Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Blind Bard, According to John Milton and His Contemporaries

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Blind Bard, According to John Milton and His Contemporaries

Article excerpt

This essay approaches Milton's representation of the "blind bard" within the most personal literary mode of lyric (specifically, three sonnets) and through the figuration of blindness by his contemporary detractors in the service of suggesting how key terms of disability studies merge with literary elements, especially imagery and authorship.

John Milton regularly crops up in the field of disability studies, as could be expected since he became fully blind when he was forty-four years old, and many of his works represent individuals with various types of disabilities. In The Disability Studies Reader, Lennard Davis starts off his list "of people with disabilities" with "John Milton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Alexander Pope, Harriet Martineau, John Keats" (4). Milton also leads off David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's line-up in Narrative Prosthesis: "John Milton, Alexander Pope, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Stephen Crane, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust" (3). In Memoirs of the Blind, Jacques Derrida lists "Homer and Joyce, Milton and Borges" (33); more recently, in Concerto for the Left Hand, Michael Davidson lists the artistic "composers [...] Goya, Milton, Beethoven, Nerval, Schumann, Monet, de Kooning, Close" (3), and Kahlo (6). Yet, while Milton makes the lists, he is rarely the centerpiece in disability studies.

The critical interface of literary studies and disability studies, which came into its own in the nineteen-nineties (see Gabbard), clarifies and intensifies key elements in both fields. This essay examines Milton as "blind bard," an ambivalent figure of alterity, bodily impairment held in tension with creative exaltation. I first attend to Milton's most overtly autobiographical representations of his blindness in three of his sonnets, all of which perpetuate and modify the special status of the blind bard. Eleanor G. Brown and John S. Diekhoff long ago identified the many textual sites in Milton's poetry and prose that represent blind characters and personas and their differing degrees of the autobiographical mooring. Those most critically and popularly viewed as self-representations of his blindness are "Sonnet XVI: When I consider," "Sonnet XIX: Methought I saw," and "To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon his Blindness." (1) I then attend to just some of the characterizations of Milton by his contemporary detractors, including vituperative characterizations, to substantiate the sense that Milton's self-representations in his sonnets are defensive and to show the distinct ends that the same tropes that Milton uses achieve in the hands of those detractors. From these, we can piece together a mosaic--to echo this journal's title--of Milton's blindness, which by extension will comprise one element in the ongoing research needed to create a mosaic of what blindness meant at the onset of modernity.

My hope is to contribute to the pioneering work of Edward Wheatley, who, in his ground-breaking Stumbling Blocks before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability, convincingly demonstrates the importance of "extending the range of disability-related scholarship beyond the last two centuries" (4), which is to say before the historical moment in the late eighteenth century when the concept and measurement of normalization arose (see Tremain 4-10). As Margaret A. Winzer rightly notes, "no two societies viewed their disabled populations in precisely the same way" (87). So, too, no two of Milton's sonnets or of his detractors' writings depict the early modern British blind bard in the same way. Interpreting the literary representations of one blind individual within his literary, biographical, and cultural context can help provide some answers to the productive questions that Paul Longmore asks in Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability: "How did societies in previous eras regard and treat people with disabilities? What values underlay cultural constructions of disabled people's identities? …

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