Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986
SIR: I was intrigued by David Norbrook’s case for Paradise Lost as a political poem (LRB, 5 June). His arguments are very different from those advanced by Tom Paulin in his introduction to the Faber Book of Political Verse – so different that I can address them without compromising my editorial function. About the anthology I must remain silent, as I have done throughout this controversy. My objections to Tom Paulin’s Geoffrey Hill piece were confined to two factual points – the ‘echo’ of Yeats, which was a quotation from the Psalms, and Paulin’s inaccurate metrical analysis of Hill’s sonnet, where he imputed metrical monotony to lines whose metre was demonstrably varied. It was Tom Paulin who chose to present my intervention in these diversionary terms: I have made two catastrophic errors about Geoffrey Hill’s poetry but Craig Raine doesn’t like my anthology of political verse. For similar reasons, ‘metre’ later became ‘diction’ as the correspondence progressed.
David Norbrook is cool and logical enough to see my objection to his first point, which concerns the ‘republican assertiveness’ of Paradise Lost’s ‘very metrics’. There is, of course, no avoiding Milton’s description: ‘an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’. Clearly, there may be a cryptic innuendo here, but the passage in its entirety is aesthetic and not political. Even were the point conceded, there is still a distinction to be observed between Milton’s republican intent and the actual status of blank verse. It is a subtle distinction, admittedly, but crude distinctions can’t have things their own way all the time. Milton, David Norbrook insists, wants rhyme to be ‘a symbol for all the irrational and luxurious panoply of monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies that had gradually weighted down the political forms of the Roman republic and which the English Revolution had begun to sweep away’ – but is it? And is that all? What, one wonders, does it do with all its spare time? Torture radical activists? According to Milton himself, rhyme sets off ‘wretched matter and lame Meter’, when it isn’t vexing, hindering and constraining poets to ‘express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. When it isn’t working overtime for Mr Norbrook, then, it is evidently into bondage of a purely literary kind.
And is blank verse a symbol of all things opposite to the ‘luxurious panoply of monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies’? After all, the Spaniards and the Italians had ‘rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works’ without reference to their political situation or its improvement. And aren’t the ‘best English Tragedies’, cited with approval by Milton, somewhat problematically heterogeneous in this symbolic context? It cannot be true that the ‘very metrics’ of Paradise Lost are assertively republican. Intrinsically, blank verse is neutral, like ink or paper. As Milton’s own examples show, its affiliations are promiscuous.
Of Mammon and Beelzebub, David Norbrook remarks: ‘their language can at times sound republican, but there is no room here [in Paulin’s anthology] for the framing episodes in which the essentially theatrical, anti-rational, in short monarchical, character of diabolical political organisation is manifested.’ I think I detect circularity here. Mr Norbrook will correct me if I am wrong. Unless one already believes Paradise Lost to be a political poem directed against monarchists, it is hard to see how ‘theatrical’ and ‘anti-rational’ can be translated so automatically into ‘monarchical’ – without, in short, a great deal being gained in the translation. Theatricality and anti-rationality, I have noticed, are not qualities exclusively earmarked for any particular political persuasion.
It worries me, too, that the devils ‘can at times sound republican’. Perhaps it should worry David Norbrook more than it appears to? The difficulty with presenting Beelzebub as a monarchist ‘working to erode a collective spirit in favour of giving supreme power to one charismatic leader’ is not only that Beelzebub puts his proposals to the vote, advising ‘all circumspection’ ‘in our suffrage’, but also that he is so clearly against the supreme power of another charismatic leader called God.
I found David Norbrook’s account of Milton’s presentation of God in his heaven clever but implausible. It is always difficult to argue convincingly from what an author didn’t do. Milton, he tells us, ‘weakens the poem’s power by refusing to surround God with the conventional courtly theatricality of the Baroque Heaven’. I cannot myself see that Milton would have strengthened his presentation by such conventional additions. Put like that, David Norbrook’s argument looks a little flimsy.
Milton’s presentation is surely explained by his theological disposition. W.H. Auden affected to find religious poetry embarrassing, except the most liturgical kind. Milton, a serious theologian and a shrewd poet, felt this objection genuinely and foresaw that any concrete presentation of God was liable to be ludicrous. In De Doctrina Christiana, he writes: ‘It is better therefore to contemplate the Deity, and to conceive of him, not with reference to human passions, that is, after the manner of men, who are never weary of framing subtle imaginations respecting him …’
So where do I stand? I stand unpersuaded.
SIR: In his interesting review of Tom Paulin’s Faber Book of Political Verse, David Norbrook describes how Paulin classes Dryden among the ‘conservative’, ‘monarchist’ writers (in which company Dryden ‘seems a less ambiguous figure’ than Spenser, Shakespeare or Jonson), and suggests that ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ illustrates Dryden’s ‘nostalgia for an organic society free of the disease of politics and commerce’.
