Polite Wisdom: Heathen Rhetoric in Milton's Areopagitica.
In his book-length study of Areopagitica, Paul Dowling seeks to provide a fresh account of Milton's famous tract by challenging recent views of Milton as Puritan and by reconsidering what it means to "historicize" Milton's writings. His book contains detailed discussions of Milton's distorted and self-conscious use of classical and Christian authorities in Areopagitica and of Milton's subtle rhetoric, and for these strengths scholars will want to consider this study carefully. Dowling, for example, reexamines Milton's references to the Athenian orator Isocrates by providing a thorough discussion of the rhetoric of Isocrates's own political oration, his Areopagiticus. Drawing upon the work of Allan Bloom, Dowling analyzes the relation between Isocrates's undemocratic teaching (which favors a mixed regime) and his supposedly democratic rhetoric. By looking closely at Milton's language and complex syntax in Areopagitica, Dowling then analyzes Milton's responses to Isocrates's ambivalent rhetoric: he perceptively shows how Milton, while seeming to praise Parliament, exploits his own double-edged and artful political rhetoric in order to challenge its deficient policies and maintain an ironic distance from that institution.
Dowling's Milton, then, is a sophisticated writer whose subtleties can be best grasped through a careful scrutiny of his text and its authorities by discriminating readers: "the real teaching is hidden in the interstices of the rhetoric" and "written between the lines" (26, xi-xii), and in this sense Milton's rhetorical strategy resembles that of the skillful Isocrates who could address both common and learned readers (the latter being better equipped to discern Milton's complex classical allusions). Insofar as Dowling sees Milton writing "between the lines" for learned readers, he might have engaged (even briefly) with Annabel Patterson's recent consideration of reading between the lines as a political strategy in her historically-oriented book, Reading Between the Lines (1993), which contains several substantial chapters on Milton. Like Patterson, Dowling resorts to the techniques of "close reading" to probe what is written between the lines of Milton's text. Dowling's criticism rightly encourages us to scrutinize Milton's language and rhetoric with great care; moreover, he shows how Milton self-consciously distorts or misreads historical sources so that, when scrutinized by his learned reader, his selective history of early Christian Rome becomes a story of continuous ecclesiastical usurpation and tyranny. Elsewhere Dowling examines Milton's literary authorities and examines the effects of Milton's distortions, including his famous revision of the Cave of Mammon episode in The Faerie Queene: unlike most critics, Dowling argues that Milton's error that the Palmer accompanies Guyon is a deliberate (rather than unconscious) misstatement on Milton's part in order to encourage his discriminating reader to distinguish true Christian temperance from true philosophical temperance. But while Dowling notes that for Milton the Cave of Mammon episode illustrates the latter form of temperance, he does not make fully clear how Milton's error about the Palmer accompanying Guyon is a deliberate strategy to reinforce this distinction. At their best, however, Dowling's detailed analyses of Areopagitica and its sources can sharpen our sense of the writer's linguistic nuances and rhetorical strategies, and prompt us to reconsider closely his extensive engagement with the philosophical and political ideas of such classical authorities as Plato's Laws and Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
Dowling clearly does not want to depoliticize Milton's text and its rhetorical defense of philosophic speech; yet he tries to disengage them as much as possible from the politics and culture of Puritanism. But in order to make his own arguments about Milton's complex philosophical meanings and rhetorical strategies, Dowling defines too narrowly the practice of "historicizing" Milton. He acknowledges that Milton addresses Puritan England, but contests the assumption that Puritanism is the best context for understanding Milton's text. This polemical dimension of his book is less persuasive because Dowling tends to overstate the shortcomings of historical scholars in this century who have placed Milton's tract in the context of English Puritanism or viewed Milton as a Puritan. Citing the work of such major historical scholars as Arthur Barker and Ernest Sirluck, Dowling challenges the notion, "almost universal among Miltonists of our time," that "all thought is absolutely determined by history" and that writers "merely distill 'the spirit of the times'" in an unconscious way (xxix): one may agree that Milton's writings do much more than "distill" the spirit of Puritanism or the English Revolution, but the word "absolutely" here is Dowling's and suggests that writers have little agency in shaping the thought or political discourse of their historical moment. It seems unlikely that Barker and Sirluck believed in a rigid notion of historical determinism or that they believed Milton's ideas simply echoed the commonplaces of his age. Barker, after all, stressed that Milton, while indebted to the ideology of Puritanism, belonged to no one Puritan party since he believed that none offered a wholly satisfactory program. In arguing against the characterization of Milton as Puritan, Dowling sometimes characterizes Puritanism itself too monolithically (it rejects play, suppresses the erotic, is "gravely serious," and so forth), as though Puritanism is to be identified only with the English Parliament and its Presbyterians whose imprudent censorship policies Milton disparages.
