L. Bellee Jones-Pierce

On His Prosthesis

Mine eye hath found that sad Sepulchral rock
That was the Casket of Heav’ns richest store,
And here though grief my feeble hands up-lock,
Yet on the softned Quarry would I score
My plaining vers as lifely as before;
     For sure so well instructed are my tears,
That they would fitly fall in order’d Characters.

—John Milton, “The Passion” VII

Sketched onto a timeline of John Milton’s career, “The Passion” is surrounded by more successful poems. One of these is “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” which was likely meant as its companion piece. Milton’s Nativity ode is thirty-one stanzas long; the first four stanzas, each six lines of iambic pentameter followed by an alexandrine and rhyming ababbcc, serve as proem for the rest. “The Passion” begins similarly, though in sorrow, with four stanzas in the same meter and rhyme scheme. Rather than shifting its form and attention, however, “The Passion” continues in this form for four additional stanzas.

And that is all it does. Never having reached the Passion itself, the poem ends. “This failure to capture an inspiration equal to that of the Nativity Ode,” writes Merritt Hughes, “seems to have been written at Easter 1630,” when Milton was twenty-one (61). “Milton thought this poem was a poor specimen of his ability,” writes Thomas Luxon, “and most critics agree, rating it as his worst English poem.” Indeed, critics are less than kind. In his 1930 biography of Milton, E.M.W. Tillyard characterizes the eight-stanza poem as “the wreckage of The Passion” and declares “the failure is complete” (44). Philip J. Gallagher observes that “twentieth-century Milton criticism is virtually unanimous on [only] one issue: the failure of Milton’s ‘fragmentary’ poem” (44). As Frederic B. Tromly puts it, “commentators have repeatedly lifted the hem of the bard’s singing robes to reveal the clay feet beneath” (276).

The expression “feet of clay” generally denotes a character flaw such as hubris. Yet Tromly’s allusion to the Book of Daniel is apt. Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. The statue’s feet are brittle; when a rock strikes them, they break, and the entire statue falls. Metal pieces scatter like coins, and the rock becomes a mountain that fills the earth. In Daniel’s interpretation, each metal body part is a kingdom. The golden head signifies Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, followed by lesser metals, lesser kingdoms. The disabled feet of the statue, both iron and clay, represent a divided, unstable kingdom. As for the rock that smashes the faulty feet and topples the statue, Daniel prophesies an eternal kingdom that will end the others. A version of this rock makes an appearance in Milton’s poem. It is the “sad Sepulchral rock” of “softned Quarry” that is Jesus’ tomb. As the speaker weeps, readers see the poem itself etched into the rock “in order’d Characters.”

Or we see the would-be poem, undone by the stone and the speaker’s grief, undone by the Passion itself. In The Cambridge Companion to Milton, Colin Burrow calls “The Passion” “an odd, youthful stub, which breaks off before it actually musters enough energy to describe the crucifixion, its purported subject” (54). Though I suspect Milton thought the poem complete, the term stub seems appropriate. It denotes the stump of a tree, something that grew or could have grown, or a broken branch remaining upon a stem or tree. Either of these organic remains—the stump, the broken branch—can become stock for grafting.1 And, then as now, both stub and stump could refer to amputated or broken-off limbs of the body, or “rudimentary” limbs that have “the appearance of being mutilated.”2


My five-year-old son has a stub. A stump.

He has a condition called fibular hemimelia, a congenital partial or complete absence of the fibula, the slender bone in the lower leg that supports the stronger tibia. Fibular hemimelia is rare, found in approximately 1/40,000 births, and associated with differing leg lengths and deformities of the foot including syndactyly, oligodactyly, and polydactyly. When he was born, his left leg was shorter than his right. It had a rudimentary ankle joint and a foot with three toes. His fibula is entirely absent.

