Heroism, Humanism, and Milton's Classical Crisis: Anxiety and the Symbolic in John Milton

Jacob Blevins

McNeese State University

There is no other Renaissance writer who engages classical literature more than John Milton.  Although Milton quite explicitly recalls classical literature as he positions his own poetic voice within tradition, classicism is also the source of tremendous anxiety for Milton, who must negotiate and come to terms with the ideological gap that exists between his own Christian worldview and the models he invokes.  Such a negotiation was part of Renaissance humanism as a whole, but for Milton, who strives more than any other to be both "like" and "unlike" his predecessors, his anxiety becomes the very essence of the creative process.  Harold Bloom in the Anxiety of Influence offers a basic concept for the analysis of such anxiety, but his Freudian-based model is problematic in practice; he all but dismisses the impact of pre-Renaissance influence, and he largely ignores the role cultural ideology plays in poetic anxiety.  Using the concepts of identity formation posited by Jacques Lacan and the theories of literary imitation discussed by Thomas Greene, this paper examines Milton's attempt to write "heroism" as a complex dialogue between classicism and Christian humanism.  The paper will show that Milton displays vastly different notions of heroism in his three great works, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes; however, all three manifestations of the "hero" are positioned against the "classical" hero of antiquity as Milton both tries to conform to "tradition" and also to create a new Christian hero that reflects the deep-rooted religious ideologies of 17th century England. Ultimately, what is discovered is that the conflictive interplay between the past and the present causes Milton to abandon classical allusion per se but to move toward a more structural understanding of the classical hero, one that can finally be grounded in antiquity but display Milton's own sense of Christian sacrifice and suffering. 

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