Sunday, May 30, 2010

Adam Swann: "Oxford Handbook of Milton"

Adam Swann
University of Strathclyde

Book Review

Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Milton. Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2009), 715 pp. + xxii. ISBN: 978-0-19-921088-6. $150.00 (USD).

1> The recent publication of the first volume of the new Oxford Complete Works of John Milton offers an ideal opportunity to document the current state of Milton studies, and the Oxford Handbook of Milton is therefore a timely enterprise. The editors, Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith, seek to incorporate the latest developments in the field, with particular emphasis on historicisation and the reintegration of neglected prose works into the Milton canon. The weighty book is divided into eight parts, each covering a genre or period of Milton’s writing. For a volume which includes contributors ranging ‘from veteran Miltonists to relatively new names’ (Preface), it seems somewhat incongruous that Nigel Smith and Martin Dzelzainis each contribute two essays, occupying slots which could have been allocated to younger scholars. This reflects the Handbook’s bias towards more experienced Miltonists (25 of the 35 contributors are professors) which renders the collection more representative of where Milton studies is, than where it might be going.

2> Just as the editors recognise that ‘even thirty-eight essays cannot do justice to the variety and richness of Milton’s life, mind and art’ (Preface), this review cannot hope to cover the breadth of topics discussed and it will therefore consider some of the notable aspects of each group of essays. The largest section of the Handbook is devoted to Paradise Lost, ‘the reason why Milton still matters four hundred years on’ (Preface). It is difficult to dispute the editors’ assessment of the centrality of the poem in Milton’s canon, and as I feel their decision to give it the most space in the Handbook is justified, I will analyse three of the Paradise Lost essays in greater detail.

3> Critics often struggle to resist the temptation to read too much of the later Milton back into his early work, and yet, in the section covering the shorter poems of Milton’s early career, it is the essays concerned with endings which prove most successful. In ‘Milton’s Early English Poems,’ Gordon Teskey explores the connections between the conclusions of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, and his particular attention to the use of ‘but’ in the latter poem emphasises the paradoxically simultaneous conjunction and separation of the two poems. Paradox is also central to ‘The Troubled, Quiet Endings of Milton’s English Sonnets,’ where John Leonard attempts to unravel the ‘opposed impulses towards opacity and tranquillity’ (137) which characterise the English sonnets. Rather than claiming allegiance to either side of the often polarised critical debates surrounding the sonnets, Leonard maturely concludes that ambiguities must not always be resolved, and that the presence of these uncertainties does not undermine the coherence or integrity of the sonnets.

4> The Handbook offers fresh readings of the Civil War texts, exemplified by Sharon Achenstein’s ‘Contextualising Milton’s Divorce Tracts.’ Achenstein emphasises that the divorce tracts must be read as companion texts to Areopagitica, and that, far from trivial exercises in self-aggrandizement, they offer a crucial insight into Milton’s theory of liberty. Achenstein also redresses the persistent critical attempts to isolate these texts, instead placing them firmly within wider European debates. Blair Hoxby develops Achenstein’s ideas in ‘Areopagitica and Liberty,’ asserting that the tract is shaped by Milton’s desire to vindicate liberty. While this thesis is nothing radical in itself, Hoxby’s essay is vitalised by his consideration of economic concerns, in particular the exploration of the parallels between trade monopolies and the imposition of censorship.

5> The section covering Milton’s prose from 1649 to 1673 manages to achieve a balance between breadth of scope and close analysis, and the essays concerning Milton’s shifting conception of nationhood during this period are particularly illuminating. In ‘Disestablishment, Toleration, the New Testament Nation: Milton’s Late Religious Tracts,’ Elizabeth Sauer deftly explores Milton’s engagement with contemporary discourses surrounding nationhood. She convincingly argues that Milton had become disillusioned with the use of the Old Testament by antidisestablishmentarians, and that he instead ‘severed Christianity and national election from Jewish antecedents’ (341) thereby advocating a tolerationist nation shaped by New Testament ideals. Paul Stevens’ ‘Milton and Religious Identity’ begins by noting the ostensible movement away from nationalism that occurred during the course of Milton’s career. While Stevens demonstrates (convincingly, to a degree) that Milton ‘never quite leaves England behind’ (343), his argument could have been buttressed by more extensive reference to the History of Britain, which is surely an essential source for any discussion of Milton’s later conceptions of nationhood.

