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Historicizing Milton: Spectacle, Power, and Poetry in Restoration England.

Traditionally Milton has been categorized as an early seventeenth-century poet and placed alongside the polemicists of the 1640s in anthologies and course syllabae. In Historicizing Milton: Spectacle, Power, and Poetry in Restoration England, Laura Knoppers recontextualizes Milton, reading him through the lens of the Restoration. This yields such stunningly clear and illuminating readings, one only wonders why no one did it before.

Knoppers' method is New Historicist with a difference. By focusing on subjectivity, rather than the fashionable topic of the body, Knoppers develops a new paradigm of discipline as a tool of resistance rather than oppression.

Christ's exemplary martyrdom and Samson's ambiguous one gain resonance from the contemporary model of the regicides. By behaving, as Charles had, like martyrs, the regicides controverted their royalist executioners. Similarly, the Son of God as martyr in Paradise Regained offers hope and sustenance to dissenters during their time in the wilderness. On the other hand, Samson's "act of iconoclasm . . . enhances the tendencies toward idolatry in his own people" (61). Like Cromwell, whose lavish funeral dismayed Puritans, Samson is made a martyr and idol by the people and they are not set free.

Knoppers places the joys of Milton's Paradise beside passages from Pepys describing the debauched celebrations of Charles's restoration. Satan tempts Eve and Eve tempts Adam with promises of joy that recall those celebrations. Milton's redefinition of joy as "internal, private, domestic and linked with obedience to a divine monarch" may thus be seen as a coded challenge to restoration royalist ideology.

Milton's critique of the Roman triumphal mode in all three great poems is also illuminated by the politics of the restoration. In Paradise Lost he evokes the appeal of ceremonial display but in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes he rejects the triumph outright as idolatrous. In critiquing the Roman mode, Milton rebukes not only Charles II, but also Cromwell and the Protectorate who were also guilty of being tempted by this idol.

The Fifth Monarchist Uprising was crucial to Milton's thoughts on the subject of discipline. Venner's uprising was used by the government to justify expanding their control over dissenters' meetings. The Act of Uniformity, the Conventicle Act and the Test Act of 1673 were much more effective means of repressing dissent than the execution of the regicides. Whereas Paradise Regained would appear to agree with official discourse criticizing the uprising's violence, Knoppers argues that Paradise Regained actually approves of dissent by offering a model of non-violent, internal discipline that counteracts government coercion. The Son in Paradise Regained becomes the model of the self-disciplined subject who never consents with his spirit, although Satan controls his body.

Knoppers discusses Samson Agonistes in the context of the plague and the fire of London - contested sites used by both dissenters and royalists. In Samson Agonistes and Of True Religion Milton complicates the jeremiad mode by focusing on the Chorus's misreading of God's punishment of Samson and the Philistines. They fail to look inward and Knoppers notes that "their own lack of punishment may be the greatest punishment of all" (159). In Of True Religion Milton argues that the cessation of punishment abandons men to hardness, blindness and idolatry. The plague and fire, ironically, are divine punishments because they have been removed.

Knoppers' book is remarkable for its clarity, concision and freedom from jargon. She takes new historicism in a new direction and offers fresh and convincing readings of Milton's late poems.

CAROLINE McALISTER Salem College, Winston-Salem
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Author:McAlister, Caroline
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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