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.

Wittreich’s Milton is, in effect, a scholarly update of the Milton of the Romantics: a great striving individualist, poet of the devil’s party, champion of liberty and scourge of tyrants. Wittreich takes this line with greater rhetorical zeal than most Miltonists, but his position is not an isolated one: neo-Romantic ideas are alive and well in Milton scholarship. These maintain that Milton was not an orthodox Christian poet; he was an idiosyncratic radical Protestant, a sect of one. Politically, he was a courageous republican, defending the Good Old Cause at great personal risk up to the eve of the Restoration. His late poems raise without answering the great questions of Western Christianity, and it is this questioning, with its searching sceptical energy, that gives Milton’s poetry its enduring value. Wittreich’s version of this account bears the accent of late 20th-century critical theory. The hedging in Paradise Lost between Copernican and Ptolemaic cosmology is taken to illustrate the ‘deconstructionist proposition’ that truth is ‘without end, abyssal’. Milton’s authorial ‘trademarks’ are ‘discontinuities, inconsistencies, eccentric theories; discrepancies and contradictions’. His poetry is marked by a ‘spirit of contradiction’, ‘marked, not marred, by contradictions’ and ‘yields a dialogic discourse of floating interpretations, its objective being not to reify existing commentary but to infuse it with greater intricacies and thus imbue it with more nuanced insight’.

There is some truth in all of this. Milton was certainly an individualist in matters of religion. He believed, as he writes in the preface to his treatise De Doctrina Christiana, that in order to go to heaven every believer has to work out Christian theology for himself, and the theology he worked out in his later years was heterodox on various points. Milton was an antinomian in the strict sense: he believed the Mosaic Law had been abrogated for Christians in its entirety, the moral precepts as well as the ceremonial and civil portions. He believed that the soul dies with the body until Judgment Day; he believed that God created from pre-existing matter rather than ex nihilo. His emphasis on free will, so prominent in Paradise Lost, placed him at odds with most other Puritans on the thorny subject of predestination. Milton’s most serious heresy by 17th-century lights was his Arianism, his rejection of the traditional understanding of the Trinity, on account of which a Dutch printer refused to publish the De Doctrina Christiana after his death (it remained unpublished until 1825). In his latter years Milton had sectarian friends, including Quakers; as far as we know he didn’t regularly attend a church. It is fair enough to describe him, as Christopher Hill did, as a radical Protestant heretic; but while Milton’s heterodoxy has become more widely acknowledged among scholars in recent years, there is still a good deal of confusion as to what it does and does not mean.

‘Orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’, as the labels apply to 17th-century England, are relative terms. They do not distinguish between believers and questioners, but between more and less conventional answers to a common set of questions. Milton’s individual combination of doctrines may have been idiosyncratic, but if he was a sect of one, there were many sects of one in 17th-century England. His insistence on the supremacy of the individual conscience was a standard Protestant position, and the problems he took on in his late poems were deeply traditional. They boil down to the problem of evil and its associated dilemmas. Why did Adam and Eve fall? Why did God allow it to happen? Why, ever since, has God willed that the world should grow so thoroughly corrupt, allowing the good to suffer and the wicked to flourish? In an uncertain world, how is one to discern God’s will? In a corrupt world, how is one to carry it out? Milton struggled intensely with such questions; in doing so he was not at all unusual, especially in Puritan circles. The basic problems of theodicy might occur to anyone, but the impulse to work out the answers to them in detail was most common among educated Puritans like Milton; and this impulse produced a vast body of controversial literature in which godly authors argued recondite points of theology in sermons, treatises, pamphlets, commentaries, dialogues and even poems. In the 1630s Milton came of age in this theologically argumentative environment; he remained in it and of it throughout his life, though some of his later opinions locate him on its eccentric fringe. To say that Milton’s views were heterodox, then, does not mean that he pursued questions that his contemporaries did not; it means that he arrived at some minority positions on issues that were continually and fervently discussed.

