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Erik Gray. Milton and the Victorians.

Erik Gray. Milton and the Victorians. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2009.

Milton's influence on the Victorians has hitherto received surprisingly little attention. Many books and articles have been written on Milton and the Romantics, but only two previous critics--James Nelson in The Sublime Puritan (1963) and Anna K. Nardo in George Eliot's Dialogue with Milton (2003)--have written books on Milton's reception by the Victorians. It would be easy to infer that Milton's influence abruptly stopped at about the time De Doctrina Christiana was discovered in 1823. Gray states the problem succinctly: "By general consensus, at least implicit, Milton's sometimes overwhelming influence on forty years of English poetry came to an abrupt halt with the deaths of Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron in the 1820s." But Gray knows better than to settle for easy answers: "There are two things to be said about this view: first, that it is clearly false, and second, that it is just as clearly true" (3). It is false because the Victorians showed a new interest in Milton's prose and produced monumental biographies and editions (by Thomas Keightley and David Masson). It is true because Milton's influence upon Victorian poetry is inconspicuous: "a list of major Romantic poems--The Prelude, Prometheus Unbound, Hyperion--immediately, insistently calls to mind Milton's epic, as a similar list of Victorian masterpieces--Aurora Leigh, Idylls of the King, The Ring and the Book--does not" (4). In Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influcnce. Milton's influence "always ends in the same place: 'Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley .... Keats'" (5). "If Milton continues to exert influence on the Victorians," Gray infers, it is "different from his influence on the Romantics." Gray examines Milton's influence in the later nineteenth century in an attempt "to find out what it can teach us about Victorian literature above all, but also about Romanticism, about Milton, and about forms of poetic influence" (9). His thesis, explored through six erudite chapters, is that great poets like Milton "can continue to exert a powerful influence while largely disappearing from view" (24).

In his second chapter, entitled "Milton as Classic, Milton as Bible," Gray likens Milton's invisibility to that of God in Paradise Lost: "The very fact that Romantic poets so frequently and self-consciously invoked Milton rendered it unnecessary for Victorian poets to do the same.'" The result was that Milton, like God, became "dark with excessive bright" (25). Gray is particularly good on Milton's ability to make the unfamiliar seem familiar. His second chapter begins with a splendid discussion of Milton's exotic names and the fact that they so often appear in negative similes that tell us what Hell or Paradise or Eve's beauty were not like. T. S. Eliot, following Johnson, thought that Milton used epic catalogues for their musical value alone, but Gray makes the persuasive and (so far as I am aware) original argument that Milton's catalogues and negative similes have the mysterious effect of making us feel at home with the exotic. The big names are not pompous displays of encyclopedic pedantry but concessions to the fallen reader's presumed knowledge: "'Johnson, or T. S. Eliot, might object that 'Ternate and Tidore' are mystifying and grandiloquent words, introduced to inflate the image. But the opposite is true: they are part of the mortal world, as Satan is not, and even if we have never heard of them before, we recognize them as concessions to our knowledge" (30-31). The result is "an uncanny sense of familiarity." Gray relates this to the dark brilliance of classic literature. If (as Mark Twain quipped) a classic is "a book which people praise but don't read," a "less cynical definition might be that a classic is a work that seems to be known before it is read. A great book can be read; a classic can only be reread, since the first-time reader finds it already familiar" (32).

