Milton’s contemporary, the Congregationalist divine John Owen, is probably mid-century England’s fiercest critic of anti-Trinitarianism, and the noisiest proponent, as in De Divina Justia [A Dissertation of Divine Justice] (1653) and A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity (1669), of the absolute necessity of the Trinity’s actions, especially that of the Son’s satisfaction of the Father’s demand for justice after the Fall. (83)
VOLUME TEN (2017): ARTEFACTS
- VOLUME SIX (2013): EDITIONS & EDITING
- * * * ARTICLES * * *
- Matthias Bauer & Angelika Zirker: “Connotations”
- Sheila Cavanagh: “Value in Editorial Humanities”
- Clay Daniel: “Restoration Lost”
- Amanda Haberstroh: “MasterMistress”
- Robert Imes: “Editing the Spatial Turn”
- * * * REVIEW ESSAY * * *
- David V. Urban: “The New Milton Criticism”
- * * * REVIEW * * *
- Cole Jeffrey: "Political Theology & Modernity"
- * * * NOTE * * *
- David V. Urban: “Milton & Same-Sex Marriage”
- VOLUME SIX (2013): EDITIONS & EDITING
- ▼ August (14)
Monday, August 12, 2013
David V. Urban: “The New Milton Criticism”
David V. Urban
Reading The New Milton Criticism: A Review Essay
Peter C. Herman and Elizabeth Sauer, eds., The New Milton Criticism. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, UK & New York, NY, USA, 2012), 253 pp. + xii. ISBN 978-1-107-01922-5 (hardback) $95.00 (USD) & 978-1-107-60395-0 (paperback) $27.99 (USD).
Michael E. Bryson, The Atheist Milton. Ashgate Publishing (Surry, UK & Burlington, VA, USA, 2012), 184 pp. ISBN 9781409447016. £49.50 (GBP).
1> These two volumes are recent book-length contributions by representatives of a critical movement that calls itself the New Milton Criticism (hereafter referred to as the NMC). The NMC label was given to the movement by Peter C. Herman in his 2005 article, “Paradigms Lost, Paradigms Found: The New Milton Criticism,” an essay which heralds the coming of “a New Milton Criticism” that “embraces indeterminancy and incertitude" (1), as well as contradiction, as essential aspects of Milton's writings. The NMC's antecedents, writes Herman, can be found in the Romantics’ responses to Milton, as well as in 20th-century works such as A. J. A. Waldock’s “Paradise Lost” and Its Critics (1947), John Peter’s A Critique of “Paradise Lost” (1960), and William Empson’s Milton’s God (1961), but Herman suggests that the NMC itself began in earnest in 1990 with the publication of three separate essays by Thomas N. Corns, Jonathan Goldberg, and John Rumrich, each of which “sought to recast Miltonic uncertainty as a constituent element of Milton studies, that is, as an opportunity rather than an embarrassment” (14).1 Subsequent book-length efforts that Herman considers important contributions to the NMC are Rumrich's Milton Unbound: Controversy and Reinterpretation (1996), Rumrich and Stephen Dobranski’s Milton and Heresy (1998), Michael Bryson's The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King (2004), and Herman's own Destabilizing Milton: “Paradise Lost” and the Poetics of Incertitude (2005). Another important book aligned with the NMC, which appeared shortly after Herman's essay, is Joseph Wittreich’s Why Milton Matters: A New Preface to His Writings (2006).
2> Herman's article, which soundly criticizes what he considers the “dominant paradigm” of Milton studies (1), summarizes that paradigm as follows: 1) “Milton is a poet of absolute, unqualified certainty”; 2) “Paradise Lost coheres”; and 3) “the critic’s task is to make the poem cohere” (2). Invoking the terminology of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Herman announces that the NMC is ushering in a new paradigm within Milton studies, one which is beginning to flourish amid the recognition that the current dominant paradigm has, in Kuhn’s words, “ceased to function adequately” (19). Herman’s essay concludes by stating, “If C. S. Lewis wrote A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ with the intension of preventing ‘the reader from ever raising certain questions,’ the New Milton Criticism encourages all questions, regardless of where the answer will take the reader” (19).
3> The claims of the NMC, particularly those made by Herman and Bryson, drew the ire of Stanley Fish in his keynote address to the July 2008 Ninth International Milton Symposium. In this now-published address, Fish notes that he and C. S. Lewis—whom Bryson in The Tyranny of Heaven portrays as the two dominant forces behind the so-called “neo-Christian” school of Milton studies that Bryson derisively calls “Milton ministries” (23)—are the main targets of the NMC's critical iconoclasm. Fish calls the NMC’s conclusions “unpersuasive” and spends the remainder of his essay critiquing what he considers the faulty “argumentative logic by which [the NMC’s conclusions] are supposedly reached” (131).
4> More recently, I myself became embroiled in controversy with the NMC when, in May 2011, I published an article in Milton Quarterly, “Speaking for the Dead,” that argues that Herman, Bryson, and Wittreich have each misrepresented Lewis in efforts to further the aims of the NMC. My essay was answered in the December 2011 issue of Milton Quarterly by a forum of three responses authored by Herman and two contributors to The New Milton Criticism, Wittreich and Richard Strier. My response to Herman, Wittreich, and Strier appeared in the October 2012 issue of Milton Quarterly. My 2012 essay, “The Acolyte’s Rejoinder,” primarily responds to Herman’s response, which, I argue, never substantively answers my concerns but rather offers a litany of ad hominem attacks against me.2
5> It is not now my intention to rehash the specific issues discussed in those essays. But I will use as a point of reference something I wrote toward the end of “The Acolyte’s Rejoinder”: “Herman should know that I actually find the New Milton Criticism’s contention regarding the fundamental tensions in Milton’s writings to be intriguing and even persuasive in certain areas. But a clear line must be drawn between legitimately analyzing tensions within an author’s texts and misrepresenting sources in an effort to further one’s argument” (178).
6> In examining these present books and the essays contained therein, I have kept in mind this distinction between legitimately analyzing tensions within Milton’s writings as opposed to misrepresenting sources to further one's own critical argument. And, although there is significant source misrepresentation in two of essays contained in The New Milton Criticism, the majority of the collection’s essays succeed in their efforts to highlight the tensions and contradictions evident in Milton’s works. One needn’t be in complete sympathy with the NMC’s larger aims and particular arguments to appreciate the challenging critical perspectives its adherents offer. Indeed, my goal for this review essay is to move beyond, for the most part, the specific matters that concerned my earlier essays and to offer a broad analysis of recent NMC works that considers thoroughly both their strengths and weaknesses. I chose to publish my review in Appositions because, given my own history with the NMC, I thought it appropriate to write in a forum in which those whose works I analyze can publish their responses immediately if they so desire.
7> In their Introduction, “Paradigms Lost, Paradigms Found: The New Milton Criticism,” Herman and co-editor Elizabeth Sauer skillfully lay out the aims of the NMC. Readers will recognize that this Introduction has an identical title to Herman’s 2005 Literature Compass essay, but while this Introduction does incorporate some material from Herman’s earlier effort, it is largely a new composition, and a more careful one, being helpfully devoid of the bombast in which Herman occasionally indulged in his 2005 essay and also omitting that essay’s above-quoted reductionistic summary of the so-called “dominant paradigm” of Milton studies. Also absent from the introduction is any reference to C. S. Lewis, disparaging or otherwise, although Fish remains, over and against the NMC’s emphasis on “indeterminancy and inconclusiveness,” the most prominent spokesman for “the will-to-order in Milton” (11).