Might I suggest that some of your readers may be interested in looking at the discussion of these matters in my recently-published study, John Dryden. I argue that if one attends to the full range of Dryden’s work – not just the hackneyed ‘public’ poems – and if one is sensitive to the enormous qualitative discrepancies, not only between different areas of Dryden’s oeuvre as a whole but also within individual works, it is evident that, whatever his views may have been as a private citizen, Dryden the poet cannot be at all accurately described as an unambiguous conservative royalist who believed wholeheartedly in an organic body politic and regarded political dissension as a disease which must be cured. Paulin’s inclusion of the whole of ‘Absalom’ in his anthology – the poem has some deservedly famous lines, but also contains some conspicuously slack and unconvincing writing – unfortunately will do little to discourage the undiscriminating approach which has for so long impeded a full appreciation of Dryden’s genius. In his best poetic moments, Dryden does not write from a position of simple conservative parti-pris, nor does he attempt to evade or sidestep political questions. At his best, Dryden encompasses and subsumes his interest in politics within his investigation of a much larger subject, the subject which has always been poetry’s business: the nature of Man, and ‘truth, not individual and local, but general and operative’. Dryden’s fearlessly exhilarating explorations of that subject involved him in entertaining and relishing some very subversive thoughts indeed about all the things which the textbooks tell us he valued most dearly – monarchy, Christianity, Toryism, peace, stability. To lump Dryden among ‘the conservatives’ is simply to ignore the full implications of what he’s saying in his best verse – which is, I believe, what most people have been doing for over a century.
University of Bristol
Vol. 8 No. 13 · 24 July 1986
SIR: It is difficult to address the specific points raised by Craig Raine’s letter (Letters, 3 July) without engaging with his theoretical assumptions. He assumes that the aesthetic, the political and the theological are completely distinct and ought to be kept in separate compartments by literary critics. I can sympathise up to a point with the impulse behind his position. The category of ‘the aesthetic’ is a historically recent one, not a timeless absolute, but in the past there have been somewhat comparable oppositions between rhetoric and poetics, between the discourses of the active and of the contemplative life. Writers and critics have a right to a space in which they are not subject to immediate political pressures. But Craig Raine’s theoretical rigidity dissolves all sense of tension between literary culture and the wider world. On a larger political scale, I believe this position to be short-sighted; more specifically, it leads to an impoverished notion of cultural history, dooming Milton’s works to be replaced on the shelves in the desiccatedly self-contained categories of Poetry, Political Prose and Theology. Raine’s distinctions, maintained at the cost of ignoring the last quarter-century’s debates over the relationship between writing and politics, are sharp but not necessarily subtle.
Let me take up the example of Milton’s republicanism in relation to his prosody. Craig Raine seems prepared to concede that the note on heroic verse was a coded republican statement, but to believe that Milton’s political ‘intent’ is totally irrelevant to the poem’s ‘actual status’ as a work of art. Blank verse, he argues, is politically neutral. Yes, in itself metre, like any other signifier, is arbitrary, its full meanings determined by context rather than innate value. But that is an argument for investigating contexts, not for ignoring them. For initial purposes of analysis it is possible to isolate metre, like other stylistic elements: but none of these elements is an ornament stuck irrelevantly onto a poem’s content, the meaning emerges from the interaction of metre and content. If a poet is cunning enough, rhyme can work overtime and longer. Traditional histories of English prosody wholly in terms of phonetics and aesthetics are sterile: a history of rhyme in relation to political ideology would be immensely illuminating. Antony Easthope’s pioneering Poetry as Discourse is marred precisely by his omission of the specifically political dimension. On the other hand, Derek Attridge’s meticulous study of Renaissance prosody in Well-Weighed Syllables reveals the difficulty of providing a purely internal, linguistic, explanation of metrical changes. There were doubtless internal linguistic causes for the displacement of Classical quantitative prosody by rhymed accentual verse in later antiquity: but Renaissance Humanists tended to see the change as a manifestation of a social debasement and intellectual coarsening of Classical culture under the influence of corrupt social and ecclesiastical hierarchies. The Renaissance revival of Classical metres was undoubtedly to some extent a response to phonetic changes: but it was also motivated by extrinsic factors, whether by social èlitism or by a critically republican perspective on Medieval customs. Debates about metrical form in Italy from Dante to Machiavelli and Càstiglione raised larger questions about writing in the vernacular and the social register; Craig Raine asserts that Italian poets theorised about rhyme ‘without reference to their political situation or its improvement’, but I prefer Milton as an authority on Renaissance Italian criticism. In England, Samuel Daniel might urge the defence of rhyme on the grounds that it was an ‘indifferent thing’, politically and culturally neutral: but that term was borrowed from Anglican defences of church ritual against Puritan ‘formalists’, and Daniel warned Campion that the zeal for reform and perfection, the rejection of custom, even in such an apparently minor area, could have dangerous political consequences. Denham’s ‘Cooper’s Hill’, which assumed a hegemonic status in 17th and 18th-century culture, connects the heroic couplet with the balance of the ancient constitution, and warns, on the eve of the Civil War, that the Puritans will destroy that harmony. Milton’s note presents men like Daniel and Denham as ‘carried away by custom’ in constitutional as well as poetic terms.
