Paradise found: 'Miltonist' John Rogers says U of T is the place to study the 17th-century poet

After teaching at Yale for three decades, John Rogers joined U of T's department of English last summer and in is the process of writing a book about poet John Milton's influence on 19th-century American religions (photo courtesy of John Rogers)

For John Rogers, an esteemed scholar of 17th-century poet John Milton, the University of Toronto is paradise found.

Rogers joined the Faculty of Arts & Science’s department of English last summer as a professor, having taught at Yale University for 30 years before deciding to come north of the border.

“It was an extraordinary opportunity that presented itself,” says Rogers. “I had spoken here a few times and had always known that U of T was one of the – if not the – greatest centre for the study of Milton and other 17th-century English poets.

“It was a thrill to be able to move to an institution that has such a long and storied commitment to the teaching of Milton.”

A proud “Miltonist,” Rogers says he still finds Milton’s biblical 11,000-line poem about the fall of man, Paradise Lost, endlessly inspiring.

“I remember reading it as a first-year student at college and I remember my head exploding. I was completely blown away,” he says.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton's Paradise Lost c. 1866. Image: Gustave Doré, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“I admired the sheer conceptual ambition behind the poet’s project. He tries to explain, in verse, almost everything that he took to be important or consequential. Milton worked to explain the origin of every fact, every detail and every idea that really mattered in that remarkable epic.”

Rogers is teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses on Milton, though he’s yet to meet any of his students – and many of his colleagues – in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have absolutely loved my teaching here so far – it's been incredibly exciting,” says Rogers, adding that his wife, Associate Professor Andrea Walkden, is also teaching in the English department. “We have never seen any of our students in person. Everything takes place over Zoom. But about 15 minutes into any given class experience, I forget there’s a monitor and not actually a roomful of students.

“You're looking at students' faces and they're looking at your face. There're no distractions. There’s an intellectual connection that seems more easily communicated in the Zoom universe. I haven’t found it nearly as alienating as many others over the last several months.”

When Rogers isn’t teaching, he’s writing. He is author of The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton, as well as numerous essays on a range of 17th-century literary and cultural topics.

He now has his sights set on launching a new research project that will become the foundation of his next book.

“That project will be a study of the remarkable and surprising impact that Milton's great epic poem had on 19th-century American religion,” says Rogers.

Called Latter-day Milton: Paradise Lost and the Creation of America’s God, Rogers’s book will explore the unlikely role that Milton’s work played in the inception of two of America’s 19th-century religions, Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism.

“Scholars have always thought of Milton as being the very embodiment of high culture: sophisticated, literate, educated, invested in all things classical, all things literary and intellectual,” says Rogers. “There were some very pious, evangelical thinkers and preachers in the early and middle 19th century who found themselves devoted to the reading of Paradise Lost and treating it as if it were scripture itself.

“No one has ever really thought of a work of literature being capable of spawning an actual religion. There's been resistance from a number of scholars to making this identification. But I'm committed to making it, and I'm looking forward to bringing this into a research project that some graduate students can commit to as well.”

Rogers, who was also recently named Canada Research Chair in Early Modern Literature and Culture, says he is looking forward to helping put together one of his favourite literary events of the year.

“Every year the University of Toronto sponsors one of the great international conferences about Milton called the Canada Milton Seminar,” says Rogers. “It's a sizable conference and the prospect of helping to shape this seminar is really exciting.”

In the meantime, Rogers will resume exploring his most treasured poem.

“I learn something that I consider to be important and new every time I teach Paradise Lost,” he says. “My students find things, make connections and understand strange aspects of the poem that I've never understood before. It's still such a thrill.”

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