8> Herman and Sauer suggest that the “paradigm of imposing certainty on an unruly Miltonic text” is evident in the earliest Milton commentary, including Andrew Marvell’s 1674 poem “On Paradise Lost” and John Dryden’s 1677 operatic adaptation of Paradise Lost, The State of Innocence and Fall of Man, both of which attempt to tame the rebellion and discernible impieties in Milton’s epic.
9> Herman and Sauer also highlight what they call the “seeming debate” in the 1730s between Milton editor Richard Bentley and his critic, Zachary Pearce. Herman and Sauer refer to their feud as a “seeming debate” because, although Pearce criticized Bentley’s infamous 1732 edition of Paradise Lost for Bentley’s many emendations to the text—emendations Bentley made because he believed the originally published text contained many problematic phrases attributable to some of Milton’s acquaintances, who changed Milton’s epic without the blind poet's knowledge—Pearce’s critical strategy was to argue that the epic’s original phrases that Bentley changed were, if examined properly, perfectly appropriate. Thus, although history has judged Bentley as ridiculous for seeking to emend away Milton’s inconsistencies, Pearce himself was explaining away these inconsistencies. Indeed, both critics maintained that Paradise Lost “should be absolutely consistent and contain no contradictions” (6). This critical urge to smooth over Milton's writings’ inconsistencies and contradictions, Herman and Sauer argue, continues to dominate Milton studies to the present day.
10> The collection is divided into two parts, “Theodices” and “Critical Receptions,” each of which contains six essays.
11> The first part’s opening essay, Richard Strier’s “Milton’s Fetters, or, Why Eden Is Better than Heaven,” is a revised version of an article by the same name that appeared in Milton Studies 38 (2000). Aligning himself with those “who have seen Paradise Lost as a poem deeply divided against itself,” Strier explicitly adopts both “Blake's idea that Milton wrote ‘in fetters’ of God and the good angels” and “Shelley’s view of Heaven and Hell in the poem as, in a sense, morally equivalent” (25). Offering a twist on Blake’s contention that Milton wrote “at liberty” when writing “of Devils & Hell,” Strier argues that Milton’s “attempt at theodicy [. . .] produces most of the aesthetic and religious failures of the poem,” whereas “Milton wrote without fetters” when writing on “an area free of the Great Argument: the presentation of Eden and of unfallen human life within it” (25).
12> Strier goes on to suggest that Paradise Lost’s portrayal of Heaven is problematic because it is characterized by the Father's acts of fiat and displays of raw power in his sudden exaltation of the Son in Book 5 and his sending of the Son to defeat the rebellious angels in Book 6. The poem’s Hell, by contrast, actually contains the admirable virtue of the demons’ genuine unanimity in their decision making in their council in Book 2, where they demonstrate a “Firm concord” that the Miltonic narrator wishes were possible among humans (2.496-500). In Strier’s view, Milton’s Heaven is not morally superior to his Hell but rather is its moral equivalent. Milton’s Heaven is also problematic in Book 3 because it displays “Milton’s commitment to rational explanation” (40), which manifests itself negatively in its rationalistic portrayal of a “defensive” God (36), one who tests his subjects in order to properly exercise their free will but does not inspire their spontaneous love and affection.
13> This lack of spontaneity in Heaven contrasts with Milton’s portrayal of Eden, a place where, for significant stretches of the poem, “Milton escapes from his preoccupation with deliberation and choice” (40). This artistic freedom is demonstrated by Milton’s descriptions of Eden’s landscape and by the spontaneous gratitude and worship that Adam and Eve show their Maker. Following Joseph E. Duncan in Milton’s Earthly Paradise (1972), Strier finds it “extraordinary” that Adam and Eve are not presented “as following a ‘Covenant of Works.’ They are not following prescriptions in order to obtain a reward. They do not have to be constantly instructed in virtue” (42). One could, however, easily argue that Milton does in fact imply a “Covenant of Works” with the first couple, but in any event the idea that Adam and Eve naturally pursue virtue apart from direct instruction is by no means uniquely Miltonic. The Westminster Larger Catechism—which does briefly refer to a “Covenant of Works” (Answer 30)—explicitly states that Adam and Eve were created with “the law of God written in their hearts” (Answer 17); Milton’s portrayal of the first couple is not revolutionary in this sense.
14> Nonetheless, Stier’s brief discussion of Milton’s artistic freedom in Eden is genuinely convincing and even inspiring. But it is, well, too brief. Given the essay’s title, we might expect something more developed than the three-page discussion of Eden that Strier offers, a discussion regretably silent on the spontaneous affection shown by Adam and Eve toward each other. Nonetheless, Strier contributes a thought-provoking essay whose claims are well worth considering.
15> In the collection’s second essay, “‘Whose fault, whose but his own?’: Paradise Lost, Contributory Negligence, and the Problem of Cause,” Herman uses case law on negligence contemporary to Milton to examine the matter of blame for the Fall in Milton’s epic. Herman argues that although the epic’s narrator and God assume the strict liability of the defendants—Satan, Adam, and Eve—and the full innocence of the plaintiff—God—contemporary case law suggests that blame for the Fall can be spread far wider than what God and the narrator assert.
16> Herman specifically employs case law on negligence to argue that God shares blame for the Fall because he chained Satan in Hell with “Adamantine Chains” that do not hold him down (Book 1), he entrusted (of all people) Sin with the key to exit Hell (Book 2), and (presumably) he let down the stairs that Satan climbs to first glimpse the created universe and Earth (Book 3). Herman also uses case law on negligence to place blame on Uriel for not recognizing Satan in Eden, and on Gabriel and his troop for not apprehending him (Book 4). Blame also extends to Raphael in Books 5 and 8 for his insufficiently thorough warnings to Adam concerning Satan, and for his overall indifference to Eve’s presence when he speaks to Adam, something all the more unsettling “because it is Eve, not Adam, who will face Satan” (63). Herman’s essay is particularly intriguing for its use of contemporary case law to undermine the trustworthiness of the Miltonic narrator and Milton’s God, and one needn’t be finally convinced by his argument to find his contentions valuable and challenging.
17> Strier’s and Herman’s efforts represent, in my view, the strongest material in the collection's first part, and Herman’s essay in particular best exemplifies what he has called the NMC’s hermeneutical practice of showing tensions in Milton’s writings through close textual analysis and historical research (Herman, “Paradigms” 15).
18> The remaining essays in part one are of mixed value for various reasons. Judith Scherer Herz’s “Meanwhile: (Un)making Time in Paradise Lost,” to quote the editors, “complicates notions of linearity, temporality, and chronology in Milton, thus challenging the claims to narrative stability founded on these features” (14). Herz examines Milton’s repeated use of the word “meanwhile” to argue for the instability of the poem. For example, Herz states that “for Adam and Eve, meanwhile is always now,” but “as God enters the poem he identifies a now that carries with it the meanwhile of all human time from a present that is not yet in time to the end of time” (88). Herz’s essay offers an intriguing rubric through which to analyze the shifting temporal structure of Milton’s epic, but I confess that I found her thick prose difficult to read.
