Ralph Waldo Emerson emphatically proclaims in "Self-Reliance" that "the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set naught at traditions but spoke…what they thought" (515). Emerson declares that Milton’s greatness is attributed not to conformity but rather to originality. Milton’s break with consistent expectations is epitomized in his use of a Petrarchan sonnet in the poem "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent." Nonconformity and discontinuity in a man’s approach to life are the doctrines espoused by Emerson in his work "Self-Reliance," and Milton embodies an Emersonian outlook while inwardly searching for personal truth in his sonnet. The lack of formal structure in the works of the two authors enhances rather than inhibits the reader’s grasp of the literature. Although both Emerson and Milton employ a discontinuous literary style in their respective works, Emerson revels in his lack of continuity to further promulgate his ideology of nonconformity and inconsistency while Milton’s use of discontinuity is procured in an attempt to understand his place before God. The foundation for comparing the two works will be based on the following definition of discontinuity: any literary approach that deviates from standard structural form.
The absence of formal structure in Emerson’s "Self-Reliance" has been derided by some critics as an "insuperable handicap" to an appropriate understanding of the work (Warren 200). A thorough examination of the work, however, evokes two fundamental claims: Emerson provides a basis for some semblance of structure, and complete continuity is antithetical to the fundamentals of Emerson’s "Se...
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..." The American Tradition in Literature. Eighth Edition. Ed. George Perkins. New York. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994.
Milton, John. "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Sixth Edition. M.H.Abrams et al. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. John Milton: A Reader’s Guide to His Poetry. New York: Octagon Books, 1983.
Packer, B.L. "Emerson’s Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays." 19th Century Literary Criticism 38 (1993): 200-208.
Robinson, David M. "Grace and Work: Emerson’s Essays in Theological Perspective." 19th Century Literary Criticism 38 (1993): 223-230.
Warren, Joyce W. "Transcendentalism and the Self: Ralph Waldo Emerson." 19th CenturyLiterary Criticism 38 (1993): 208-213.
Wilson, A.N. The Life of John Milton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
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