Our Power Sufficient: Finding a Literary Voice from Milton and His Readers
“Incessantly, and to his reading brings not / A spirit and judgment equal or superior / And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek /Uncertain and unsettled still remains, / Deep-versed in book and shallow in himself” (Milton, PR 4.322-7)
A history of reading of Milton’s great epic is something of a daunting prospect; for so many have read it, loved it, hated it, denounced and celebrated it – how could something encompassing so many experiences, from the 17th century to today, be accurately captured in one brief gaze? Author Alberto Manguel, himself an author of an even wider scope – the history of reading entire, led the way for the start of my exploration and for that I owe him thanks. Manguel elucidates, “Like the act of reading itself, a history of reading jumps forward to our time – to me, to my experience as a reader – and then goes back to an early page in a distant foreign century” (Manguel 23). So, then, let the temporal shifts begin at my own experiences, and expand to the readings of those before me that sculpted my own synthesis on the value and meaning of Paradise Lost.
I first encountered Milton in a survey on literature of the English Restoration, when the professor idly mused at the groping, mad and blind Milton and his epic of lost revolutionary prospects manifested in an epic of biblical proportions. The epic itself interested me in the culturally literate way I understood it; the fire of hell and the din of angelic battle narrating the lost hope of paradise and the tragedy found therein. What roused me from my doodles was one final afterthought by the professor, that this mad protestant revolutionary had never recanted the beheading of King Charles I, the singular person who signed the warrant not to do so, and lived out his life under house arrest; deprived of light and surrounded by a society that had executed many of his friends. The loss of so many friends, drawn and quartered in public, was worth a thousand versions of his “Lycidas” written for his fallen friend Charles Diodati, but we instead receive Paradise Lost. This image captured me immediately – what courage it must have taken, what intellectual integrity it required to scribe anything at all, let alone “things unattempted yet in prose or rhime” (PL I). I immediately painted a version of my own Milton, a promethean figure from a failed revolution, which as I was to find out, was not entirely uncommon. John Keats for example, a romantic Poet, had a similar impulse upon seeing a lock of Milton’s hair. Keats reflected, “O, what a mad endeavour / Worketh he / Who, to thy sacred and ennobled hearse, /Would offer a burnt sacrifice of verse / And Melody!” (Keats). James Henry Hunt would also reflect on seeing a strand of Milton’s hair, an apparently inspiring collection of dead cellular matter, reflecting, “The living head I stood in honored pride, / Talking of lovely things that conquer death. / Perhaps he pressed it once, or underneath / Ran his fine fingers when he leant, blank-eyed, /And saw in fancy Adam” (Hunt). So I, a 21st century student, had begun to undertake the work long in the process of envisioning Milton in a way not so dependent on the actual Milton – the poets of romance sparked by a strand of hair, and I sparked by an anecdote of resistance to Monarchy. I followed this anecdote with my vision of Milton to a survey on Milton, where both would be challenged, destroyed, and recreated.
I arrived in that survey much like Paul Bäumer arrived on the western front in Erich Maria Remarque’s classic, ignorant to the reality of the scholarly “war” and holding an image firmly in the abstract of Milton and his epic. Manguel highlights perhaps what I hoped would be true of the course, writing, “However readers make a book theirs, the end is that book and reader become one. The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world’s text; thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading” (Manguel 173). Learning more about my envisioned Milton would certainly lead to a greater appreciation of the hero and an opening a Pandora’s Box of insight and enrichment. Sadly, like Paul Bäumer, the reality was somewhat disenchanting for me. My first disillusionment was keenly Miltonic – several students in the class openly mused over how they had not read a single word of Paradise Lost and had looked up plot summaries on Wikipedia. Citadel of modern knowledge that it is, the source robbed Paradise Lost of the beauty of actually reading it, and indeed, this was an anxiety of Milton himself. Scholar Nicholas Von Maltzhan remarks in his article “Milton’s Readers” that in the antebellum years Milton had become cynical over “the common reader” and their lack of “understanding,” or as the epigraph of this section illustrates, Satan is learned in books but “shallow.” In this moment of bitterness, caused by the fact that Milton had survived being executed only to be ignored by students who didn’t have the time for his work, I agreed with antebellum Milton – what faith is there in the “common reader?”