Before he could learn to walk, before he was eight months old, we were asked to decide a path for him: amputation or limb lengthening. Doctors and therapists want amputees to take their first steps with prosthetics, so the surgery would be soon, before his birthday, with a six-week recovery. Limb lengthening would scatter surgeries across his childhood, combining metal and bone into a foundation that, after everything, might remain unstable. In the interest of saving him pain, of saving us pain, we chose amputation. We took photos and a clay impression of his foot, kissed it goodbye, and sent him into surgery on the day he turned eleven months old. I thought I would miss his little foot—a part of him, so often a defining part of him for others. As it turns out, I don’t.


Is “The Passion” a stub? If so, we must ask whether its stubbiness is purposeful or accidental. That is, did Milton intentionally break the poem? If so, we must ask whether its brokenness was desperate or surgical. If surgical, we must ask—to what end? Is “The Passion” stubborn? Stubborn itself is stubborn, its etymology unyielding. It may or may not be related to stub. Perhaps the poem is pedagogical, meant to instill a sense of humility in its reader, a sort of earthy empathy—the Latin root is humus—grounded in rocks, dirt, and water. Perhaps the poem is pedagogical, a map of grief’s impossibility, an anatomy.

Perhaps the poem is pedagogical, a treatise on fitness and form. In the Preface to Paradise Lost, Milton throws off “the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing” in favor of the “apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another” available to him in blank verse. “The jingling sound of like endings,” writes Milton, is “no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter.” Here Milton hurls rocks at his own lyric poetry and joins the number of poets who link prosody with the body and ability. The OED credits George Herbert with the first use of the adjective “disabled” referring to a person “having a physical or mental condition which limits activity, movement, sensation, etc.” (A.I.2.). The word appears in one of Herbert’s several Passion poems, “The Crosse”:

       One ague dwelleth in my bones,
Another in my soul (the memorie
What I would do for thee, if once my grones
       Could be allow’d for harmonie):
I am in all a weak disabled thing,
Save in the sight thereof, where strength doth sting. (13-18)

Herbert begins with body and bones, then draws a metaphorical connection between sickness or physical disability, poetic ability, and spiritual sorrow. This parallel was common in the period and is instructive for thinking about the ways we connect disability and poetry. While “scenes” of grief “confine [the] roving vers” of Milton’s “The Passion” (22), the sight of the Cross is a curative that enables Herbert’s poetry.

Disability and its metaphors permeate our poetics and the bodies of texts without much regard for the conditions of authorial bodies. I often argue that disability studies can be powerful even, perhaps especially, when texts do not seem concerned with disability at all. Indeed, I have taken great lengths to disregard biographical disability and to write about texts without disabled characters. Yet John Milton has been at the back of my mind.

I heard somewhere—an article? an apocalypse?—that Milton is “the end of everything.” In his work we find the last gasp of the early modern vogue for sonnets, the final truly epic poem, and so on. Milton is likewise a bridge from the early modern to the truly modern, modernist avant la lettre, a touchstone across centuries of poets and poetry. His engagement with disability and form is not entirely unlike the work of contemporary poets Petra Kuppers, Jim Ferris, and Stephen Kuusisto, who have made legible the concerns and techniques of disability poetics. Kuusisto’s Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening includes the story of his first encounter with Paradise Lost, in which a “wildly implausible” substitute teacher, “a Miltonist from Mississippi, nearly seventy, with a voice like Red Barber,” filled what should have been a music class by reading aloud from Milton’s epic (51). Kuusisto later borrowed a recording of the epic from the National Library Service, a book accessibility project administered by the Library of Congress. In listening to that recording, Kuusisto writes, “I’d discovered, without knowing it, the difference between speaking and being. This is what listening is, true listening, the lonely but open mind. I’d discovered the gift of Milton: the soul’s path is in the ear—not in the mirror” (50).