19> Elizabeth Sauer’s “Discontents with the Drama of Regeneraton” examines the reception history of Samson Agonistes. Sauer presents the conflict between “neo-Christian interpretations and regenerationist readings that resolve complications in the poem, especially in the final act” and those readings which resist “neo-Christian readings,” contending that Milton’s drama “offers debate, not certainty” (121). Sauer pays particular attention to critical readings of Dalila, whose character “accentuates the contested nature of Samson’s heroism” (121). Among other things, Sauer highlights the significance of how “the extra-biblical episode of Dalila’s defense” (122) complicates both Samson’s final destruction of Dagon’s temple and the Philistines and readers’ interpretive reliance on the book of Judges.
20> Sauer’s essay offers a helpful survey of criticism pertaining to Dalila, but it fails to note the powerful defense of Dalila’s character offered by Derek N. C. Wood in “Exiled from Light”: Divine Law, Morality, and Violence in Milton’s “Samson Agonistes” (2001), a work whose interpretation of Milton’s drama fits well with the broader concerns of the NMC.
21> I will reserve for later in my essay a discussion of John Rogers’ and Michael Bryson’s contributions to “Part I” of the collection and now turn my attention to “Part II: Critical Receptions,” which offers a series of strong essays.
22> In “Against Fescues and Ferulas: Personal Affront and the Path to Individual Liberty in Milton’s Early Prose,” Christopher D’Addario challenges the prevailing portrayal “of Milton as a wholehearted supporter of individual liberty, one who, at least until 1660, consistently and firmly believed in the unfettered use and efficacy of human reason” (142). Such a view of Milton, D’Addario fairly asserts, conflicts with the Milton who “persistently misdoubts his readers’ abilities, passionately attacking their refusal to accept what Milton plainly sets before them” (142). D’Addario suggests that Milton’s later explicit statements of disappointment with the English people in Eikonoklastes (1649) and especially in The Readie and Easie Way (1660) are “not unique, but rather inhere in Milton’s earliest thoughts on liberty and right reason” (142). D’Addario convincingly argues that because “personal animus, indeed even passion and antagonism, drive Milton’s political theories,” his early prose demonstrates “a writer whose conception of individual liberty is far from unified, coherent or sustainable” (142).
23> I consider D’Addario’s argument largely persuasive. But I also think it worth noting that as he problematizes the portrayal of Milton as a champion of individual liberty and reason, he simultaneously presents a Milton whose earlier and later prose are actually more consistent than generally supposed. We may fairly ask: Does D’Addario’s valuable essay undermine or actually strengthen the “dominant paradigm” of Miltonic coherence?
24> In “Disruptive Partners: Milton and Seventeenth-Century Women Writers,” Shannon Miller presents a fascinating discussion of Paradise Lost in relation to writings by Rachel Speght, Ester Sowernam, Aemilia Lanyer, Mary Chudleigh, and Mary Astell. Miller argues that, “Surrounded by women who engage narratives of the Fall, issues of gendered culpability, and even representations of Christ’s Passion and redemption,” Milton’s poem “internalizes lines of inquiry posed by early seventeenth-century texts authored by women” (156). Miller’s essay discusses both what she considers the influence of Sowernam’s, Speght’s, and Lanyer’s texts upon Milton’s portrayal of Eve and the subsequent reworking of Milton's portrayal of Eve in the writings of Astell and Chudleigh.
25> In the most engaging part of her essay, Miller discusses the Eve figures of Sowernam’s Ester Hath Hanged Haman (1617) and Speght’s “Dream” vision poem within Mortalities Memorandum (1621). Both works’ Eve figures are women “in search of self-knowledge” (159), women whose characters develop through self-understanding. The complexity of Sovernam’s and Speght’s Eve figures contrast with the the Eve’s of other early seventeenth-century Fall narratives, characters whose character development is precluded by their “almost immediate fall” or an “almost fetishistic fascination with the apple” (159-60). Miller suggests that “Sowernam’s and Speght’s defenses of Eve exploring her ‘esse’ imprint onto Milton’s representation of our first mother as he explores similar strands of her character” (160). The “impulse to solitariness” that Milton’s Eve exhibits in Books 4, 5, 6, and 9 can be linked to Speght’s Eve figure, whose solitariness is a means for “knowledge acquisition” (161). Miller states that Adam speaks with some accuracy when, in Book 8, he tells Raphael that Eve “seems . . . in her self compleat” (547-48). Miller argues that this aspect of Eve's character creates “a tension between God’s and Adam’s impulse that it is not good for man to be alone and Eve’s inclination to be ‘sole’” (161).
26> Thomas Festa’s “Eve and the Ironic Theodicy of the New Milton Criticism,” while somewhat less engagingly written than Miller’s essay, offers a valuable analysis of Eve’s character through examination of her early reception history. Festa discusses 18th-century critics’ response to two scenes—Eve’s narration of her birth in Book 4 and Eve’s contrition before Adam in Book 10—as a means to examine the tensions inherent in Milton’s text.
27> In discussing Eve’s birth narrative, Festa first notes the responses of “misogynist readers” (178) who see Eve's impulse toward autonomy as a negative, narcissistic trait that, from the perspective of 18th-century Milton editor and commentator Thomas Newton, serves as Milton’s ridiculing reminder to women to stay submissive to their husbands. Festa then counters such misogynist perspectives with the positive interpretation offered by Edward Young who, in Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) “reframes Eve's story of her birth [. . .] as an allegory for the emergence of genius” (182). In this allegory, Eve represents “the writer’s ‘happy confusion’ at the sudden appearance of genius,” something which Young contrasts with the “narcissistic vanity” of self-enamored wit (183).
28> In discussing Eve’s repentance, Festa observes with some sympathy Jonathan Richardson’s 1734 biographical interpretation of the scene as reflecting Mary Powell’s return to Milton, as well as Newton’s admonition to his readers that their hearts ought to “relent with Adam’s” in response to Eve (qtd. on 186). But Festa’s interpretation of the scene is more full-orbed than Richardson’s or Newton’s, and he recognizes in Eve’s humility the phrase alluding to 2 Corinthians 12:9 that Milton used, in Greek, to sign two autograph books in 1652 and 1656: “I am perfected in weakness.” Indeed, Eve’s humility contrasts with Adam's pride preceding her repentance, demonstrating to Adam and the epic’s readers that post-Fall perfection can only be obtained in weakness. Festa goes on to link “Young’s differentiation between narcissistic wit and reflexive genius” and his own contrast between Adam’s pride and Eve’s humility after the Fall (187). Both reflexive genius and humility, Festa suggests, involve “self-sacrifice” and the “recognition of another” (187).
29> Festa follows this analysis by asking if Milton may have used Eve, in her suffering and humility “to expose the unethical impetus toward theodicy—to reveal in her discomfort and ours, the ultimate immorality of rationalizing the suffering of others, including Christ, as a way to secure consolation for the evil that occurs” (188). Despite his essay’s title, Festa’s humble challenge to theodicy here seems forced because it appears so suddenly, so late in his essay, and remains undeveloped. Festa’s challenge to theodicy might well be more persuasive if it were explained more thoroughly, but as it stands it seems almost perfunctory. That being said, Festa’s discussion of both scenes is genuinely worthwhile.