This frustration was compounded by my expanding understanding of criticism on Milton. I first encountered C.S. Lewis in this class, who famously made the argument that unorthodoxy had to be “searched for” in Paradise Lost (Lewis) – an idea certainly opposed to my view of Milton as an author of revolution. There was then Empson, who countered Lewis with the memorable saying, “the reason the poem is so good is because it makes god so bad” (Empson). This was an argument I could get behind, being the Milton-as-Revolutionary reader that I was, but Empson was quickly superseded by Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin published a mere five years after Empson’s Milton’s God. Von Maltzhan accurately describes Fish’s argument as one of synthesis between the two camps of Lewis and Empson – one that placed the reader at the center of the epic, his or her readings being demonstrative of Milton’s greater purpose – justifying the ways of god to man through a pedagogic experience of being surprised by sin. Support for Satan, or even the suggestion of ambiguity in his character was considered to be demonstrative of Milton’s goal to illustrate the fallen nature of humanity. Fish’s analysis now dominates academic circles, be it either to agree and teach or to reject. Such a reading, which intends to empower the reader within the text, seemed to me to make a binary of Paradise Lost, one where I couldn’t find any evidence of that first anecdote that first drew me to Milton, and one that rendered Milton an orthodox figure incapable of writing a piece rooted in radicalism. In short, Milton went from fiery revolutionary to the proverbial “old, dead, white” man. The class ended so rapturously different for me than it had begun, I had all but given up Milton and my vision of him, that of the revolutionary, as wrong and misguided. I felt as Satan did in Book 4, lamenting, “Is there no place left for repentance, none for pardon left?” (PL IV). Was the epic filled with such beautiful insights destined to fall to the gutter, unread and if read, read as a book of orthodoxy? Had it always been read this way? Could modern critics reconnect Milton the pamphleteer and Milton the poet? It was in this place that I entered the senior capstone class, where a history of reading and a congruent topic I had been studying catalyzed my own interest to take another look at the epic from a historical study of its reception to see one last time if I could turn up the Latin Clerk of the Commonwealth instead of the dusty theologian.
The learner always begins by finding fault, but the scholar sees the positive merit in everything. – Hegel’s Philosophy of History
From the ashes of conservative criticism and critical hegemonic dominion on the epic rose the authors of the past – romantics, cavaliers, dialecticians and more that lead me to construct a dialectical heuristic in understanding and discovering the true value for me of Milton, his readers and Paradise Lost. This heuristic is based on Hegel’s dialectic, commonly understood as thesis, antithesis and synthesis but more specifically it is the conflict of the abstract and the negative forming the concrete. With this in mind, and under the umbrella of a history of reading – I looked to Paradise Lost. What can be found using such a heuristic is that Paradise Lost has from conception served as a dialectical lynch pin for many generation’s effort to make concrete their abstract motivations and movements. Such a relationship occurred immediately after Milton published his epic and occurred during his life time, and continued through the restoration, romantic, modern and post-modern epochs. Surveying such a history is required before I can elucidate what this research lead me to conclude using this heuristic.
The period of the English Restoration, where the Commonwealth had been dissolved in favor of the beheaded king’s son, Charles II, was a period were conservatism quickly moved to erase any history of the radicalism that had so recently enveloped the country. To this end, Cromwell’s bones were robbed from his coffin – a coffin Milton himself carried to its resting place, and the head was removed and placed on a pike on London Bridge. It was in this environment that Paradise Lost was written and published in 1667. The reactions to Paradise Lost were at once numerous and opposed to one another. Von Maltzhan highlights, “Hobart already reports ‘the opinion of the impartial learned’ that Paradise Lost is ‘not only above all modern attempts in verse, but equal to any of the ancient poets.'” Milton’s nephew also proclaimed to continental audiences that the poem “reached the perfection of this species of poetry” (Von Maltzhan 243). Immediately we see Milton, while he still alive, already being included in a history of reading himself – compared to Homer and Virgil, a judgment affirmed by some and attributed to “impartial learned” readers. Indeed, the front plate of the 1688 fourth edition of Milton, now published after his death, affirms him as “the both in last” (Virgil and Homer in unison, form Milton). Immediately Milton has entered into a history of reading debate, where canonical figures are compared to a poet of the present, something rarely seen in our age.
