Milton's Empyreal Conceit

Waco to Dallas / Fort Worth to Nashville to Murfreesboro to Nashville to NYC to Barcelona to Madrid to Dallas / Fort Worth to Waco, with a trip on Wednesday to Hakone–not in Japan, but in Second Life. A teleconference presentation for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. And a telephone interview with Professor Lawrence Lessig. Add it all to my class and my ongoing work at the Academy for Teaching and Learning, and the result is a pretty full sixteen days.

Over the next few days I’ll be blogging about some of what made those days so full and rewarding. Today I want to share my presentation from the 2009 Conference on John Milton, the event I had just completed when I published this post. I presented my first scholarly paper at this biennial conference in 1991, and I’ve presented a paper at each conference since, with the exception of the one in 2007.

The poetry and prose of John Milton still captivate me. I suppose they always will. His work is inexhaustible in extent, in variety, and in sheer beauty. And for all his celebrated intellectual and political accomplishments, Milton’s work matters most to me as poetry, a genre I actually have the temerity to try to define in the paper I gave at the 2009 conference.

My ambition was sparked by Milton’s own, of course, particularly in the way he tried to imagine heaven, which for him was dynamic, a place of desire as well as fulfillment, a place of copious joy. That was the subject of my paper: what Milton terms an “empyreal conceit,” a heavenly imagination, by which I take it he means an imagination of heaven as well as heaven’s own imaginative force, one that in his mind was essentially poetic.

I’d long wanted to meditate a little on the ending of “Lycidas” as well, and this paper offered me the chance to do so. Many of my ongoing thoughts are here, but the bit on “Lycidas” made its debut at this conference.

It’s unusual to podcast a paper delivered at a scholarly conference, at least in Milton studies. Some of my ed tech friends in Barcelona found it hard to imagine me standing at a lectern reading a paper to a room of fellow English professors. Yet this mode, too, can be one of active learning, for me as well as (I hope) on the part of my listeners. To try to speak to a room full of expert colleagues who’ve devoted their lives to thinking about, writing about, and teaching the work of this great artist is quite daunting, but it’s also an extraordinary experience of shared commitment, shared wonder, shared contemplation. At its best–and this conference is as good as it gets, in my experience–this scholar-to-scholar colloquy can be both challenging and inspiring. At its worst–ah, but no need to go there, now. The worst of these scholarly exchanges are too frequent and well-known to need rehearsing here.

For now, then, my most recent small contribution to the ongoing work of my fellow Milton scholars. For non-Milton scholars: even if you know little or nothing about Milton, you may find something to grab onto in this presentation, which is a love letter of sorts from me to Milton the poet, the master of verbal arts whose poetic gifts seem to grow every time I read him.

But of course, I’m the one who’s growing.

Thank you, John Milton; thank you, fellow Miltonists. See you in 2011.

At the 2009 Conference on John Milton

Three Miltonists: (l-r) Louis Schwartz (University of Richmond), Gardner Campbell (Baylor University), Stephen Buhler (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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