This is a most useful distinction and in his succeeding chapters Gray applies it to Milton in a way that is both surprising and just. He makes us see familiar things afresh. One of the most remarkable accomplishments of this wonderful book is its ability to shed new light on Milton while keeping him in the background. Gray makes the telling point that good characters in Paradise Lost "repeatedly have the experience of reporting news that turns out not to be new at all, since the hearers seem to know it all already" (32). He cites several instances. Abdiel flies all night to give warning of Satan's revolt only to find "Already known what he for news had thought / To have reported" (PL 6.20-21); Raphael describing Creation repeatedly concedes that he is telling Adam things he already knows; at the end of the poem Adam wakens Eve to share the knowledge of his visions only to find that she has already been informed in sleep; the Son urges the Father to show mercy, only to hear that mercy is what the Father "eternal purpose hath decreed" (PL 3.171); Adam persists in his request for a companion, even to the extent of questioning God's wisdom, only to discover that God's intent all along was for him to do just that. Gray argues convincingly that this is how classic literature also works. Satan employs the opposite device of treating as news "what everyone else seems already to know. 'Strange point and new!' he exclaims when Abdiel reminds him of the Son's agency in creation.... 'Who knew?' becomes his refrain in hell" (36-37). These are wonderful insights, true to the poem, and in true Miltonic fashion, Gray makes us feel that we have always known them. Milton has been so thoroughly discussed that all Miltonists face a twofold danger: either we rehash old news ("Already known") as new discoveries or we challenge received wisdom with a revisionist "Strange point and new !" Only the very best Milton critics (Christopher Ricks is an obvious example) find familiarity in the new and novelty in the familiar. Erik Gray is such a critic. His accomplishment is all the more remarkable when one considers that he finds new things in Milton while discussing what has already been said about him.

The chapter on "Milton as Classic" concludes by tracing Milton's "dark" influence ("dark with excessive bright") on Christina Rossetti's poetry, expecially "Goblin Market." This is hardly news, as Gray is the first to admit, but he makes the brave and original argument that Milton may have influenced Rossetti even if she never read Paradise Lost (or never finished reading him). Previous critics who have argued for Milton's influence on Rossetti have faced the difficulty that she is on record as expressing dislike for her great predecessor. Gray argues that she would nevertheless be familiar with him, as a classic, and could allude to him even without realizing it. This bold argument opens the possibility for a reappraisal of the nature of allusion, and Gray explores this line of inquiry in four subsequent chapters, where he opens the middle ground between the notion of allusion as conscious influence and the rival notion of intertextuality as a "messy" connection between texts and contexts that threatens to make authors redundant. Gray does not make authors redundant. On the contrary, his whole endeavor is to ask what is going on inside an author's head, but he is also open to the possibility of unconscious (or barely conscious) influences whereby familiar classics can exert diffusive power. His chapter "Milton, Arnold and the Might of Weakness" breathes new life into the truism that Milton is a poet who finds strength in weakness. Gray points out that Milton's villains can also do this. The Parthians in Paradise Regained conquer by flight and Satan is most dangerous when he tempts Jesus to a life of scholarly inaction. King Charles I won the war for hearts and minds by presenting himself as a martyr. Gray traces the influence of "Parthian poetics" upon Anthony Trollope and of Matthew Arnold, both of whom use verbal echocs of Milton to appropriate strong weakness to their own ends (in Trollope's case, ends that Milton would have deplored).

