Camellia Ye is a senior majoring in English and Economics. Her interests lie in early modern poetry and the translation of tumultuous sociopolitical history into verse. She is also fascinated by representations of nature in literature and how they reveal anxieties around gender, productivity, aesthetics, civilization, etc. At Stanford, she is an editorial assistant for the Stanford Global Shakespeare Encyclopedia, a peer tutor in Economics, and a cellist in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. In the past, she produced podcasts for the Stanford Storytelling Project and worked as a research assistant for many faculty projects, including the Oral History Text Analysis Project with Prof. Estelle Freedman.
Milton’s “Intestine War”: Revolutionary Sensation and Inaction in “Paradise Lost”
Advisor: Blakey Vermeule
What is the focus of your current research?
My research examines the systems of waste in Hell (“the bowels of their mother Earth”), Heaven (the “Intestine War”) and Paradise (“manuring” the garden and “the smell of mortal change on Earth”) (I.687, VI.259, IV.628, X.272-73). John Rogers’ The Matter of Revolution has been an important secondary source to my project, illuminating Milton’s politics by helping me understand the synergies between early modern natural philosophers and political theorists. My research asks how the contaminated material world, conceptualized as the digestive organs of the body natural and imbued with spirit and agency through vitalist thought, informs us of analogous issues of body politic.
What drew you to this topic?
I first encountered Paradise Lost in English 251B, a class dedicated to an intensive reading of the epic, and discovered the many joys found in the close literary analysis of Milton’s poetics. I became interested in Milton’s reimagination of the postlapsarian pearl—an ontological accident, a byproduct of disease—as the paradisal pearl, an organism with aesthetic as well as alimentary function in the spiritual economy. I wanted to expand on this line of inquiry and think about how waste systems in Paradise Lost function aesthetically, nutritively, and spiritually.
How are you conducting your research?
I finished doing a first pass of scholarly work related to my research questions. These include scholars of Milton and Paradise Lost interested in the history of science, ecocriticism, and moral education. With new perspectives and languages to approach Milton, I’m spending time relearning Paradise Lost and finding new insights to guide my thesis.
What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?
I’m always surprised and amazed by the dynamism of early modern thinkers such as John Milton and, in a related manner, the questions posed by natural philosophers. For instance, the “tartar and dregs,” which appear in the narrative of creation, was the term for deposits of calcified minerals in the body (or kidney stones to modern readers) (7.238). A very natural question, “Where does this substance come from?” posed a huge theological problem regarding the goodness of God’s ways, which thinkers settled by arguing its origin in the fall of Mankind. By locating this supposedly postlapsarian substance at the beginning of creation, Milton poses an enormous theological and political challenge for us to unravel.
In your view, why is it valuable to study this topic?
Milton, a statesman and a poet, straddled the world of action and contemplation, and so I borrow from Milton much of my perspectives on the generation of value by any kind of activity. Besides the inward value from reading and studying Paradise Lost, I think that the epic's own struggle to represent the ideal body politic and to revitalize that body after civil discord anticipates important modern-day concerns about the crisis of democracy. I hope in my study to understand Milton’s conception of the ideal citizen and the role of poetry in forming that ideal—on the page as well as beyond, reaching the reader of any era.
How is your honors thesis impacting you academically and/or personally?
My honors thesis has afforded me the opportunity to synthesize my humanities education and think about what these privileged years spent in deep dialogue with literature has afforded me to do post-graduation. Although research has been slow and arduous, I’m grateful for having a reason to slow down, take a much-needed break from a never-ending cycle of applications, and remind myself of the questions that drive me forward, within and outside of literature.
How do you anticipate the fellowship will be able to support your research?
Above all, I look forward to the community aspect of the fellowship. My topic is quite interdisciplinary in nature, and I think there’s a lot of great intellectual synergies to be created by engaging with a community of scholars, most of whom lie outside my discipline. I have found that my greatest breakthroughs thus far came from conversing with others because I was pushed to ask these questions: why should my research matter to someone who doesn’t read Milton, or even someone who doesn’t study English literature? I hope to continue this discovery process within the fellowship’s environment of intellectual wonder and curiosity.