Milton and the Revolutionary Reader.
In Spokesperson Milton, the editors propose to see the author whole: "Clearly Milton saw himself as a spokesperson for political and religious causes. . . . What has perhaps not been adequately emphasized are the variety and scope of Milton's expressions of cultural, religious, political, and artistic concerns" (xi). In the title essay, John T. Shawcross observes that Milton has been claimed as a "spokesperson for many people, even those espousing diametrically opposite causes" (12); he traces this tendency from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, setting the stage for a survey of cultural constructions and self-interested appropriations of Milton's oeuvre. What follows instead is a loose-knit gathering of papers, with little of the historical sweep Shawcross proposes, where Milton is analyzed as a spokesperson for "theological concerns," "political views," "authority of author and text," "tradition and change," and "women" - artificial rubrics that only diminish the synthetic power of Milton's writing. The strongest essays, however - by Catherine Martin, Samuel Smith, Steven Jablonski, Angela Esterhammer, and Hope Parisi - simply transcend these categories. So Martin's analysis of meliorism - classed here under "theological views" - engages issues of infernal politics, and Esterhammer's examination of speech-acts in Milton's prose is more about the definition of political communities than questions of "author and text." If Spokesperson Milton fails to delineate the successive reinventions of Milton as it seems to promise, it neatly demonstrates the current political preoccupation of Milton criticism.
The surest proof of the prevailing critical consciousness may be found in a study designed to elucidate Milton's greatest work for its least experienced readers. Regaining Paradise Lost makes a worthy addition to the series of remarkable introductions by C.S. Lewis, Joseph Summers, and G.K. Hunter, while approaching the epic with a sensitivity to its political dimension missing from those earlier works. Here students learn that ideology lies at the heart of Milton's epic and its enduring appeal: "Milton's courage commands attention, for this is a work of consummate grace achieved under the devastating fire of Restoration royalism. The text demonstrates how ideologies may, in high art, survive their political eclipse" (viii). For Corns, an elitist aesthetic sustains ideological rigor and Paradise Lost becomes "an avant guardist work, as disconcerting in its own age as The Waste Land or Lyrical Ballads were in theirs" (viii).
In a lucid account of the poem that includes chapters on God, angels, people, chaos, creation, and neo-classical style, Corns never loses touch with the political sensibility of Milton, whose political career is "sometimes represented as an aberration from his vocation, his higher mission, to write the finest English epic." "That view is wrong," Corns continues, as the epic itself "is permeated with a political consciousness shaped by the English revolution" (130). This vision of the political Milton becomes a chief glory of the poem and Corns ends his book celebrating the author who transforms the experience of defeat: "But the individual who heeds the inner spirit may endure; the Good Old Cause can be defeated, but it cannot be destroyed. As Bunyan put it, 'Who would true Valour see/Let him come hither'. Or in Wordsworth's phrase, 'Milton! Thou should'st be living in this hour.'" (142). The Christian fervor of Lewis and the aesthetic sublime of Summers and Hunter are supplanted by a political enthusiasm that renders the poem "a deeply pessimistic text; but . . . also a deeply subversive one" (142). Regaining Paradise Lost reminds us that the most effective critical introductions are often those with an unmistakable agenda. Corns' work is admirable in its radical restoration of Milton's poem and in its argument that Milton speaks most powerfully to the modern reader when his political concerns are not only clarified but championed. Yet we may wonder if his image of the author as romantic iconoclast lacks theoretical and historical subtlety and is based on conceptions of political thought and agency too broad to situate Milton's epic in its ideological moment.
Where Corns presents an elitist, isolated Milton, the strength of Sharon Achinstein's Milton and the Revolutionary Reader lies in its subtly contrasting depiction of an author who believes that "any rank of citizen may become virtuous - by proper discipline, trial, and reading" (16). For Achinstein "the English revolution was a revolution in reading" (1) and interpretation of the political Milton must be contextual. So Achinstein examines "many kinds of writing in the period from anonymous hacks, preachers, radicals, and Royalists, to such known figures as John Lilburne, John Cleveland, William Prynne, Thomas Hobbes, and John Milton." In paying attention to these, she seeks "to picture the political subject from the perspective of the street" (1). Negotiating these materials, she illuminates the contemporary imagination of a public sphere: "By analyzing contemporary reactions, not all of them 'rational,' I seek to understand the public sphere as it was imagined by seventeenth-century actors" (9). This public sphere, created in the cauldron of political pamphleteering, informs Milton's appeal to a few worthy readers: "The meaning of Paradise Lost is here seen as rooted in the hermeneutic climate of the English Revolution, and Milton's concerns that his own readers comprise a 'fit audience' derive from that climate" (19).
