We’re welcoming everybody back to the second week of this term’s series of seminars from the School of English. We have an extremely interesting line-up this week. Here are the abstracts for Dr Miles Link’s and Clare Fletcher’s papers. We look forward to seeing you tomorrow at the Trinity Long Room Hub’s Neill Lecture Theatre at 17:00.
Dr Miles Link (Fudan University, Shanghai)
‘In Dreams: John Milton’s Night-Visions at the Dawn of Reason’
John Milton’s poetry often imparts important revelations through dreams: for example, the dream given to Eve by Satan and Adam’s dream of Eve’s creation in Paradise Lost, as well as Milton’s encounter with his “late espoused saint” in Sonnet 23, not to mention his frequent claims of nocturnal divine inspiration. This presentation argues that Milton’s treatment of dreams can be seen in parallel with seventeenth-century developments in philosophy. The ‘age of reason’ saw the end of the view that reason was infused with a divine signature, something in which all creation participated, and which indicated a godly order to the world. Instead the premodern way of organising the world by what Michel Foucault names ‘resemblances’, which had lasted as late as the time of Michel de Montaigne, was replaced by a world of distinctions: body and mind, mechanical and human, earthly and divine. The perspective of the world that replaced premodern reason was also bound up in the discourse of sovereignty and the state, as for example found in Thomas Hobbes.Yet rather than seeing Milton in opposition to these developments, we can see in Milton’s dreams a complement to seventeenth-century philosophy’s ideas of human reason: dreams articulate an interior subjective space, and establish the boundaries of individual sovereignty which society and statecraft must cross. However saturated they are in the poetic language of antiquity and Biblical law, in Milton’s dreams we can see the germs of our own contemporary ideas on consciousness, history, and method and praxis.
‘Herba, Lapis, Sermo’: The Power of Language in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis‘
In Book VII of the 14th century poet John Gower’s major Middle English work Confessio Amantis, the character Genius introduces an extraordinarily lengthy section explicating the Seven Liberal Arts which were classified as the quadrivium and trivium. While each of the previous six books of the Confessio focuses on one of the seven deadly sins, Book VII is immediately different, for it does not discuss lechery, as expected, but is entirely dedicated to the Aristotelian education of Alexander the Great. In his section on the trivium, Gower includes a short segment on ‘Rhetoric’. The brevity of this passage seems to suggest that Gower thought the subject inconsequential as did early scholarship who deemed all of Book VII an irrelevant digression. However, the rhetorical piece is in fact textually longer than all of the other Liberal Arts except ‘Astronomie’ and is of substantial importance as it has the unique status of being the first known treatment of the subject of rhetoric in the English language. In the Latin heading to this section on rhetoric Gower writes that ‘Herba, lapis, sermo’ [Herb, stone, speech] are replete with virtue and strength but that, of the three, words are the most potent. This paper will argue that this passage expresses Gower’s strong notion of the unmitigated power of words with a particular emphasis on their material and bodily effects. It will further argue that it crucially reveals Gower’s anxieties about language, its correct usage, the role of rhetoric and the linguistic implications of the Fall from Paradise with the resulting gulf between thought and word. It will show that Gower is equally engaged in debates about linguistic felicity, inherited from the classical tradition, as were other great vernacular poets such as Chaucer, Dante, and Jean de Meun.