English 111 M: Literature
Reading, Writing, Thinking: Paradise Lost
"Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost."
Paradise Lost, 2.558-61
The order of terms above may strike you as backward. Isn’t a written text the final product of thinking and writing? Isn’t a paper, poem, or novel the transcription and consummation of the intellectual labor that precedes it?
Against this assumption, I will ask you in this writing-intensive composition course to think of writing as itself a mode of thinking that follows careful and scrupulous reading. In this view, writing is a process, indispensable to thinking, not merely the final product of thinking. An inductive procedure from careful attention, to relation and correlation, to insight undergirds university level research, regardless of discipline, and represents the thinking this English course will focus on. It follows that this course will require careful, precise reading, and papers that build on a firm foundation in your scrupulous reading of the text. The goal of this course will be first and foremost to develop your writing, thinking, and research skills, which will contribute to your success in the university whether you major in mechanical engineering, materials science, or media studies.
To this end, success in the course will require you to engage thoughtfully, carefully, and incisively with one of the most challenging and powerful texts in English. Through class discussion, small group work, diverse writing assignments, and independent research, we will work collaboratively to ensure each of you emerges with the reading and writing skills demanded in every field in the university.
“What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?” These three questions, articulated by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, distinguish the domains of humanistic study: epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics. To enter into these big questions, we will read John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem provides both an entry point and model for inquiry into the nature of human understanding, human action and will, and the limits of human reason. Our engagement with the poem will carve out a space for reading, writing, and thinking about the big questions that bear directly on the choices you make as a student, scholar, citizen, and professional. I want this course to be an opportunity for you to not only hone your reasoning skills, but to reflect on why you are here in the university, what you hope to get out of your college education, and what kind of person you want to be outside the university. These broader concerns will make our reading, writing, and discussion in this course directly relevant not only to your development as a student, and scholar, but to your sense of yourself, the world, and your position in it.
Written in the 1660s, Paradise Lost is separated from our moment by almost 350 years, but the questions it addresses persist: What is the nature of power? What constitutes a hero? Are people inherently good, or evil? Are people free to do as they choose, or are they determined by external conditions and powers? What is fate? While answers to such questions are contingent, these potentially intractable questions themselves endure, and Paradise Lost provides a concrete text for considering these abstract, universal human concerns. The poem provides an example for how to think through the kind of abstract questions that are of the utmost importance to how we live our lives. I am asking you to think of this literary text not as a flight of fancy, or as imaginary, but instead as a primary mode of reasoning about issues that concern every individual.
The language of the poem is difficult, to say the least. But, it provides an expert example of the uses (and abuses) of rhetoric, the power of language, and the limits of representation. We will move through the poem methodically over the term. The reading and writing demands for this course are rigorous. My job is to bring you to the point where you have the toolkit to make sense of complex texts, and craft coherent essays that articulate your understanding, a skill that will serve you well whether you major in physics or comparative literature. Expect to read everything twice, with great care, though try not to get bogged down in unknown allusions or convoluted syntax. We will have ample opportunity to discuss, debate, and otherwise work through the poem until you have a strong grasp on characters, plot, and Milton’s magisterial language.