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The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography. .

Barbara K. Lewalski. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography.

Maiden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. viii-xvii + 777 pp. + 18 b/w pls. index. bibl. $39.95. ISBN: 0-631-17665-9.

Lewalski's major contributions to Renaissance scholarship find her uniquely prepared to assemble this exemplary study of Milton's milieu, his life experiences, and his individual works. Scholars who follow such topics as Milton's public correspondence will benefit. At the same time a student enrolled in a Milton course for the first time will discover coherent explanations of major works. Between the introduction through the afterword, fourteen chapters cover major periods in Milton's life, from "The Childhood Shews the Man" (1608-25) through "To Try and Teach the Erring Soul" (1669-74). Lewalski's structure for each section lists the scope of Milton's activities within their historical context, followed with her chronological presentation of "the quotidian John Milton." Internal page references then lead a reader to full critical essays on major works.

Acknowledging the impossibility of imposing a monolithic set of labels on Milton's life and views, Lewalski unifies her discussion by emphasizing his life-long quest to discover and to practice his vocation. As she states, "The Milton I present in these pages is a man who began even as a young poet to construct himself as a new kind of author, one who commands all the resources of learning and art but links them to radical politics, and the inherently revolutionary power of prophecy" (xiii).

She follows these concepts through Milton's early work, his struggle with blindness, and his quest to find a useful voice after the Restoration. Another related emphasis is Milton's concern with educating his countrymen, adapting his persona and style to meet different forms of government and adjust to outward changes. Even such detailed subjects as evolving drafts and digressions receive careful attention.

On controversial views of Milton's experience and beliefs, Lewalski admits her admiration of the poet's charity, reason, and respect for the created world. Admitting his biases of class and gender, she takes a stand on such critical controversies as his close friendship (Platonic) with Charles Diodati. She notes that Milton's marriage to Mary Powell was complicated by ignorance and family conflicts. Regarding his later conflict with his daughters, she observes tensions between generations. Lewalski calls attention to Milton's errors in dating his work and to his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the authorship of at least one polemic attack on him. On such larger issues as male chastity, she considers Milton ahead of his time. Tracing his developing theology, she defines his movement from some Calvinist tenets toward Arminian freedom of the will, supplying clear definitions for the major philosophic and theological stances of De Doctrina Christiana and crediting Milton with its authorship. In political stances she finds strong republican convictions underlying diverse governmental structures he defended, clarifying his idea that a worthy minority; at times, can best represent the majority.

Lewalski's analyses of individual works draw upon her own extensive studies of them but also incorporate revisions to fit their historical context. She is generous in crediting other scholars with differing points of view. She adds to recent scholarship, especially in her discussion of material texts, e.g., the initial ten-book structure of Paradise Lost as a reminder of Lucan, who wrote for a republic rather than an empire. Several recent essays, especially on Milton's masques, contrast his work with more ornate courtly entertainments. In addition to reading Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes as responses to classical forms, she calls attention to their contrast in style and content with Restoration heroic poems and dramas by such authors as Davenant and Dryden. Major prose works also benefit from Lewalski's generic and rhetorical analyses. In most cases her allusions to Milton's own contemporary context enrich the reading. As a reader I found them distracting at times in her treatment of Paradise Regain ed.

Taken as a whole Lewalski's volume is immensely useful. In the process of discussing Milton's life and works, she gives the reader a believable figure facing major events and also the everyday business of moving through life. Such an appealing and readable portrayal is welcome.
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Author:Arnold, Margaret J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
Previous Article:Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost. .
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