This reaction, to either celebrate or condemn Milton, continued as the restoration became finalized and the revolution rescinded into the annals of memory. Many poets now lampooned Milton and the puritanical thought system he represented. The most obvious examples of this is perhaps the work of Samuel Butler, whose Hudibras tells the tale of a Puritan knight who is much like Don Quixote, deluded and foolish – carried on by myths he had read; myths, very much resembling Milton’s own. Butler remarks upon Sir Hudibras’ philosophy by saying, “Beside, he was a shrewd philosopher / And had read every text and gloss over; / Whate’er the crabbed’st author hath, / He understood by implicit faith; / Whatever skeptic could inquire for, /For every why had a wherefore.” (Butler) Butler, himself a courtier of Charles II, had no reason to celebrate Milton’s “wherefores,” and we see here the dialectic of Milton’s readers. Butler, by lampooning the puritanical intellectual, a negative for his abstract vision of restored England, makes concrete his critique of the interregnum and his renunciation of everything the Commonwealth had stood for. Hudibras, published in the 1670s, was a favorite of king Charles II, a true comedy of the destruction of the Commonwealth, an event that was to Milton the fall – the “bringing of all our woe” (PL I 1-10). This dialectic, one where generations make concrete their relationship to Milton and his epic, is one that continues through the restoration and into the romantic period, perhaps the best known era of Miltonic reappropriation.
The romantics, in short, loved Milton and more specifically, his Satan. Satan is the Byronic anti-hero to end all Byronic anti-heroes, and it was William Blake who famously claimed that Milton was a true poet and was thus “of the devil’s party without knowing it”(Read). This statement has been in the crosshairs from 20th and 21st century critics every since, itself demonstrative of modern criticism’s need to make concrete its objective, historical criticism on the back, or the negative, of romantic criticism. To the point, the romantic period saw the reciprocal dialectic of the one that dominated restoration literature. Instead of using a reading of Milton as a catalyst in the construction of counterrevolutionary sentiment, the romantics, many of whom were politically revolutionary themselves (Byron and Shelley, to name a few), went to none other than Virgil and Homer in one to make concrete their radical world view through an interaction with Paradise Lost. Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” tells the tale of Prometheus, who like Satan, battles against insurmountable odds, yet Shelley makes a key distinction about his hero in comparison to Milton’s in his introduction to the work. Shelley writes, “The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.” (Shelley). This quote demonstrates with precision the dialectic I am highlighting – Shelley goes to Milton to make concrete his vision of a hero in this case. Shelley reaffirms his positive vision of rebellion in an interaction with Milton, taking what he likes, dispatching what he doesn’t, and producing a product that is a synthesis, or a concrete, of authorial, generational interaction with Milton.
It is not uncommon for modern critics to shrug off romantic views on Milton (i.e. Carey suggesting sympathy for the devil being a symptom of Freudian neurosis(Carey)), but in doing so we are partaking in their work – to find Milton, an author from the publishing of his great epic that has been lost in political and religious reppropriation of generations in search of making concrete their vision of literature and the world through the cultural capital of Virgil and Homer in one. Indeed, the romantic’s vision of Milton is one that carries much cultural capital itself, perhaps illustrated by Gustav Dore’s famous inscriptions of the mid-19th century. Satan as the classical hero is a notion that did not escape critics in the 17th century to this day (Von Maltzhan), yet the engravings to the 1688 fourth edition of the epic depict a keenly and notably demonic Satan. It is the famous engraving of Book 1 done by John Baptist Medina where Satan, adorned with a Greco-Roman robe, rouses the rebel angels from their fiery pits. Yet well after Romanticism had faded into but influence, their vision of Satan endured – as seen in Dore’s engravings. Is it Dore’s depiction of General Satan leading his host against the host of heaven that remains in our cultural imagination. It cannot be doubted the romantic’s reading of Paradise Lost, and subsequent artists’ return to it as seen in Dore, is a product of the epic’s pedagogic role, as noted by Margaret Thickstun in her Milton’s Paradise Lost: Moral Education, but also its keenly dialectical role in the way it has historically been used to make concrete certain generations view of themselves in a literary and personal way as seen in the works of Butler and Shelley (one to reject it, one to embrace and change it), and other writers time does not allow; namely Byron, Alexander Pope, Virginia Woolf and others. In summary, by studying the Restoration’s dialectical interpretation of Milton, including both those who heralded the work as Virgil and Homer in one, and those who lampooned the blind and defeated writer an appreciation for Milton’s immediately historical, Hegelian dialectical role emerges. By also studying the romantics depiction of Milton, Satan and the epic and their lasting impact on how Paradise Lost is imagined, a greater understanding of the way Paradise Lost has functioned in history as a book of both pedagogy and dialectics emerged, two themes necessitating a more detailed look.
