All About Books: Stephen Buhler

Stephen Buhler

Stephen Buhler is Vice Chair and Aaron Douglas Professor of English at UNL.

Listen to Stephen's All About Books:


“Waking Bliss” – Stephen Buhler


I grew up an avid reader, which led (as it often does) to being an English major, which in turn led (as it can happen) to being an English teacher. Even avid readers, though, can feel their enthusiasm flag. If we're honest as readers, English majors, and English teachers, we probably have to admit that there are authors whose skills and glories we can recognize, but whose pleasures escape us. One of those authors, for me, was John Milton and one of those glories his epic poem Paradise Lost.

Yes, I appreciated the excerpts in my anthologies that my teachers assigned me and I could explain to my high school students how they too could appreciate those same passages when I assigned them. We all quickly bowed in respect and moved on.

When I returned to graduate school and served as a teaching assistant for a literature survey course, the pattern of hasty deference continued – it was almost guaranteed to do so. The brilliant, passionate professor for whom I worked described John Milton during a lecture back in the 1980s as the “Darth Vader” of English Literature: big; intimidating; intriguingly wounded, perhaps; ultimately scary.  I thought the comment possibly unencouraging to our students but not necessarily inaccurate.

And then I encountered Christopher Grose, a Miltonist.  Also the best harmonica player I've ever had the privilege of performing with. Chris loves Milton. He loves blues. He combined his loves in a collaborative project, shared with students, of retelling Milton's Paradise Lost via blues music. The result was and is “The Paradise Blues,” as in –

Let me tell you John's story / About man's first woe / Eve and Adam in that garden / The spite and malice of our foe .

Through working with Chris on a series of musical adaptations under the name “Bland John and the Miltones” and also in a seminar with Chris and other graduate students, I had a conversion experience. Partly it was Chris dispelling the Darth Vader image. Partly it was seeing how Milton learned from Shakespeare's iambic pentameter lines. But mostly it was the rich and festive marriage of searching inquiry and innate musicality that won me over.

As a result, I love to read Milton. I love to teach Milton. I love to do and share research on Milton. I love to hear how a range of composers have set his glorious language to music – from Henry Lawes to Georg Frideric Handel to Hubert Parry to Charles Ives to Grace Williams. I even love to watch how choreographers respond in dance to composers responding in music to Milton's words. Most of all, I love to speak those words aloud.

In 2008, the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln organized a communal reading of Paradise Lost – something that happens in several places around the world each year, but that seemed especially appropriate in honor of Milton's 400th Birthday. I was an eager listener and participant, and somewhere during Book 8, around the 6000th line of blank verse, as I read aloud the Archangel Raphael's message of the deep principles at work in the universe – something else happened. Raphael calls Adam's attention to the night sky, noting:

                                    other Suns perhaps
With their attendant Moons thou wilt descry
Communicating Male and Female Light,
Which two great Sexes animate the World,
Stor'd in each Orb perhaps with some that live.
For such vast room in Nature unpossessed
By living Soul, desert and desolate,

Only to shine, yet scarce to cóntribute

Each Orb a glimpse of Light, conveyed so far
Down to this habitable, which returns
Light back to them, is obvious to dispute.

And in that brief but vivid, daring and dizzying suggestion of infinite productivity and innumerable souls inhabiting other orbs, something more than my imagination took flight.

A week or so after the event, a colleague in my department – a skilled poet herself – stopped me in the hall to say how much she enjoyed the reading and how much she wished she could have stayed for more of it. I told her, as best I could, about my transcendent experience sparked by the poem's rhythms, images, ideas, emotions – and about how that experience lingered with me.

She looked at me with amused concern. “Steve,” she asked, “are you tripping on Milton?” “Yes,” I answered. “Yes, I am.”

The combination of imaginative, ideational, and sensory overload is something, I think, that Milton aimed for. He has a character in another work call it a “sober certainty of waking bliss” – a combination of intellectual clarity and experiential delight. It's an idea and a reality waiting for us throughout his magical, magisterial, magnificent verse.  I'm looking forward to Milton's 410th Birthday . . .


All About Books Main Page