The Oxford Handbook of Milton – Edited by Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith
Article first published online: 26 MAR 2012
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Volume 46, Issue 1, pages 32–39, March 2012
How to Cite
SCHWARTZ, L. (2012), The Oxford Handbook of Milton – Edited by Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith. Milton Quarterly, 46: 32–39. doi: 10.1111/j.1094-348X.2012.00319.x
- Issue published online: 26 MAR 2012
- Article first published online: 26 MAR 2012
Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith , eds. The Oxford Handbook of Milton . Oxford and New York : Oxford UP , 2009 . xxii + 715 pp. ISBN 13 : 978-0-19-921088-6 . $150.00 (cloth ).
This is a very impressive and useful collection of essays that deserves all of the praise it has gotten so far in reviews and the award it received from the Milton Society of America (the Irene Samuel Award for best collection of essays on Milton published in 2009). It is in some ways, however, an odd volume, or at least in some ways awkward to use as a “handbook” per se—at least for readers new to Milton or in the context of an undergraduate classroom. If the term “handbook” suggests a guide for readers new to Milton looking for brief introductory essays on basic contextual or thematic issues, then the title of this collection is a little misleading. Several of the essays in the volume do provide that sort of introductory guidance, but most of them are aimed at more advanced students and scholars, and many of them have their own scholarly or critical points to make against the backdrop of earlier debates (in fact, the whole volume has a point to make). These points are all made forcefully, however, and the volume will be very useful to advanced readers, especially for students and scholars looking for a detailed introduction to recent trends in the scholarship and especially for those interested in exploring Milton's career as a political writer and thinker.
The collection is rich in discussions of issues central to Milton's political and other controversial writings: matters of national identity, the relationship between political and religious institutions, the nature and value of “liberty” in politics, religion, and domestic life, and gender relations, especially in the context of contemporary debates on the subject. Many of the essays in the collection also pay keen attention to new developments in the history of the book, especially to theories about the editing of early modern texts and the historical study of reading practices.
As the editors note in their introduction, the collection is meant as a kind of companion to Oxford's new multi-volume edition of the Complete Works of John Milton (several of the contributors to the collection either have edited or are in the process of editing volumes for the Oxford Works). Like that project, the collection tries to take into account the “huge expansion” that Milton studies has undergone in the past forty years and the trends that have come to dominate the field in the last twenty. The result is a snapshot or cross-section of recent developments with a particular emphasis on the “rise of critical interest in Milton's political and religious prose,” which the editors rightly call the “most striking aspect of Milton studies in recent times.” The volume, as pointed out in the introduction, gives an “unusual . . . amount of space” to the prose and seeks to integrate study of these works more fully with study of the poetry than has been done before in this sort of volume (v). The collection implicitly and convincingly argues that Milton cannot be fully understood, and his importance fully appreciated, unless he is approached with a balanced sense of his full engagement with the political and religious controversies of his day, not just as a poet, but as an active and brilliant controversialist and as a public servant.
The volume begins with two detailed biographical essays that divide the life at 1640-41, and it ends with two essays on Milton's influence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Between these two framing sections are six more, three on the prose and three on the poetry. This more or less even division by itself sets the volume apart from other similar collections that have appeared over the past several years. For example, only some six or so of the twenty nine essays that comprise Thomas N. Corns's A Companion to Milton (Blackwell, 2001), are specifically concerned with Milton as the author of prose treatises (some sixteen essays deal entirely or primarily with Milton the poet). Only one essay in Angelica Duran's A Concise Companion to Milton (Blackwell, 2007) deals specifically and exclusively with the prose. Dennis Danielson's Cambridge Companion (second edition, Cambridge UP, 1999) is similarly weighted toward the poetry. In the Handbook, however, there are a full sixteen essays specifically concerned with Milton's prose and eighteen about the poetry. The essays and their concerns are also arranged in roughly chronological order, and many of the essays in the volume, no matter what their immediate concerns, range widely through Milton's life and works as well as through the wider literary, religious, and political cultures of the time, fulfilling the editors' promise that the volume will “place both the poetry and the prose in a . . . continuous, unfolding biographical and historical context” (v).
