Milton’s “Dark Materials”: Nature, Knowledge, and Creation

Professor Jacque Wernimont                          

Fall 2010 Scripps College                                                TR 01:15-02:30PM. HM Room 105

Office: Dartmouth House #C                                    Office Hours: Mon 9-11:30 and by appt

Course Description

The work of John Milton inspires Philip Pullman’s wildly successful “His Dark Materials” triology. In Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the arch-angel Michael tells Adam that “heaven is for thee too high to know what passes there.” While Michael will go on to suggest to Adam and Eve that they should concern themselves only with knowledge of the material world, Milton’s collected works suggest that the intellectual should inquire into the nature of creation, the nature of God and man’s relationship to him, and the nature of knowledge itself. This class will consider Milton’s engagement with these questions in his political, theological, and poetic writings. We will also consider Milton’s perspective on the kinds of technologies used by his contemporaries to advance scientific and theological knowledge. In the course of this seminar we will situate Milton’s views on knowledge and its production within the context of seventeenth-century European knowledge practices and the political and theological contexts of the British civil war. The final turn in this course will be a return to Pullman’s novels to see how he has reworked the relationships between knowledge and technology for a 21st century audience.

Course Objectives:

As Pullman observes: “the meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind.”  Accordingly, we will work in this class to develop our sense of the meaning of both Milton’s and Pullman’s works. In the course of this project we will:

  1. Become familiar with the Miltonic corpus
  2. Learn about the historical context in which Milton wrote
  3. Learn about the scientific climate and the technological capacities of seventeenth-century England
  4. Develop the skills to integrate our historical knowledge with our own modern reading practice
  5. Enhance or develop the skills to produce a carefully constructed and well-supported literary argument about early modern texts
  6. Enhance or develop the skills of talking in class about literary interpretation in ways that support and expand our critical writing
  7. Enhance or develop the skills to present original research and critical interpretation to our peers
  8. Develop the skills to assess a literary genealogy and to speak critically about the nature of historical relationships between texts


Milton, John. Paradise Lost, David Scott Kastan (editor). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005. ISBN-13: 978-0-87220-733-2

Milton, John. The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classic) (Paperback), Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Editors). Oxford: Oxford University Publishing, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0199539185

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials Trilogy: “Northern Lights”, “Subtle Knife”, “Amber Spyglass” (Paperback), New York: Scholastic, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-1407109428

Selected secondary readings available on Sakai.


Class Participation

This class absolutely depends upon your participation in discussion. You are responsible for having read each reading assignment before class. I will periodically call on people with specific questions that touch on the reading or ask you all to write short reflective pieces. These will be part of what I evaluate for the participation grade. You will also be evaluated on the general level your engagement in class – both frequency and quality are important here. Attendance will also be factored into this grade. You are allowed two absences, which need not be excused or discussed with me. Beyond those two absences, each missed class will result in a decrease in the participation grade of one letter grade (10%). Five total absences will be grounds for failing the class.

Presentations on technologies of knowledge

Due: must be completed by Nov 23rd, please sign up with Prof. W

Students will select one day in the semester to present their own five-minute lecture on a selected knowledge technology of the early modern period.  Knowledge technologies may include (but are not limited to): instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, or astrolabes; tools for the communication of knowledge such as books, pamphlets, letters; genres of knowledge writing such as prose or verse; and knowledge practices such as biblical exegesis, anatomy, or experiment. Presentations should educate the class on the details of such practices and should demonstrate research in scholarly resources.

Close Reading

Due: Thursday Sept 30th

This paper will focus on the close reading of a single passage within one of Milton’s texts.

Adaptation Analysis

Due: Tuesday Nov 9

A short analytic assignment will be distributed around week 6. This paper will develop an analysis of the relationships between two primary works, one Milton text and a selection from Pullman.

Final paper

Due: Tuesday Dec 14th

Drawing on the skills utilized in the previous assignments students will choose to write a 2,000 -2,250 word paper* focusing on one of the following: the historical development of a knowledge technology and Milton’s deployment of that in Paradise Lost or a substantive discussion of how Pullman’s adaptation of Paradise Lost refigures or resituates knowledge/technology/text.

All papers should analyze not only how the technology is used in a particular part of the text, but also how it works within the larger context of the text.

