A Milton of Some People, by Some People, and for Some People: A Review Essay
Article first published online: 26 MAR 2012
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Volume 46, Issue 1, pages 25–31, March 2012
How to Cite
DURAN, A. (2012), A Milton of Some People, by Some People, and for Some People: A Review Essay. Milton Quarterly, 46: 25–31. doi: 10.1111/j.1094-348X.2012.00313.x
- Issue published online: 26 MAR 2012
- Article first published online: 26 MAR 2012
Milton's Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty . London : Continuum , 2008 . xiv + 178 pp. ISBN 13 : 978 - 1 - 84706-342-7 . £16.99; $29.95 (cloth )..
Understanding Christianity with Help from Dante and Milton . Booksurge Publishers , 2008 . 144 pp. ISBN 13: 978-1-41968-975-8 . $16.99 (paper )..
Learning from Scant Beginnings: English Professor Expertise . Newark : U of Delaware P , 2008 . 310 pp. ISBN 13 : 978 - 0 - 87413-026-3 . $65.00 (cloth )..
Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition . Vancouver, BC : Regent College Publishing , 2008 . x + 559 pp. ISBN 13 : 978 - 1 - 57383-426-1 . $24.95 (paper )..
Now that the dust is settling from the 2008 quatercentenary commemorations of the birth of John Milton, we are in a position to reflect on the publications of that year, those which received major attention, and those which did not but which still comprise the state of Milton at 400. Indeed, it was just in December 2010 that Milton Quarterly was able to fit in a volume (44.4) of essays that emerged from the commemorative symposium “Milton at 400 and at Stanford.” This review is part of the Milton Quarterly's game of catch-up. It considers four books published in 2008 that have yet to receive notice in this journal and that target a variety of potential groups of twenty-first century readers of Milton: the curious cabby, would-be great teachers, “not-quite dummies,” and in one instance, certainly not any sneering “literary critics” (see Hobson).
In the introduction to Milton's Vision, Theo Hobson sets out his thesis as clearly as Milton does in Paradise Lost, not to “justify the ways of God to men” (PL 1.26) but rather to demonstrate Milton “as a great religious and political thinker–as a genuinely important resource for our time” (ix). Later, he makes the greater claim that, “[i]n my theological opinion, Milton ought to be celebrated as England's greatest religious thinker, and one of the few truly great Protestants” (169). Milton's Vision is attentive to its general audience, as in the reference to the 1536 publication of Calvin's “big book, The Institutes of Christianity (‘The Institutes’ meaning ‘the basics’)” and “the errant theologian Miguel Servetus. . . . He was a Spanish humanist heretic, who had fled the Spanish Inquisition” (14, 16); and clarification of concepts through contemporary references, as in the speculation of early modern British readers “finding the mythological excitement in Virgil and Ovid that is nowadays found in Tolkien or Harry Potter” (26) and in the alignment of Argentine Che Guevera's 1950 “motorbike trip round South America” with Milton's Continental tour “(minus the motorbike)” (54). There are, however, some bits of information that are left out that might be useful to a general readership, as when referring to “three men [who] had their ears cut off and their faces branded, on Laud's orders, for attacking bishops in print” in 1637 (59). The book assumes a British, Protestant readership, referring to the author's British homeland with “our liberal constitution” and “those of whom are Christians” (xii, emphasis mine; see also 136). Yet perhaps not even every good British schoolboy knows that those three are John Bastwick, Henry Burton, and William Prynne. Elsewhere, Hobson refers to “[o]ne elegy” that has Milton's disclaimer expressing “regret,” rather than Elegy 7; and on the same page, to “his daughter” who “in 1646 became seriously ill, and never fully recovered,” rather than Anne Milton (91).
