Milton and the Jews.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. x + 226 pp. index. bibl. $95. ISBN: 978-0-521-88883-7.
This collection of essays richly captures the intersection of Milton's work with things Jewish, an intersection which moves suddenly between history and symbolism. Milton relates to imminently historical Jews, who are on the verge of readmission to England, and on the tongues of revolutionaries who identify England with the ancient Israelite nation. At the same time, Jews here are deeply symbolic. They are constructed by the Pauline view of the superseded Law, are read through Christian typology, and eventually come to inhabit Milton himself, who, we learn, has been the Jew of the English canon.
Three fine essays by Achsah Guibbory, Elizabeth Sauer, and Nicholas von Maltzahn are the most historical. Guibbory surveys the prose for comments on Jews, which yields mostly negative attitudes, and a fascinating silence on the controversial question of the day, whether to readmit the Jews to England. Milton indicts the English for behaving like Jews as they cry out for a king, although he simultaneously identifies with the Hebrew prophets, creating an "evolving sense of the relation of Israelite and English history" (19). Guibbory concludes that "it was unlikely that he would have welcomed the Jews" (34). Sauer focuses on how millenarian expectations shaped efforts at the readmission and (of course) conversion of the Jews, reading texts by Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, and the Jewish scholar Menasseh Ben Israel, who came to England to argue for readmission. This is important context for Milton's claims in Areopagitica and elsewhere that England is a chosen nation, and for Milton's subsequent disillusionment with its backsliding. In von Maltzahn's study of the instrumental stakes of anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, readmission appears largely driven by economics and the desire to convert Jews. That Milton lived off money-lending--"a usurious Citt, brought up in a usurer's household and himself a usurer" (72)--suggests the complexity of Milton's position, as seen from biography. Milton emerges as relatively moderate in his millenarianism and supersessionism (the argument that the Law is superseded), which suggests a philo-Semitism that von Maltzahn also locates in the Poems of 1673.
Douglas Trevor gathers references to Solomon, in the prose and Paradise Lost, to form a neat study of Milton on education. This is the essay most engaged with the Bible, a fact that points to what is generally not covered. Milton and the Jews is not heavy in biblical exegesis, source study, Judaic studies, or Christian Hebraism. As Douglas Brooks notes in his introduction, such issues, particularly Milton's Hebrew, have dominated previous criticism, and so this book goes elsewhere. The recent scholarship of Jason Rosenblatt and Jeffrey Shoulson is nevertheless much cited, which indicates that this volume is still relying on their learned work, even as it is lacking some of the textual criticism that would seem essential to understanding Milton's relationship to Jews.
The latter four essays work out symbolic understandings, and tend toward New Historicism (to be descriptive not derogatory). Benedict Robinson and Rachel Trubowitz investigate related questions of how Jews fit into early modern conceptions of the wide world. Robinson shows how, for Milton, Jews were in many ways linked with Islam, and with the larger Oriental world that included ancient Egypt. Racialized conceptions of these Others leak back onto a Restoration England that has chosen "a captain back for Egypt." Trubowitz shows Milton surprisingly connecting Jews with the Chinese, both groups sharing an idealized past, as well as a natural slavishness. Orientalism here is entangled in the ambivalent associations of Judaism and Hebraism, Old and New Worlds, and Jesuit and Stuart scholarship. Linda Tredennick examines how Jews function metaphorically in Christian identity, as a reading of Milton's allegory of Sin considers the Jew to be the supplement in the Reformation's semiotic economy. Jewishness especially haunts Milton's identity, as Matthew Biberman's essay on T. S. Eliot and the reception shows. This is a provocative piece, which directly shapes the relationship between Milton and Jews. Going back to an admiring Wordsworth, we find a Milton received "as the Christian who collapsed into the Jew" (111). The Jewish Milton, however, undergoes erasure, by anti-Semitic as well as Jewish critics, Biberman says, until the current reception finds him "a reified anti-Semite" (120). This volume certainly destabilizes such reification, if it exists, as well as providing many reasons for continuing to think of Milton as a most Jewish writer.
University of San Diego
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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