30> In “Man and Thinker: Denis Saurat, and the Old New Milton Criticism,” Jeffrey Shoulson examines Saurat’s work and influence with the expressed aim of restoring Saurat to his rightful place of import in Milton studies. Shoulson argues that Saurat’s Milton: Man and Thinker (1925, reissued in 1944) “was the underlying trigger for the [mid-20th-century] Milton Controversy” even though Saurat’s book has often been disregarded “as an aberrant curiosity” (194). Shoulsen asserts that Saurat’s book both “anticipates the New Milton Criticism’s arguments with interpretive orthodoxies” and is “largely responsible for the stubborn, and seemingly un-theoretical, presence of the author Milton—Man and Thinker—in virtually all efforts to render his writings meaningful, whether they be neo-Christian or heterodoxical” (194-95).
31> Early in his essay, Shoulson outlines the landscape of Milton studies in the decades prior to Saurat’s book, stating that they focused on “Milton’s language, his prosody, his imagery” and generally ignored or dismissed “his biography, his theology, [and] his politics” (195). (Shoulson’s claim that there was little interest in Milton’s theology, however, seems at odds with Saurat’s book’s exhortation that it was time to “disentangle” Milton’s thought from “theological rubbish” .) Although Saurat’s contemporary James Holly Hanford did offer a more historically informed analysis of Milton, Hanford offered “a Milton of high humanist culture, largely detached from the complex political and religious issues of his day” (196). But Saurat “made it essential to read Milton in dialogue with his own cultural, intellectual, and political milieu, and just as important, in dialogue with himself throughout his extensive and diverse career as a writer” (196). Moreover, Saurat pioneered making use of De Doctrina Christiana as a tool for understanding Milton’s other works, emphasizing the iconoclastic and unorthodox ideas present in that work.
32> But Saurat’s book fell into disfavor amid the Milton Controversy, and the Milton who was attacked in the 1930s and after by T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis was, in Shoulson’s words, “Saurat’s Milton” (198). Also contributing to Saurat’s decline in stature were assessments offered by James Thorpe in the introduction to his anthology Milton Criticism (1951) and, most damningly, Robert Adams in Milton and the Modern Critics (1955), whose portrayal of Saurat as “a failed Hebraist” continues to diminish Saurat’s critical reputation (201).
33> Nonetheless, Saurat’s book continued to demonstrate its strong influence in books by two prominent defenders of Milton coming from very different theological perspectives, C. S. Lewis in A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (1942) and William Empson in Milton’s God (1961). Although Empson’s book does not acknowledge this influence—likely, says Shoulson, because of Saurat’s damaged critical standing—both critics follow Saurat in “tak[ing] seriously the complex intellectual apparatus that is part of the warp and woof of Milton's writings” (199). And if Empson followed Saurat more closely in his interrogation of orthodoxy, the orthodox Lewis—who presented a Paradise Lost in line with the orthodox Christian tradition—honored Saurat by stating that “even those of us who disagree with him are, in one sense, of his school” (qtd. on 199).
34> Asserting the unacknowledged link between Saurat and Empson and the oft-noted link between Empson and the NMC, Shoulson suggests Saurat’s importance to the NMC and also suggests that “provocative arguments” put forward by Bryson in The Tyranny of Heaven and Victoria Silver in Imperfect Sense (2001) regarding “the absolute discontinuity between Milton’s imaginative representations of God and the ‘true’ God who is necessarily unrepesentable” are anticipated by Saurat’s analysis of Milton’s God (200). Shoulson also argues that although Milton studies has often been resistant to larger trends in literary theory, when theory is employed, it is often used to examine John Milton man and thinker, in the tradition of Saurat himself. Saurat is also an enduring force behind Milton studies’ continued commitment to intentionality in Milton.
35> All that being said, one could argue that Shoulson succeeds more in demonstrating Saurat’s continuing influence upon Milton studies in general than upon the NMC in particular—perhaps Shoulson’s essay serves as a well-developed affirmation of Lewis’ aforementioned statement that all Miltonists “are, in one sense, of [Saurat’s] school.” And yet I think Shoulson is correct to argue for the particular connection between Saurat and the NMC, especially in the parallels he notes between Saurat and Silver, and, especially, Bryson. I also wonder if Bryson’s disdainful attitude toward more orthodox interpretations of Milton’s work even while he pursues his own esoteric theological interpretations can be traced on some level to Saurat’s example. If so, then I would suggest that such an attitude, so counterproductive to the open exchange of ideas the NMC claims to champion and, significantly, one never demonstrated by Empson in his scholarly disagreements with Lewis, is not worthy of imitation.
36> In “The Poverty of Context: Cambridge School History and the New Milton Criticism,” William Kolbrener analyzes the methodology of historian and Milton scholar Quentin Skinner and its suitability for the study of Milton. Skinner’s methodology has been influential in various major studies of Milton, including his co-edited volume Milton and Republicanism (1995), Sharon Achinstein’s Milton and the Revolutionary Reader (1994), and David Norbrook’s Writing the English Republic (1999). Kolbrener states that because Skinner’s methodology aims at recovering the “singular intention” of its subject within its context, it “seems to advocate a conception of univocal certainty not in line with the focus on fault lines and uncertainty characterizing much of current critical debate” (214). Aligning himself with Thomas Corns’ suggestion that there exists a “plurality of Miltonic ideologies” (qtd. on 214), Kolbrener argues that “the Skinnerian insistence on the clarity of intention within a specific context will certainly produce an impoverished conception of Milton” (214).
37> Kolbrener further suggests that Skinner’s desire, as an historian, for “singular consistency” has “produced a Milton who may be easily assimilated within specific political traditions, but has been less successful in eliciting the Milton who nurtures paradox and ambivalence” (215). But Kolbrener does not advocate an unbridled emphasis on uncertainty in Milton studies. Indeed, he expresses concern that “a Milton criticism focused on ‘uncertainty’” might bring about “an equally partial counter-image of the Milton of ‘certainty’” (215).
38> To illustrate the longstanding conflict in Milton studies between the advocates of Miltonic unorthodoxy and orthodoxy and the excesses on both sides, Kolbrener discusses the efforts of early Miltonists John Toland and Richard Bentley. Kolbrener notes that Toland, in his Life of Milton (1698), portrays a thoroughly monist Milton in ways that misrepresent the “persistently qualified” monism that Milton actually held to (223). Toland’s presentation of Milton, says Kolbrener, “served the purpose of creating a radical image of the poet, modeling Milton in Toland’s own image” (221). Kolbrener concurs with Peter Herman that Bentley’s presentation of Milton in his emended edition of Paradise Lost seeks to “promote an image of Milton suitable for orthodoxy” (221), but Kolbrener notes that the impulse toward “one-sided” conceptions of Milton has persisted on both sides of the debate for three centuries (225).
