One of the intellectual highpoints of recent years at Stanford (and there has no shortage of them) was the 400th birthday celebration for John Milton, including the 10-hour marathon reading of Paradise Lost. The event became a very intense baptism into the brilliant world of Milton studies – a world whose most eminent scholars include Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Stanley Fish, and others. And, of course, Martin Evans, too.
Martin, my genial host for the event, insisted that John Milton was the most learned poet in the English language, bar none. No surprise that I was so inspired by the caliber of minds I met at the event – and by Martin, most especially – that I attended his classes for a quarter to hear the master-teacher firsthand. I was not disappointed.
From the obituary:
Evans coined the phrase “Miltonic moment” to describe the point of crisis just before the action changes dramatically, looking at once backward to a past that is about to be transcended or repudiated, and forward to a future that immediately begins to unfold.
His first reading of Milton marked a Miltonic moment of his own: “I fell hopelessly in love with the poetry. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever read,” Evans said.
Yet Evans is remembered for being a powerful mentor as well as a revered scholar.
The poet and scholar Linda Gregerson of the University of Michigan, his student in the late 1970s, recalled, “He was immensely generous, both personally and intellectually, able to convey deep learning with extraordinary clarity. He always took a deep delight in ideas, and was just opinionated enough to make things fun.”
She recalled him as “impish, with a brilliant, irreverent sense of humor.”
“He converted many of us to a lifelong inhabitation in the world of Milton studies. It’s a formidable world in many respects, not nearly so genial as the world of Shakespeare studies, for example. But Martin imbued it, and us, with a durable sense of joy.”
It made me almost regret not being a Roundhead, and left me wishing I did not feel quite so strongly for Charles I.
Back to the 400th birthday party, when I wrote (you can read about the whole thing here, with Humble Moi at half off the lefthand side of the screen at the tale-end of this video, here, to prove I did, really attend the event):
“Although those attending the event were invited to wear costumes, none did. And there was no prelapsarian nudity. ‘Everyone will be wearing clothes,’ promised English lecturer Alice Staveley, another organizer of the event. ‘We’re all fallen readers.’
“It’s another decision Milton would have approved. He was, after all, a Puritan. In America, however, the word ‘Puritan’ carries a lot of cargo. Evans insisted that English Puritans bear little resemblance to their dour American counterparts. For one thing, Milton ‘loved music, loved wine,’ Evans said. ‘Puritanism,’ in the American sense, is one of Milton’s many bum raps.
“The influential novelist, poet and critic Charles Williams ticked off the charges leveled at the purportedly proud and scornful Milton, rebutting his foes who maintained ‘the pride of his Satan was his own pride, and he approved it.
‘They argued over his Arianism or his Calvinism. They confined his instrument to the organ. They denied him cheerfulness and laughter (he who, it is said, used to sing while he had the gout!). They gloomed over him, as (they supposed) he, in his arrogant self-respect, gloomed over the world,’ Williams wrote in The English Poems of John Milton (1940).
“But in today’s world, so far from Bread Street and the blind prophet, Milton has few champions as unflagging as the redoubtable Evans.”
While speaking with his former students in the last few days, one story impressed me, in particular. I met Angelica Duran at the event several years ago, but I didn’t know her backstory until I spoke with her several days ago. She was a first-generation Chicana graduate student when she was at Stanford, from 1994-2000, and also a single mom of two very young children. At one point, she was going to drop out for a quarter because she was in a tailspin over her conflicting duties and overwhelming workload. Martin told her if she took time off, she most probably wouldn’t be coming back. “Let’s look at your schedule,” he told her. He inspired her with his own stories about growing up in hardship as a child in Wales. She went on to become director of religious studies and associate professor of English at Purdue University and editor of the Concise Companion to Milton. Oh, and she’s still a mom, too.
Well, as his former student Dennis Danielson of the University of British Columbia, who is editor of the Cambridge Companion to Milton, Martin Evans was “not ashamed of his affections.” Here’s part of the talk Danielson gave when the Milton Society of America named Martin as a prestigious “honored scholar” for lifetime achievement – part tribute, part roast, “that’s the way he liked it,” said Danielson.
Near the end of the quarter, after we had all got our sea legs, we had some excellent discussions, and there was a moment at which Martin expressed a magisterially-delivered opinion about the beginning of Book 11 of Paradise Lost—with which I found myself in serious disagreement. What could I do? I decided to take a big risk, and what I did was to write my final paper on the very issue about which we disagreed, explaining why I disagreed—in the form of irrefragable scholarly argument, of course.
A week later as I walked out of the quad on my way home I waved a cheerful, slightly nervous hello to Martin, who was riding by in the opposite direction on his bicycle and had no I idea how anxious I was about having stated my disagreement with him. He sailed past me, but then he turned his bike around and rode back to where I was. As usual, he wasted no words, but told me that he appreciated my paper very much, thought I should publish it, and also thought it would form the basis of a good PhD thesis. Then he turned again and without further ceremony pedaled off into the quad. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and I see it as typifying the man’s forthrightness, unselfishness, and magnanimity. What I don’t remember is whether I carried on back to my apartment on the ground or through the air.
He will be missed. He is already.