“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” Milton, Areopagitica
C.S. Lewis throughout his Preface to Paradise Lost remarks, as many critics before him (Von Maltzhan) on the failed aspects of the epic, in the way God’s language is flat, and Satan’s so alive with rhetoric. Indeed, Empson, C.S. Lewis’ critical adversary, remarked, “his modern critics still feel, in a puzzled way, that there is something badly wrong about it all. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy” (Empson). Empson makes this conclusion in his polemical, anti-Christian way, but his idea is what the historical, Hegelian dialectic and pedagogical role of Paradise Lost is. Paradise Lost is a book that guides the reader, but is at the same time, deeply invested in what the reader brings to it, as illustrated in Surprised by Sin. I had in my earlier, enthusiastic thought-space conceived of Fish’ argument as one that denied the epic to the reader in trying to give it to him or her, but after having undertaken a history of reading of the epic I return to it; with one caveat.
As Milton highlighted in his critically important “Areopagitica where he argues against censorship, books are the “purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bread them” (Milton). It is not surprising then, that Milton includes his reader so intimately in his epic, hoping that his epic finds, “fit audience, though few” (PL VII) and the first epigraph notes that a reader must bring his own judgment to a text, or be “shallow” (PR). Is it perhaps because of this that Fish’s argument and focus on reader-reading relationship leant itself so well to Milton and Paradise Lost, yet my original trepidation of Paradise Lost being a test of one’s fallen state remains. Can we so easily pin down Milton’s “efficacy and extraction” as to assume his desired impact on his readers, and further, can we assume that Milton’s mission to “justify the ways of god to man” does not include himself; living in such dire circumstances as elucidated above? When I studied the historical reading of the epic, and the variant arguments that all, as Hegel says, had merit, I began to look at the epic itself as perhaps being a catalyst in the dialectical role it has served. I concluded, with Empson, that the ambiguity in the epic is the main driving force within it but I also concluded that this ambiguity leads to no finite end, but instead is the value of the epic itself. In our debate with Milton in reading his epic, we discover multiple avenues of criticism and interpretation that are all valid and discernible within the text; leaving Milton’s mission to justify the ways of god to man historically and presently in motion, a motion defined by its dialectical history and present, one where abstract visions of religion and politics are made concrete by reader’s interaction with the text. Readers who are “fit” and bring a “spirit of justice” to the text, unlike Satan, create depth not shallowness – and in doing so, partake in the historical task Paradise Lost has created since its inception. The epic, in short, is a pedagogy created in motion – where Milton tries to justify the ways of the divine to himself and his reader, and in the process, renders an epic that serves to the reader what it served to the author – an exploration in existence, the divine and the relationship therein.
Paradise Lost has historically been a book of dialectical rejection and acceptance as a way to make concrete our abstract concepts of society and literary criticism as elucidated above. Thus, Paradise Lost’s value in the canon, and indeed its current historical moment, is not so much self-contained in the text or to be found therein; but rather its value can be found in the dialectical interaction of it with its readers, a value that can never truly depreciate over time, that is of course, if it is still read. The text is left so open to interpretation that the book functions as a dialectical catalyst, a pedagogical exploration of the divine, and as Von Maltzhan writes, “our being in the world in relation to the the divine, whatever that may be.”(Von Maltzhan). By studying the history of reading of Paradise Lost and by utilizing Hegel’s dialectic in doing so, I was able to find the Latin Clerk of the Commonwealth, one that struggle to justify the ways of god to man to himself, to his readers, and to all time. Paradise Lost, then, emerged to me as just that- a struggle; one that took place from authorship, publication to this very moment. It is in this struggle that I found the Milton that first came into my consciousness and the very same historical struggle that reignited my passion for the epic. In short, the value of Paradise Lost is in its pedagogy, the way it makes concrete our abstract notions of faith, rebellion, justice, sin and so on. Milton may not like how one reads his epic, and that, perhaps, is precisely the point.
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