Of the essays on the poetry, five cover the “Shorter Poems” (Part 2). Another five (Part 7) cover Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes (one covers the 1671 volume itself, one essay discusses the brief epic, and three more cover the tragedy—more about the significance of that later). There are also, as of course makes sense, a full eight essays on Paradise Lost, comprising the longest section in the book (Part 6). But the collection also provides a five-essay section on the “Civil War Prose, 1641-1645” (Part 3) that includes a detailed account of the anti-episcopal tracts by Nigel Smith (one of the volume's editors), two essays on the divorce tracts, one by Sharon Achinstein and another by Diane Purkiss, and two more, by Ann Hughes and Blair Hoxby, on Areopagitica. The essays on Milton and divorce go far beyond the usual discussions of Milton's own argument, its relation to his disappointment with his first marriage, and to the later depiction of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. Achinstein and Purkiss, each in different ways, place the tracts in relation to Milton's rapidly changing political and religious commitments, his later political writings, and to the responses that the tracts themselves engendered at the time. Achinstein's discussion of the four tracts against the backdrop of discussions of marriage within the Westminister Assembly is particularly compelling. Hughes and Hoxby concentrate on the wider political dimensions of Areopagitica, its rejection of what Hughes calls “Presbyterian certainty” (216) and its relation to Milton's later political arguments. Hoxby is particularly good on the relationship between personal self-mastery and the political liberty possible in a commonwealth, and he includes a thoughtful discussion of how the tract's rhetorical style “demonstrates the virtues” it asks its readers “to embrace” (234).
Another four essays (Part 5) cover Milton's Commonplace Book, Of Education, The History of Britain, and De Doctrina Christiana. The first of these, by William Poole, is a particularly useful account of a text not usually covered at all in this sort of collection outside of a series of scattered references. The piece on Of Education by Timothy Raylor convincingly claims that Milton meant the tract as a genuinely practical proposal for educational reform, part of a wider effort to bring a reformed version of the French noble academy to England. The essay also establishes some striking lines of continuity between the Milton of the 1640s concerned with the education of an English gentry and the Milton who in the 1630s wrote A Maske and Arcades—both of them overtly didactic aristocratic entertainments. Raylor also demonstrates the influence that Milton's reformed conception of the noble academy had on the Hartlib Circle. Martin Dzelzainis's essay on The History of Britain provides a useful account of the political continuities between what is a too often marginalized text and the mainstream of Milton's later political writings, and Thomas N. Corns and Gordon Campbell provide a detailed introduction to De Doctrina Christiana, taking in everything from the nature and provenance of the manuscript to its Latin style, and helpfully placing its theological propositions in the generic context of other continental Latin works of systematic theology. Their comments on what the physical condition of the manuscript tells us about the blind Milton's working methods and their treatment of the text's heterodoxies in the context of the conventions that governed Latin theological debate are particularly illuminating.
Finally, the second longest section in the volume (Part 4), and the heart of what it uniquely has to offer, is the seven-essay section on the political and religious tracts of Milton's final twenty or so years. These comprise his central statements about regicide, republicanism, and religious toleration, and the collection examines their content and the contexts out of which they arose in great detail. Four essays cover the regicide tracts and “defenses,” providing a particularly rich account of the texts for which Milton was most famous (or infamous) in his lifetime. Stephen Fallon's discussion of the contradictory strains of argument in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Joad Raymond's careful examination of the rhetoric and occasions of the three defenses are particularly strong. Nicholas McDowell (the other editor of the volume) contributes a fascinating essay—one of two he wrote for the collection (the other concerns Lycidas)—on Milton's allusions to Shakespeare in the regicide tracts. The section also provides two essays on the later religious and republican tracts, and one by Paul Stevens that examines Milton's struggle to re-imagine “What it meant to be an Englishman” over the course of his whole career (346).
No other volume of this kind offers so much consideration of Milton as a political thinker dynamically engaged in the turbulent debates and upheavals of his day, and the quality of the attention these essays pay to this aspect of Milton's career alone makes the volume's case for the interest and the validity of thinking about Milton this way. The chronological arrangement also allows the pattern of Milton's career, with its sometimes alternating and sometimes overlapping periods of poetic and prosaic activity, to unfold before the reader in ways that are not only “continuous” in the editor's sense, but that produce the effect of an unfolding intellectual biography, a guide to both what changed and did not change in Milton's thought in the course of the tumultuous mid-seventeenth century.