Though Dowling would be reluctant to acknowledge it, his own techniques of close reading to discern what political message lies "between the lines" of Milton's subtle syntax and deceptive words potentially aligns his analysis with the techniques of recent historical critics. But there the resemblance ends because Dowling rejects the notion that the ideas and language of early modern texts are deeply conditioned by the forces of history: he is eager in his book to "release Milton from History's grasp" (82). Dowling's objections to "Historicist criticism" (xxx) also neglect to address several important dimensions of the newer historical criticism: its tendency to avoid a purely history-of-ideas approach to early modern political texts and its emphasis on the interaction between texts and their social/political contexts. One may agree with Dowling that Milton's ideas of 1643-45 do not merely reflect their revolutionary historical context as earlier historical critics (e.g., Sirluck) seemed to suggest. But Dowling does not sufficiently consider how Milton, who valued "much arguing, much writing, many opinions," all of which promoted "knowledge in the making," understood the new possibilities of agency for the writer in his age of turmoil and revolution when there had been an extraordinary outpouring of primed texts. In Areopagitica Milton perceived in his own way that there existed a dynamic interaction between texts and their sociohistorical contexts and that writing in "a Nation so pliant" as revolutionary England could be a potent means of refashioning political discourse and ideas - not merely reflecting them. If Milton's political writings and "many opinions" were formed by the Revolution, they were also helping to form it, and they would help shape and influence radical thought in 1648-49. One can endorse some of the methodological contributions of recent historical criticism and also recognize that Areopagitica is the work of a writer who was much more than (to use Dowling's words) "a loyal son of his age' or a "Puritan puppet" (107).
As an introduction to Milton's whole literary career, Cedric Brown's book is much broader in scope than Dowling's. Indeed, it is good to have an introductory volume which examines in some detail both the poems and prose and that treats the prose works as artful texts essential to Milton's literary career, his self-presentation, and his religious sense of vocation. Unlike Dowling, however, Brown is concerned with defining Milton's literary achievements in historical context, including the ways his works addressed their contemporary readership and attempted to provide spiritual and political instruction in moments of national crisis. Whereas Dowling sees Milton as a philosophical writer, Brown sees him as a social poet, beginning with his earliest writings where his Protestant commitments emerge. A key focus of Brown's study is Milton's art of self-presentation. Since Milton was highly self-conscious about fashioning his image and career throughout in his poetry and prose, Brown examines, in nine chapters, the ways that art developed in relation to the poet's evolving social, religious, and political circumstances from the 1620s to the 1670s. There is, of course, a limit to how thoroughly one can rehearse complex historical occasions for the full range of Milton's writings (sometimes Brown must refer his reader to the lengthy introductions in the Yale edition of Milton's prose). But Brown often manages this challenging task deftly, as in the case of "Lycidas": his discussion of the pastoral elegy's interconnected vocational, ecclesiastical, and national themes begins by highlighting 1637 as a year of crisis for ardent Protestants alarmed by Laudian policies aimed at religious conformity.
Brown offers a good account of Milton's encounter with Italian literary culture and the contributions of the poet's trip abroad in 1638-39 to his art of self-presentation and Protestant Englishness. Brown also devotes much attention to the prose works in historical context, showing how Milton varied his polemical and rhetorical art to respond to a variety of political occasions and audiences during the crises of the Civil War and Interregnum. Indeed, rather than consider these works the products of Milton's "left hand," as critics have often done, Brown examines their skillful rhetoric of exhortation, their satirical inventiveness, and their emotive aspects. He reminds his reader that they are products of Milton's rigorous academic training and he suggests connections between Milton's self-presentation in the prose and great poems. Brown devotes two full chapters to Milton's writings produced during the Commonwealth years: he interweaves detailed discussions of the occasional sonnets and their political contexts with historically informed discussions of the prose, including the History of Britain, Eikonoklastes, and the Latin Defences with their bid for recognition on the European stage. He considers carefully the late pre-Restoration tracts as responses to the imperiled cause of the radical Reformation. Having surveyed the political prose, Brown is ready, in his last two chapters, to examine the great poems in historical context. Offering a perceptive account of the educative methods in Paradise Lost, he stresses connections between the poetic and the political in a Restoration epic where the prophetic and saintly Milton faces the challenge of writing in adverse times for the godly and educating them politically. His final chapter addresses the "interplay" between Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes in the 1671 volume: both poems depict spiritual wrestling and the trials of faith in the midst of adverse circumstances and a culture of false religion, though Brown provides less historical context here than in previous chapters. Some discussion of the persecution and trials of the saints in the 1660s and early 1670s, for example, might have enriched the historical context for these poems and Brown's valuable point that they do not reveal a simple retreat by the poet into a less political world.
Brown's book is part of a series published by St. Martin's whose volumes aim "to trace the professional, publishing, and social contexts" which shaped the writing of major English-language authors. He has addressed the requirements of that series, while managing to produce a balanced and intelligent account of Milton's whole literary career that highlights some of its outstanding aesthetic achievements. His book devotes considerable attention to works that have not always received such detailed discussion in comparable introductory books: Brown considers Milton's self-presentation and literary ambition in the Latin poems, in the fine sonnets written in his middle age, and (as we have seen) in the controversial prose; and he examines the polities of Milton's Psalm translations made during the Commonwealth. Brown's book can be recommended for its distinctive emphases - on Milton as social poet and on his self-presentational strategies - and for offering the general reader a rich overview of the poet's career and writings in their historical context.
DAVID LOEWENSTEIN University of Wisconsin, Madison
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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