To praise Milton, as Wittreich does, as a poet of contradiction misses the fact that he did his utmost to avoid contradictions; it is rather like praising an architect for cracks in his buildings. The uncertainties, tensions, contradictions, injustices, ambiguities, subversions, evasions, horrors and doubts which generations of readers have found in Milton’s poetry do indeed exist; the mistake (and Wittreich is by no means alone in making it) is to suppose that Milton put them there on purpose. They are there despite his best efforts. They are not there because his intellectual or artistic powers were inadequate to his subject matter; they are there because he was struggling with inherited moral and intellectual problems that could not be solved. If Milton could not justify the ways of God to men, could not explain away the difficulties that inevitably arise once one patches a Christian interpretation onto an ancient Near Eastern myth about the first two people being tricked by a talking snake, it wasn’t for lack of trying. To understand Milton it is not necessary to find his answers satisfying. But it is necessary to acknowledge that he aimed to produce answers, that he brought all of his learning, intelligence and artistry to bear on the task, and that he took for granted (as did all parties to these religious controversies) that much was at stake in getting the answers right. To be praised for raising the questions he would have taken as condescending nonsense. The fact that Milton wrote a long treatise on Christian doctrine (and described it as ‘my dearest and best possession’) should be enough to demonstrate the point: why would one undertake such a project unless one felt that getting Christian doctrine right was a fundamentally important task? When Wittreich describes Milton as ‘privileging hermeneutical suspicion over complacent exegesis’, the possibility he leaves out is that of non-complacent exegesis.

The picture of Milton as a poet of contradictions appeals to readers who wish that he had been less religious; it also appeals to the modern tendency to prefer literature that doesn’t try to answer the questions it raises to literature that does. Most readers today – most critics, at least – prize what Keats called ‘negative capability’: ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Keats praised Shakespeare as the great exemplar of this quality, which shows through in Milton scholarship as a desire to make Milton look more like Shakespeare. Critics who describe Milton as a poet of contradictions generally feel, as Wittreich does, they are paying him a compliment. Their corollary assumption is that Milton’s stock would be devalued if he were discovered to have anything so unpoetical as an opinion.

A neo-Romantic view of Milton’s politics will appeal to those who want to claim him for the left, an impulse summed up tongue-in-cheek (I think) by Terry Eagleton at the close of his ‘Ballad of English Literature’:

There are only three names
To be plucked from this dismal set
Milton Blake and Shelley
Will smash the ruling class yet.

Milton had no interest in smashing the ruling class. He had enormous interest in smashing the established Church, but that is not the same thing. Milton wasn’t a Leveller, or a supporter of any of the other democratising movements that emerged during the Civil War. He was a well-to-do London Puritan, proud to assert his respectability and distinguished connections, full of scorn for men who rose from humble backgrounds into the professions or the Church. He lived frugally and despised courtly ostentation, but those qualities mark him as godly, not as a man of the people. His views on government were shifting and ad hoc, as is often the case in revolutionary times. He supported Cromwell’s military dictatorship, and when it became clear that the popular tide was turning towards a Stuart restoration, proposed increasingly desperate and authoritarian compromises in the vain hope of staving it off. Anyone under the impression that Milton’s stirring denunciations of tyranny stem from a democratising spirit should remember that he also wrote these lines for Jesus in Paradise Regained:

For what is glory but the blaze of fame,
The people’s praise, if always praise unmixt?
And what the people but a herd confus’d,
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar, and well weigh’d, scarce worth the praise?
They praise and they admire they know not what,
And know not whom, but as one leads the other;
And what delight to be by such extoll’d,
To live upon thir tongues and be thir talk,
Of whom to be disprais’d were no small praise?

Milton’s modern reputation as a champion of free expression derives from 18th-century Whig appropriations of Areopagitica, but readers who come to that pamphlet expecting a free speech manifesto might well be surprised to find how limited its tolerationist argument is. Milton argued for religious toleration not because he believed in it as a general principle (like most of his contemporaries, he never would have extended it to Roman Catholics or to non-Christians), but because he feared, with good reason, that his preferred form of religion wouldn’t be tolerated under an Episcopal or Presbyterian establishment. The main reason he stuck with Cromwell was probably that he saw the Protectorate as the best means of safeguarding freedom of worship for Independents.