The success of the arrangement also, however, reveals one of the collection's minor flaws or failings. While more essays are offered on Paradise Lost than on any other text in the canon, the rest of the poetry, with the significant exception of Samson Agonistes, gets less attention than perhaps it should have (or at least than I would have liked, given my own present interests or for a collection I might assign to undergraduates in a Milton course). The essays on the “shorter poems” are all very strong. Lycidas and A Maske get substantial consideration. Anne Baynes Coiro's essay on A Maske, which also includes some very useful discussion of Arcades and places Milton's work in the context of contemporary courtly representations of female chastity (as represented on stage by elite women themselves), is indeed one of the highlights of the whole collection. Gordon Teskey's discussions of the Nativity Ode and “L'Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” are first rate and lead seamlessly into Coiro's piece. There is also a useful essay on the Latin poetry by Estelle Haan, the editor of Milton's Latin poetry for the Oxford Complete Works (Haan also provides an essay in Part 4 on the importance of classical Latin poetry to the first defense—she is one of four contributors, along with the two editors and Martin Dzelzainis, who appear in the volume twice). John Leonard's essay on the endings of Milton's sonnets pays useful attention to some of the sonnets that are often ignored (and there are some shorter comments on a few other often neglected sonnets later in the volume, most notably on those to Skinner and Vane in Dzelzainis's essay on the politics of Paradise Lost). Leonard and others offer some exacting and new close readings of the poems they cover, but a reader will search the Handbook in vain for fresh, extended accounts of important works like the great late sonnets on the massacre in Piedmont, Milton's blindness, or the deaths of his wives. It is perhaps to be expected in a volume with the emphases and concerns of this one that there would be little discussion of “On the Death of a Fair Infant,” the Italian poems, “At a Solemn Music,” or “On the Circumcision,” but even “On the New Forcers of Conscience” gets only passing attention, mostly in the context of discussions of the political tracts. The omission of any extended discussion of the sonnet on the massacre in Piedmont is, in particular, surprising. The major late sonnets and Milton's developmental years as a poet deserve new and fresh attention. Coiro's essay sheds some tantalizing light, for example, on Milton's complex engagement with the representation of women in his early work (an understudied thread of preoccupation that runs from “On the Death of a Fair Infant” through the sonnets of the 1640s and 1650s in praise of virtuous ladies), but except for some of the contextual information provided by Edward Jones's essay on the first half of Milton's life (see below) there is little follow-up on the subject in the volume.
It needs to be repeated, however, that these are minor complaints given what the volume does cover in fresh and abundant detail. There are always trade-offs to any set of editorial or authorial decisions, and McDowell and Smith have made some very interesting, ambitious, and even risky choices, and mostly their risks have paid off.
The opening section is a good example of the major advantages and only minor disadvantages that come with some of their more ambitious moves. The two biographical essays that open the collection are both very strong and useful pieces. Nicholas von Maltzahn's survey of the latter half of the career is an exemplary sketch of Milton's activities as a poet and polemicist. It covers the turbulent years that preoccupy most of the collection's authors, and makes a perfect introduction for students or for anyone interested in Parts 3-7 of this collection. Edward Jones's survey of the earlier years, however, is more directly concerned with biographical scholarship itself than with providing a biographical narrative. In fact, it is not so much a survey of the first thirty or so years of the life as it is a short, but very detailed, account of what we know and what we do not know about those years. This makes Jones's essay, on the one hand, too concerned with what the study of the life entails to be useful for giving first time undergraduate readers an account of that life. On the other hand, it will be of tremendous use to advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars looking to begin serious research on aspects of the early years of Milton's life. I have already found it extraordinarily useful in framing inquiries into the matter of Milton's sister Anne, around whom, as Jones notes, a number of intriguing mysteries continue to hover. So, even though the decision to include an essay like this risked making the volume less useful for basic teaching, I would not want to be without Jones's careful account. It was a risk worth taking.
Other highlights of the collection include Sharon Achinstein's splendid essay on the divorce tracts, which deserves note for something it has in common with several other essays in the collection, especially with Joad Raymond's piece on the rhetoric of Milton's Latin defenses and N. H. Keeble's on the later vernacular republican tracts. Each of these essays offers a blow-by-blow account of the contexts out of which Milton's treatises arose, immersing the reader in what is at times an almost suspenseful account of Milton's actions and reactions as he played the complicated game of public debate and polemic. They allow us to witness the drama of Milton's personal investment in these debates, his concern for his own reputation, and the very human and self-interested anger that sometimes uneasily coexisted with his deep concern for principle. Essays like these are likely to become classic places for advanced students and scholars to begin projects for further investigation.
The section on Paradise Lost is, in addition to being the longest in the book, one of its strongest sets of essays. Space considerations disallow detailed comments on all seven, but there are several items or moments worth singling out, among them Stuart Curran's observations in his essay on God about the centrality of self-sacrifice in the epic. He identifies willed loss and loving self-sacrifice as the sources of the “kinetic energy” that drives the “ceaseless creativity” of Milton's universe, a universe that Curran correctly notes would not exist according to the poem had Milton's God not decided that only a universe that risked loss and then ultimately required a self-sacrificial restoration could be a “good” universe, better than some state of the divine prior to the messy, but by logical necessity better, state that comes with the creation of separate and free, although not entirely independent, creatures. As Curran notes, “it is easy . . . to be so alienated by God's hectoring tone in Book 3 as to overlook the structural schema by which the book develops, which increasingly centers on the necessity and nature of [an] atonement” that entails a radical separation of God from the Son, the one creature who intimately shares his nature (530-31). Such separation, Curran suggests, is a willed self-loss that is inscribed in both the act of creation by which the Son was made and all of the subsequent creations enacted through him.