6> Stephen B. Dobranski’s ‘Editing Milton: The Case against Modernisation’ opens with a consideration of Eve’s first lie to Adam after eating the fruit: ‘Thee I have misst’ (PL IX.857). Modernising the spelling to ‘missed’, he argues, results in a loss of both serpentine sibilance and allusions to the mist with which Satan is frequently associated in the poem. He bravely and punningly goes on to charge editors such as Stephen Orgel, Jonathan Goldberg, and Alastair Fowler with ‘summarily dis-miss[ing] the significance of retaining such details’ (481). One obvious objection here concerns the uncertainty surrounding how much of the original publications were what Milton intended and how much was dictated by the exigencies of the early modern printing process. However, this point is addressed by Dobranski’s assertion that ‘the uncertain authority of Milton’s accidentals could support the argument for less, not more, editorial intervention’ (486). He assuredly, and convincingly, concludes that silent editorial modernisations are merely an obstruction to the fusion of horizons sought by Milton’s readers.

7> In ‘Eve, Paradise Lost, and Female Interpretation’, Susan Wiseman relates Milton’s Eve to the conceptions of obedience as understood by a variety of seventeenth-century female writers. While the essay notes that Aemillia Lanyer, Rachel Speght, Anna Trapnel, and Margaret Fell all place more emphasis on Eve’s redemptive potential than her act of transgression, the connection to the similarly teleological understanding of redemption in Paradise Lost is underdeveloped. This is exacerbated by Wiseman’s suggestion that ‘whether Milton read these vernacular materials or not is not the point’ (540), which merely widens the gap between Milton and his female contemporaries. This leaves Wiseman’s argument on rather uncertain ground, and the thesis could perhaps have been more convincing if she had also considered some women writing after Paradise Lost.

8> ‘The Politics of Paradise Lost’ by Martin Dzelzainis offers an interesting approach to this familiar topic by focusing on the ‘executive political culture to which Milton belonged’ (549), and the influence this milieu exerted on the poem. Dzelzainis uncovers some fascinating aspects of Milton’s attitude to statecraft, including his apparent prioritisation of a war being waged correctly than for just reasons. The essay also intriguingly demonstrates Milton’s startling endorsement of slavery and deceit. These concepts are adeptly related to their contemporary manifestation in the debates surrounding the Anglo-Dutch wars, before Dzelzainis demonstrates their correlation to the internalised postlapsarian human condition. This essay skilfully reminds us that, however independent his thought may have been throughout his career, the legacy of Milton’s time as ‘a willing servant of the fiscal military state’ (559) remains clear in Paradise Lost.

9> The Handbook has three essays devoted to Samson Agonistes but only one concerning Paradise Regained, which leaves the section covering the 1671 poems rather unbalanced. The neglect of Paradise Regained seems unjustified, as the richness of John Rogers’ ‘Paradise Regained and the Memory of Paradise Lost’ demonstrates. Like Teskey and Leonard, Rogers focuses on the opacity of the poem’s ending, persuasively arguing that Paradise Regained serves as the Christological revelation, not just the narrative culmination, of Paradise Lost. Elizabeth D. Harvey’s essay, ‘Samson Agonistes and Milton’s Sensible Ethics’, draws on a wealth of contemporary anatomical and philosophical texts to construct the poem as a profoundly multi-sensory experience. It is certainly refreshing to see a scholar willing to go against the grain of post-9/11 Samson Agonistes criticism by suggesting that ‘the poem is less an incitement to violence . . . than it is a homeopathic remedy’ (666).

10> A collection which aims to provide an overview of criticism concerning a figure as hermeneutically polarising as Milton will inevitably be subject to a lack of overarching coherency, and those who read the Handbook seeking unambiguous analyses and conclusive answers will be disappointed. And yet, the volume’s greatest strength (consistent with the goal of any such collection) is its representation of current criticism together with the suggestion of what still remains to be explored in the field. In that regard, the Handbook excels.

Adam Swann is undertaking a PhD at the University of Strathclyde. His research interests include Early Modern literature, with a particular focus on international discourses, religion, and intellectual culture in the Interregnum and Restoration. He is writing a thesis exploring the influence of economic debates on Milton’s conception of salvation.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Three (2010): Digital Archives

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