Home | About | Curriculum Vitae | Milton Pages | Teaching | WinePoetry | Music

English 420Milton
Dr. Michael Bryson
Sierra Tower 832

Course Description: Is authority—even God’s authority—to be obeyed without question?  John Milton, the most famous “Christian” poet in the English language, has a definite answer.



Milton is perhaps the greatest, yet least-read and least-understood poet in English literature.  He was not a stuffy Puritan with a heart of stone; rather, he was a learned and passionate revolutionary who demanded freedom of thought and freedom from political, religious, and social tyranny. Milton did not suffer fools, and he did not suffer others telling him what to do, what to think, or how to live. In this course, we will examine the ideas of the man who helped bring down a kingdom and behead a king, only later to write the great poetry of Satan, God, Adam, Eve, and the Fall of Man.  We will read some of his early poetry, move through a quick examination of his prose-writing career, and then ascend the summit of the great epic, Paradise Lost

EVALUATION METHOD: Midterm essay, final essay. Each will account for 50% of the final grade.

EVALUATION STANDARDS: Essays will be graded on a +/- scale, using the usual A-F symbols. Essays must be written carefully, and revised before submission to me, not after.  To achieve the best results, I encourage all of you to write your responses early, and then take a draft of your midterm and final essays into the Writing Center (https://www.csun.edu/undergraduate-studies/learning-resource-center/university-writing-center), located in Oviatt Library on the 3rd Floor, East Wing. (Online tutoring is also available.) I will not review drafts of essays, nor will essays be revisable after I grade them. I expect you to pay close attention to details: do not misspell character names, or fail to italicize play titles, or fail to pay attention to basic citation mechanics and conventions of quotation (and papers must quote relevant material from the plays as evidence—leave summary to SparkNotes and all the other less-than-desirable sources out there on the internet).  See the links below (in the assignment descriptions) for how to handle quotation and citation.

GRADES: An "A+" essay is perfect—a very rare thing.

An "A" essay shows deep thought, attention to detail, and critical thinking. It is well organized and flows naturally, leading the reader through the subject easily. Sentences show variety and planning, and paragraphs are carefully put together. The essay is engaging and interesting to read, and the treatment of the subject is original and intriguing. Clichés, triteness, and "stilted" language are absent. Finally, an "A" essay displays no mechanical, spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors—it has been written as carefully as a letter of application for a job, and has often been revised several times.

A "B" essay possesses most (but not all) of the qualities of an "A" essay. The "B" essay typically shows a fair amount of thought, attention to detail, and some evidence of critical thinking. It may have slight organizational problems; it may have a few mechanical, grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors, or it may employ clichés or trite language in a few places.

A "C" essay is an average effort. It displays most (but not all) the qualities of a "B" essay, with additional problems in thought, organization, and expression. Triteness or clichéd language may be present, or the treatment of the subject, though competent, may be uninteresting or unoriginal. Mechanical and/or spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors are a consistent problem. The essay is understandable and the reasoning adequate.

A "D" essay is below average. In a "D" essay, difficulties with structure, organization, or content make the essay difficult to follow. The treatment of the subject may be inadequate, or the reasoning seriously flawed. Problems with mechanics, grammar, punctuation, and spelling interfere seriously with the essay's effectiveness.

An "F" essay is one in which all of the problems listed in the "D" essay are severe enough to make the paper incomprehensible.

An essay that is plagiarized, or simply not submitted at all, will receive a grade of zero.

