Surprising though it may be to us that a man could become famous overnight simply by writing an essay on Milton, that is what happened to young Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1825. His contribution to The Edinburgh Review was hailed as the definitive refutation of Johnson’s notoriously grumpy attack in Lives of the Poets (1779). Macaulay’s case for Milton’s importance was easy to make, and remains powerful. For three hundred years, he has been among the acknowledged masters of English poetry and polemical literature, his significance recognized by admirers and detractors alike. His poetry has profoundly influenced many subsequent poets, even those who have reacted against it. He is the nearest thing to a classical poet to have written in English, our greatest practitioner of vernacular epic, and a central figure in the transmission of the fundamental narrative of Western culture. He is, in addition, a key participant in the political world of the English Revolution, a lodestar of the Parliamentary party who was lucky to escape execution after the Restoration. You may think his personality unappealing, his record as a husband and father unimpressive, his theology illiberal insofar as it is comprehensible at all, but can you call yourself an educated person if you have never read any Milton? There he is, a great fact, a great name in literary history.
Perhaps that is the point: literary history.
Perhaps that is the point: literary history. For Macaulay did not have the last word. The criticisms of Johnson, and Eliot and Leavis after him, have combined to make Milton a totem rather than a model. What contemporary poet could be said to be of his school? His style is a notorious stumbling-block. Even Macaulay noted the “extreme remoteness of the associations by means of which it acts on the reader.” “His poetry,” he added, “acts like an incantation”—and many have fallen asleep in consequence. Eliot judged that Milton’s “gifts were essentially aural” and bracketed him with Joyce as employing a “language of his own based upon English”; Leavis described much of the verse of Paradise Lost as “almost as mechanical as bricklaying.” Professor Flannagan may be paying less of a compliment than he supposes when he compares Milton’s epic to opera. Hopkins and Bridges, Pound and Eliot, all praised the innovative metrics of Samson Agonistes, but Eliot’s own rhythmic mastery makes Milton look naïve, and many solemn scholarly discussions of “Milton’s prosody,” Flannagan’s included, boil down to syllable-counting of the most trivial kind. To Eliot’s further criticism—blithely dismissed by Flannagan—of Milton’s lack of a visual sense, some defenders have urged a baroque quality in his art, speaking of his control of mass, balanced forces, and frozen energy. This, however, is to defend abstraction by more abstraction, and will not convince those, like myself, who find baroque art a monumental bore.
Milton scholarship has mushroomed as his hold over the imaginations of ordinary people has weakened. Paradise Lost was once, along with Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, among the books that anyone who owned books at all was certain to possess. Those four books interpreted each other; there was no need for footnotes. Yet Flannagan is right to assume that every rough place of classical and biblical allusion must now be made plain for a barely literate generation of students. “When I ask a random English class how many of them have read the Bible through to the end,” he reports, “I may see two or three hands go up, out of thirty or so.” But then, religion thrives in America. Flannagan would see no hands in a class in Britain, where most undergraduates enter (and indeed leave) university without ever having read a single biblical book. In these circumstances, the provision of notes is inevitable, but sad, and a reader can hardly surrender to the sweep of the narrative if so much has to be explained before a dozen consecutive lines can be read. That said, Flannagan’s commentaries, and his marginal glosses, are invariably helpful, although the typeface is uncomfortably small. He is proud of having provided camera-ready copy for the publisher, but the reader needs a magnifying glass.
The 1688 illustrations to Paradise Lost, which the edition reproduces, are compared to a comic book.
Flannagan is not as much of a radical as his author, and his Milton is the one familiar from many previous editions: learned, eloquent, austere, and disputatious. Flannagan knows that “selling” Milton is uphill work. Accordingly, we find regrettable stylistic sops to the groundlings: the narratives in Books XI and XII of Paradise Lost are compared to “a series of movie montages,” Pasolini’s Christ is said to have been charged with being a “priggish twit,” Samson is caricatured as “an over-muscular, testosterone-filled goon,” as though he were Bluto in Popeye. The 1688 illustrations to Paradise Lost, which the edition reproduces, are compared to a comic book; but the works of Stan Lee put these bungling engravings completely in the chiaroscuro. There are miraculously few errors, but those are bad ones: C. A. Patrides’s famous book is Milton and the Christian Tradition, not Milton and the Christian Doctrine (Flannagan gives both at different times), Thomas Arne did not write a song called “Hail, Brittania” (two mistakes in two words!), and it was King Charles I who was executed, not Charles II as is disconcertingly asserted in the introduction to The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Among the omissions, C. H. H. Parry’s “Blest Pair of Sirens” should be added to the list of musical settings of Milton.
Greater unease is caused by questionable logic: having specified the supreme importance, as artistic subjects, of Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, and the Crucifixion, Flannagan tells us that “Because of his Protestantism, Milton was not specially interested in the latter two.” But Mary appears, to interestingly unconventional effect, in Paradise Regained, while whatever the peculiarities of Milton’s Protestantism, they surely can’t have included a lack of interest in the Crucifixion. The fact that his unfinished poem “The Passion” (c. 1630) is commonly agreed to be among his worst doesn’t mean he felt the subject to be unimportant. There are, indeed, a few lines in this poem which suggest a startlingly metaphysical streak in their author:
He sovran Priest stooping his regall head
That dropt with odorous oil down his fair
Poor fleshly Tabernacle entered,
His starry front low-rooft beneath the skies;
O what a Mask was there, what a
disguise! . . .