Milton often comes up in the field of disability studies. And with good reason. He is someone to reach toward as we pull the scholarship of disability studies into the time before disability and normalization arose as limiting and structural concepts. With Milton, as with Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope, scholars have biographical information. Lennard Davis attributes the increased information regarding these later authors’ disabilities—in contrast to Shakespeare, for example—to changed “standards of biography” and “increasing interest in the individual and the author” as well as a changing conception of disability. “In this liminal period,” Davis writes, “we can see traces of both earlier and later formulations of disability. In other words, we can see the contradiction of an early sense in which disability per se did not exist and of a later one in which disability is used to explain a great deal” (55-56). Biographical records of disability thus enable explanations via disability, the idea that disability might “explain a great deal” encourages increased interest in biographical records, and we end up with rather an ouroboros.

With this essay, I find myself both indulging and resisting the impulse to write about Milton. To focus on physical authorial bodies is reminiscent of the medical model of disability that, as Tobin Siebers explains, “situates disability exclusively in individual bodies and strives to cure them by particular treatment, isolating the patient as diseased or defective” (173). We know Milton was totally blind by age 44. We know his blindness came on gradually and was likely caused by glaucoma or retinal detachment. We know Milton consulted with herbalists and oculists regarding treatments for his diminishing sight (Guevara 104). We know he continued his work as Secretary for Foreign Tongues with accommodations including readers and amanuenses, one of whom was Andrew Marvell. We know his daughters took down his poetry and read it back to him. Milton’s poetry is imbricated with his blindness, certainly. But to isolate Milton’s body of work because of that blindness—to use that blindness to explicate the work and either explain his poetics or align his poetics with those of his age—seems too particular and limiting a treatment of both Milton’s work and the potential for disability studies as a method of literary critical inquiry.


Small things still catch me off guard sometimes. I become irrationally angry at birth announcements: ten fingers, ten toes! When the weather gets warm and we switch to shorts, I forget that people will stare until they’re staring.

Not long after my son got his first prosthesis, we walked along our favorite park path, his fists tight around my index fingers. Step step, wobble step. A woman interrupted her run to smile and coo and babytalk at him for a while. After their goodbyes she turned briefly to me.

“He doesn’t even know anything is wrong.”


People are always trying to figure out just what is wrong with Eve. What makes her susceptible to Satan’s wiles? What makes her leave Adam’s side, her first and most natural habitation? Why does she feel the weight of Edenic labor—the garden’s overgrowth, the impending unease of vine and branch—when Adam does not? Should she have stuck around for Adam’s conversation with Raphael? What is with her wanton ringlets, anyway? Is she marked, somehow, by the toad’s dreamy whisper? Is she impaired? If we grant Milton’s premise, the answers to these questions might be simple. Yet Eve herself is tempting, and we continue to question and wonder.
Eve first comes to know herself by the mirror-like waters of Eden. She is captivated, not by the water, but by the pleasing reflection she sees there. Eve is a more compelling character than Adam, perhaps, because we so easily see ourselves reflected in her. She looks. She learns and loves. “That day I oft remember,” she tells Adam:

As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A Shape within the wat’ry gleam appear’d
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleas’d I soon return’d,
Pleas’d it return’d as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love; there I had fixt
Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warn’d me, What thou seest,
What there thou seest fair Creature is thyself (4.460-468)

Eve’s first act of meaning-making is to stare, to ponder her reflection’s “answering looks.” Milton’s form in these lines reflects Eve’s experience—“I started back / It started back,” “pleas’d I soon return’d / Pleas’d it return’d as soon”—small differences like ripples crossing water. The newly created Eve is patterned after Narcissus, and the lovely repetitive “I” in line 466 attunes us to her self-absorption. Eve’s vanity strikes many readers as sinful. Maybe it is an impairment. The warning “voice” knows what Eve does not—she is caught within the water’s mirror—and vocally mimics “answering looks” to draw her out. “What thou seest, / What there thou seest,” the voice explains, “is thyself.”