Perhaps the best chapter in this excellent book is the fourth, entitled "Milton and Tennyson: Diffusive Power." Beginning with "Milton," Tennyson's experimental poem in the Greek Alcaic meter, Gray explores Tennyson's responses to Milton's quieter notes and argues that "both Tennyson and Milton" are "poets of understatement" (100). Tennyson's allusions to Milton are also understated, which helps to explain why so many of them have escaped notice. They do not escape Gray's alert ear. There are a few (a very few) occasions when he overreaches himself. He claims that "Tithonus's plea, 'Release me' ... reverses Milton's redemptive vision: 'Restore us, and regain the blissful seat'" (103). I for one can see or hear no meaningful connection between the two phrases. To my unregenerate ears, "Release me" is closer to Engelbert Humperdinck than to Milton, but Gray has a complete triumph when he detects an echo of Milton's great line "Silence, ye troubled waves, and thou deep peace" (PL 7.216) in two lines of In Memoriam: "Calm and deep peace on the high wold"; "Calm and deep peace in this wide air" (11.5,13). Gray is convincing partly because he demonstrates that Tennyson was deeply moved by Milton's line. Hallam Tennyson tells us that his father called it "a magnificent line" and exlaimed "How much finer than 'and, billows peace,' the proper scansion, this break is, and the alliteration how subtle, 'and thou, deep, peace'!" (113). Presumably, it was the wresting of peace from juxtaposed plosives that caught Tennyson's notice, and Gray is surely right to suggest that he sought to recreate the effect in his own verse. Gray finds more suggestive Miltonic echoes in Idylls of the the King, especially "Merlin and Vivien," where several verbal resemblances connect Merlin's seduction to Samson Agonistes. Merlin, "overtalked and overworn ... yielded" when the storm has "its burst of passion spent." The first phrase recalls Samson's recollection of his own fall: "over-watched, and wearied out, / I yielded" (SA 405-7). The second phrase recalls the conclusion of Milton's tragedy: "And calm of mind all passion spent" (SA 1758). Gray, adding a Miltonic allusion of his own, concludes: "The small cluster of verbal echoes at the end of this idyll constitute not just an allusion but a revelation: Milton's tragedy is suddenly shown to have been a model all along, a latent presence recognized only at the close" (128).

Gray is excellent on the way that Victorian allusions to Milton disclose their secrets "only at the close." His fifth chapter returns to the theme of "Parthian poetics" to make the case that in Middlemarch, "as in other Victorian works, Milton appears just as important for his weakness as for his strength." Milton's influence on Middlemarch is of course old news, but previous critics have tended to see Milton "as emblem of singularly authoritative discourse within a heteroglossic multi-plot novel." This approach has encouraged two opposed notions: critics hostile to Milton have seen the Puritan poet as a repressive patriarch like Casaubon; others have seen him as a benign authority figure whom Casaubon fails to emulate. Gray, acknowledging the relevance of Milton's nuncupative will and "miscommunication with his daughters," argues that Milton mattered to Eliot because he "was repeatedly stymied in his attempts to transmit his ideas as he would have preferred" (135). Casaubon is not the only character in Eliot's novel to be "stymied" in this way. Dorothea, Lydgate, and Ladislaw also look for Miltonic strength only to find Miltonic weakness. "As a consequence, Eliot treats Milton with neither extreme resistance nor extreme reverence, but rather with the sympathy that typifies Middlemarch and is one of its most appealing aspects" (136). The chapter on Middlemarch ends with a most delicate comparison of the symbolism of hands in epic and novel.

Gray is superb on details of this kind. His final chapter, "The Heirs of Milton" (which should be essential reading for anyone working on allusion) concludes with a magnificent discussion of hair both in Milton's poetry and in poems about him (including and especially Keats's "Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton's Hair"). Heirs and hairs might seem a strained comparison (the pun is mercifully muted in Gray's discussion), but Gray argues that hair mattered to Milton and his successors because it is at one and the same time an integral part of the self and a part that can be shared with others and even inherited. One of Milton's locks passed from Addison to Johnson to Leigh Hunt and is now in Rome where it is entwined with a lock from the head of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Milton suffered a literal rape of his locks when his corpse was exhumed at the end of the eighteenth century and dismembered for relics. For Gray, Milton's hair becomes a symbol of his influence on the Victorians. He is "a singular force: unmistakable, self-sufficient, autonomous. Yet he is also, perhaps more than any other poet, enmeshed in history, subject to influence, interpretation, and intertextual diffusion. And the fact that a single symbol, hair, aptly represents both these aspects of Milton shows them to be not separate but the same" (167). Some might think this over-ingenious or trivial, but it is not alien to Milton's imagination. It was not just blindness that drew Milton to Samson's weak strength and strong weakness: "God, when he gave me strength, to show withal / How slight the gift was, hung it in my hair" (SA 58-9). Like Samson, Milton and the Victorians takes up trivial objects ("what trivial weapon came to hand") and performs great feats.

John Leonard

University of Western Ontario
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Author:Leonard, John
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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