In general, the grading scale will be as follows:


A+    100%
A       95%
A-     90%
B+    88%
B       85%
B-     80%
C+   78%
C      75%
C-    70%
D+  68%
D     65%
D-   60%
F      50%

Work plagiarized or not submitted 0%


A     92.5-100
A-    90-92.4
B+   87.5-89.9
B     82.5-84.9
B-   80-82.4
C+  77.5-79.9
C    72.5-77.4
C-   70-72.4
D+   67.5-69.9
D     62.5-67.4
D-   60-62.4
F     0-59.9

READING LIST: John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose ed. Merritt Hughes

1) Midterm essay exam, around 1500 words in response to essay questions. You will have two weeks to work on the exam out of class. The midterm will be distributed on 10/7 and be due via Canvas submission by 11:59 PM on 10/21.
2) Final paper, approximately 3000 words on a topic of your choosing; I will provide a list of suggested essay topics, or you may choose your own)
This essay will be a researched argument paper that makes use of secondary sources. Print is an excellent thing, of coursebooks are still the coin of the realm in the highest reaches of humanities scholarship, but journal articles are often more immediate in terms of what is going on at the moment. Have a look at the CSUN library's page outlining electronic resources for English. Quotations from the works you deal with—and quotations from secondary sources—should follow MLA format. The final essay will be distributed on 12/9 and be due via Canvas submission by 11:59 PM on 12/16.

Statement on Academic Dishonesty: Plagiarism is a serious offense that will be treated seriously. Please read the CSUN policy here.

Weekly Preview:

Week 1 (8/26): Introductions; Milton’s Early Ambition—Sonnet VII (Sonnet numbers are keyed to the Hughes edition--other editions may vary).

Week 2  (9/2): Off for Labor Day

Week 3 (9/9):  Early Poetic Successes and Failures—On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, The Passion, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso. Theological Arguments for Liberty and Against Hierarchies that Separate Humankind from the Divine—Of Education, The Reason of Church Government (Preface and Chapters 1-7 of Book 1).

Week 4 (9/16): The Loss of a Schoolmate, Growing Commitment to Liberty, and the Idea of Companionate Marriage—Lycidas, Sonnet VIII, Sonnet XI, Sonnet XII, Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce (up to book II)

 Week 5 (9/23): Freedom to Write and Worship According to One’s Own Conscience—Areopagitica, On the New Forcers of Conscience, Sonnet XVI, Sonnet XVIII.

Week 6 (9/30): Milton the Regicide (The Right to be Free From the Tyranny of Kings)—Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.

Week 7 (10/7): Milton’s Work for the Republic—The Second Defense (excerpts), Sonnet XIX, Sonnet XXII, Sonnet XXIII (Midterm essay exam distributed—due 10/21).

Week 8 (10/14): “Of man’s first disobedience,” and Angelic Rebellion: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” Why?—Paradise Lost Books 1 and 2.

Week 9 (10/21): Imagining God as a King, and Male and Female in the Garden of Eden—Is Adam and Eve’s a Companionate Marriage?—Paradise Lost Books 3 and 4 (Midterm essay exam due).

Week 10 (10/28): War in Heaven: Rebellion Against a King—Paradise Lost Books 5 and 6.

Week 11 (11/4): The Structure of the Universe; Food and the Ascent to Heaven?—Paradise Lost Books 7 and 8.

Week 12 (11/11): Off for Veteran's Day

Week 13 (11/18):  The Fall: A Setup?—Paradise Lost Book 9 and 10. (For an inside look at my take on the "Fall," and one of the arguments that deal with it in Milton scholarship, see here.)

Week 14 (11/25): History of the World, Part One: A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far—Paradise Lost Book 11-12

Week 15 (12/2):  Off. Instructor out of town.

Week 16 (12/9): Discovering the Divine or the Monstrous Within—Paradise Regained; Samson Agonistes

(Final paper due by 11:59 PM on 12/16 by Canvas submission.)

Note on Web Resources
The best overall web resource for Milton is Thomas Luxon's Milton Reading Room. See especially his links to other web resources, and to print scholarship
. For the prose works, you may also want to look at my own site, Summary and Analysis of Milton's Prose. Also have a look at the CSUN library's page outlining electronic resources for English. Curious students might also want to have a look at the Yale Open Course on Milton delivered by John Rogers. We are each members of a loosely-defined group within Milton studies known as The New Milton Criticism, and his insights are always sharp and valuable.

The Humanist (Re)Turn 
2019 2017 2012 2004