Type John Milton into Google and you will get more than 2.5 million hits. For someone who has been dead since 1674, that truly is fame.
This is the first of a series of reviews of recent books about Milton, who has cast a very long shadow over literature for nearly four centuries. One of the most reviled and admired men of all time, he is in many ways a conundrum, which at least partly explains why so many people have spent the greater part of their professional careers to reading and writing about him.
The best place to start- for those who are not experts in the field- is the very fine biography of Milton written by Anna Beer (Bloomsbury Press, 458 pages, 2008). Informed by recent scholarship, it has been widely hailed as the best narrative and most comprehensive portrait of the private man, the public citizen, and the sublime poet.
For a look at mid-20th century scholarship on Milton, the recent book Milton and Questions of History (edited by Feisal Mohamed and Mary Nyquist) is an essential read. The first part of the book reprints the most important articles by the leading Canadian authorities from the 1940s through the 60s, while the last part features new articles that look back to those texts in a critically informed way.
The volume begins with one of the so-called Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, which each year provided a lecture on the evolution of civilization. The one quoted here is by Douglas Bush, a Canadian who became a Harvard professor. Delivered in 1944, he sets the tone for the remainder of the book with the following statement. “I do think that the house of poetry, nondramatic poetry, has many mansions, and that Milton still occupies the royal suite.”
The allusion is especially appropriate as it echoes the Biblical vision: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” The poetics of Milton are suffused with Biblical concepts, a topic explored in depth in another book review of this four-part series for the Sun News, Fleshly Tabernacles by Bryan Hampton.
Bush’s allusion has another aspect, although one much less appropriate, as it was Milton whose pen was the most corrosive when it came to describing the royal personage of King Charles I. The idea that Milton would occupy a royal suite anywhere, even metaphorically, would certainly be anathema to any royalist supporter then or now. I was surprised that John Leonard (Univ. of Western Ontario) does not make mention of the “mansions and royal suite” quote by Bush- and the allusions I just outlined- in his otherwise insightful dissection of Bush’s lecture in one of this books’ newly-written essays.
Even though he did not note Bush’s allusion, Leonard makes the point that Bush, more than anyone else, has taught us that we should take Milton’s allusions seriously. What are we to make of the identification by Milton of “Pan with Christ and a devil in the same poem? “Leonard rightly highlights his own important insight that (in the 1629 ode On The Morning of Christ’s Nativity) “Milton’s two allusions clash with each other, and so introduce moral confusion.”
This is just one many fine points of scholarship elucidated in the book, which spends much of its energy looking at the works of A. S. P. Woodhouse and Northrop Frye. As Elizabeth Sauer (Brock Univ.) writes, “The school of criticism that fostered the Toronto Miltonists’ preoccupation with the theme of liberty was indebted to Woodhouse and to a troubling suspicion about violations of liberty abroad.”
Frye, who used his erudition to such great effect that he became widely known to the Canadian public through radio and TV appearances, gets his dues here. “It is easy to forget,” writes Peter Herman in one of the new essays, “just how great a shadow Northrop Frye once cast.” How the shadow of Milton I alluded to at the beginning intersected Frye’s own shadow of Miltonian scholarship is a fascinating one, and well told by Herman.
Approaching the text with the concept of allusions in mind will help the reader negotiate the often complex arguments explored in this valuable book by eleven 21st century scholars.
One minor quibble- I found the Index to be inadequate. For example, the “Putney Debates” of 1647 first appear in the Introduction on page xvii. It is not indexed under P for Putney, and neither this first reference nor some others are included in the entry under the letter D: “Debates, Army.” (Anyone interested in a discussion about the Putney Debates should listen to the recent Melvyn Bragg radio program In Our Time on BBC4). I got the impression the Index was created by a professional indexer who had little or no knowledge of the subject matter.
Milton and Questions of History: Essays by Canadians Past and Present (426 pages) is $80 from the Univ. of Toronto Press. The book is edited by F. Mohamed (Univ. of Illinois) and M. Nyquist (Univ. of Toronto). Visit the website: www.utppublishing.com