In pursuing these issues, Achinstein urges that "Milton scholars pay attention to recent fights among historians," (4) offering her study as an exemplary hybrid, "neither 'history' nor 'literature' . . . [but drawing] from methods appropriate to both in order to understand the writing of the past" (25). Yet as she offers to bridge the gap between critic and historian, she distances her work from prevailing historical approaches: "Texts in the new historicist paradigm seem fixed in a binary struggle between the powerful and the powerless, where distinctions between 'text' and 'context' are banished in service of the ringing hegemony of 'discourse'" (23). Rejecting a Foucauldian new history, grounded in a "Whig image of the English Revolution" bequeathed by Christopher Hill, she will "seek to read Milton for the post-revisionist generation of Milton scholarship" (21). In defending her brand of historical study, she asserts that "our own post-deconstructive moment in literary criticism might demand that we undermine, by a more-than-rhetorical irony, the genuineness of their rhetorical fight. On the contrary: the rhetorical effects of the civil war period had very real consequences for individuals, parties, and institutions" (25). Achinstein offers a third-wave historicism - post-Hill, post-revisionist, and anti-new historicist - that eschews theory, is wary of doctrinal schools, and claims "an interdisciplinary understanding of the way meaning is made" (23).
In keeping with this goal, accounts of Lilburne's trial - where he regards his jurors "as the only authority legitimate to judge him" (46) - are read alongside the apotheosis of the citizen-reader in Areopagitica. A chapter on "royalist reactions" construes universal language schemes, John Cleveland's linguistically-focused propaganda, and Hobbes's consideration of speech in Leviathan as political appropriations of Babel: "Babel was an image used both as a representation of the war of words in the press and as a figure for ideological difference in order to stifle the revolutionary press and all its public voices" (100). And the traditional dialogue form, traced in a series of pamphlets and newsweeklies, becomes a primary mode for training readers to appreciate the subtleties of political debate, since "[b]y using the format of debates, writers made political demands on their readers . . . [and] gave their readers practice in defending themselves against their own and their opponents' resistances, counter-claims, and questions" (103).
Milton and the Revolutionary Reader bristles with ideas and at its best echoes the complex intercourse of the period. Yet at times its organization is confusing and focus on specific issues diffuse. When Achinstein merges analysis of "royalist reaction" with questions of linguistic anarchy that concerned many Parliamentarians as well, it is unclear why language should be the arch-theme of her treatment of royalists. Similarly, the distinction between formal dialogue and more generalized notions of public debate is occasionally lost. And while Milton is clearly the protagonist, readings of his texts are often upstaged, so that the reading of Lilburne, for example, eclipses an almost perfunctory analysis of liberty and conscience in Areopagitica. (Her essential point, however - that by placing faith in the conscience and interpretive skills of the reader, Milton "sketched a portrait of the revolutionary reader" (69) - is a valuable rejoinder to recent subversive readings of this pamphlet.)
Achinstein ends her study with an analysis of Milton's painstaking debunking of Eikon Basilike, bounded by discussions of William Prynne and revolutionary propaganda, and a consideration of Paradise Lost that examines Milton's use of the parliament of hell. This analysis of the infernal parliament is the finest example of Achinstein's desire to illuminate the continuum between high and low writing and to understand Milton's epic as a quintessentially revolutionary gesture. In Paradise Lost, she writes, "Milton aimed to promote readerly skills as a means for English citizens to regain the individual freedoms that had slipped through the revolutionary leaders' fingers" (202). Achinstein argues that Milton only appears to adopt the standard royalist allegory of the parliament of hell, in which Cromwell and Satan are identified and the restoration makes manifest providential design: "Milton resists the satanic practice of allegory, in which there is a one-to-one relation between the political order, the cosmic order, and the representational order. In so doing, Milton resists the Royalists' appeal to an audience to read history along the fixed lines of those correspondences" (222). Milton's appropriation of the infernal parliament reflects the hermeneutic mission of an epic that "leads readers down a path toward spiritual enlightenment that involves learning how to read" (222). As royalist allegory assumes that "the truth of historical events could be expressed and rendered apprehensible to informed readers" (193), Milton's resistance to allegory tempers his revolutionary readership.
In their recent book, The Imaginary Puritan, Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse argue that Milton has served as a liminal figure for generations of readers, abiding at the borders of intellectual disciplines, old and new regimes of writing, renaissance and modern sensibilities. This sense of liminality clearly informs the construction of a political Milton elaborated by the books considered here. Yet this normative vision of Milton, part of an ongoing cultural history as Armstrong and Tennenhouse suggest, also seems to lie outside any reflexive frame of interpretation, assumed rather than interrogated. If the political Milton is ubiquitous, as these various works suggest, in some ways he still demands a radical reading.
SAMUEL GLEN WONG Simon Fraser University
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|Author:||Wong, Samuel Glen|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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