- A Companion to Milton by Thomas N. Corns
Blackwell, 528 pp, £80.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 631 21408 9
- The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography by Barbara K. Lewalski
Blackwell, 816 pp, £25.00, December 2000, ISBN 0 631 17665 9
In 1936, with the Spanish Civil War begun and world war on the horizon, the distinguished Scottish scholar and editor of Donne, H.J.C. Grierson, gave a series of lectures on Milton and Wordsworth, which began by addressing the attacks on Milton that T.S. Eliot and his acolytes were mounting. The revival of interest in metaphysical poetry, which Grierson had done so much to stimulate, had prompted critics to discuss the connection between form and content in poetry: ‘The favourite phrase is “unified sensibility”. We are told a little pontifically that this unified sensibility was disturbed by the great influence of Milton, so that the natural medium of our thought has become exclusively prose.’ Grierson must have smelt reaction in Eliot’s royalist rejection of Milton’s republican poetics.
The revival of interest in English republicanism in recent years might be thought to have stimulated interest in Milton, but here Thomas Corns, editor of A Companion to Milton, sounds a warning note. This collection of essays, he writes, appears at a time when Milton’s standing with a wide readership appears ‘altogether more insecure’. In the US students prefer to study contemporary literature, while in British universities modular curricula – an academically indefensible reform – make it possible to avoid studying Milton. But even if Milton is ignored by many students, the academic study of his verse and prose ‘has never been healthier’, according to Corns. The anxiety, however, must be that this great prophet of English liberty no longer speaks to a readership beyond the academy, and thus that Eliot’s attempt to sideline Milton and the values he embodies has partly succeeded. And if Milton is ignored, so, too, are the classical foundations on which his republicanism stands. As Martin Dzelzainis argues in an essay on his republicanism in the Companion, he drew on Sallust and Roman law for his account of the ennobling effects of liberty. One phrase in Milton’s History of Britain – ‘from obscure and small to grow eminent and glorious commonwealths’ – appears to be taken directly from Sallust’s rendition of a speech by Cato in which he tells the Senate not to ‘suppose that it was by arms that our forefathers raised our republic from obscurity to greatness’. Cato’s message can be felt throughout Milton’s writing, where the good angels are polemicists whose swords are symbolic of pens, printing presses, pamphlets.
It is perhaps difficult to read Milton’s narrative in Paradise Lost in this way – we visualise the Archangel Michael’s two-handed sword not as the double lever on a printing press, but simply as a sword, while we see ‘chaos’ and the ‘abyss’ physically, as part of outer space. Yet Milton, the adept student of Spenser, was designing a flexibly symbolic – rather than rigidly allegorical – system, a way of shaping history and politics that Defoe sought to popularise in his prose, and one which needs to be examined in the light of Milton’s prose writings.
Take that word ‘abyss’, which appears near the beginning of Paradise Lost:
And chiefly thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou knowst; thou from the
first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss
And mad’st it pregnant.
At the beginning of his Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda, or Second Defence of the English People, which Barbara Lewalski, in her biography, oddly calls his ‘least attractive work’, Milton gives thanks to God chiefly for three reasons. The first, in George Burnett’s 1809 translation, is
that I was born in those times of my country, when the effulgent virtue of its citizens – when their magnanimity and steadiness, surpassing the highest praise of their ancestors, under the inspection of God first implored, and under his manifest guidance, setting examples and performing deeds of valour, the greatest since the foundation of the world – delivered the Commonwealth from a grievous domination, and religion from a most debasing thraldom.
Burnett’s translation of the phrase ‘virtus eximia’ as ‘effulgent virtue’, rather than ‘outstanding’ or ‘extraordinary virtue’, seems rather precious, but he was thinking, I would suggest, of light coming out of darkness at the Creation. Milton is remembering this passage when he begins Paradise Lost with an account of God creating the world, an account which he repeats twice later in the poem: in Book Three, ‘Confusion heard his voice, and wild uproar/Stood ruled,’ until at his second bidding ‘darkness fled,/Light shone, and order from disorder sprung.’ And in Book Seven, God is again shown dove-like on the abyss:
His brooding wings the Spirit of God outspread,
And vital virtue infused, and vital warmth
Throughout the fluid mass, but downward purged
The black tartareous cold infernal dregs
Adverse to life: then founded, then conglobed
Like things to like . . .