Eve’s nativity is an interruptive force in Paradise Lost. It’s actually hard to explain just how interruptive these lines are. The narrative follows Satan’s Edenic reconnaissance until Adam’s devotional exclamation in line 411, itself an interruption in praise of Eve. Eve interrupts her own reply in praise of Adam—beginning “O thou” (400)—with O me, a sharp turn to her origin. “Eve’s first mention of awakening in Eden arises without warning, with all the urgency of the unconscious,” writes Susannah B. Mintz, for “nothing in her speech prior to this moment fully prepares us for the abruptness of the shift…nor for the emotional intensity with which Eve settles into the intimate register of telling” (36). Mintz’s focus is “telling,” and others have called Eve’s speech a “narrative,” but it has all the disruptive intensity of lyric.
Though pinning down the definition of lyric is difficult at best, we might begin to understand the lyric, or the lyric stance, as a form of observation and dissemination. The poet or lyric speaker observes an image, a person, an idea, or an occurrence; has and writes thoughts about it that include its relationship to other thoughts, ideas, objects, people, etc.; and transmits both her object and her way of perceiving it in a consciously crafted manner meant to be observed by others. Eve’s bourgeoning perception, too, is interrupted; Eve knows nothing outside of herself, save the water and the Shape within it, until the voice comes to her. When that voice tells her what and whom she should regard, her reluctance seems a reluctance to leave the meaning-making she has engaged in on her own. “What could I do,” she asks, “But follow straight, invisibly thus led?” (4.475-476). Her worldview—her existence—shifts in the word invisibly. Sight begins to matter less. When Eve meets Adam and turns again toward the water, Adam’s words and touch reclaim her.


Sight was once understood as a kind of touch or a physical exchange. One of the prevailing classical theories of sight, intromission, posited that “objects in the world gave off resemblances or replicas of themselves (species) which then travelled to the eyes and, via the eyes and the optic nerves, into the various ventricles of the brain to be evaluated and processed” (Clark 2). These replicas, or similitudes, could impress the likeness of the object into the eye without transferring the actual matter of the object, and were also thought to be sent in rays. The other prevalent theory of vision, extramission, placed the power of vision largely with the eye itself. The eye “sends out rays” that “strike the air with force and transform it, rendering it similar to themselves, so that the air becomes a sort of extension of the eye” (Weststeijn 151). Once emitted from the eye, these rays pull an image of the object back to the eye and the viewer’s perception.


In addition to biographical details pertaining to Milton’s sight, we have the blind bard’s poetic corpus. The most-read of Milton’s works, Paradise Lost brims with references to literal eyes and figurative sightedness. A figurative example that is also potentially literal—even biographical—can be found in Book 11, lines 411-415: the archangel Michael uses “euphrasy,” or eyebright, to remove the “film” that sin has cast on Adam’s eyes. For Perry Guevara, this medicinal use of eyebright is compelling evidence that Milton “was likely familiar not only with eyebright and its therapeutic virtues but also with the pseudoscientific discourse of herbal medicine” (104). Citing examples from Milton’s correspondence as well as contemporary pharmacopoeia and herbals, Guevara suggests Milton used eyebright and other botanical curatives to address his failing sight.

“Sonnet XVI,” or “When I consider how my light is spent,” may or may not be about blindness. Nevertheless, the eighteenth-century editor Thomas Newton titled the poem “On His Blindness.” Critics and readers also tend to attach Milton’s blindness to “Sonnet XIX,” or “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” in which the speaker dreams of his late beloved but wakes to find, alas, that “day brought back [his] night” (14). Though it did not appear in collections Milton oversaw himself, the sonnet “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon his Blindness” is certainly biographical. In it, Milton attributes his blindness to his work and takes comfort or “suppor[t]” in that he “lost” his eyes “overplied / In liberty’s defense, my noble task” (9-11). This “noble task” of “defense” finds resonance in Samson Agonistes. The drama’s blind protagonist bitterly laments his circumstances—“O lost sight, of thee I most complain! / Blind among enemies, O worse then chains, / Dungeon, or beggery, or decrepit age!” (67-69)—his blindness ultimately allows his transformation into the stuff “of copious Legend, or sweet Lyric Song” (1737).