All readers should appreciate the care that Hobson takes in defining the overlapping terms of his study. He distinguishes religious and national “freedom” and “unfreedom” (57); nicely defines Milton's “using the Bible negatively—to counter traditional claims to Christian authority, rather than positively, to argue for new moral and doctrinal rules” (132); and characterizes hypotheses as such, as when he writes that “[i]t was probably Marvell who kept him safe from prosecution in the first dangerous years of the Restoration” (139, emphasis mine). The book also has a nice overall argumentative arc, for example, slowly building a case about the complexity of Constantine's support of Christianity (37, 63, 131, 170). There are some liberties that contravene this general care: summarizing a scene in A Maske as “when her brothers burst in and rescue her” (49), whereas the brothers botch the rescue that the Attendant Spirit designs, leaving it ultimately to Sabrina to bring about the Lady's release; labeling Milton's tragedy Samson Agonistes an epic (76, 159); and asserting that Milton “helped to draft the Manifesto justifying the declaration of war against Spain” in 1655, when the jury is still out on Milton's participation (119).
Milton's Vision limits its potential strengths in terms of its important topic of theology by its tendency to set up dichotomous positions. Early on, we are advised that, “Milton must not be left to the literary critics, with their inherited sneer toward his thought, their lack of interest in theology, and their failure to see his mounting relevance” (xi). Nigel Smith's Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?, published the same year as the cluster of books under review, is just one of many works by literary critics that intensely argues for Milton's relevance. (Indeed, the final paragraph of Hobson's “Conclusion” is very much in conversation with Smith's fine book .) Moreover, many literary critics have regularly attended to Milton in terms of theology and religious studies. Hobson's target audience would likely be familiar with C. S. Lewis's autobiographical, fictional, and perhaps even critical works; so Lewis's chapter “The Theology of Paradise Lost” in A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) could have been brought to bear on some of Hobson's claims. Another literary critic who comes readily to mind is Dennis Danielson, with his engagement with theodicy in Milton's Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (1982) and his 2008 book under review below. The final chapters of Milton's Vision, “Chapter 7: The Epics” and “Conclusion” contain misphrasing or are troubling in their dichotomizing use of Catholicism. The early chapters ascribe anti-Catholicism to “Milton's vision,” to put the book's title to use: “he [Milton] could not tolerate Catholicism” (103). The later chapters seem to present it as this book's vision, as in the declamation that “Catholicism utterly lacks this spirit of liberal hope” (162), despite the fact that early Protestant reformers like Luther credited their Catholic tradition with providing them with the many skills, including hope, to think through and articulate their protests, and despite the many twentieth-century popular and scholarly reflections detailing the spirit of modern Catholic liberty. The “Conclusion” also makes large theological claims that have played no substantial part in the preceding chapters, as in the statement that Milton “consistently sought to convey the absolute authority and the eschatological victory of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ” (169). Perhaps true, but a non sequitur in a work whose titular reference to Milton's seminal role in the development of “Christian liberty” is not substantiated.
H. R. Swardson's Understanding Christianity with Help from Dante and Milton shares the urgency of Theo Hobson's book and also seeks to position Milton as a Christian theologian. In the introductory “To the Reader,” Swardson states that “[i]n all their liveliness [Dante and Milton] are as serious about Christian belief as any theologian” but that they have the advantage of their poetic “language” (7). Complementing Milton's Vision, which dedicates more attention to Milton's pre-Restoration poetry and prose, Understanding Christianity focuses on Paradise Lost. While vastly distinct in tenor and target audience, both these books are part of the early twenty-first century's religious turn. I find it interesting that books that participate in that turn in relation to literature struggle when dealing with Milton, even such impressive works as Malcolm Guite's Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Chapter 5).
The target audience of Understanding Christianity governs the book's colloquial persona. The back cover advertises the book as “Christianity for not-quite dummies.” Even though Dante's Divine Comedy is much longer than Paradise Lost, Understanding Christianity gives slightly more attention to the latter. Between the first four chapters dedicated to The Divine Comedy and the seven chapters dedicated to Paradise Lost, are Chapters 5 and 6, which act as a bridge between the two authors and their attendant historical moments, nations, languages, and versions of Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Anglo-Protestantism. I will restrict my comments to the latter sections, as they are of course in most direct conversation with the other three books under review.