It is true that he indulges in polemical exaggeration: there were linguistic difficulties in a full revival of Classical prosody, as his own experiments had shown; and, as Raine points out, he did sometimes use rhyme. But he always did so with a strong ideological awareness. Joseph Wittreich and other critics have pointed out how the disruption of anticipated rhyme-schemes in ‘Lycidas’, a poem unusual in the 1638 memorial volume for avoiding the pentameter couplet, helps to articulate the poem’s political criticism of Laudianism. His adoption of the outmoded sonnet form for his Parliamentarian poetry of the 1640s and 1650s was part of the period’s revival of Elizabethan cultural forms in conscious counterpoise to Stuart innovations. The rhymes in Samson Agonistes come to symbolise the bondage (linked, in a complex chain of images, with the ideas of dènouement and redemption in the play) from which Samson escapes in his final suicidally iconoclastic gesture. The concluding sonnet communicates a resolution which is also a desolation. Nicholas Jose has shown in Ideas of the Restoration in English Literature 1660-1671 how systematically Milton inverts the aristocratic and monarchical assumptions of Restoration rhymed heroic plays: Milton’s glance back to ‘our best English tragedies’ in his 1674 note, published after Samson, is a hit at the contemporary stage. (Incidentally, Craig Raine seems to assume that E.M.W. Tillyard’s reading of Elizabethan drama still stands, but his views have not gone unquestioned in recent years.) Milton’s attempt to ‘recover’ a lost liberty runs parallel to the boast of the Commonwealth to have ‘restored’ its lost political liberties. In the latter case, the ‘restoration’ was a ‘revolution’ more in the modern than the older sense of the word, given that it involved the abolition of the monarchy; in the prosodic case, too, while Milton may have been thinking of Old or Middle English alliterative verse, his own blank verse style was really a distinct innovation. His whole epic project involves an outdoing as well as imitation of Classical models, communicating the excitement of a return to origins so radical that it is also a totally new beginning. A full semantic history of the relations in the period between literary and political senses of the words ‘reformation’, ‘restoration’, ‘revolution’ and ‘imitation’ remains to be written. It is on this level of formal transmutations, rather than on that of direct topical allusions, that the poem seems to me to incorporate most fully the spirit of the Good Old Cause.
Milton’s versification certainly continued to arouse political comment. The ‘Whig’ patriotic poets of the 18th century were attacked by Johnson and Goldsmith for the over-liberality of their blank verse. As Marvell’s prefatory poem to Paradise Lost hints, Dryden’s attempt to ‘tag’ the epic with rhyme was also an attempt to domesticate it into the ‘mode’ of polite, non-‘enthusiastic’ conversation. I am glad that David Hopkins has been able to show complexities in Dryden’s political stance (Letters, 3 July), but I still believe that Milton’s abrasiveness presented him with a challenge, as Blake recognised: ‘Dryden in Rhyme cries, “Milton only planned”.’ Echoing the 1668 note in the preface to Jerusalem, Blake indicated that his rejection of the ‘bondage’ of Miltonic blank verse was an integral part of his overall project of pushing Milton’s incomplete radicalism further. If Shelley, in ‘Prometheus Unbound’, represents freedom from bondage by a modulation of Miltonic blank verse into masque-type rhymed lyrics, he is simultaneously inverting the assumptions of the Renaissance masque. Like Milton, Blake and Shelley can be read in ‘purely aesthetic’ terms only by blithely ignoring the stated aims of their entire careers.