39> Significantly, Kolbrener does not advocate completely jettisoning Skinner’s methodology; rather, he postulates that “The complexity of Milton’s work may demonstrate the need to complicate Skinner’s model, which emphasizes tracing ‘the relations between an utterance’ and the wider ‘linguistic context’ for that utterance” (225). A more complex and more appropriate approach will recognize “the diverse (and sometimes competing) contexts” for Milton’s work (225, italics Kolbrener’s). Kolbrener advocates “a New Milton Criticism informed and enacting a more complex Skinnerian method, soliciting—not rejecting—Miltonic paradox” (225). There is little to fault in Kolbrener’s common-sense call for the recognition of such varied Miltonic contexts, and Kolbrener notes that Skinner himself, in a 2008 London Times essay that reproduces his address to the Ninth International Milton Symposium, gestures toward such plural contexts.
40> Joseph Wittreich’s Afterward is rightly placed within the “Critical Receptions” section of the collection; Wittreich surveys various phases of the centuries-long Milton controversies before examining the current critical landscape and finally looking forward. Along with Herman and Sauer in their Introduction, Wittreich acknowledges that “in one sense we find nothing at all new in the New Milton Criticism” (232). Rather, the present volume draws readers back to Paradise Lost’s earliest reception history. Wittreich notes that Joseph Addison’s and Richard Bentley’s attempts to correct Milton follow John Dennis’s and Daniel Defoe’s efforts “to discredit him as an erring theologian” (232). In such cases, “criticism” became “correction” (232). Similar early efforts to correct Milton’s writings were offered by Dryden and Lucy Hutchinson, and “The interpretive straightjacket” such figures sought to enforce “strains against both Milton’s poems and their source material” (236). In contrast, Wittreich notes the conflicting voice(s) of the Miltonic (or not-so-Miltonic) narrator, repeating the NMC warning against easy resolution.
41> At times Wittreich’s rhetoric seems a tad self-indulgent—“The New Milton Criticism showcased in this volume would effect another Reformation, this one in literary criticism” (238)—but his assertion that the NMC returns us to the first controversies in Milton studies is fair enough, even as it gives one pause, yet again, to wonder if the “New” in the New Milton Criticism is not a misnomer; for as Wittreich again specifically reminds us, the NMC revisits and revises readings of Paradise Lost offered by Blake and Shelley, the unorthodoxies of Saurat, and the responses to C. S. Lewis offered by A. J. A. Waldcock, John Peter, and William Empson, with the added dimension of countering the orthodoxies present in Stanley Fish’s analyses of Milton—an enterprise that is not particularly new.
42> Still, Wittreich ends his essay by affirming that a genuinely “new criticism beckons Miltonists,” one whose canvas has become ever larger with the new conversations, be they “literary, critical, theoretical, historical, cultural, and global” (245). One can hardly argue against that; but again, wouldn’t all that be going on anyway with or without those who have self-identified as members of the NMC? And if Wittreich is in some sense correct to affirm that “this New Milton Criticism, whether acknowledged as such or not, is emerging as the dominant mode of discourse in Milton studies” (244), is that not because the study of tensions within Milton’s texts has been going on for a very long time by Miltonists of various schools? Certainly the study of Miltonic tensions is commonplace in Milton studies. But it is going too far to say that Milton studies as a whole embraces the larger NMC claim that tensions are ultimately central to Milton—and Herman and Sauer say otherwise in their Introduction. It is not clear if Wittreich is making the larger or more modest claim. Overall, The New Milton Criticism is a genuinely valuable volume, but it is at its best when its claims are less overarching and self-congratulatory.
43> I have saved until now my discussion of John Rogers’ “The Political Theology of Milton’s Heaven” and Michael Bryson’s “The Gnostic Milton” because I believe that these essays transgress the distinction I made in my fifth paragraph between legitimately analyzing tensions within Milton’s writings as opposed to misrepresenting sources to further one’s own critical argument. I will discuss Rogers’ article first and then discuss Bryson’s within the larger context of his book The Atheist Milton.
44> In his essay, Rogers offers the daring argument that Milton had a special purpose behind portraying God the Father as a tyrant who conceals from the angels his Son’s status over them and then makes the seemingly arbitrary choice to exalt him on a particular day. Milton’s purpose in doing this, says Rogers, is to introduce “choice and contingency” in the relationship between the Father and the Son, a freedom, Rogers claims, that is absent in the theological language of the contemporary literature of Trinitarian Christians. For such orthodox Christians, “the relations and actions” of the “divine drama” is “founded strictly on a principle of unswerving necessity” (72-73). Such unswerving necessity in orthodox Calvinist theology, according to Rogers, includes the following aspects:
Just as the Father had no choice but to create the Son, the Father has no choice but to demand judicial satisfaction for the crime of Adam’s fall, and the Son has no choice but to be sacrificed on the cross [. . .] The necessary action of Christ’s sacrifice in and of itself automatically, necessarily, effects the atonement [. . .] The three persons of the Trinity, with respect certainly to their role as actors in the divine drama of Creation and redemption, endure a bondage of the will easily as constrictive as that suffered by the sinful man of Reformation Protestantism. (73)
45> The first clause of Rogers’ quotation is deeply problematic for its failure to distinguish between the orthodox doctrine of the Father’s eternal begetting of the uncreated Son and the Arian doctrine of the Father creating the Son. This is no trivial distinction, for the orthodox Trinitarian Calvinists whose views Rogers’ claims to represent contended that a created and therefore not eternal and not fully divine Son would not be able to satisfy divine justice in dying for humankind (cf. Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer 38). But the entire above quotation is problematic for its faulty representation of the orthodox Calvinist position.
46> Significantly, Rogers neither quotes nor refers to a single specific passage from a Reformed theologian as evidence for his summary of the orthodox Calvinist position. He only offers this endnote:
Milton’s contemporary, the Congregationalist divine John Owen, is probably mid-century England’s fiercest critic of anti-Trinitarianism, and the noisiest proponent, as in De Divina Justia [A Dissertation of Divine Justice] (1653) and A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity (1669), of the absolute necessity of the Trinity’s actions, especially that of the Son’s satisfaction of the Father’s demand for justice after the Fall. (83)
47> But a reading of Owen’s writings reveals Rogers’ oversimplified depiction of Owen’s complex theological positions, particularly in relation to the “bondage of the will” Rogers says describes the persons of the Trinity in relation to the drama of creation and redemption. Most significantly to Rogers’ essay, although Owen did maintain the Father’s necessary eternal begetting of the Son, he certainly did not believe that “the Son had no choice but to be sacrificed on the cross.” Rather, Owen writes in A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity that the Son offered himself as a propitiatory sacrifice “by his own voluntary consent” and “by his own counsel and choice” (2.425, italics mine). Indeed, Owen’s orthodox position on this matter does not conflict with but actually agrees with the Son’s voluntary offer to die for humankind in Book 3 of Paradise Lost, and this agreement—and Rogers’ misrepresentation of Owen’s stance—makes problematic Rogers’ overall argument, however skillfully he puts it forward throughout much of his essay.