Course Schedule

Tuesday August 31

Introductory Lecture

Introducing Milton and Seventeenth-Century Religion

Thursday Sept 2

Please read and

“Introduction” to The Major Works

Faith, Literature, and the Poet

Tuesday Sept 7

“Letter to a Friend,” “On the Engraver of his portrait,” “On Shakespeare”

* Elizabeth Spiller, “Model Worlds,” Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature, 2004

Faith and Knowledge

Thursday Sept 9

Comus pp 44-61

Tuesday Sept 14

Comus pp 61-71

            *N. H. Keeble, “Puritanism and literature”

*Fish, Stanley “How Milton Works”

Thursday Sept 16: Using library resources for research

Meet at Honnold-Mudd library

Nature and perspective

Tuesday Sept 21

“Lycidas” pp 39-44

Thursday Sept 23

Il Penseroso pp 25-30

Tuesday Sept 28

L’Allegro pp 22-25

Book Technology and the Censors

Thursday Sept 30

Of Education pp 226-236

*Angelica Duran, The Age of Milton and the Scientific Revolution (selections)

** Close Reading Assignment Due

Tuesday October 5

*Adrian Johns, “The Book of Nature and the Nature of the Book,” The nature of the book: print and knowledge in the making, 2005

begin reading Aeropagitica (pp 236-273)

Thursday October 7


the parable of talents in Matthew



The Knowing and Creating in Milton and Pullman

Tuesday October 12

Paradise Lost Book 1

* Philip Pulman, “Introduction” Paradise Lost.

* Books 1-3 of Genesis. Avail at

Thursday October 14

Paradise Lost Book 2

* Neil Forsyth, “Milton’s Womb” Nordic Journal of English Studies, 2009

(additional resource) Diane Kelsey McColley, “Earth, Mining, Monotheism, and Mountain Theology,”  Poetry and ecology in the age of Milton and Marvell, 2007

(additional resource) Achsah Guibbory, “The Bible, Religion, and Spirituality in Paradise LostA Concise Companion to Paradise Lost, Ed. Angelica Duran, 2007

Tuesday October 19 – No Class, Fall Break

Thursday October 21

Paradise Lost Book 3

*Karen Edwards, “Experimentalists and the Book of the World” Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005

Tuesday October 26

Paradise Lost Book 4

*Karen Edwards, “Botanical Discretion” Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005

(additional resource) JR Knott “Milton’s Wild Garden” Studies in Philology, 2005

Thursday October 28

Paradise Lost Book 5

*John Hollander, “Literature and Technology: Nature’s “Lawful Offspring in Man’s Art,’ ” 2004

(additional resource) Michael Murrin History and warfare in Renaissance epic

(additional resource) George Miller, “Images of Matter”: Narrative Manipulation in Book VI of Paradise Lost

Tuesday Nov 2

Paradise Lost Book 6

*Marjorie Nicolson, “Milton and the Telescope” Science and the Imagination

(additional resources) Catherine Martin “What If the Sun Be Centre to the World?”: Milton’s Epistemology …” Modern Philology 2001

(additional resources) Amy Boesky, “Milton, Galileo, and Sunspots: Optics and Certainty in Paradise Lost” Milton Studies, 34.

(additional resources) Thomas N. Orchard, The Astronomy of Milton’s Paradise Lost‎ , 2006

(additional resources) Pythagoras’ doctrine of the spheres

Thursday Nov 4 —  No Class: Read Book 7 of PL

Tuesday Nov 9

Paradise Lost Book 8 (we will also discuss book 7)

** Adaptation paper due

Thursday Nov 11

Paradise Lost Books 9-10

(additional resources)

Stanley Fish, “The Interpretive Choice” Surprised by Sin

Shannon Miller, “The Two Faces of Eve…” Engendering the fall: John Milton and seventeenth-century women writers, 2008.

Tuesday November 16

Paradise Lost Books 11-12

Diane Kelsey McColley, “Milton’s Prophetic Epic,” Poetry and ecology in the age of Milton and Marvell, 2007

Patrick Brantlinger “To See New Worlds: Curiosity in Paradise Lost” Modern Language Quarterly, 1972

Thursday Nov 18

Pullman The Northern Lights

Tuesday Nov 23

Pullman  The Subtle Knife

Thursday November 25: No Class Thanksgiving

Tuesday Nov 30

Pullman  Amber Spyglass

Thursday Dec 2

Milton Marathon Reading: Mudd Quadrangle (north of Honnold/Mudd)

Tuesday December 7

            “without number still…” : wrap up


* The word count does not include the Works Cited page.

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