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Milton, Spenser and the Epic Tradition.

Patrick J. Cook. Milton, Spenser and the Epic Tradition. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996. 201pp. $59.95. ISBN: 1-85928-271-7.

Patrick Cook argues that the epic is a progressively dialogic genre, culminating in Milton's "systematic reworking of the epic chronotope" (134). He explains that his work is "in part a response to Mikhail Bakhtin's infamous description of epic as a monologic genre that suppresses all discourses not supporting and supported by the cultural hierarchy" (2). Cook proceeds to analyze those moments in the selected epics when the chronotope or temporal-spatial framework is expressed. The concept of chronotope as a means to differentiate genres also comes from Bakhtin, but Bakhtin emphasizes the temporal relationships within a text, while Cook explores the spatial relationships more extensively. Thus, Cook takes the omphalos (navel or center) orientation as definitive of the epic and shows how that orientation is questioned in the Iliad, revised in the Odyssey, and increasingly rendered more complex by succeeding epics: the Aeneid, Orlando Furioso, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost.

One of the most valuable dimensions of Cook's analysis is his exploration of the mental process of considering or putting together pieces of an argument. This revolving in the mind develops in the succeeding epics as a contrast to the straight course usually associated with an epic hero. Cook shows that the heroes are increasingly described as using this less direct mental process and that the reader is increasingly required to pull together in a similar way disparate parts of the epics in order to understand them. Thus, Cook compares Achilles's pondering and that of Odysseus and concludes "that the two epics trace an evolution of heroic thought from the elimination of self-division that issues in an action to a circular motion of the mind that brings temporal processes to completion" (28). When investigated in Spenser, pondering emerges as both the central structural and interpretive principle: "By unfolding his overall epic into a series of smaller epics of imperfectly isomorphic structure, Spenser can allow these epics' centres, both in represented space (the various manifestations or types of the cosmic omphalos) and in textual space (the legends' midpoints) to engage in dialogue" (120). Similarly, Cook concludes about Paradise Lost that "[t]he ultimate effect of Milton's unparalleled balancing act, and of his summation and founding of epic dialogism, is to force us fully to experience our fallen immersion in the vicissitudes of time and our partial vision of what we can only glimpse as a larger whole" (169).

Cook provides a number of interesting insights into the texts he analyzes (including a complex but intriguing argument linking Eve to intuitive and Adam to discursive reason) and a strong argument for the progressive decentering in time and space of the epics. There are useful footnotes after each chapter expanding and sometimes clarifying the argument and a helpful bibliography of works cited following the text. The difficulty of the book is illustrated by the quotations; they are fairly representative of the abstract diction employed throughout. The brevity of the book has its price.

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Author:Northrop, Douglas A.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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