I am Emeritus Professor (Professeur Honoraire) of English Literature at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. I no longer teach regularly, although I have been invited to give classes and lectures in neighbouring universities, and I was happy to participate in recent Continuing Education projects (Formation Continue) in Lausanne. You will see from my list of publications that I have been actively engaged in research for many years, and I still am. The picture at the top of the page is Gustave Doré’s image of Milton’s Satan looking thoughtfully into the abyss he is about to cross. It is a key passage in Paradise Lost, and discussed in one of my books, The Satanic Epic.
I grew up in Southampton, England, where I attended King Edward VI Grammar School from 1954-62 and studied Classics. In 1965 I was awarded a BA in English at King’s College, Cambridge. Among my teachers were Geoffrey Lloyd and Tony Tanner.
I then set off for the United States to continue my education. In 1967 I got an MA in Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a place I had chosen because I wanted to experience the Civil Rights movement up close. That summer I worked for Time-Life Books as a researcher on Ancient China, before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. Among my teachers in Comparative Literature were Alain Renoir, Philip Damon, and Michael Nagler, and in English, Wayne Shumaker, John Coolidge and Stanley Fish. While in the Bay Area, I also taught at San Francisco State College. 1968 saw me involved in political activity on both sides of the bay: I was arrested, but never charged, in the San Francisco mass arrest of that year.
The universities closed down in 1970 to avoid the mayhem that followed the Kent State shootings, so I decided to try to work my way round the world. The Scandinavian shipping office gave me a berth as a deckhand on a Danish ship in Portland, Oregon, and soon I could sign off in Tokyo, Japan. During the seven months I lived in Japan I took various jobs from teaching English to modelling trousers. I hitch-hiked around the country. I also met and became friends with Angela Carter, and I have written a brief memoir of that time. I returned to Berkeley and San Francisco and I was eventually awarded a doctorate in 1976, with a thesis entitled ‘The Powers of Darkness Bound’.
At San Francisco State College (as it still was), I taught in the departments of English, Humanities, Classics, Philosophy as well as World Literature. In 1977 I was awarded a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, where I taught Latin (Virgil) and Greek (Homer) as well as a Mythology course.
In 1980, I became Assistant Professor of English at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. Then I moved along the lake in 1985 to become Professor of English at the University of Lausanne, where I was head of department at various times from 1990 until my retirement in 2010. I was then honoured by a Festschrift, After Satan, which includes contributions from good friends and colleagues over the years. I have also taught as invited professor or guest lecturer at most other Swiss universities, including Fribourg and Zürich. From 1994 to 1997 I was the editor of The European English Messenger, journal of the European Society for the Study of English.
My first book (1987), The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, is a history of the devil as a character in various narratives, beginning with the Humbaba of the Sumerian Gilgamesh tales. The last part, much updated from my PhD thesis, is about the early Christians, and ends with Augustine.
My second book, also published by Princeton University Press, is a study of Milton’s Paradise Lost, entitled The Satanic Epic (2003). It was awarded the James Holly Hanford prize of the Milton Society of America in 2004.
I was then commissioned by LionHudson, Oxford, to write a biography of Milton, which was published in the centenary year of 2008.
Articles and Essays
I have written many articles in journals such as Critical Inquiry, Comparative Literature, Modern Philology, The Milton Quarterly, Word and Image. I review occasionally for the Times Literary Supplement. See under ‘Publications’.
Forsyth, Neil. Shakespeare the Illusionist. Magic, Dreams, and the Supernatural on Film. Ohio University Press, 2019
In Shakespeare the Illusionist, Neil Forsyth reviews the history of Shakespeare’s plays on film, assessing what filmmakers and TV directors have made of the spells, haunts, and apparitions— Puck and the fairies, ghosts and witches, or Prospero’s island—in his plays. A bold step forward in Shakespeare and film studies.
Forsyth, Neil. John Milton: A Biography. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008.
John Milton was born in 1608 and in the late 1630s he travelled to the Continent where he met, among others, Galileo and Grotius. A staunch republican, he served as Latin secretary to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. After the restoration of Charles II his life was probably saved by his fame as a poet. He was thrice married, his first two wives dying after childbirth. This serious yet accessible biography by a renowed Milton scholar tells the story of Milton's fascinating and troubled life on both the personal and political level.
Forsyth, Neil and Tournu C., eds. Milton: Rights and Liberties. Peter Lang: Bern, 2007.
On July 14th, 1790, a key figure in the French Revolution honoured Milton as a founding father of the French republic. In the light of this connection, it was appropriate that the 8th International Milton Symposium (7-11 June 2005) was held in Grenoble, cradle of the French Revolution. But the connection of Milton and Rights takes us well beyond the specific link with France, and the fascinating selection of essays assembled in this volume, many by leading Milton scholars, addresses the question in the poetry as well as the prose. Milton's fervent but changing attitude to liberties is debated from various points of view, so that the volume contains essays on topics ranging from the musical adaptations of Samson Agonistes to its angrily argued parallel with contemporary terrorism, from air pollution in Paradise Lost to Milton's supposed Puritanism and putative parallels with a French pornographer.
Forsyth, Neil. The Satanic Epic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
The Satan of Paradise Lost has fascinated generations of readers. This book attempts to explain how and why Milton's Satan is so seductive. It reasserts the importance of Satan against those who would minimize the poem's sympathy for the devil and thereby make Milton orthodox. Neil Forsyth argues that William Blake got it right when he called Milton a true poet because he was "of the Devils party" even though he set out "to justify the ways of God to men." In seeking to learn why Satan is so alluring, Forsyth ranges over diverse topics--from the origins of evil and the relevance of witchcraft to the status of the poetic narrator, the epic tradition, the nature of love between the sexes, and seventeenth-century astronomy. He considers each of these as Milton introduces them: as Satanic subjects. Satan emerges as the main challenge to Christian belief. It is Satan who questions and wonders and denounces. He is the great doubter who gives voice to many of the arguments that Christianity has provoked from within and without. And by rooting his Satanic reading of Paradise Lost in Biblical and other sources, Forsyth retrieves not only an attractive and heroic Satan but a Milton whose heretical energies are embodied in a Satanic character with a life of his own.