Lyric Apocalypse: Milton, Marvell, and the Nature of Events

Lyric Apocalypse: Milton, Marvell, and the Nature of Events

Lyric Apocalypse: Milton, Marvell, and the Nature of Events

Lyric Apocalypse: Milton, Marvell, and the Nature of Events


What's new about the apocalypse? Revelation does not allow us to look back after the end and enumerate pivotal turning points. It happens in an immediate encounter with the transformatively new.

John Milton's and Andrew Marvell's lyrics attempt to render the experience of such an apocalyptic change in the present. In this respect they take seriously the Reformation's insistence that eschatology is a historical phenomenon. Yet these poets are also reacting to the Regicide, and, as a result, their works explore very modern questions about the nature of events, what it means for a significant historical occasion to happen.

Lyric Apocalypse argues that Milton's and Marvell's lyrics challenge any retrospective understanding of events, including one built on a theory of revolution. Instead, these poems show that there is no "after" to the apocalypse, that if we are going to talk about change, we should do so in the present, when there is still time to do something about it. For both of these poets, lyric becomes a way to imagine an apocalyptic event that would be both hopeful and new.


“What happens now?” in modern parlance often means “What happens next?” This is not so much an error as it is a recognition of the centrality of a conception of the future, even an apocalyptic one, for any notion of the present. We are accustomed to the notion that the present is always fleeting into the past or yearning for a better tomorrow, a nodal point defined via negation and ungraspable as such. This intuitive, geometric model of temporality is precisely what Milton and Marvell seek to unseat with their lyric presentations of an immanent apocalypse. To treat an eschatological revelation as a live, hopeful possibility— instead of as a restful end to pain or struggle or an ultimate vengeance on one’s enemies— requires more than empty wishfulness or even a commitment to revolution’s promise of a purified return to the past and the overturning of existing structures. The lyric, with its penchant for immediacy, enables precisely this attempt, insisting that a real event occurs within a poem and that this event is not reducible to the mere archaeology of hermeneutics or the daydreaming of fancy.

Milton and Marvell attempt nothing less than to present change, concrete, substantive transformation, as an affirmative possibility in the present, not something we merely recognize after the fact or confidently explain away as having been there all along. As a result, teleology, typology, dialectic, and chance disruption all fail as viable understandings of events. Teleology and typology treat occasions as nodes in a cloaked providential design, ultimately uncovered belatedly by a wise and . . .

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