Why Milton Matters is particularly concerned with Samson Agonistes. The poem has long been a focus of Wittreich’s work, but it is bound to figure prominently in any discussion of Milton’s relevance given the analogies often made between Samson and the 9/11 hijackers. Wittreich holds the minority view that Milton meant Samson Agonistes as an antiwar poem, a ‘critique of violence’ that is ‘not an exemplary tale but a cautionary one’ in which ‘Milton’s hard-won insight is that violence is a way of killing the future by destroying its possibilities.’ This is a comforting interpretation, but not a likely one. Wittreich’s reading requires us to believe that Milton wanted to show Samson’s final act of mass homicide as contrary to God’s will. In the mid-17th century this would have been a highly anomalous approach to the Samson story. Milton was certainly capable of this, but there is little reason to suspect it in this case, and much to suggest the contrary. Milton’s Samson, like his Jesus in Paradise Regained, is figured as an antinomian hero, one who acts on inner promptings of the Spirit. As Jesus is led by ‘some strong motion’ to venture alone into the wilderness, so Samson follows an ‘intimate impulse’ to marry the woman at Timna, and ‘some rousing motions’ lead him to reverse his earlier decision and perform at the festival of Dagon. Whether Samson’s claims to divine inspiration are genuine is often treated as an irreducible mystery, but Milton gives us no more reason to doubt Samson than he does to doubt Christ. Far from undermining his protagonist, Milton does what he can to clean Samson up, by marrying him to Dalila, making his motives more nationalistic and less personal than in Judges, denying his suicide, and leaving out less dignified episodes, such as his visit to the Gazan harlot or the business with three hundred foxes. The likeliest explanation for this is that Milton wanted readers to see his hero as a hero. Samson Agonistes also has a topical subtext that evokes the plight of Puritan revolutionaries after the Restoration with sympathy, drawing not so hidden analogies between their circumstances and Samson’s. From the start of the poem, Samson is imprisoned. His efforts to free his people have come to nothing. As he sees it, the fault is partly his own, partly that of his fellow Israelites who, like the English, have failed to grasp their chance at freedom, turning against those whom God has raised to lead them:

But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,
And by thir vices brought to servitude,
Than to love Bondage more than Liberty,
Bondage with ease than strenuous Liberty;
And to despise, or envy, or suspect
Whom God hath of his special favour rais’d
As thir Deliverer? if he aught begin,
How frequent to desert him, and at last
To heap ingratitude on worthiest deeds?

As Sharon Achinstein has pointed out, Milton depicts the Philistine lords’ command that Samson give ‘public proof’ of his strength at the Dagon festival as an attempt to force him into an idolatrous performance, which is the way many English Dissenters viewed the requirements of public liturgical conformity under the Clarendon Code. When the Chorus marvels that God casts down those he had previously exalted, its words recall the fate of former revolutionary leaders: the trials of Vane and Lambert, the exhumed and desecrated bodies of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw.

Oft leav’st them to the hostile sword
Of Heathen and prophane, thir carkasses
To dogs and fowls a prey, or else captiv’d:
Or to the unjust tribunals, under change of times,
And condemnation of the ingrateful multitude.

Samson Agonistes is not a historical allegory like Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, whose biblical characters stand for identifiable Englishmen (King David is Charles II, Absalom Monmouth, Achitophel Shaftesbury, and so on); but like Dryden, Milton creates an Old Testament setting evocative of the English political landscape, and, like Dryden’s, Milton’s political stance can be discerned clearly enough. Samson Agonistes is a militant, unyielding poem, part of the considerable body of militant Nonconformist writing of the 1660s and 1670s. The political message it conveys to Milton’s fellow defeated Saints is roughly this: no matter how bad things get, remain true to your conscience and open to the promptings of the Spirit, and strike back at the ungodly when the Spirit moves you to do so. The poem’s homicidal end would have registered to those readers as an expression of hope, however provisional: as God raised Samson, despite his errors and defeats, to strike a final blow against his enemies, so may he raise ‘faithful champions’ in the future. There is of course much more to Samson Agonistes than this: there are sophisticated discussions of political obligation, marital obligation, legitimate use of force, steadfastness in the face of misfortune, and the extraordinary lament on blindness that sent shivers down my back when I first read it as a teenager, and still does. But the poem’s complexities do not make it a ‘critique of violence’. Whether you like it or not, Samson Agonistes is the fiercest poem Milton wrote: politically unrepentant, morally uncompromising and unequivocally homicidal. The last fact should not come as a surprise, since the homicide is there in the biblical original.

Samson Agonistes offers something much more challenging to modern readers than a liberal cautionary tale about sectarian violence: it gives us a terrorist’s eye view written by someone whose sympathies are squarely with the terrorist. To those who would like to believe that high art cannot celebrate violent revenge, or that celebrations of violent revenge cannot be high art, Samson Agonistes offers evidence to the contrary. To those who have formed the mental habit of associating religious violence with Muslims, Samson Agonistes provides a salutary change of perspective. Wittreich is quite right that one lesson to take from the poem is that ‘one man’s freedom fighters are another man’s terrorists’; he needs only to recognise that this is a lesson Milton would have rejected. He would have accepted this latter-day truism as a description of the fallen world, where many serve false gods as zealously as he aimed to serve the true one; but he would have rejected its implication of moral equivalence between worshippers of the God of Israel and worshippers of Dagon. The divide between religious and secular perspectives is, on this point, absolute.