I would not want to make an idol of Milton as a totally consistent and admirable radical poet, or to deny that there are tensions and contradictions in Paradise Lost: the republican poet representing the kingdom of heaven faced all kinds of problems, as did the firmly patriarchal and anti-feminist writer who had countenanced the execution of the father-king. After the New Critical denial that poetry is political has been confronted, there are questions to be asked beyond whether he was a republican or a monarchist. But Raine’s objections to a republican reading seem to centre on a doubt about whether any political reading is valid, so I shall try to answer some of his specific points, referring him for fuller answers to Stevie Davies’s excellent Images of Kingship in ‘Paradise Lost’. It is true that, like Augustus, Satan insinuates himself into power while paying lip-service to constitutional forms, but the throne on which he already sits exalted at the start of Book Two, before the vote has been taken, is a classic instance of the kind of theatricality and stage-managing which Renaissance republicans attributed to monarchy. Craig Raine finds my analysis circular. All interpretation ultimately involves circular arguments, but my own view is that a consideration of authorial intention and of historical context can help to concentrate that circularity and make it productive; I am less confident than he is of having privileged access to an ‘actual status’ of the poem in total isolation from the poet’s political ‘intent’. Milton’s contrast between the political imagery surrounding God and Satan does take on greater force in a context of republican thought: his God is at once more remote and more open to straightforward argument than Satan. The recurrent complaint against Him by critics has been precisely that He is more ‘ludicrous’ than ‘charismatic’. He is introduced to us in the process of giving a detailed rational justification of His motives: I do think that He might have been given more immediate imaginative impact, not by adding monarchical paraphernalia, but by subtracting the analytic passages, making God a figure more of mysterious imperial will than of rational law: but that would have been inconsistent with Milton’s politics. Milton’s theological critique of anthropomorphism is certainly relevant, but he pushed this critique to heterodox conclusions which were directly linked with his political critique of church and state rituals that reinforced such idolatry. He could accept the need for an abstract monarchical element in the state but not that it should be embodied in one individual: it was precisely at that point that the prelapsarian order differed from secular political orders.
It is striking that the commonplaces of 17th-century republicanism should seem so absurd to modern English arbiters of taste. Twentieth-century thinkers as diverse as Walter Benjamin and Conor Cruise O’Brien have worried that democracy might in the end perish because totalitarianism can draw on a greater imaginative allure. But since the triumph of the Empire in the latter part of the 19th century, the monarchy has contrived simultaneously to provide a public spectacle which has numbed critical political analysis, and to be regarded as a ‘thing indifferent’ – above politics, much as the New Criticism considered poetry to be. Our monarchy is certainly a complex phenomenon, sometimes moderating darker political forces. But I fully agree with Tom Paulin that our society needs to recover non-monarchist cultural traditions, to imagine alternatives. Poetry and cultural history cannot solve our political and economic problems: but we should at least resist the assumption that politics and economics are hermetically sealed areas to which the questions asked by poets are completely irrelevant. The humanities at all levels of education are currently on the defensive: declaring their irrelevance to politics is no way to befriend them.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986
SIR: David Norbrook (Letters, 24 July) makes some baffling assumptions about my theoretical assumptions – though they closely resemble those of a Times journalist who asked me, a couple of weeks ago, why I thought poetry and politics were divided by a thick partition. Were that the case, I countered, I would hardly have commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse, would I? On the other hand, I don’t believe that every work of art is necessarily political. If I did, I would hardly have commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. It would have been enough to commission the Faber Book of Verse.
But my theoretical assumptions, especially those invented for me by Mr Norbrook, are neither here nor there. In my original letter, I stated clearly where I stood – unpersuaded. This was a polite way of saying that I thought Mr Norbrook hadn’t argued very well. Judging from the way his case has been mended, he agrees with me. Beelzebub has been dropped entirely. Formerly, he was a monarchist ‘working to erode a collective spirit in favour of giving supreme power to one charismatic leader’. In his place, there is now a sensible admission that there are ‘tensions and contradictions’ in Paradise Lost. A reference, I take it, to the way Beelzebub ‘can at times sound republican’.
Similarly, Mr Norbrook no longer suggests that Milton’s portrayal of God would be improved by the addition of ‘conventional courtly theatricality’. Instead, the portrayal would be given ‘more immediate imaginative impact, not by adding monarchical paraphernalia, but by subtracting the analytic passages, making God a figure more of mysterious imperial will than of rational law’. However, Milton chose not to do this because, according to Mr Norbrook, it would have been ‘inconsistent’ with his politics. More obviously, the elimination of analytic passages would have been ‘inconsistent’ with Milton’s theological aim – to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. No analysis means no justification.