Swardson's concern with his target audience at times results in oversimplification and subsequent misreadings. The following sentences use hyperbole and antanaclasis for rhetorical effect: “With his hopes failing as fast as his eyesight he [Milton], old age upon him, takes up his pen while his monarchist enemies, increasingly victorious, take everything else from him—his friends, his property, and, very nearly, his life. Behind him lies a disastrous marriage” (73). It implies Milton losing hope and having married only once. The first is debatable, the second corrected nowhere else in the book with reference to Milton's other two marriages. A former member of the English faculty at Ohio University, who published Poetry and the Fountain of Light (1962) and articles in such journals as College English, Swardson is no doubt aware of the meaning of different types of publication. Indeed, Swardson's “Chapter 5: Milton” in Fountain of Life, an early and persuasively eager component of the critical trend of discussing “tensions” (of “classical and Christian traditions”), sounds the appropriate scholarly register for that work's audience. His interests in Understanding Christianity are elsewhere, not on tension and a scholarly audience but rather on simplification and a general audience, all of which helps to account for his decision to self-publish.
Self-publication can be viewed as an invitation to readers to engage with an eye to improving the text for publication by a scholarly press that has greater resources for advertising and dissemination than do individuals. Swardson's Understanding Christianity can be seen as a genuine public service for the small audience that might happen upon the book, or as a foray to generate responses to be used for modifications for a bulwarked version. Indeed, Swardson indicates that he anticipates only an American readership, as when he writes about the ease with which American readers should embrace Romantic readings of Satan: “It shouldn't be hard. You're an American. You go for independence, liberty and defiance of a monarch. So you feel a tingle” (83). Understanding Christianity assuredly deserves attention for the town-and-gown events, or extension activities as they are now often called, that comprise such an important part of what active readers and scholars do with their time. In reading Understanding Christianity, I recognized a distinct form but shared drive to convince readers that their efforts would be rewarded that I attempt to express in my own teaching and extension work; and I was exposed to a new set of questions and obstacles that general readers may encounter in their (laudatory) attempts to approach Paradise Lost, especially when doing so in tandem with The Divine Comedy.
The daunting task of approaching and enjoying Milton's works forms the foundation for John V. Knapp's Learning from Scant Beginnings. With its unique focus and method, Knapp's book complements pedagogical tools available to Milton readers and teachers: the Modern Language Association's Approaches to Teaching Paradise Lost (1st edition 1986, 2nd edition forthcoming 2013) and Approaches to Teaching Milton's Shorter Poetry and Prose (2008); and textbook-type companions, The Cambridge Companion to Milton (1989; 2nd edition 1999), as well as Blackwell's A Companion to Milton (2001; 2003 paperback) and A Concise Companion to Milton (2006; 2010 paperback).
Scant Beginnings is aimed at “the average person who wants to know what his or her offspring is getting from taking courses in literature departments at the university” and the “novice and perhaps some experienced teachers-of-literature-to-be as they struggle to become more expert teachers of imaginative literature” (25). “Chapter 1: Current Conversations in the Teaching of College-Level Literature” is a cohesive, masterful evaluation of the major current topics of the pedagogy of literature. The chapter's epigraphs from John Guillory's “The Very Idea of Pedagogy,” Paul Kamen's Writing/Teaching, Stanley Fish's “Aim Low,” and Frank Sinatra's “One More For the Road,” reflect the breadth and depth of the conversation that Knapp creates. This chapter would contribute greatly to course readers for college- and university-instructor training-courses for the teaching of literature.
Chapters 2 through 7 are accounts of Knapp's “semester-long observation and analysis of a single upper-division English class in order to describe in specific detail university-level professorial expertise in the teaching of literature” (69). In “Chapter 2: Step One, Scant Beginnings” and “Chapter 8: Study Discussion,” Knapp describes the methods, limitations, student enrollment and characteristics, and other relevant details of the case study he details including his selection of the professorial expert, Professor William C. Johnson of Northern Illinois University, “Prof. J.” Chapter 2's epigraph includes the quotation from which Scant Beginnings takes its title: “An adequate account of how complex knowledge is built up from scant beginnings remains to be worked out.—[Carl] Bereiter and [Marlene] Scardamalia, Surpassing Ourselves:[An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise (Open Court 1993)]” (68). Knapp deftly coordinates Milton's literary works and pedagogy with the concept of expertise, the activation of which has always been chief to strong education. As such, at numerous points in these chapters, readers are indirectly but powerfully put in conversation with key concepts in the works included in Knapp's extensive bibliography and even others, ranging from Milton's own pedagogical tract Of Education (1644) to such globally-conscious works as Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat (2005; Updated and Expanded 2006; 3.0 2007).