It is not only the foundation of the world that is referred to here, but the foundation of the English Commonwealth out of political chaos. The word ‘abyss’, which appears 19 times in the poem, represents at one level the state described by the phrase ‘gravi dominatione rempublicam’ in The Second Defence. The word gravis, as well as meaning ‘heavy’, can also mean ‘pregnant’, so the abyss on which the dove of the Holy Spirit broods, making it ‘pregnant’, is analogous to the ‘gravi dominatione’ which the republic suffered. The word also occurs in Book One of the Aeneid – ‘regina sacerdos Marte gravis’ (‘a princess of the royal blood pregnant by Mars’) and Virgil goes on to say that one of the twins the priestess Ilia is pregnant with – Romulus – will found Rome.
Milton knew that the poem he was dictating to his amanuensis would be scrutinised by the recently restored monarch’s Licenser of the Press, so he coded the English people’s formation of a republic as the creation of the ‘heavens and earth’. The idea passed the censor by, just as it has passed by many readers, but it was nonetheless Milton’s founding intention in composing his epic. As David Norbrook shows in his seminal study Writing the English Republic, the language of chaos and creation briefly took on optimistic overtones during the Commonwealth, but with its disintegration the images became despairing. The Grand Concernments of England Ensured, an anonymous pamphlet which appeared in 1659, shows that the image of the Commonwealth as being created from a void was a current one: ‘you have made England, Scotland, Ireland, A Chaos without form and void, and I doubt your Omnipotency will never speak the word for such a creation, as any honest man shall say when he hath looked upon it, that it is very good.’
The authorities were concerned, though, by a related image in Book One which describes Satan’s obscured glory:
as when the sun new ris’n
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
According to Milton’s early biographer, the Irish republican John Toland, Charles II’s Licenser for the Press regarded these lines as subversive, and wanted to suppress the whole poem.
Immediately after the passage in which he imagines God hatching the universe out of the abyss, Milton asks:
what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
This invocation mirrors the opening of The Second Defence, where he describes how he ‘accepted, of those very deliverers of the country, and by general consent, the part spontaneously assigned me; namely, to defend publicly (if anyone ever did) the cause of the people of England, and thus of liberty itself’. At the bedrock of Milton’s imagination is a belief in God, and a certainty that republics are divinely ordained and that he has been sent to justify and vindicate them (the ts in these lines of verse seem to vibrate with his certainty, like taut, plucked strings). In Paradise Regained, his shorter, much neglected, plain-style epic, Milton again addresses God, saying:
Behold the kings of earth how they oppress
Thy chosen, to what highth their power unjust
They have exalted, and behind them cast
All fear of thee, arise and vindicate
Thy glory, free thy people from their yoke.
Milton uses the words ‘justify’ and ‘vindicate’ to refer to a desired state that is about to be reached. In Samson Agonistes, Manoa, Samson’s beloved father, says that God will not long defer to ‘vindicate the glory of his name’. Lewalski argues that in his early tracts Milton works out a poetics of satire that justifies invective as what he terms ‘sanctified bitternesse’. He aligns it with Biblical prophecy and gives the words ‘justify’ and ‘vindicate’ the additional sense of ‘argue for this chosen art form (be it verse or prose)’. Rereading Paradise Lost recently, I felt that Milton’s use of ‘happy’ and ‘happiness’, too, has another level of meaning, which is generally thought to have been added to the words in 1725, when Francis Hutcheson invented the phrase ‘greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’, later adapted by Bentham. The words, in Milton’s usage, have a general, public application which speaks for his unrelenting social activism. They are touched or toughened by Gesellschaft.
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