But David Norbrook rests his entire case on Milton’s use of blank verse, rather than on direct topical allusions, since the latter are used inconsistently by Milton. I am pleased we agree that the ‘actual status’ of blank verse is neutral. Mr Norbrook, however, attaches an important qualification – the need to establish ‘full meanings’ by looking at the context. I thought I had done precisely that – just as certainly as I never mentioned E.M.W. Tillyard, whom Mr Norbrook wishes on me as an ally. The context I referred to is Milton’s 1668 note on ‘The Verse’. There Milton gives a perfectly adequate reason for disliking rhyme. He argues that rhyme vexes, hinders and constrains poets ‘to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. For this reason (‘not without cause therefore’) some Italian and Spanish poets have rejected rhyme. In this context, Milton makes no mention of the respective Italian and Spanish political situations. David Norbrook is prepared to concede ‘internal, linguistic explanations of metrical changes’ of the kind volunteered here by Milton, but he insists that there are also ‘extrinsic factors’ at work. Apparently, Derek Attridge’s ‘meticulous study’ of Renaissance prosody has shown that ‘internal, linguistic explanations’ are inadequate to explain metrical changes in Renaissance prosody.
This may be so. However, we are not discussing Renaissance prosody in general, but Milton’s blank verse and the entirely adequate explanation he gives for adopting it. Necessarily, David Norbrook widens the context and his letter is a justifiable boast that his context is bigger than my context. Very few people could match Mr Norbrook’s context. But it is also more nebulous. It stretches eruditely from Old English alliterative verse, via Dante, Castiglione, Denham, Dryden, Marvell, Goldsmith, Dr Johnson, to Blake and Shelley. And then still further, to an as yet unwritten history of rhyme in relation to political ideology, not to mention another crucial, convincing, but alas unwritten, ‘full semantic history of the relations in the period between literary and political senses of the words “reformation”, “restoration”, “revolution” and “imitation” ’. I find it hard to argue on all these fronts, but particularly hard to contain those fronts which are non-existent. One follows this vast chain of argument only to discover that it is stapled to a promise. Or two promises. Or nothing. Or everything. In this ‘context’, it scarcely matters, because it isn’t a context at all. It is a theory.
Mr Norbrook has some ingenious interpretations, over-ingenious in the case of Samson Agonistes, but his chain, two and a half columns long, touches on Milton at only one demonstrable point. He attaches it to Milton’s phrase, ‘an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ – a phrase conceivably politically motivated, but perhaps only an instance of local bravado, a rhetorical flourish, a republican twitch, without a political aesthetic behind it. The chain is attached to an ambiguity – and, without it, you remove every supporting comment he has to make about Milton’s note.
Normally, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Mr Norbrook had erected a vast set of assumptions on insufficient, faintly wonky evidence – had I not recently had an unfortunate experience in these very columns. There, I described Milton’s 1668 note as, in its entirety, aesthetic, not political. Which it is. On the basis of this, Mr Norbrook has decided that I am a New Critic who denies poetry is political. I am, in fact, the editor who commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. Which brings me once more to the ‘actual status’ of blank verse.
Its essential neutrality is unaffected by how people regard it – just as I am not made a New Critic because Mr Norbrook chooses to regard me in that light. There is an objective reality which is unaffected by misinterpretation. To call the very metre of Paradise Lost assertively republican simplifies a clear ambiguity and then compounds Milton’s (possible) wishful thinking. The correct position is to say that the blank verse is neutral – however Milton may, or may not, have regarded it.
Vol. 8 No. 16 · 18 September 1986
SIR: In his long letter. Craig Raine (Letters, 4 September) makes five basic points.
1. He commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. This is not something I’ve ever denied: it’s Mr Raine who has in the past seemed uneasy about it. Now that it’s been well received, however, he is so proud of his role in originating the anthology that he congratulates himself not just once but three times in the same letter. Tom Paulin’s anthology juxtaposes poems explicitly on public themes with apparently apolitical poems and in this way brings out political connotations that might not otherwise be apparent: it is thus concerned both with political verse narrowly defined and with the politics of different poetic traditions. But any anthology involves selection and this has political implications: a Faber Book of Verse which contained no woman poets would not be apolitical.
2. I’ve gone back my original argument. Not so: I’ve amplified it at his request, but I don’t have space to turn it into a book. I stated from the beginning both that Satan is presented with monarchical trappings with Beelzebub as obliging acolyte, and that the fallen angels also use republican terms. This fact may partly reflect Milton’s growing dis-illusion under the rule of Cromwell and Charles II, and his awareness that republican rhetoric could conceal authoritarian interests. And the last books present a bleakly disillusioned view of the people’s capacity for the burdens of liberty. But this doesn’t make the poem monarchist; and I believe that this pessimism is countered by other factors (see below).