In the eighth and final chapter, “Study Discussion,” Knapp articulates the large concerns that prompted his work, echoing Milton's poignant fear that lack of good schooling in England is one of the factors “wherof this nation perishes” (CPW 2: 363) and Friedman's delineation of the “Untouchables” with “the Right Stuff” (Chapters 6 and 7 titles) for individuals’ and nations’ success: “[t]his study was fueled in part by my concern that imaginative literature is often not taught very well in the university level” (187). Like Milton's, Friedman's, and others’ useful works, Knapp's limits his claims about what it can do in addressing and redressing his areas of concern. For all its successes, it is, after all, but one case study. I find it important to supplement Knapp's appropriate concessions with brief attention to one that Knapp does not address: the gender limitations of Prof. J.'s classroom practices. Data from The Chronicle of Higher Education and the MLA regularly confirm my beliefs and experiences about how gender and other identities affect the teaching environment. When Knapp describes Prof. J. standing atop a desk to reinforce God's high perspective in a discussion of “the last quarter of Book II, Paradise Lost” (161-64), I immediately thought of a 2010 pamphlet that my home university publishes about strong teaching, because it includes a photo of a male colleague of mine, well recognized and awarded for his teaching, standing atop a desk at the front of a lecture hall during one of his classes. While my wardrobe, training, and knowledge about data regarding student perceptions of instructor authority and sexuality combine with my personal and pedagogical personas to prohibit me from emulating Prof. J.'s elevated stance, there is plenty in Scant Beginnings from which I have already benefited; and akin to Understanding Christianity, it provides me with useful descriptions of another set of important questions and modes.
Dennis Danielson's Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition is the last and most well-known of the books under review. In an interview aired on Canadian radio on Milton's 400th birthday, Danielson identified his target audience as an educated popular readership, whom he calls “consumer[s],” and his aim to make Milton's epic “more accessible.” He has been successful avoiding “hugely dumbing it down” or “messing with it” (Danielson CBC), if we can trust, as I think we should, Stanley Fish, who rightly adds another audience for the book in his review for his New York Times blog: Danielson “has fashioned a powerful pedagogical tool that is a gift to any teacher of Milton whatever the level of instruction.” Fish focuses on some of Danielson's difficult choices in translating Milton's poetic epic to English prose: the ambiguities of the fondly in Book 9's famous assessment of the cause of Adam's Fall, “fondly overcome by female charm” (999), which Danielson translates to “an infatuated fool overcome by a woman's charms”; then a couple of examples from Book 1. Fish rightly notes that in these and other translating choices, Danielson “is not making a mistake. He is making a choice.”
Each local choice stems from Danielson's initial choice to render the poetic epic in prose. In an e-interview, Danielson remarks that,
[t]o those who insist “Traduttore, traditore,” I can only protest that to translate is really simply to interpret, and what's wrong with that? I also appeal to my first experience, at about 20, of reading Homer's Odyssey in E. V. Rieu's prose translation for Penguin. Years later I was told, disapprovingly, by a classicist that “Rieu rationalizes everything.” Well, maybe, but his efforts certainly turned me on to epic narrative in a way I don't think another form would have.
Despite the benefits I too have received from works translated from other languages, I remained skeptical in approaching Danielson's Parallel Prose Edition, akin to Andrew Marvell's description in “On Mr. Milton's Paradise Lost ”: “misdoubting” (6). After all, Milton's epic has not enjoyed as many or as high quality adaptations as have William Shakespeare's works: two cases in point are Joseph Lanzara's Paradise Lost: The Novel (1994) and Jude Daly and Nancy Willard's The Tale of Paradise Lost: Based on the Poem by John Milton (2004). (Margaret Hodges and Trina S. Hyman's Comus is an exception and exceptional, although targeted to children.) Happily, “soon growing less severe, I liked his project” (11-12). Danielson's choice to include a poetic version of the epic on verso pages is an ever-present invitation to the readers of the prose version to engage readily with the original. The choice of including a poetic version is laudable enough, but Danielson goes a step further in providing “that of Milton's own first edition of 1667, corrected against the second edition of 1674” (10), with all its now unstandard orthography and punctuation.
