all: … the journey to Italy where he 'found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner'; the prosaic transition to school-keeping in London City and inharmonious marriage with Mary Powell; his Latin secretaryship,- his second and third ventures in matrimony, and small satisfaction in his daughters,- the long days of blindness in which the Paradise Lost was poured forth by thirty lines at a time when a friendly pen happened to be near.”2 Every schoolboy, Eliot says, knew these stories. But Victorian popular writers, not unlike twentieth-century journalists, were prone to sensationalize the life stories of their idols—especially the stories of their erotic life.

Briefly, I want to outline a cultural history of Victorian representations of Milton as a lover, with two goals in mind: first, to demonstrate how some of these fictions gratified the Milton idolaters by reversing Adam's love story told in Paradise Lost in

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