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Mammon's Music: Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton.

Mammon's Music: Literature and Economics in the Age of Milton. By BLAIR HOXBY. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2003. xii+320 pp. 30 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-300-09378-0.

Mammon's Music is a work of considerable originality, which casts new light on Milton and some of his contemporaries by juxtaposing literary texts with economic treatises and pamphlets of the seventeenth century. The title suggests a certain ambivalence. To the Puritan moralist Milton, the siren song of material gain represents a temptation to be resolutely resisted. And yet, as Blair Hoxby shows convincingly, images of trade and its circulation resonate throughout Milton's writings, associated both with ideas of empire and with freedom of thought.

Mammon's Music devotes roughly equal attention to Milton and to more conservative writers like Dryden, Waller, and Davenant who, unlike him, welcomed the Restoration of Charles II. Where the court poets of the reigns of James I and Charles I had for the most part considered trade to be 'a thing ignoble and indign for a king', Charles II was praised for his role in encouraging and advancing trade. Milton, as Latin Secretary under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, was much concerned with the need of the state to 'promote and further' among its citizens 'a free @ full @ mutuall commerce' among other nations (pp. 60, 63). Yet in The Readie and Easie Way (1659-60) he bitterly attacked the 'vain and groundless apprehension, that nothing but kingship would restore trade', fearing that the English people would surrender their hard-won freedom for the hope of greater and more stable 'plenty and prosperitie'. Here and elsewhere he criticized a blinkered materialism through which 'we must forgoe and set to sale religion, libertie, honour, safetie, all concernments divine or human to keep up trading' (Complete Prose Works, ed. by D. M. Wolfe and others, 8 vols (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1953-82), vii (1980), 385-87).

In an excellent chapter on Areopagitica, Hoxby shows how Milton's arguments in favour of liberty of conscience and the free circulation of ideas closely resemble arguments advanced by proponents of free trade, attacking the power of monopolists who had used royal patronage to enrich themselves. Stationers and licensers are monopolists, damaging the body politic by hindering the import and export of 'our richest Marchandize, Truth' (Complete Prose Works, ii (1959), 548). In his claim that the ultimate test of truth is a 'free and open encounter' in the market place, Milton is saying that knowledge both is and is not a commodity. If the products of the mind are not like 'our broad cloath, and our wooll packs', 'such wares as to bemonopoliz'd and traded in by tickets and statutes', they are nevertheless material resources brought into being by human industry, 'the living labours of publick men' (Complete Prose Works, ii, 493, 535-36). As Hoxby says, by presenting writing and reading as forms of productive labour, 'Milton asserts that to prevent any man from the exercise of his industry and invention would be to deprive him of his fundamental liberties' as well as penalizing him materially (p. 40).

In Dryden's Annus Mirabilis and other royalist panegyrics of the 1660s, free trade, as Hoxby shows, is associated with ideas of empire and hegemony, presenting the competition for markets as a form of warfare. The Dutch, England's political and commercial rivals, are characterized by Dryden in terms oddly reminiscent of pamphlets of the 1640s attacking monopolists:
   Trade, which like blood should circularly flow,
   Stop'd in their Channels, found its freedom lost:
   Thither the wealth of all the world did go,
   And seem'd but shipwrack'd on so base a Coast.

   (Annus Mirabilis, ll. 5-8)

Though Hoxby's commentary on Dryden's poem is sensitive and illuminating, his treatment of Paradise Lost as a critique of 'the Restoration regime's ideology of trade' (p. 151) is unconvincing, the one weak chapter in an excellent book The account of Samson Agonistes is more plausible in situating Milton's poem in a Restoration context, as an exploration of 'the moral dilemma of laboring under a hostile regime' (p. 206). Hoxby sees Milton's emphasis on the troubled individual conscience as implicitly critical of the 'tendency of economic analysis to abstain from [...] moral evaluation' (p. 232), and one of the strengths of the book is its alertness to the ethical issues raised by the texts under discussion.


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Author:Chernaik, Warren
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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