The epic narrator, too, figures blindness as integral to his inspiration and his task. While Sidney’s muse admonishes when he asks for direction—“Look to thy heart and write”—Milton’s muse answers his epic invocations with light and healing. This is especially true of the invocation in Book Three, an extended meditation on what it means to be blind and a poet. “Cloud…and ever-during dark / Surrounds me,” the narrator explains, and he is “Presented with a Universal blanc / of Nature’s works to me expunged and ras’d” (3.45-48). Milton does not ask for physical healing, of course. That would be easy. “So much the rather thou Celestial Light,” he implores,

Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (3.50-55)

Though Milton’s muse was present at Mount Sinai and in other places too, she hails from “Siloa’s Brook” or the pool of Siloam—where Jesus healed the blind (1.11). Yet this is accommodation rather than healing: the “Celestial Patroness,” Milton later writes, “dictates to me slumb’ring, or inspires / Easie my unpremeditated Verse” (10.21-24). In the first lines of the epic, Milton reports that his “heavenly muse” similarly inspired Moses:

Sing heavenly muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of chaos… (1.6-10)

In these lines, Milton aligns himself with the shepherd-turned-prophet Moses in terms of the Virgilian Progression from pastoral eclogue to epic. They also position Milton in a line of spirit-inspired educators.

Rather more interestingly, Milton pitches Moses as a fellow recipient of disability accommodations. Long before he climbs Mount Sinai to commune with the heavenly muse, Moses asks the Lord to excuse him from speaking to Pharaoh:

But Moses said vnto the Lorde, Oh my Lorde, I am not eloquent, neither at any time haue bene, nor yet since thou hast spoken vnto thy seruant: but I am slowe of speach & slowe of tongue. Then the Lorde said vnto him, Who hath giuen the mouth to man? or who hath made the domme, or the deafe, or him that seeth, or the blinde? haue not I the Lorde? Therefore goe nowe, and I will be with thy mouth, and will teach thee what thou shalt say. (Geneva Bible, Exodus 4:10-12)

The most prominent interpretation for “slowe of speach & slowe of tongue” is that Moses was a stutterer. Significantly, the Lord answers Moses’ anxiety regarding disabled speech with the language of disability. Admonishing and encouraging all at once, God acknowledges the validity of Moses’ speech difficulties and insists upon his hand in them, both as creator and as caretaker. Moses asks God to send another even after these assurances, and a “verie angry” Lord offers Aaron as a solution to their problem: “Doe not I know Aaron thy brother the Leuite, that he himselfe shall speake?….Therefore thou shalt speake vnto him, and put the wordes in his mouth, and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye ought to doe” (Exodus 4:13-15). To put it plainly, God gives Moses a prosthesis.


While we wait to see his prosthetist for an adjustment, my son stares at a poster of a bilateral amputee wearing blades, prosthetics built for running. He wants a blade so badly, but he’s not tall enough; technological advances require physical clearance between his residual limb and the floor. His next milestone is an ankle. The prosthetist calls us back, measures his growth, checks his hips. In the two months since his last adjustment, he’s grown half an inch below the knee.
On the way out, he looks again at the poster.

“I’m getting bigger, Mom!”


Milton’s blindness could certainly, even profitably be brought to bear upon Eve’s encounter with her reflection. On the one hand, this may be another instance in which the epic undoes the metaphor knowing is seeing, setting both Milton’s narrator and Adam above Eve’s obsessive ocularity. On the other hand, Eve’s obsession, Satan’s spying, and the epic’s lush descriptions may speak to an obsession in Milton himself. While I want to be careful not to suggest we discard Milton’s blindness as a factor in his poetics—it most certainly is a factor—I would rather engage with his form than with his biography. The interruptive nature of Eve’s nativity account—the lyric narrative—seems much more promising and provocative ground.

“The Passion,” too, is beguiling.

Many critics have claimed that the entirety of “The Passion” should be understood within the context of Milton’s four-stanza prologue to “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” That is to say, the entire poem is a prologue for what comes next. That is to say, the entire poem is a failure: eight proem stanzas, then nothing. But there is something I’ve left out. Milton appends a note to the poem:

This Subject the Author finding to be above the yeers he had,
           when he wrote it, and nothing satisfi’d with what was
           begun, left it unfinisht.

