Peter C. Herman, ed.: Approaches to Teaching Milton's Shorter Poetry and Prose.
Peter Herman begins the Preface to this book by noting that "teaching Milton's shorter poetry and prose presents several obstacles beyond the usual difficulties facing teachers of early modern texts." Among those obstacles he lists the issue of time and the "special challenges" (the difficulty of Milton's prose, the issues about which Milton writes, the now-alien forms of his poetry) that come with teaching this particular material.
Nobody who has ever taught Milton's prose, particularly the polemical works or the "shorter" poetry, whether sonnets or the so-called minor epics, would be surprised at Herman's statement. Nor would many argue that the process is not difficult. Each of us has probably hoped for some epiphany that might make the rough places plain or at least make the darkness, even amidst the blaze of noon, a bit less opaque.
If ever such an epiphany could be planned and located, this would be the place to seek it. Reading the essays in this recent MLA Approaches to Teaching series is as close as one will come to sitting-in on one of those dazzling classes we all have longed to be part of, whether as a student or as the teacher. There seldom has been such a useful collection focused on this particular topic; indeed, insofar as teaching these particular works is concerned, there never has been, until now, an assemblage of essays that not only provide detailed, practical suggestions, along with tried and true methodologies, but that leave the doors open for, and encourage, individual adaptation.
Herman's volume follows the now-familiar pattern of other books in this pedagogically-focused series, all of which move from the general to the particular, the wider to the specific. Based on a detailed survey sent to Milton teachers, Part One provides a compilation of Milton editions and texts, of reference works and biographies, and of audiovisual and online resources (including links to e-mail discussion groups, Early English Books Online and electronic versions of the Bible) generally used in undergraduate and graduate courses. Respondents of the survey provided lists of "required and recommended reading for students," to which Herman adds an informative and helpful compilation entitled "The Instructor's Library," divided into works of general background, poetry, and prose. As one might expect, vast ranges of books find their way here; it is informative to see what colleagues deem "particularly helpful" in a general sense, and it is particularly useful to read what critical pieces, on individual shorter poems and prose, are cited as especially valuable in preparation for teaching Milton.
In fact, "informative" and "useful" are words that apply to virtually everything in this volume. Herman's lead essay, "Which Courses and What Gets Taught," notes the variety of courses in which Milton's works find a place, and provides a detailed list of which works get taught. (It may be no surprise that among all respondents whose answers provided the information summarized here, "Lycidas" is the most frequently taught poem (85%), while Areopagitica came in highest (78%) among the prose works.)
Part Two is divided into five parts: Approaching Milton's Poetry and Prose (five general essays), Approaching Milton's Poetry (six more-specific essays), Approaching Milton's Prose (six more-specific essays), Teaching Specific Texts: Poetry (thirteen essays), and Teaching Specific Texts: Prose (seven essays). These partitions, and their essays, not only are informative, but are exciting. The authors are experienced teachers of varieties of Milton classes (two-year and four-year undergraduate students as well as graduate students). That experience, coupled with their obvious enthusiasm for the material and for ways of opening it to students, yields a collection that exudes creativity, craft, and practical wisdom.
James Dougal Fleming's "Biographic Milton: Teaching the Undead Author" leads the "general" approaches and suggests ways of integrating the shorter poems and prose works into a biographical approach to teaching Milton's works, while Andrew Escobedo's "Past and Present: Memorializing the English Nation" moves towards one element of that biographical approach--Milton's "obsession with England" and his contradictory attitudes towards his country ("nationalism" and "patriotism"). Further, Catherine Gimelli Martin explores Milton and the complex issues of gender, while Jason P. Rosenblatt explores the poetry and prose through the lens of Milton's Hebraism. This first section of Part Two closes with Angelica Duran's "Milton and the Undergraduate British Literature Course: Who, Where, When, How, and, by All Means, Why?" (And yes, she does respond to all these questions.)
As the volume proceeds, there are essays given to "general" studies on teaching Milton's poetry. Here one finds pieces on textual studies (Stephen B. Dobranski), teaching through visual images (Wendy Furman-Adams), theology (Albert C. Labriola), the sonnet tradition (Jennifer Lewin), metrics (Elizabeh Harris Sagaser), and Milton's radical politics (Elizabeth Sauer).
A comparable, parallel, section treats approaches to teaching the prose works, with "general" essays on the antiprelatical tracts (John T. Shawcross), the Bible (Jameela Lares), the postmodern classroom (William Kolbrener), teaching Milton's late political texts (Elizabeth Skerpan-Wheeler), discipline (as a theme, an approach, and as a classroom necessity) (Alison A. Chapman), and Milton and constitutions (Peter C. Herman).
Moving into even more poem-specific articles, are essays focused on teaching "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (John Rumrich; another by Richard Rambuss), Comus (Lynne A. Greenberg), "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" (David Mikics), "On Shakespeare" (Curtis Perry), "Sonnet 19" (Bruce Boehrer), "Lycidas" (Matthew Davis; another by Mark K. Fulk), Paradise Regained (Barbara K. Lewalski; a second by R. Allen Shoaf), and Samson Agonistes (Jeffrey Shoulson; another by David Loewenstein; a third by Joseph A. Wittreich).
The prose works receive equal attention, with essays on The Reason of Church Government (Gardner Campbell), Areopagitica (John Leonard), The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (Gina Hausknecht), Eikonoklastes (Laura Lunger Knoppers), The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (Shari A. Zimmerman), On Christian Doctrine (David V. Urban), and The Ready and Easy Way (Matthew Woodcock).
There isn't, in the entire volume, a single essay that doesn't provide valuable suggestions. Individually, these are rich sources for classroom logistics; collectively, these are filled with excitement and energy, providing a meet and happy conversation of the best sort. I cannot imagine that anyone who teaches the works treated here would not find this an abundantly useful, insightful, and illuminating collection.
William C. Johnson
Northern Illinois University