I also liked the project more and more as I repeatedly encountered Danielson's acumen with tricky and often overlooked details. Two cases among the multitude of references to harps deserve mention. Danielson catches the spirit of Milton's inscription of the auditory beauty of harps and the frustrating inability of earthly harps to stay tuned. Danielson manages to include the detail from Milton's description of the angels as they “thir gold'n Harps they took, / Harps ever tun'd” (3.365-66) in his parenthetical “harps forever in tune” (125). He thereby maintains the subtle, persistent, and important comic undercurrent that we find also in, for example, Milton's ordering of the types of wood Adam conjectures for building fire, “Firr or Pine” (10.1076), placing first the most difficult to ignite, then the easiest to ignite but least enduring. I wonder if Danielson unconsciously sought to help along “our Grand Parents” (1.29) in slipping in his translation “of pine or fir” (477), which would indeed make for a more successful fire. (Because the Parallel Prose Edition is available as print-on-demand, the error may already be corrected in versions newer than mine.) In the second case, Danielson captures the joy of heavenly abundance by retaining the auditory image of “the sound / Symphonious of ten thousand Harpes that tun'd / Angelic harmonies” (7.559-60). He preserves Milton's imaginative daring of envisioning harps—costly and therefore solo instruments, on earth—as part of the immense ensemble in heaven: “the symphonic sounds of ten thousand harps vibrating with angelic harmonies” (321).
The success of Danielson's Parallel Prose Edition encourages current and future scholars to engage in acts of poetry-to-prose or language-to-other language translations, either as a classroom exercise or for commercial publication. Danielson indicates translation to be a pleasurable and intellectually engaging task. He notes that he
never paid much attention to the “flyting” at the end of Book 4, the apparently dangerous standoff between Satan and Gabriel. I loved rendering that section because I sensed how much Milton was reveling in all the machismo and bravado . . . Gabriel uses high, sententious language [(4.1007-10) . . . ] But then he can't resist getting in one more macho jab at Satan: “though doubled now / To trample thee as mire.” I enjoyed highlighting this momentary feisty departure from Gabriel's high rhetoric: “though my power, twice yours, could trample you like dirt.” Such classically epic scenes took me back to Homer and my own youthful first taste of epic warfare.
No less encouraging should be the positive reaction that Danielson has received from popular readers.
John Milton well understood the difficulty of gaining any audience: popular, educational, literary, and otherwise. In his pamphlet Of Education, he urges teachers and educational administrators to shape learning so that it catches the largest number of their target audience of students, from the “prime youth” to the “dullest and laziest youth, our stocks and stubbs” (CPW 2: 376), an early articulation of the aims for some of the No Child Left Behind educational policies in America. On the other hand, in Paradise Lost, the narrator articulates his desire for an “answerable style” that might “fit audience find, though few” (9.20, 7.31). By 1674, Milton had clearly found such an audience in S. M. and Andrew Marvell, whose lyrics in praise of the epic were printed in the second edition of Paradise Lost. By the quatercentenary of Milton's birth, the number and extent of his audience are large, but there are those of us who would have them even larger, and not just within the “studious cloister[s]” of academia (Il Penseroso 156) but also in the many quarters where they have already resonated. In American politics alone, we know of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams's extended correspondence on Paradise Lost, as they teased through how to build the republic; of Adlai Stevenson at the 1964 Democratic Convention quoting Samson Agonistes—“what is strength without a double share / Of wisdom” (53-54)—to explain the responsibilities of foreign policy; and of current Vice President Joseph Biden at a May 2011 gathering of U.S. forces encouraging troops by quoting Milton's sonnet “ When I consider”: “ ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ Your families serve as well.” Milton has never been solely in the hands of scholars. (Indeed the lines just quoted from Samson Agonistes grace a refrigerator magnet that I prize from the Celestial Seasonings tea company.) But it is heartening to see how many of Milton's readers have extended and continue to extend their open palms to those willing and able to take what Milton and they have to offer, which indeed is so very much.