48> Bryson’s contribution to The New Milton Criticism—“The Gnostic Milton: Salvation and Divine Similitude in Paradise Regained”—reappears in slightly altered form as chapter 3, “The Gnostic Milton,” of his book The Atheist Milton. Before analyzing the merits of Bryson’s volume, some discussion of Bryson’s use of—and lack of acknowledgment of—previously published material is in order. Bryson’s New Milton Criticism essay is a slightly altered version of “From Last Things to First: The Apophatic Vision of Paradise Regain’d,” which was published in the edited collection Visionary Milton (Duquesne UP, 2010). But The New Milton Criticism includes no acknowledgment of this previous publication, even though its editors dutifully acknowledge that the original version of Strier’s essay appeared in Milton Studies 38. Chapter 3 of The Atheist Milton essentially reprints “The Gnostic Milton” (from The New Milton Criticism) and also includes some material from “From Last Things to First” that does not appear in The New Milton Criticism version of “The Gnostic Milton.” But The Atheist Milton contains no acknowledgement of this previously published material. Moreover, the vast majority of chapter 2 of The Atheist Milton, “The Apophatic Milton,” originally appeared as “The Mysterious Darkness of Unknowing: Paradise Lost and the God Beyond Names” within the collection A Poem Written in Ten Books: “Paradise Lost” 1667 (Duquesne UP 2007). But this too is unacknowledged. Finally, nearly all of chapter 4, “The Atheist Milton,” originally appeared as “A Poem to the Unknown God: Samson Agonistes and Negative Theology” in Milton Quarterly 42.1 (2008). But once again, no acknowledgment is given. Moreover, this unacknowledged previously published material comprises more than half of Bryson’s slim but expensive book. As I go on to analyze Bryson’s book, I will ask a number of questions, keeping in mind Herman’s 2005 declaration that “the New Milton Criticism encourages all questions, regardless of where they take the reader” (19). But my first question is this: why doesn’t Bryson follow scholarly—and legal—convention and acknowledge the previous publication of this material?
49> Similar to Bryson’s The Tyranny of Heaven, The Atheist Milton benefits from Bryson’s readable and often pugnaciously entertaining style. The trajectory of Bryson’s overall argument is straightforward: In his final three great poems, Milton moves from a troubled version of Christian theism in Paradise Lost to a Gnostic-like presentation of deity in Paradise Regained to “a radical and quite literally a-theist doubt about God’s activity, purpose, and existence” in Samson Agonistes (17). In his Introduction, Bryson states that the “movement” of Milton’s poetry suggests that were he alive today, “Milton would be an atheist” (2); moreover, Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana reveals that, according to the broader definition of atheism in Milton’s own day, Milton “was an atheist” (2). In stating this, Bryson self-consciously sets his position against C. S. Lewis’s assertion, in A Preface to “Paradise Lost,” that “Milton’s version of the Fall story is substantially that of St. Augustine” (65; qtd. in Bryson 6).
50> In the course of his Introduction, in a digression that essentially echoes Herman’s argument in “C. S. Lewis and the New Milton Criticism,” Bryson attempts to respond to my charge, in “Speaking for the Dead,” that in The Tyranny of Heaven he misrepresents C. S. Lewis and sets him up as a straw man censor of critical discussion by taking out of context Lewis’s statement that he hoped his brief analysis of Paradise Lost in relation to Augustine would “prevent the reader from ever raising certain questions which have, in my opinion, led critics into blind alleys” (69; Bryson ends his quoting of Lewis after the word “questions” [Tyranny 21]).
51> At this point, Bryson demonstrates a troubling lack of self-reflection. Despite Richard Strier’s statement that I am “certainly correct that the line about preventing questions has been taken out of context [by Bryson and Herman] and used in a somewhat irresponsible way” (271), Bryson refuses to acknowledge his misrepresentation. Instead, he digs in his heels, reaffirms that preventing questions was exactly Lewis’s scholarly agenda, and states that Lewis’s and my approach (as if they were one in the same) is designed “to promote a very specific theological agenda” (12). Parroting Herman’s 2011 Milton Quarterly essay, Bryson’s evidence for my “specific theological agenda” is my employment at Calvin College. Bryson’s red herring and ad hominem argumentative tactics are problematic. First and most importantly, Bryson tries to obfuscate my recognition of his unfair depiction of Lewis by passing off my concerns as a matter of theology. But regardless of whatever Bryson thinks I believe, demonstrating scholarly misrepresentation hardly constitutes the stuff of “a very specific theological agenda.” Any scholar, regardless of his or her theological beliefs, could have done the footwork to expose Bryson’s scholarly shenanigans. What I pointed out concerned scholarly integrity, not specific theology. Second, there is something profoundly ironic about Bryson’s ongoing tirade against scholars who see Milton’s works (despite his obvious heterodoxies) as being part of a broader Christian tradition; is Bryson, who dedicates his book to the secretly atheist priest Jean Meslier—whom Bryson affirms “lived a lie, but wrote [in his posthumously discovered Testament] the truth”—devoid of a specific theological agenda? Finally, it is irresponsible to dismiss another scholar’s concerns by simply stating that scholar’s place of employment along with an inaccurate web posting (also previously cited by Herman) that misrepresents matters of academic freedom at that school. Logically speaking, that is a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy. Would it be sensible for me to suggest that Bryson’s brief book is so expensive because he teaches in the California State University system, and the state of California is known for its exorbitant financial expenditures?
52> Also ironic in light of Bryson’s continued harangue against Lewis for supposedly preventing readers from raising certain questions is Bryson’s curious diction concerning those who continue to question the Miltonic authorship of De Doctrina Christiana. Early in The Atheist Milton, Bryson notes that ever since William Hunter’s challenges to Miltonic authorship were first put forth, “it has become standard practice in published works that make use of the treatise to acknowledge that questions as to its authorship have been raised. Perhaps since the findings of Gordon Campbell et al. in Milton and the Manuscript of "De Doctrina Christiana" (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), this practice can be put to rest” (7, additional italics mine). Bryson’s dismissive tone toward the questioners, combined with the fact that he fails to mention any title of Hunter’s germane works, opens Bryson to the charge of preventing questions. Bryson holds the majority position in considering the matter settled, but a minority, including Ernest Sullivan in his Review of English Studies review of the aforementioned book, believe that the debate regarding Miltonic authorship “remains open” (Sullivan 154), a questioning position that Strier respectfully acknowledges in his contribution to The New Milton Criticism (“Milton’s Fetters” 26). My concern is not at all with Bryson’s stance concerning the authorship of the treatise, but rather with his dogmatic dismissiveness of the minority that still dares to raise questions, a dismissiveness that goes contrary to the NMC’s stated principles.
53> Chapter 1 of Bryson’s book, “Atheism by Any Other Name,” performs the helpful service of demonstrating that, throughout the centuries, and certainly during Milton’s own lifetime in England, the word “atheism” has been used more broadly than simply to describe the lack of belief in any god, but also to describe various kinds of unorthodox or “incorrect” beliefs. Bryson observes that several “incorrect” doctrines espoused by Milton in De Doctrina Christiana—“Arianism,” “Materialism” (“the belief that all of reality can be explained in terms of matter”), and “Mortalism” (the belief that the soul dies with the body or sleeps until the final Resurrection) earned adherents of such views the title “Atheist” in the 17th century. Because Milton’s controversial work of systematic theology was not discovered until 1823, Milton largely escaped the atheist title in his lifetime, but Bryson demonstrates that Milton’s theological heterodoxies place him squarely among his “atheist” contemporaries. Although this chapter is genuinely informative, Bryson overstates his case when he equates Milton’s brand of materialism with that of Spinoza. But Milton’s doctrine of creation ex deo is distinct from Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. Whereas Spinoza held that there is only one substance, which is God, “Milton’s monism,” to quote Kolbrener’s essay, “if one can speak of it, is persistently qualified. [. . .] God is not to be identified with his Creation” (223; cf. Bauman 86-87). Indeed, Bryson indulges in the same misrepresentation of Milton’s position that Toland did more than three centuries ago.
