John Milton: Latin Writings. A Selection and Milton Studies, XXXVI.
John Milton: Latin Writings. A Selection. Ed. and transl. by John K. Hale. (Bibliotheca Latinatis Novae; Neo-Latin Texts and Translations) Assen: Van Gorcum; Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies. 1998. x+250 pp. Geb.Dfl. 52,50. Milton Studies, XXXVI. Ed. by Albert C. Labriola. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1999. vii+228 pp. $50.
John K. Hale's new selection of Milton's Latin writings offers a fresh perspective on less well-known, but extremely important works. The edition modestly proposes to demonstrate 'how much [Milton] relied on his Latin, throughout his life and across many genres' (p. ix). Hale's prospective audience may be larger than he implies. Latin studies, at least on the American side of the Atlantic, remain in an abysmal state. Classical languages are steadily being squeezed out of the curriculum at many American colleges and universities, and Ph.D. competency exams have not filled this gap. Having been trained in this period, I found my own capabilities challenged by this edition, and my skills did not always rise to it. I found myself 'cribbing' from Hale's side-by-side Latin-English texts as much as evaluating them, which is the simplest proof that these books are indeed necessary.
Rather than lament such cribbing, Hale's edition invites it, welcoming novice and specialist alike into the rich experience of Milton's Latin. Although this edition can in no way be called exhaustive, it should compel the attention of Miltonists for its high standards in editorial design. For the first time we can read both prose and verse texts in side-by-side Latin to English pages, annotated with complete textual collations and footnotes. No matter how one regards the selections or their translations, Hale has provided a model of accessibility and presentation.
The texts themselves appear quite representative, spanning five different periods of Milton's career, from selections of his Cambridge years to excerpts from De Doctrina Christiana. No way beholden to any fiction of uniformity, Hale occasionally offers older translations, including one of Cowper's as well as David Masson's 1882 rendering of the 'Epitaph to Damon' in dactylic hexameter:
Flow no more, ye tear-drops! Damon inhabits the ether; Pure, he possesses the sky; he has spurned back the arc of the rainbow. Housed mid the souls of the heroes, housed mid the gods everlasting, Quaffs he the sacred chalices, drinks he the joys of the blessed, Holy-mouthed himself. (p. 133)
Hale's choice of this version is judicious, for in duplicating Milton's dactyls into English, Masson, nevertheless, sacrifices no more literal accuracy than many other versions. More importantly, however, it captures a grandeur and vitality of the original reminiscent of its English counterpart, 'Lycidas', which appeared only two years earlier. In addition, Hale offers the fourth and sixth Cambridge elegies, an eminently capable sixth prolusion, various smaller poems and letters, and generous portions from the First and Second Defense of the People of England.
Hale's own translations are by no means literalist. His general tendency is to modernize and streamline Milton's periodic sentences to manageable lengths. Poetically, he tries to capture Milton's literary sparkle at the risk of violating direct lexical correspondence, as in the conclusion to the ode 'To John Rouse':
may your seat be blest, Where neither vulgar tongues whom none can teach, Nor rabble of misreaders dare to reach; Instead You shall be read By our far distant future kin; An age of greater wisdom, purer heart Will bring a fairer judgment to your art; So, resting in that preservation-house This verse I write Secure from spite Shall then be judged aright -- All thanks to Rouse! (p. 147)
Admittedly, losses result from using this strategy. By simplifying the sentence structure and reducing the frequency of paraphrasis, examples like these make Milton's poetry more direct, more muscular than it originally was. I admire, however, the determination to shape Milton's work into recognizably seventeenth-century English forms, and the light touch Hale exercises.
The latest volume of Milton Studies presents a cross-section of topics and approaches. Most promising is the variety of theoretical nuance. After two decades of 'theory', we seem to find ourselves in a literary-critical democracy (or at least a benign wilderness). Jeffrey Shoulson's 'The King and I: The Stance of Theodicy in Midrash and Paradise Lost' reflects this open-mindedness. Shoulson's use of ancient rabbinical scholarship as a theoretical lens for analysing Milton's God in Paradise Lost first appears far-fetched. The analogies between rabbinical 'king-parables' and the complicated portrait of an anthropomorphic God, however, engage ethical and religious issues given short shrift by the largely secular concerns of current theory. Rather than view the celestial dialogue in Book iii as a simple dichotomy between Hebraic justice and Christian mercy, Shoulson focuses on how God is humanized in both poignant and paradoxical ways. Eclectic but functional, such theory reveals insight and hones interpretive precision, clarifying positions which would otherwise require laborious abstraction. In an essay on 'Miltonic Transubstantiation', John N. King provides a fascinating analysis of the meal served to Raphael in Book v of Paradise Lost. Uncovering previously unnoticed carnivalesque elements to Milton's work, King reveals a vibrant sense of humour in the passage, as well as a satirical edge.
Some essays, however, reflect less laudable trends: essays put together too quickly, others too hesitant in argument. An essay on female silence and audition never transcends the seminar paper. In contrast, Stephen M. Buhler's analysis of how Milton equates musical polyphony with royalist tyranny represents one of the volume's most creative topics. Yet it hedges its conclusions, failing to show how its perceptive details may alter our sense of Milton's aesthetic. Susan Iwanisziw attempts to compare disobedient women in the closet drama of Milton and Elizabeth Cary, but the comparative elements are sketchy and unpersuasive. The volume's most serious lapse is a disorganized and meandering piece on the twentieth-century American artist Carlotta Petrina's 1936 illustrations of Paradise Lost. Neither Milton's epic, nor Petrina's fine, psychologically penetrating designs are given much critical insight, here.
On the other hand, the volume also contains two of the very finest essays on Milton published in recent years. In the first, Barbara K. Lewalski argues convincingly in favour of Milton's authorship of De Doctrina Christiana. Refuting the work of William Hunter and a recent consortium of British scholars, Lewalski dismisses the possibility of alternative authorship and connects the idiosyncratic positions of De Doctrina Christiana to Milton's published work on half a score of pivotal topics, including divorce, polygamy, Sabbath observance, antinomianism, blasphemy, and antitrinitarianism. Lewalski offers a model of careful textual interpretation and historical judgement, demonstrating an exacting knowledge of Latin grammar and theological nuance. Ann Baynes Coiro's 'Fable and Old Song: Samson Agonistes and the Idea of a Poetic Career' examines how Milton recapitulates and comments on his literary career in his late closet drama, all too aware that it will be judged by a Restoration culture he worked so hard and long to oppose. By focusing on the sceptical, satirical literary community to which Milton addresses his great poems of the 1660s and 1670s, Coiro succeeds in making Samson Agonistes an even more emotionally resonant work than it already is. Her essay is packed with subtle details and insights. Commenting on Milton's reference to Shakespeare's 'unvalu'd Book' in the dedicatory poem to the 1632 Second Folio, Coiro writes,
Scholarly footnotes reassure us that the startling word unvalu'd meant invaluable in the seventeenth century. Over the years of Milton's lifetime, however, the meaning of unvaluable was shifting, used to mean both precious and worthless. By the end of the century, the sense of the word as meaning beyond value had become obsolete, collapsed into valuelessness. Both meanings play in the poem simultaneously, and the second, the valueless reading, weighs more heavily in 1673, a reading consistent with Milton's fears about his own work being read by careless readers. (p. 126)
Refreshingly free from theoretical pretension, Coiro's essay abounds with discovery and fascination. Both Coiro and Lewalski easily repay the price of admission, and in truth there are valuable elements in all these pieces. Combined, they bode well for future creativity in Milton studies in particular and Renaissance scholarship in general.
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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