Hero as Hero

Tobias Gregory

  • Why Milton Matters: A New Preface to His Writings by Joseph Wittreich
    Palgrave, 253 pp, £37.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 1 4039 7229 3

Milton is the greatest English poet whom it is possible for serious readers to dislike. There are no fans of Marlowe, Jonson or Webster who cannot also find pleasure in Shakespeare; there are no admirers of Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who cannot also appreciate The Canterbury Tales. But it is not hard to find enthusiastic readers of Marvell or Spenser or Dryden or Donne who cannot warm to Milton, and make no apology for it. Anti-Milton sentiment became respectable literary opinion with the Modernists. Woolf thought of Milton as the ‘first of the masculinists’, a judgment since echoed by many. Eliot blamed him for the ‘dissociation of sensibility’; Pound deplored ‘his asinine bigotry, his beastly hebraism, the coarseness of his mentality’. More widespread these days is the belief, common among those who encounter Milton as required reading, that his poetry is difficult, humourless, unsexy and, heaven forbid, theological. Though the academic Milton industry is thriving, it sometimes has a strain of defensiveness, an impulse to champion its man; and this often results in efforts to make Milton ideologically acceptable to present-day liberal opinion. Joseph Wittreich has been one of the staunchest proponents of those efforts, and his latest book sums up and extends the themes of his previous work.

Why Milton Matters is strong on Milton’s reception, a subject to which Wittreich has already devoted several books. He knows the history of Milton criticism as well as anyone, and treats it as a lively conversation across three centuries, in which Dryden and Addison, Blake and Shelley, Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye trade insights with contemporary critics. Wittreich wears great learning lightly, and provides a salutary reminder that there is much worth remembering in older criticism; with the weight of Milton bibliography growing by the year, it’s easy to ignore anything written more than a quarter-century ago. The book is full of Milton references in modern literature and pop culture. Some of these, unfootnoted, invite scepticism: ‘Paradise Lost was the text the Hells Angels packed away in their hip pockets.’ I want proof. But Wittreich’s miscellany of modern references conveys a rich sense of Milton’s continuing presence in the English-speaking world, and shows that not everybody meets Milton on a reading list. It’s good to be reminded that Malcolm X read Paradise Lost in prison, whatever one might think of his take on the poem: ‘The devil, kicked out of paradise, was trying to regain possession. He was using the forces of Europe . . . I interpreted this to show that the Europeans were motivated and led by the devil, or the personification of the devil. So Milton and Mr Elijah Muhammad were actually saying the same thing.’

As is often the case, the book’s main strength leads to its main weakness: a tendency to make Milton look modern in ways that he wasn’t. Wittreich is fond of glossing Milton by likening him to later authors, and sometimes creates misleading impressions. Here is an example. Wittreich observes, accurately enough, that Samson Agonistes is permeated with the language of divine inspiration. He gives a list of textual instances – ‘intimate impulse’, ‘divine impulsion’, ‘work from Heav’n imposed’, ‘command from Heav’n’ and so forth – and then adds: ‘It is as if Milton is here moving towards the more mocking posture, in another century and in another country, assumed by the American president John Adams: “It will never be pretended that any person employed . . . had interviews with the gods, or was in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven.”’ Wittreich spends the rest of the paragraph glossing Adams, and then moves on. Notice how his qualifiers – ‘as if’, ‘moving towards’ – substitute for any good reason for conjoining the Puritan Milton and the deist Adams, whose views on religion were light-years apart. And notice how the Adams analogy stands in for any good reason for believing that the language of divine inspiration in Samson Agonistes should be understood as mockery. It should not.

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