Nigel Smith, Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 2008), 240 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0674028326. $22.95 (USD).
1> Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? asks a question that is eye-catching, provocative, and delightful. Nigel Smith’s “Preface” dispels the expectation that he will in fact answer the question: instead, he explains “[t]his book is a provocation to as general a public as possible to reconsider the writings of John Milton” on the occasion of the 400-year anniversary of Milton’s birth (xv). Like Milton in Paradise Lost, then, Smith boldly states his aim from the beginning. There has been much debate about whether or not Milton succeeded in “justify[ing] the ways of God to men”; does Smith succeed in justifying Milton to contemporary general readers? Indeed, yes, and more.
2> Some works by scholars advertise themselves as intended for a general readership but turn out to be far from their aim. Not so with Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? The book even has the feel of a book for general readers: it is nicely-sized with an attractive cover design; has ample margins and an attractive font; it includes an uncluttered “Biographical Outline,” or timeline, in the front and a manageable “Select Bibliography” in the back. Part of the method of the text itself is to intrigue readers through a rhetorically-savvy “Introduction” before leading them through chapters entitled, for example: “Poetics and Poetic Strategies,” “Divorce,” “Imagining Creation,” and “The Lover, the Poem, and the Critics.” The themes highlighted in the titles are familiar to Milton scholars. Readers looking for the well-footnoted methods and nuanced discussions that are the hallmark of Smith’s extensive critical work will be disappointed. For example, “Chapter 3: Free Will” primarily summarizes rather than contributes fresh understandings to this highly contentious topic.
3> Smith persuades readers that indeed Milton is better than Shakespeare for a grasp of current political life, because “Milton’s writings played such a dominant role in the discussions and definitions of liberty that surrounded the founding of the United States” (4). He extends a potentially Anglo-centric emphasis by positioning the U.S. in a technologically-tied global world. His argument is persuasive emotionally as well as intellectually. For example, Smith is unabashed about calling Paradise Lost a “magnificent epic poem” and an “achievement” (5). He also shares with his readers the passion embedded in lesser-known texts. Of the divorce tracts he writes, “[a]ll these tracts embody the sense of having read enormous amounts of printed material, to the extent that we feel the mind of the writer about to explode under the pressure of confronting it”(10). Here as in so many places, in explaining Milton, Smith justifies the scholarly processes that may repel general readers from Milton studies, and perhaps other intellectual pursuits.
4> Smith’s chapters are in part thematic, as their titles evince, but they are also methodological, providing readers with increasing levels of skills in order to appreciate increasingly unwieldy but always important—dare I say relevant—ideas. The first chapter begins with a confession of his own youthful avoidance of Paradise Lost. Smith asks us to revisit with him “At a Solemn Music,” which he found in Helen Gardner’s Metaphysical Poets anthology. We join him as he admits refreshingly the pay-off for close readings with just this one poem: “What is intriguing about the poem’s effects is that it wants to take you right there to God, and to what Milton imagines the experience of heaven to be” (17). With critical thinking skills honed, readers move on to “Chapter 2: Divorce” and “Chapter 3: Free Will,” which Smith begins with vigorous openings: “Sexuality is never absent from Milton’s poetry” (42); and “In the second edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (February 1644), Milton stressed that marriage of incompatible partners was a sin” (64). Both sentences pair perennially favorite, accessible topics with texts—Milton’s poetry and prose—which Smith would have equally favorite. While Paradise Lost receives the lion’s share of attention, Milton’s other works are brought to service in delightful ways (as with the surprising choice of “At a Solemn Music”) and in convincingly serious ways, as with his extended attention to Samson Agonistes in the final chapter.
5> Smith sets himself the difficult task of giving his readers the credit of being willing and able to engage with some very difficult concepts. In this way he is mimetic of Milton’s public prose and poetry. “Chapter 3: Free Will” is a case in point. To address appropriately the concept of free will, Smith invokes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Elsewhere, he even presents the Greek. But he does so in an inviting way, prompting readers to find interest in Aristotle and, in the latter case, providing the Latin translation of the Greek in parenthesis “(proairesis)” before providing the easily accessible “‘choice’” (68). General readers are rewarded with then applying all these critical skills and newly-acquired (or reviewed) concepts to a reading of Paradise Lost, the section for which starts with “Now Satan is a jealous guy, and his rebellion is rooted in envy of the honors that God gives to his Son” (78). The chapters, however, are not repetitive: either in content or style. For example, “Chapter 6: Imagining Creation” begins humorously, yet seriously, with “Space: the final frontier” (132), an allusion, of course, to Star Trek. The chapter begins by describing God’s Creation and handles it with delicacy, so that the creation of Pandemonium described in the second half of the chapter pales, as it should. In doing so, Smith reverses Milton’s own organizational model in the epic, in which readers view Pandemonium’s creation in Book 1 of Paradise Lost before witnessing Creation in Book 7.
6> Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? is part of a small but regular attempt by scholars to invite general readers to enjoy great writers, great ideas, great pleasure. The attempt has taken many forms in the last century. The Harvard Classics, first published in 1909, is a 51-volume anthology of world literature that would fit on a five-foot shelf that Harvard President Charles W. Elliot believed could provide general readers with the elements of a liberal education if read daily, if only for fifteen minutes. This endeavor also includes regular contributions from public intellectuals: from James Russell Lowell publishing his Biglow Papers in the Boston Globe in the nineteenth century to Stanley Fish (whom Smith mentions a few times in his book) contributing regular articles to The New York Times.
7> Smith’s contribution to this attempt is all the more welcome because it is willing to address and record its historical moment. Scholars in the U.S. will find pleasure in the care he so graciously displays for his elected homeland of the U.S.; all readers will appreciate the way he defines citizenship as global and elective, i.e. based on free will (see his Chapter 3). In reading Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?, I was reminded of Thomas Merton’s Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. While treating the works of a famously Christian poet, Smith by no means replicates Merton’s avowed Christianity: their topics, aims, and professions are far different. However, first published in 1968, Merton’s book remains important and its arguments cogent while its references to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War date it. I look forward to reading Smith’s book a decade from now with the confidence that it too will stand the test of time not despite but rather because of its understated advocacy for addressing present, urgent concerns.
8> The general reading public will find Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? engaging because of its lively writing style, lack of scholarly apparatus, and brevity. Scholars in the field will find it impressive for its extensiveness, carefulness with historical facts, and willingness to expand the conversation on important topics and an important author.
Angelica Duran (B.A. 1987, M.A. 1988, English, U.C. Berkeley; Ph.D. 2000, English, Stanford) is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well as Director of Religious Studies at Purdue University. Her research is focused primarily on Milton, education, seventeenth-century literature, and Anglo-Hispanic cultural exchange.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges