Sunday, May 31, 2009

Emily Speller: “Milton, 1671 Poems”

Emily Speller
University of Dallas

Book Review

Laura Lunger Knoppers, ed., The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume II. The 1671 Poems: Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2009), 170 pp. + civ. ISBN-13: 978-0199296170. $135.00 (USD).

1> Thanks to Laura Knoppers’s meticulous editorial procedures and her expertise in the relation between politics and print culture in Restoration England, this edition of Milton’s 1671 poems sets a high standard of historical and textual scholarship for subsequent volumes of Oxford’s Complete Works of John Milton. The text of Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes generally follows that of the 1671 edition, with 1680 emendations, errata, and other textual variants footnoted for easy reference. The ten lines of the 1671 Omissa, which were inserted appropriately within the body of the text in the 1680 edition, are here preserved in their appended form. Concise editorial commentary, placed after the poems, primarily consists of OED citations, explanations of biblical and classical allusions, and etymological explications of Milton’s use of Greek, Latin and Hebrew derivatives. An index covers Knoppers’s own remarks, and figures of original title pages, inserted portraits, and reader marginalia enhance visual appeal. The distinctive character of this volume, however, is found in Knoppers’s pithily compendious front matter, which, comprising more than a third of the volume, deserves evaluation of its own.

2> In her General Introduction (adapting some of her work in Historicizing Milton), Knoppers situates Milton’s final two poems within the politically radical and religiously nonconformist print network of Restoration England. While the lavish expenditures and licentious conduct of Charles II’s court increased parliamentary murmuring, suppression of political dissent by the Sedition Act, and of religious nonconformity by the Clarendon Code and renewed Conventicle Act, unified a heterogeneous group of Dissenters and radical thinkers. The appointment of the fiercely royalist Roger L’Estrange as Surveyor of the Press added muscle to the 1662 Licensing Act, but the pressure ironically galvanized alliances of booksellers, printers, publishers, and writers seeking to evade censorship. Among these was John Starkey, radical Whig and member of the Green Ribbon Club, and the publisher of the 1671 and 1680 editions of Milton’s Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes. Starkey’s taste for texts on virtuous republics and corrupt tyrannies eventually led to his exile for the apparently seditious republication of Nathaniel Bacon’s discourses in justification of the Commonwealth. In Starkey, Knoppers attests, Milton must have found a “kindred spirit,” and through the association of poet and publisher, one might suspect that Milton’s final two poems, while more allusive than Bacon’s prose, were just as politically relevant.

3> From this context Knoppers proceeds to consider Milton’s final two poems as different (but not incompatible) perspectives on restraint and activity that share a focus on “inner faith…, endurance under persecution, the witness of the faithful, and the knowledge and willingness to act when the time is right”—thereby offering a guiding hand to nonconformist readers (lvii). Form supports content, as even Milton’s genre choices have political implications. Knoppers classifies Paradise Regain’d alternately as a brief epic and as a work in “the middle ground that Aristotle saw between epic and tragedy,” and the closet drama Samson Agonistes certainly imitates the form of a classical tragedy; both epic and tragedy are concerned not only with the fate of a hero or lofty protagonist, but also with that of a city or nation (lii, lvii). An argument for the timeliness of Paradise Regain’d develops through analysis of the Aeneid as its intertext. Allusions suggest a correlation between the Son of God, a silent hero whose action primarily consists in standing, and the “pious, unmoved Aeneas, who founds a new kingdom only at considerable personal cost and suffering” (liii). Yet Knoppers sees a marked difference between text and intertext as “the Son goes beyond Aeneas in his temperance and willingness to suffer to found his eternal kingdom,” and in the supposition that “the nationalist focus of the Aeneid…and its direct praise of the emperor Augustus, find no parallel in Milton’s stark reprise” (liii). Perhaps the argument politicizing Paradise Regain’d in light of the Aeneid would be strengthened by a subtler reading of Virgil’s epic. The glorious vision of future Rome in Book 6 concludes with Aeneas’s return through the gate of false dreams, and Aeneas’s final action, the slaying of Turnus, is in direct opposition to Anchises’ exhortations in the underworld to spare the conquered, an opposition anticipated by Aeneas’s presumptive mercilessness against Magus (Aeneid 6.1154, 1218, 10.749, trans. Fitzgerald). A tempered opinion of Virgil’s enthusiasm for contemporary Rome might concur with Milton’s own disillusioned patriotism, a premise of Knoppers’s argument. Similarly in the discussion of Samson Agonistes, the conventions of classical tragedy are tied to current affairs. Expected features, like the silent God and the flawed but noble hero, would resonate with dissatisfied Dissenters. “[T]he wavering of the classical Greek chorus” coincides with “the shortcomings of Samson’s own nation”—and by extension, England (lv). For Knoppers, Milton uses the tradition of the Roman republic and biblical ambivalence toward kingship in Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regain’d to “show an emphasis less on the decline into monarchy than on the moral corruption that makes a nation self-enslaved” (lvi). An ideal reader would then perhaps turn to introspection rather than to insurrection.

4> The case for the political relevance of literary genre leads to the investigation of early readers of Milton’s text, who “shap[ed] it through their readings, interpretations and material markings” (lviii). Pointing to marginalia, handwritten indices and corrections, Knoppers asserts that early readers “did not see the printed object as fixed or stable,” and thereby performed an active role in the aesthetic and political meaning of the material text. Readers marked their copies with “penned corrections, continuing the publication process by emending and improving the text” (lxii), and often added marginalia that noted allusions to works such as The Aeneid, The Faerie Queene, and the Bible, even in one case offering alternatives to metrically irregular lines (lxvii). Those who were fortunate enough to have heard Knoppers’s plenary address at the 2007 Conference on John Milton may recognize both the argument and the evidence for her culminating consideration: Milton’s early readers saw connections between the final two poems and their present political milieu, especially demonstrable in a unique index written in one copy of the 1671 poems (bound with Paradise Lost, and now in the University of Illinois Library). An entry on “England’s Case” directs one to page 23 of Samson Agonistes in the volume, where a marginal line draws attention to lines 268-71 of the poem, where Samson reveals his exasperation with a corrupt nation of Israelites choosing easy servitude over “strenuous liberty.” This intriguing find justifies reconsideration of other index entries (e.g., those on ‘Glory’, ‘Fame’, ‘Justice of God’, and ‘Patience’), and leads Knoppers to argue that “the reader looks to Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes for models of faith and patience under persecution, for exposure of ungodly prelates and priests, and for possible violent revenge closely linked with the concerns of Dissent and republicanism in the 1670s and 1680s” (lxx). The General Introduction, in short, extensively examines how political milieu, censorship laws, genre choices and reader inferences condition the text of Milton’s poems.

5> A shorter Textual Introduction focuses on collaborative production resulting from printing-house practices, as neither poet nor amanuensis had full control of the text. Starkey, Milton’s publisher, John Macock, his printer, and at least two compositors per edition affected the final result, rendering, for example, critical arguments based on “Miltonic spellings” problematic (lxxx). Moreover, the final pages of the 1680 edition featured a catalogue of Starkey’s publications, including Machiavelli’s Works, Suetonius’s History of the Twelve Caesars, and encomia for the Dutch and Venetian republics (xlix). Such an addition, Knoppers argues, positions the volume in an even more intimate connection with the radical print network of the day.

6> Knoppers clearly and extensively defends a new historicist reading in her introductions, but the text itself, and even the editorial commentary, are rather clean of interpretive decisions. Ambiguities are justified, often locatable in etymologies and traditional poetic forms. For example, multiple meanings of ‘pinnacle’ do not determine whether the Son ultimately stands in the last temptation through divine power or merely through human efforts of balance. The note on the title of Samson Agonistes lists the multiple meanings of agon without giving preference; an earlier comment states that the drama, when analyzed in accordance with Aristotelian poetics, carries with it ambiguities allowing for opposing readings: “[T]he plot could be either complex—as Samson comes to a new understanding of his relationship with God (anagnorisis) at the same time that the action turns in his favor (peripeteia)—or the tragic plot could be single, as a despairing Samson determines on suicide and death from the beginning, and the anagnorisis and peripeteia belong to the Philistines, overturned in their moment of triumph” (liv).

7> While this volume occasionally lets the reader do the interpretive work, it also rewards the scholar with findings from a painstakingly scrutinized collection of nearly seventy extant copies of the 1671 and 1680 editions of the text (17 copies collated for this edition, and an additional 52 copies examined for marginalia, as a headnote enumerates). The choice to put the emendations as footnotes and the editorial commentary as endnotes does not make this a convenient edition for undergraduate studies or non-scholarly perusal, but it will satisfy the most exacting demands of those curious about ampersand substitutions or catchword errors. As Knoppers herself mentions, the emendations are hardly more than spelling and punctuation variations and accidental omissa; the only substantive word change is the correction of “subdue” to “destroy” as directed in the 1671 Errata (PR 1.226). Nevertheless, it is this scrupulous, serious attention to the text itself that gives this edition the precision that Miltonists can appreciate, and that Milton himself would desire.

Emily Speller is a PhD candidate in Literature at the University of Dallas’s Institute of Philosophic Studies. Her interests include Early Modern English poetry, and she is currently writing a dissertation on the philosophical implications of alimentary, gluttonous, and scatological metaphor in Paradise Lost.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges

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