It is exasperating that the pamphlet On Christian Doctrine is too hedged about with uncertainties about its authorship, text, and translation to allow us to know precisely what he believed. We can only be confident that it was unorthodox, especially about the Trinity. Not that Flannagan is much more reliable; he informs us at one point that “the Son of God . . . cannot be the ultimate human role model, because He is at least half divine” (my italics)! That is some achievement.
As well as the complete English and Latin poems (the latter with translations), Flannagan includes extensive selections from Milton’s prose works and letters. Here there is a depressing piece of trendiness; he has “included more from the divorce tracts” than is customary because “modern readers might be more interested in the gender wisdom expressed there than, perhaps, the politics of beheading a king”! One might retort that the beheading of Charles I is one of the most important events in English history, and that, even, if the English don’t recognize this, surely the citizens of the American republic ought to—especially if, as Flannagan proposes in his introduction to Areopagitica, Milton was “a kind of prototype American” revered by the Founding Fathers. Yet, his democracy was selective; his championship of a free press in Areopagitica doesn’t extend to Catholics, for instance, and, as Flannagan notes, his belief in cosmic hierarchy offends many a modern egalitarian. As for “gender wisdom,” Milton’s domestic record does not suggest a great deal of that, though Flannagan points out that his treatment of his wives and children was less tyrannical than is sometimes believed. Overall, the prose selection is otherwise generous (one can’t really complain that the staggeringly tedious History of Britain is omitted), and offers the chance to sample both Milton’s style, characterized by Macaulay as “stiff with gorgeous embroidery,” and his tactical cunning in debate.
One of the fascinations of Milton is that he is the first major poet who was firmly post-Shakespearean yet for whom Shakespeare still reverberated as a living voice. He was eight when Shakespeare died. Flannagan is surely right to judge that the sonnet “On Shakespeare” has been overpraised; the real Shakespearean influence comes in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” and above all in the temptation scene in Comus, where Milton’s language takes on a kind of wanton buoyancy it was never to show again. Between the publication of Poems (1646) and Paradise Lost (1667) the world of Shakespeare (the last great medieval writer) had been destroyed, the modern world had begun, and Shakespeare may have come to seem merely frivolous to a man so politically engagé as Milton. For whatever reasons, his initial sympathy with the Shakespeare of the comedies and romances waned, and although there are touches of the Shakespearean tragic protagonist in Satan, Flannagan overstates the case in comparing him to Claudius and Macbeth. The theological temper of the epics is quite un-Shakespearean—as is, indeed, the very ambition to write an epic--while it is hard to remember, while reading Samson Agonistes, that Shakespearean drama ever existed.
Like Samson, Milton was surrounded by his political enemies, blind, and misogynistic.
Flannagan, like most recent scholars, dates Samson late in Milton’s career. The evidence for this is not conclusive and is partly impressionistic; one feels it is a strongly autobiographical piece. Like Samson, Milton was surrounded by his political enemies, blind, and misogynistic: this prompted an unusually close engagement with his material. Repelling all outward criticism, resisting all self-doubt, the hero fulfills his vocation, true to his destiny, realizing it was for that consummation that his apparent failure had occurred.
Samson hath quit himself
Like Samson, and heroicly hath finish’d
A life Heroic . . .
Flannagan wants the piece to be more than it is; despite his assertion that “no other tragedy ends with such a desolate event,” clearly the catharsis Milton prescribes for us at the end of his play is quite different from the bewilderment we experience at the end of King Lear. There is a finality of closure about Samson Agonistes which marks it off from Shakespearean tragedy and even from its nearest relatives in English: the Elizabethan closet dramas of Mary Herbert or Samuel Daniel, which are more interested in tension than in resolution. Milton had quit himself like Milton. Samson forms an extraordinary coda to his work (it was unfairly slighted by Leavis, I think). Its power is not easy to explain, but there is a somber and bleak magnificence about it to which I find myself returning more often than I do to the epics.
Are we able to recover a sense of the importance of Milton, to give him a real value in an age so remote from his own? The eighteenth-century epic poets paid him the dubious tribute of emulation in some of the deadliest productions in English literature; only Pope in The Dunciad was able to make a really creative reworking. Matthew Arnold glorified him, ironically, as an imperialist, a fine specimen of “this English race” which “overspreads the world.” That is an embarrassment, and Arnold’s using Milton to rebuke Shakespeare’s lack of “sureness of perfect style” is pompous nonsense. The objections of Eliot and Leavis are difficult to refute, but perhaps they are damaging rather than lethal. After all, Eliot paid an oblique tribute in “Sweeney Agonistes,” while Leavis famously carried his Milton with him during World War I (it was the only verse, he said, which withstood the sound of the gun-batteries), and repeatedly denied that he was saying Milton was not worth reading. Milton arouses strong, sometimes contradictory feelings; it is rare for him to provoke mere apathy—William Empson, a fierce opponent of Christianity, wrote one of the best books on him—and that in itself means he is a living writer. Professor Flannagan’s edition, with all its faults, will preserve that status. Milton asks, and certainly deserves, a fair hearing. He was not a bibliolater, but he understood the persuasive power, the potential iconoclasm, of literature. “ . . . As good almost kill a Man,” he wrote in Areopagitica, “as kill a good book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 1, on page 67
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