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Professor Nicolas McDowell – John Milton


Early Modern Literature and Thought

University of Exeter


Professor McDowell focuses on the literary, cultural and intellectual history of the period 1500-1750, with particular focus on the Civil Wars of the 17th-century.


Selected Works:

Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton 

The English Radical Imagination: Culture, Religion, and Revolution, 1630-1660

Poetry and Allegiance in the English Civil Wars: Marvell and the Cause of Wit 

Co-editor, The Oxford Handbook of Milton

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Episode #1

Q: Professor Nicholas McDowell - John Milton – Intro


  • Raised in battle torn Belfast Ireland

  • Interested in religious and political conflict

  • Read Paradise Lost as undergrad in Cambridge

  • Masters at Oxford under Nigel Smith

  • Milton the poet and context of writing thru English Civil War

Episode #2

Q: What was England like as Milton grew up?


  • Born 1608, London, Wealthy family, private tutors

  • Attends Cambridge 1625

  • Reformation in England in 16th century

  • Protestant / Catholic civil wars in Europe

  • Charles I –England descends into Civil War 1642

Episode #3

Q: How did Milton’s political views develop?


  • 2 historical schools of thought

  • Radical Republican from the start

  • Conservative at first who became radicalized in the 1640s

  • Supported execution of Charles I in 1649

  • Poet of Revolution traces the artistic and intellectual development

Episode #4

Q: What were Milton’s religious views?


  • Before 1640s don’t know his religious views

  • Milton was an anti-Catholic, anti-Pope, writer

  • Dynamism with development of ideas

  • Later on, heretical positions

Episode #5

Q: When did an ambitious Milton start writing?


  • Wrote poetry when he was a 15 year old teenager

  • First published in 1645

  • Dominating personality

  • Believed he was destined to be the great English poet

  • Saw himself as epic poet like Homer and Virgil

  • Intellectual virtuoso including languages

Episode #6

Q: In what languages did Milton write?


  • Educated in classic languages

  • 1645 published works divided

  • Vernacular, English / Italian

  • Classic, Latin/Greek

  • Decision that Homer/Virgil epic work would be in English

Episode #7

Q: How did Milton’s travels in Europe influence him?


  • Spent a year, 1637-8, in Catholic France & Italy

  • Wanted to witness what happens under Catholic rule

  • Helps develop his political & religious ideas on liberty

  • Visits Galileo under house arrest

  • Critical to Milton’s views on tyranny

Episode #8

Q: Why is Paradise Lost so outstanding?


  • Milton thought to be greatest non dramatic writer

  • Scope, grandeur and ambition of Paradise Lost

  • Covers all of history from creation to the end of days

  • Context of disappointment at Civil War & fall of the Republic

  • Dictated by a blind Milton

Episode #9

Q: Did Milton’s Hebrew find expression in his works?


  • Poem “To My Father” thanks father for Hebrew tutoring

  • Last year of St. Paul prep Hebrew was taught

  • In 1648 published translated Psalms from the original

  • Eric Nelson of Harvard- Milton studied Rabbinic Commentaries on Bible

  • Milton references Jewish Marriage Law in views on divorce

  • Wrote work on Samson

Episode #10

Q: Did Milton write about Jews?


  • Did not write about re-admission of Jews under Cromwell in 1650’s

  • But worked for Cromwell & wrote only what he was commissioned

  • Believed Jews were necessary part of process towards end of days

  • Intellectual interest in Jewish Religion as in Classics

Episode #11

Q: How does Milton speak to the modern student?


  • Theological disputes not as relevant today

  • Milton teaches us liberty versus constraints

  • Freedom versus persecution

  • Free will versus predestination

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Full Interview - Professor Nicolas McDowell

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