Feb 27, 2014

John Milton: 10 Gay Things About the Author of "Paradise Lost"

In one of the iconic scenes in Animal House (1978), Professor Jennings admits that he hates English poet John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost:  "He's a bit long-winded, he doesn't translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible."

And, I presumed, as heterosexist as most of the other "great writers" purveyed by English teachers.

A few months later, I started my freshman year at Augustana College, and my English Literature survey assigned Milton's  L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. 

1. Expecting the worst, I plowed in.  Surprise -- not boring at all. The poems contrasted the perennial college student question: should you spend your time partying and having fun, or studying and getting good grades?

 I leaned toward "having fun," since Milton mentions partying with Corydon and Thyrsis, two gay characters from Virgil's Eclogues.

2. During  my sophomore year, a course in Renaissance Literature assigned Comus, a masque (a sort of pageant with minimal plot): a Lady is kidnapped by the evil Comus, who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her while her brothers rush to the rescue.  It was performed for the Earl of Bridgewater, whose own brother had been executed for sodomy.  So Comus becomes a stand-in for a gay temptation.

3. This muscular, shirtless Comus appeared in the only modern production that I'm aware of, at Florida International University in 2010.

4. We also had to read Lycidas: An elegy lamenting the death of Milton's Cambridge classmate Edward King, who drowned (here he is portrayed as a naked muscle god).

Anything celebrating a same-sex love can't be boring.

5. John Fletcher (left) recites Lycidas in his underwear before a blow-up version of Stonehenge.  I don't know why.

6. During my junior year, I took an entire class in Milton, and we read the big, scary one: Paradise Lost, an epic poem the fall of Satan, the temptation of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from Paradise.  But there were lots of gay subtexts: Satan, an "angel of light," heterosexual sex leads to downfall, and so on.  I wrote a paper on it at Indiana University.

7. And you can't beat the beefcake of the illustrations by Gustav Dore.

8. We also had to read Paradise Regained, about Christ being tempted by all of the pleasures of the world, including: "fair stripling youths rich clad, of fairer hew than Ganymede or Hylas."  So they're hotter than the boyfriends of Zeus and Hercules in Greek mythology?

9. And the "closet drama" Samson Agonistes: the Biblical strongman has been captured by the Philistines, blinded, and enchained.  He bewails his seduction by Delilah: "foul effeminancy held me yoke."  That's right, liking women is effeminate.  Real men like men.

10. Strongman Fernando Lamberty played Samson in a performance at Florida International University in 2009.

John Milton was no doubt homophobic -- who in 17th century Britain wasn't?  But there's still a lot of gay interest in his works.

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