Rather than revising “The Passion” or pretending it never existed, Milton publishes the “unfinisht” poem twice. It first appears, with this note, in the 1645 Poems. The poems that precede it are the Nativity Ode, dated 1629, and paraphrases on Psalm 114 and 136. “A Paraphrase on Psalm 114” is also prefaced with a note: “This and the following Psalm were don by the Author at fifteen yeers old.” The markers of youth in these notes lead some critics to suggest that Milton published “The Passion” out of a desire to preserve his juvenilia and, therefore, the evolution of his poetic career. The poem that follows, “On Time,” makes a tidy addition to this theory. Its joyous “Triump[h] over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time” can be understood as the effect of the Passion and, arguably, more important than Christ’s actual suffering.

I just don’t find the Virgilian Progression all that compelling, I guess. Neither do I delight in the notion that Milton chalks up his failure to a learning experience. While Milton was certainly into Virgil, I don’t buy Milton as a process pedagogue. If “The Passion” is a stub—if the poem’s “wretched Matter and lame Meter” or “unfinisht,” seemingly mutilated state constitute disability—Milton’s note is a prosthesis.

“Disability sparks imagination and narration,” Alice Hall explains, and “people with disabilities are often expected to describe and even explain their bodies and histories in ways that those perceived as normal are not” (3). David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder pull that everyday experience into literary criticism with the narrative prosthesis. In the realm of story, excess and limitation are to disability as narrative compensation is to prosthesis. “While an actual prosthesis is always somewhat discomforting,” Mitchell and Snyder explain, “a textual prosthesis alleviates discomfort by removing the unsightly from view” (qtd. in Hall 66). As Mitchel and Snyder note, disability resists this removal; the work of prosthesis usually serves to highlight disability rather than to hide it. Narratives rely upon disability to propel themselves; imbalances resolved, narrative has nowhere to go. The relationship is bit like Eve’s experience with her reflection: “I started back / It started back, but pleas’d I soon retunr’d / Pleas’d, it return’d as soon with answering looks” (4.462-464). Narrative’s reliance on disability is clear in Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes both, and indeed, the narrative prosthesis is a bulwark of literary disability studies.

But we’ve been talking about “The Passion.” Is there a lyric prosthesis? If Mitchell and Snyder are correct in thinking that “an actual prosthesis is always somewhat discomforting,” we might begin to theorize the lyric prosthesis on the level of form. Poetic form is discomforting in and of itself. It is conspicuously not-prose, language made strange and defined by ruptures in form as much as regularity. “The Passion” is conspicuous in matter, form, and publication. These visible deformations work like a room of mirrors, endlessly redoubling and intensifying themselves. Rather than hiding what is “unsightly,” the lyric prosthesis augments our sight. “The Passion” gives off replicas of itself that leave impressions and shift our ways of looking.


When I see children running around with two feet at the pool or the playground on a warm day, I have to look at them again, and sometimes again. Something seems wrong. My son is as he should be. My vision has acclimated to his body, but his disability sometimes causes ocular disruption for others. It causes them to pause, to stare. At the playground, at the pool, people ask about his leg. What’s wrong with his leg? Oh, he has an owie. Look! Did he break it? It’s so great that you let him climb and play. What’s the matter with him? My son answers, “Oh, that’s just my leggy. I have a prosthesis.” He uses leggy to indicate both prosthesis and residual limb. These well-meaning people are usually asking about the prosthesis—it is noticeable, decorated and colorful—but if they see him without it, their word is stump. The last time we were at the park, a woman indeed said stub, as in, How much of a stub does he have under there?