54> In chapter 2, “The Apophatic Milton,” Bryson argues that when Milton published Paradise Lost in 1667, he had already been shaken from the theological certainties he expressed earlier in De Doctrina Christiana (something that doesn’t prevent Bryson from utilizing quotations from De Doctrina Christiana whenever it seems appropriate). Consequently, Milton, who was already moving toward the absence of God expressed in Samson Agonistes, depicts deity in his epic in “a negative, or apophatic approach to the knowledge of God,” one which “brings with it a ‘yes, but no’ dynamic in which images of God are first affirmed (brought onstage and allowed to strut and fret their hour) and then denied, a pattern he will follow through the journey he takes from Paradise Lost, through Paradise Regained, and ends with Samson Agonistes” (77). Drawing upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and other apophatic theologians, Bryson makes the case for Milton’s apophatic depiction of God in Paradise Lost, a poem which, significantly, concludes with the absence of God as Adam and Eve depart from Eden.
55> As noted earlier, chapter 3, “The Gnostic Milton,” is essentially identical to Bryson’s contribution to The New Milton Criticism. When citing quotations that appear in both books, I will cite page numbers first for The Atheist Milton and then for The New Milton Criticism. Early in this chapter, Bryson quotes a passage from De Doctrina Christiana that he also makes use of in his previous chapter: “God, as he really is, is far beyond man’s imagination, let alone his understanding” (6:133). Bryson notes that such a realization obviously makes problematic depicting God in literary form, a problem already explored in Bryson's second chapter. By the time Milton published Paradise Regained in 1671, Bryson contends, his solution to this problem was to focus on “the human Jesus (more often referred to as the Son)” of the brief epic (111/103), a character Bryson calls “a remarkably Gnostic creation” (115/104). Bryson argues that Milton’s Jesus is one who, like the Gnostic depictions of Christ, “refuses to save anyone from sin” (115/103), and who “saves not through a sacrifice of blood, but by bringing knowledge of divine similitude, the oneness of the human and divine nature” (119/106).
56> Bryson’s emphasis on the Son’s allegedly Gnostic teachings—something Bryson never attempts to reconcile with the fact that the Gnostic texts he cites maintain that Jesus’ humanity was illusory, a condition notably removed from Milton’s depiction of Jesus—marks an evolution in Bryson’s scholarly expression since he published a slightly different version of this essay in 2010 as “From Last Things to First: The Apophatic Vision of Paradise Regained.” That earlier version contains no mention of the Son’s Gnosticism but rather, in its early pages, emphasizes the apophatic theology of Pseudo-Dionysius. In The Atheist Milton (but not in the chapter in The New Milton Criticism), Bryson retains these early pages while inserting into them several times the word “Gnostic” in an apparent effort to merge apophatic theology with Gnosticism. In one place, directly after quoting Paul, “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13.12), Bryson changes his previous “The Pauline insight is also the Dionysian insight” (“From Last” 244, italics mine) to “The Gnostic insight is also the Dionysian insight” (Atheist 113, italics mine). But what of it? As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
57> In discussing Satan’s temptations of the Son in Paradise Regained, Bryson emphasizes that Satan tries to get the Son to identify himself with power, knowledge, and even divinity external to himself. But, argues Bryson, the Son defeats Satan by looking within his own “inward Oracle” (PR 1.403), the “Spirit of Truth” (1.462) that dwells within. And the power of such divine self-recognition is not limited to the Son, but is available to any who would recognize the divinity within: “The Son’s conquest is achieved in the realization that for humankind, indeed, for all Creation, the divine is only to be found by searching within, by heeding the promptings of ‘the Spirit, which is internal, and the individual possession of each man’ (De Doctrina Christiana, CPW 6:587, emphasis added)” (122/115).
58> Bryson’s presentation of Milton’s Son—and how humankind ought to imitate him—seems something akin to Emerson’s presentation of Jesus in his 1838 Divinity School Address. But it rather flies in the face of the Son’s words in Paradise Regained. For example, when Satan tempts him to free the Jews from Roman oppression, the Son responds that the Jews have continually not “Humbled themselves, or penitent besought / The God of their forefathers” (3.421-22). This is not an admonishment to look within but to appeal to the God without. Moreover, the Son himself regularly acknowledges and depends on his Father. His leading by the Spirit into the desert was directly preceded by the Father’s public pronouncement in which his Father “pronounced me his, / Me his beloved Son, in whom alone / He was well pleased” (1.284-86). He goes on to say that his own “authority” is “derived from Heav’n” (1.289). When he first encounters Satan, the Son explicitly states his dependence on the “God [. . .] who fed / Our fathers here with manna” (1.350), and he later tells Satan that his own reign will “begin” when “The Father in his purpose hath decreed” (3.185-86). It is also rather important that the Son recognizes his own messianic identity not by looking within but by searching the external "law and prophets," recognizing that "the Messiah . . . / . . . of whom they spake / I am" (1.260-63).
59> Bryson’s Emerson-like depiction of the Son reaches its height of audacity when he argues that the Son’s final rebuke to Satan, “Tempt not the Lord thy God” (4.561), means, ultimately, don’t tempt the Son, anyone else, or even yourself, for “all creatures, sharing in the divine as their origin, are also God” (130/116). Bryson justifies this equation between God, Satan, and everything else by a brief reference to Milton’s aforementioned belief in creation ex Deo. But Bryson’s assertion depends on his aforementioned mistaken equation of Milton’s belief in creation ex Deo with a Spinoza-like monism, an equation, as I have noted above, that has been refuted both by fellow New Miltonist William Kolbrener and by Michael Bauman in Milton’s Arianism, a book Bryson lauds in The Atheist Milton.
60> In chapter 4, “The Atheist Milton,” Bryson calls Samson Agonistes “the capstone to Milton’s attempt to solve the problem of God through a negative path. At the end, God is neither the Father of Paradise Lost nor the Son of Paradise Regained” nor “the vengeful warrior of Samson” (161). Samson Agonistes is “Milton’s final and most devastating critique of theism, of the belief that a personal God exists, that you know the will of that God, and that the will of that God is that you kill in his name” (137). Bryson asserts that “No God exists in Samson Agonistes, except as an object of talk, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying little or nothing at all” (137).
61> The non-present God of Samson Agonistes does not speak but rather “is often—and recklessly—spoken of, and for, by those for whom the deity serves as a focus and justification for violent actions” (139). The Chorus, Manoa, and Samson himself all claim to know God’s will, but the carnage that results at the end of Milton’s drama confirms the extreme danger of presumptuous and inevitably false efforts to represent God’s will. The “rousing motions” that Samson thinks is God's voice and which leads him to destroy Dagon's temple and its worshippers is most certainly not the divine voice. Instead, “it may be something rather closer to the ‘Hell’ that Satan carries within him in Paradise Lost—an abiding conviction that violence is the order of the universe, and physical strength that universe's primary principle” (157-58). Moving away from the recently fashionable critical notion of Miltonic uncertainty regarding whether or not Samson really heard God’s voice, Bryson is dogmatic: With Samson Agonistes, “Milton ends with negation. Milton ends without God” (161).