3. Mr Raine argues that I’ve shifted my position on Milton’s representation of God. I still believe that it would have been possible to create a God who engaged the imagination more directly, either by a less sparse, more ceremonial representation of the heavenly kingdom, or by making Him a majestic figure only dimly glimpsed at the end of a vast hierarchy of intermediaries, as in the Paradiso. Such courses were made difficult for Milton both by his politics and by his theology: the Reformation stripped away many of the mythical representations of celestial hierarchies which had originated as means of buttressing hierarchical authority in the Church, a process which was in turn related to stratification in society at large. Mr Raine once again makes a sharp distinction between political and theological issues as if it were self-evident. But in the 17th century political analogies in theological discourse, and theological analogies in political discourse, were so deeply-rooted that Mr Raine’s confidence that he knows their exact boundaries is, in my view, misconceived. This is not just a historical matter: to declare that theology is above politics may be simply to refuse to allow a particular power structure to be questioned. To take an example central to Paradise Lost: Milton, following male theologians, declares that the Genesis story must be interpreted as showing woman’s inferiority to be part of the divine scheme: is this a theological question or a political one?
4. My account of the political connotations of blank verse is, he complains, ‘wonky’. Well, I could hardly give a definitive history on a letters page: my main aim was to try to provide some matter of more general interest than mere ad hominem point-scoring, and, far from boasting my own unique authority, to draw attention to at least a few of the many critics who are doing illuminating work in this area. Mr Raine responds with bluster but not a single counter-argument or counter-example. In arguing that the literary history of Britain has still to be properly written, I was not denying that there is a great deal of it which has been written and has merely yet to be read by Mr Raine. But the apolitical approach of older literary histories, and the anti-historical bias of dominant theories from the New Criticism through to deconstruction, have meant that there are a lot of gaps to be filled, and his letter does nothing to dissuade me from my belief that it is a good thing to know what one doesn’t know.
5. On the 1668 note in particular, he is inclined to think that my political reading is wilfully subjective. The note is to be read entirely straight, and he finds it an ‘entirely adequate’ reason for Milton’s casting Paradise Lost in blank verse that he wasn’t as good at finding apt rhymes as Cleveland, Cowley, Crashaw, Davenant, Denham, Dryden etc. He roundly reiterates that the note is, ‘in its entirety, aesthetic, not political’. And yet he concedes that Milton may have intended readers to pick up political connotations (I would suggest he compares the note’s last phrase with the title The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restored to the Good of Both Sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law). So the ‘entirety’ turns out to be not so entire. But Mr Raine is prepared to dismiss whatever political meanings the note may have had to Milton, to contemporary readers such as Marvell, and to modern readers, as merely subjective, whereas, as guardian of ‘the correct position’, he believes the note’s aesthetic meaning to be absolutely objective, an unchanging, Platonic essence. His anti-intentionalism was one reason that made me assume he might have been influenced by the New Criticism, since he is most evidently not a post-structuralist: but I’m happy to accept that his disdain for inquiring into Milton’s intention springs purely from his touchingly serene conviction that his own knowledge and intellectual abilities are so vastly superior to Milton’s. But if we descend from Mr Raine’s level to Milton’s, I think we find a much more fruitful way of reading poetry, looking at the infinitely complex modes of interaction between poetic and political history rather than dismissing politics as subjective irrelevance. If the 1668 note has a ‘republican twitch’, I would suggest that it is because Milton is directing into poetry the political energies that blindness and the Restoration had diverted from politics. But while this process has a despairing aspect, the narrator’s presentation of his triumph against adversity, the sense of creative energy in the descriptions of the making of a new world, counteract that pessimism and raise the possibility that such energies may one day be redirected into political creativity. That’s a very simplified way of putting a very complex process, but I’m afraid I’m getting weary of providing Mr Raine with painless digests of what’s been happening in literary history and theory for the last quarter-century. One day he should come down from Mars and start finding out for himself.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Vol. 8 No. 17 · 9 October 1986
SIR: It isn’t at all clear to me why David Norbrook is getting so rattled (Letters, 18 September). No one disputes his learning, or my relative ignorance. I am very grateful for his ‘painless digests of what’s been happening in literary history and theory for the last quarter-century’. How time flies.
Leaving aside various misrepresentations of my arguments, too tedious to correct, there is a new point of substance in his letter which presents a genuine difficulty for me. Always provided it is true. It is this: that Milton must have intended his 1668 note ironically because the aesthetic position stated there is obviously too naive for Milton to have meant it seriously. Whether this is the product of collective industry in the last quarter-century, or Mr Norbrook’s own idea, I couldn’t say. No doubt he will enlighten us.