I was already writing and not-writing about Milton when that woman’s language reminded me of “The Passion” and how critics have so often understood it. So much of my work is wrapped in thoughts about my son, in the perspectives he has given me and how he navigates the world. He is beginning to realize the limitations society has in store for him. He trips on uneven and unmaintained sidewalks, on stairs of different heights. He loves to swing and get dizzy, but the centrifugal force of swings, or of being spun in circles, causes his prosthesis to pull away from his leg. His prosthesis also causes pain when the weather is too hot, or when he has outgrown it—and he is always growing. Some days he prefers to go without his prosthesis, or he is frustrated with it, or it’s out for repair. On these days, I often rub his heel pad and calf—his stump—to promote circulation. Sometimes I observe that he is more agile, quicker and more unpredictable, without his prosthesis. His movements are calculated and deliberate.

“The Passion” is likewise deliberate. And yes, a stub. In addition to the definitions above, Milton would have known stub as “a splinter or thorn in the flesh” or “a stab or twinge of pain,” perhaps even caused by a nail.3 What would happen if we took this stub seriously? Rather than taking Milton at his word, what could it do—for poetry, for disability studies, for Milton studies—if we thought of “The Passion” not as unfinished, not as abortive or as juvenilia, but as constitutive of the Milton we know? I suspect such a criticism would be more agile, more able, than any we have yet attempted.

Works Cited

Burrow, Colin. “Poems 1645: the future poet.” In The Cambridge Companion to Milton, 2nd ed., edited by Dennis Danielson, 54-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Davis, Lennard. “Dr. Johnson, Amelia, and the Discourse of Disability in the Eighteenth Century,” in “Defects”: Engendering the Modern Body, edited by Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum, 54-74. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Friedman, Donald M. “The Sense of a Beginning,” in Shakespeare Up Close: Reading Early Modern Texts, edited by Russ McDonald, Nicholas D. Nace, and Travis D. Williams, 17-24. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2012.

Gallagher, Phillip J. “Milton’s ‘The Passion’: Inspired Mediocrity.” Milton Quarterly 11, no. 3 (May 1977): 44-50.

Guevara, Perry. “Inhuman Depressions: A Cognitive Ecology of Holes in Early Modern English Literature.” PhD diss., Emory University, 2016.

Hall, Alice. Literature and Disability. Literature and Contemporary Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

Hughes, Merritt Y., editor. Complete Poems and Major Prose, by John Milton. 1957. Reprint, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2003.

Kuusisto, Stephen. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening. New York: Norton, 2006.

Luxon, Thomas H. Commentary on “The Passion,” in The John Milton Reading Room. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merrit Y. Hughes. 1957. Reprint, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2003.

—. The Major Works, edited by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. Reissue, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

—. Poems of Mr. John Milton both English and Latin, compos’d at several times. Printed by his true copies. The songs were set in musick by Mr. Henry Lawes Gentleman of the Kings Chappel, and one of His Maiesties private musick. Printed and publish’d according to order. London, 1645. EEBO, Folger Shakespeare Library.

—. Poems, &c., upon several occasions by Mr. John Milton; both English and Latin, &c.; composed at several times; with a small tractate of education to Mr. Hartlib. London, 1673. EEBO, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

Mintz, Susannah B. Threshold Poetics: Milton and Intersubjectivity. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003.

Siebers, Tobin. “Disability in Theory: From Social Constructionism to the New Realism of the Body,” in The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd edition, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 173-184. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.

Tillyard, E.M.W. Milton. London: Chatto and Windus, 1930.

Tromly, Frederick B. “Milton’s ‘Preposterous Exaction’: The Significance of ‘The Passion.’” English Literary History 47, no. 2 (Summer 1980): 276-286.


  1. OED n. “stub” 1.a., 1.d., and 3; n.1 “stump” 2.a.
  2. OED n. “stub” 9.a.; n.1 “stump” 1.a., 1.b.
  3. OED n. “stub” 5.a. and 5.b. and 6.a.


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About the Author

L. Bellee Jones-Pierce is an early modernist and Assistant Professor of English at Centenary College of Louisiana. She is neurodivergent and disabled. Her book project, Able Verse, suggests the English lyric is shaped by disability itself as well as conceptions of disability as they come to metaphor in social and poetic discourse.