62> Bold words, yet once more, from Bryson. But even if one is convinced that Milton ended his poetic career as an atheist (the kind who is “without God,” not simply the kind who holds “incorrect” beliefs), as demonstrated, according to Bryson, by Milton's 1671 publication of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes—with the alleged atheism of Samson trumping the blatant theism of Paradise Regained by virtue of the fact that Samson is placed last in that two-poem volume—one must lament how quickly Milton fell away from his newly-embraced atheist position. For in 1673, with the composition of his final published tract, Of True Religion, Milton once again backslides into full-throttled Christian (to use the term broadly) theism, warning his fellow Englishmen that they risk God’s judgment if they will not amend their lives. Milton warns that “God, when men sin outrageously, and will not be admonisht, gives over chastizing them, perhaps by Pestilence, Fire, Sword, or Famine” (CPW 8:439). Throughout this tract, Milton warns of the displeasure of a still-active personal God, the very sort of God Bryson claims Milton has abandoned in his interpretation of Samson Agonistes. Milton also rails against “bold and open Atheism” (8:438), something Milton clearly distinguishes from heterodox forms of Christianity such as Arianism and Socinianism, which in the same tract Milton asserts should not be classified as heresies, and which he begs his readers to tolerate.
63> There is something endearing about Bryson’s chutzpah. Throughout The Atheist Milton he constructs the Miltonic deity (or lack thereof) he desires, textual evidence aside, maintaining boldly the Sauratian tradition of claiming that his novel interpretation is what Milton actually intended. He cites (always in contextual isolation) no fewer than four times Milton’s quotation, from the chapter “Of God” in De Doctrina Christiana, that asserts, “God, as he really is, is far beyond man’s understanding” (CPW 6:133). But Bryson completely ignores the next paragraph, where Milton encourages his readers, despite “the limitations of our understanding,” “to form an image of God in our minds which corresponds to his representation and description of himself in the sacred writings” (6:133). Even more significantly, Bryson is conveniently silent about the opening sentences of that same chapter, in which Milton quotes Psalm 14.1—“the fool says in his heart, There is no God”—and goes on to write that God “has left so many signs of himself in the human mind, so many traces of his presence through the whole of nature, that no sane person can fail to realise that he exists” (6:130). Bryson pontificates against stifling “neo-Christian” interpretations of Milton’s writings while dogmatically asserting Milton’s atheism. He concludes his book by warning his readers of the dangers of religiously inspired violence, hopefully embracing what he considers the final Miltonic vision of “a universe that is truly without a god” where, “perhaps, just perhaps, reason can finally take hold” (162), even as he ignores the murderous atrocities of the atheistic regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries. His moral indignation in the face of his own dubious position is reminiscent of Milton’s most glorious poetic character, a compliment that I, who am reduced before Bryson’s grandeur to being just another scholarly Abdiel, do not offer lightly.
I wish to thank Calvin College, whose Dean’s Interim Research Leave and Calvin Research Fellowship enabled me to write this essay. Thanks also to Brian Ingraffia and Paul Klemp, who read and commented on earlier versions of this essay.
1. These essays were Corns, “‘Some Rousing Motions’: The Plurality of Miltonic Ideology”; Goldberg, “Dating Milton”; and Rumrich, “Uninventing Milton.”
2. In addition, my essay “Surprised by Richardson” addresses what I consider certain New Milton Critics’ exaggeration of the influence of Lewis’s A Preface to “Paradise Lost” upon Fish’s Surprised by Sin.
Additional Works Cited:
Bauman, Michael. Milton’s Arianism. Bern: Lang, 1987.
Bryson, Michael. “From Last Things to First: The Apophatic Vision of Paradise Regain’d.” In Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence. Ed. Peter E. Medine, John T. Shawcross, and David V. Urban (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2010): 241-65.
---. The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2004.
Corns, Thomas N. “‘Some Rousing Motions’: The Plurality of Miltonic Ideology.” In Literature and the Civil War. Ed. Thomas Healy and Jonathan Sawday. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 110-26.
Dobranski, Stephen B. and John P. Rumrich, eds.Milton and Heresy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Fish, Stanley. “The New Milton Criticism.” In Versions of Antihumanism: Milton and Others. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 131-44.
Goldberg, Jonathan. “Dating Milton.” In Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry. Ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katherine Eisaman Maus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 199-220.
Herman, Peter C. “C. S. Lewis and the New Milton Criticism.” Milton Quarterly 45.4 (December 2011): 258-66.
---. Destabilizing Milton: “Paradise Lost” and the Poetics of Incertitude. Hamshire: Palgrave, 2005.
---. “Paradigms Lost, Paradigms Found: The New Milton Criticism.” Literature Compass 2 (2005): RE 176, 1-26.
Lewis, C. S. A Preface to “Paradise Lost.” London: Oxford UP, 1942.
Milton, John. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Gen. ed. Don M. Wolfe. 8 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959-82.
Owen, John. “A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity.” In The Works of John Owen, vol. 2. Ed. William H. Goold. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965. 366-454.
Rumrich, John P. Milton Unbound: Controversy and Reinterpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Rumrich, John Peter. “Uninventing Milton.” Modern Philology 87 (1990): 249-65.
Saurat, Denis. Milton, Man and Thinker. New York: The Dial P, 1925.
Strier, Richard. “How Not to Praise C. S. Lewis: A Letter to David Urban from a ‘New Milton Critic’ Who Admires CSL.” Milton Quarterly 45.4 (December 2011): 271-72.
Sullivan, Ernest W. Review of Gordon Campbell, Thomas N. Corns, John K. Hale, and Fiona J. Tweedie,Milton and the Manuscript of “De Doctrina Christiana,” Review of English Studies 60.243 (2009): 153-54.
Urban, David V. “The Acolyte’s Rejoinder: C. S. Lewis and the New Milton Criticism, Yet Once More.” Milton Quarterly 46.3 (October 2012): 174-81.
---. “Speaking for the Dead: C. S. Lewis Answers the New Milton Criticism; or, ‘Milton Ministries Strikes Back.” Milton Quarterly 45.2 (May 2011): 95-106.
---. “Surprised by Richardson: C. S. Lewis, Jonathan Richardson, and Their Comparative Influence on Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin: The Reader in ‘Paradise Lost.’” Appositions: Studies in Renaissance/Early Modern Literature and Culture 5 (2012). 1-28. Web.
Westminster Larger Catechism. Web.
Wittreich, Joseph. “Speaking for Myself.” Milton Quarterly 45.4 (December 2011): 267-70.
---. Why Milton Matters: A New Preface to His Writings. Hamshire: Palgrave, 2006.
David V. Urban is associate professor of English at Calvin College. He completed John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography, 1989-1999 and is the co-editor of Visionary Milton. His most recent articles on Milton appear in Appositions, Connotations, Milton Studies, and Milton Quarterly. He has also recently published essays on Fugard and Tolstoy and Pauline Rhetoric. He is completing a book on Milton and Jesus’ parables.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Six (2013): Editions & Editing