According to Mr Norbook, I find ‘it an “entirely adequate” reason for Milton’s casting Paradise Lost in blank verse that he wasn’t as good at finding apt rhymes as Cleveland, Cowley, Crashaw, Davenant, Denham, Dryden etc.’ This, of course, is a travesty of what Milton says in his 1668 note. But it throws Mr Norbrook’s view of the 1668 note’s inadequacy into vivid relief. Evidently, for him, Milton could not possibly have believed that rhyme was really a ‘vexation, hindrance and constraint’ which forced poets to ‘express many things otherwise and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. And I agree that this does seem a rather naive position for Milton to adopt. Yet it doesn’t surprise me. And, as a matter of fact, I think Milton believed what he wrote. Let me answer Mr Norbrook’s objection with an analogy. For over a century, sophisticated critics found Shakespeare’s plays flawed because they violated the Unities. Even Dryden is at least uneasy here. Eventually, Dr Johnson exploded this naive objection, based as it was on painless digests of literary history and theory: ‘it is false,’ he wrote, ‘that any representation is mistaken for reality, that any dramatic fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever credited.’
Now, since literary history is Mr Norbrook’s special field, where no one disputes his learning, or my ignorance, I should like him to consider this question: were these critics simply naive but sincere, or is their naivetie a sign that they were making an encoded protest against something else we have yet to fathom?
Perhaps the aesthetic debate was not as far advanced as Mr Norbrook would like to believe. Literary history, it seems to me, inexpert though I am, can supply a multitude of silly ideas which were once sincerely and tenaciously held by learned and apparently sensible men. ‘Fancy’ is another example. Maybe there is a moral here?
Vol. 8 No. 20 · 20 November 1986
SIR: After having had so much to say, David Norbrook is suddenly silent. I have a suggestion to pep up our correspondence and rekindle his interest. He thinks that Milton could not possibly have meant his 1668 note to Paradise Lost seriously. Whether this is the view of the collective critical industry of the last quarter-century, or something David Norbrook thought up five minutes ago, he still hasn’t told us. The suspense is unbearable, no?
I think that Milton’s stated reasons are entirely adequate: namely, that rhyme vexes, hinders and constrains poets ‘to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. However naive this 1668 note may seem to modern readers – who know, for instance, that formal restrictions can stimulate invention, etc, etc – it happens to embody an elementary but permanent truth which David Norbrook can easily test for himself. This is my suggestion. In future, all our letters should be written in terza rima, or, better still, the Pushkin stanza. For me, I confess, this will be tedious, but not impossible. For David Norbrook, it will be a breeze. So he can have first go. If he has nothing new to say, perhaps he would like to rhyme up his first letter of two and a half columns?
Vol. 8 No. 22 · 18 December 1986
All right: at Raine’s prolonged inciting
I’ll take his challenge to a flyting:
but not his weapons: may the biting
Scots form maintain
my verse with force of centuries’ fighting
the Sassenach reign.
Craig will reply in half my time:
although his Martian muse sublime
mostly disdains an easy chime,
as coup de grâce
in Rich he stuffs his richest rhyme
up Verlaine’s verse.
But I don’t have his rhyming vein;
against my grain, industrious pain
strains slow lines from my hard-bound brain;
drained, I complain
my failure’s driving me insane:
what rhymes with ‘Raine’?
To turn to my poetic betters,
Ben Jonson found rhyme ‘drowning letters,
fastening vowels, as with fetters
they were bound’,
thought meanings unrequited debtors,
sense loaned to sound.
But in that loss he found some gain:
he didn’t in the end maintain
the classical humanist campaign
Phoebus to his crown again …
To right wrongs traced back to St Peter,
they made their English vowels ring sweeter,
marrying their sounds to Latin metre,
(though since accomplished so much neater by Peter Reading).
That rhyme’s no mere mechanical count
but offers poets ‘wings to mount’
was a truth recognised as ‘blunt’
by Samuel Daniel;
though Dryden warned them not to hunt
with Fancy’s spaniel.
Jonson used rhymes, though each but twice:
they made his meaning more concise;
but rhymeless verse seemed too ‘precise’:
might (as in Milton) grow the vice of Innovation.
Milton, more daring from the first,
began with intricate rhyme that burst
the couplets Cavaliers rehearsed;
then freed from rhyme
(his cause’s fortunes now reversed)
His printer feared the Town would grumble:
his blank verse made his readers ‘stumble’;
but Milton freed his Muse to humble
not just because he couldn’t fumble
out rhymes for ‘fruit’.
Stumbled, Court and Craig withhold applause
from the long-drawn line and cunning pause,
the metrics of the Good Old Cause,
not less demanding that its laws
came from within.
Shall I go on? Or have I said
enough to lodge in Craig Raine’s head?
Brecht and MacDiarmid, writing red
in years of crisis,
turned to austere free verse instead
of glib devices.
The New World’s Muse had been less static:
Whitman found blank verse autocratic,
shook free his wild locks democratic
from rhyme’s frilled bonnet;
and Williams, though a bit less vatic,
scorned the ‘fascist’ sonnet.
Pound smashed pentameters with delight:
a radical, though of the right,
the chap was beastly impolite
to my College, Magdalen:
about which all he found to write
was ‘rhyming dawdlin”.
Radicals, then, may represent
rhyme as clothes, prison, ornament,
signs of those forces that prevent
by the killing letter
the rational spirit’s long ascent
from custom’s fetter.
Yet these dichotomies won’t do:
the spirit has its tyrannies too,
Milton, despite Craig’s blinkered view,
was no eccentric,
but I will grant his theories grew
Rejecting rhyme, Reason must blame
‘woman’, ‘body’, ‘savage’: any name
for the Other it must needs defame.
Milton helped sound
the taut ‘iambic drums’ to claim
Ireland’s burnt ground.
Rhyme’s not just reason’s foe, Tradition:
such endless rounds of repetition
are what create our speech-position:
rhyme’s infinite mine
reminds me of my words’ condition:
my I’s not mine.
Language speaks us: its body’s trace
grants poets their good luck or grace:
though Ego quest transcendent space
past Power and Time,
that Echo mocks Narcissus’ face
with bonding rhyme.
So rhyme betrays my half-caste state:
my plump south vowels half-suffocate
sharper-edged sounds that yet vibrate
from a keener air:
these drawling fat-arsed rhymes still grate
on my one Scots ear.
No ‘free verse’ is entirely free:
culture is still barbarity.
Yet although, form-bound, poetry
is not transcendent,
that strange implicit honesty
is its best defendant.
Rhymes may proliferate like weed,
and blank verse may be blank indeed;
but a few poems sow the seed
of something urgent,
articulations of a need
Though my studies seem immoral earning
to Thatcher, hacking the tree of learning,
who hails Victorian worth returning
with Jeffrey Archer:
or fiddling while Chernobyl’s burning
to the peace marcher,
that impulse fuels my dated aim
of finding canons to reclaim:
the multi-tongued equivocal flame
whose formal tightening
entitles verse to Shelley’s name:
Milton knew form’s bonds, in a free state,
are freedom: prose might vindicate
his cause; verse could insinuate
truth with a skill
so ‘simple, sensuous, passionate’
its pulse beats still.
But wait: in this respected forum
I find I’m failing true decorum.
Flyters must strike at those who bore’em,
pouring a curse on all
and do their level best to gore’em
(it’s nothing personal):
Muse, spit disdain with might and main
at the addle-brain, whose stains profane
republican art to gain cheap vainglory: sustain
my strained strengths past that last quatrain:
rain bane on Raine.
 Craig Raine, ‘Arsehole’.
 Ben Jonson, ‘A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme’.
 For the claim that 17th-century readers must have been too ‘naive’ to understand that ‘formal restrictions can stimulate invention’ see Craig Raine, LRB, 9 October and 20 November; and cf. Samuel Daniel, ‘A Defence of Ryme’ (1603): ‘In an eminent spirit whome Nature hath fitted for that mysterie, Ryme is no impediment to his conceit, but rather giues him wings to mount and carries him, not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a farre happier flight.’
 Dryden, Epistle Dedicatory of The Rival Ladies.
 Pound, Canto LXXIV.
 Seamus Heaney, ‘Ocean’s Love to Ireland’; cf. Terry Eagleton, review of Tom Paulin, The Faber Book of Political Verse, New Left Review 158.
 Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’.
 Milton, ‘Of Education’.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Craig Raine’s quarrel doesn’t seem a
Subject fit for terza rima:
Still less to brag about in buskin
Courtesy of Alex Pushkin.
Apollonian fires and fetters
Are out of place in readers’ letters.
Brash Hudibrastics better fit
To tell him: put a sock in it!
University of Manchester
Vol. 9 No. 1 · 8 January 1987
SIR: When, before publication, David Norbrook politely and proudly sent me his stanzas, in which my Martian ‘whimsy’ (Letters, 23 October 1986) is expressed otherwise and becomes ‘sublime’ to rhyme with ‘rhyme’, he proposed that my reply should be a villanelle.
It was a vindaloo you ordered, wasn’t it?
I find your act quite hard to follow
and not just in the obvious sense.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe,
swords that you have had to swallow
with a smile of sick pretence.
I find your act quite hard to follow.
The compliments you pay are hollow.
We know our quarrel is intense.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe:
my politesse and yours are shallow,
top-dressing for an audience.
I find your act quite hard to follow.
I think you’d melt me down to tallow
if you ever got the chance.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe.
Touché! You win a flower show
of laurels for your rhymed defence:
a fact I find quite hard to swallow.
Beneath the grace, the bitter aloe.