Other essays worth mentioning are Karen L. Edwards's beautiful discussion of the poem's “vast cosmography” (496), Susan Wiseman's detailed historical contextualization of the poem's discourses about gender (a fitting companion to the earlier essays on the divorce tracts), and Martin Dzelzainis's masterly account of the relationship between Milton's political commitments and the poem's complicated political implications. This last essay provides a striking reminder of just how deeply political experience affected Milton's poetic imagination—especially in his portrayal of Satan. As Dzelzainis trenchantly observes,
much of what Satan says and does is simply unintelligible without an understanding of what went on at the heart of the regime to which Milton devoted a decade of his life. This is not at all to suggest, as Blake did, that Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it. But it is to call to mind the truism that it takes one to know one.
Above all, special mention should be made of John Creaser's essay on the verse. Creaser's contribution gives a concise and lively account of the propositions he made about the verse style of Paradise Lost in an important essay published in Review of English Studies in 2007. He brings Derek Attridge's approach to English verse rhythm to bear on a comprehensive survey of Milton's practice in the epic, showing how pervasively attentive he was to meaningful variation. The essay is rich in examples and provides a good basic introduction to Attridge's method, which has since the early 1980s slowly come to dominate discussions of English prosody. Creaser's close readings are particularly useful for the way they reveal the thematic import of Milton's chosen style as well as the striking effects of which it was capable. As he puts it several times, Milton's practice with pentameter combines “austerity with license” embodying a kind of pervasive rhythmic allegory of one of the poem's central themes: the dynamic and mutually reinforcing relationship between freedom and obedience. In this way even this most aesthetically concerned of essays still participates in the rest of the volume's ongoing examination of Milton's understanding of “the terms of liberty.” In addition to his observations about stress, Creaser also offers a set of acute observations about Milton's practice with elision and enjambment. Especially helpful is his brief discussion of what he calls “virtual” or “hypothetical” elisions, places where syllables slide together in an almost notional way that preserves a sense of metical regularity while also allowing lines to expand outward toward the line-break for a variety of semantic effects. The extended account of the interaction of syntactic and metrical structure in the opening invocation is exemplary.
Another important contribution to discussions of the poetry is provided by the three essays on Samson Agonistes (actually three and a half, given Laura Knoppers's attention to the 1671 volume as a whole). It makes sense, of course, that a collection with the interest this one displays in Milton's political writings should provide such extensive consideration of the tragedy, and this set of discussions fits beautifully with the set of four essays on the regicide tracts provided in Part 4. Although all of the essays recognize the disagreements critics have had about Samson (it remains for modern critics Milton's most controversial work), they all come down in favor of the proposition that Milton saw Samson's violence as legitimate, the proper, if tragically incomplete and self-destructive, actions of a man with the right to act in a public cause and with divine sanction (and again the cause is “liberty”). Laura Knoppers's essay about the 1671 volume offers some fascinating observations about its immediate reception, sketching for us some of the historical events that would have been on the mind of the volume's first readers and tracing the implications of two indexes that a contemporary reader entered into a particular copy, one for each of the two poems. Knoppers in the end suggests that the relationship between the final catastrophe of Samson Agonistes and the political and religious events of the day is deliberately ambiguous (587), but she shows that at least one contemporary reader seems to have seen the poem as clearly opposed to the political trends of the Restoration period. She sees in both poems in the volume an “oppositional discourse, fostering hope and fortifying resistance in dissenters and political radicals” (587), rather than as some other scholars have claimed, a palinode to a failed revolution and a rejection of worldly political action. R.W. Serjeantson takes a strong position in favor of the proposition that Milton saw Samson's exercise of violence as legitimate, and argues that Milton's portrayal of Samson was in line with the consensus among reformed commentators on the Book of Judges—and with Milton's own reflections on political violence in the regicide tracts and in his Commonplace Book. Although he does acknowledge the importance of typology, Serjeantson does not examine it in detail, nor does he deal with the importance of antinomianism to Milton's conception of Samson's violence and his regeneration. The essay is, however, richly annotated and provides a detailed introduction to the reformed commentary tradition that was clearly just as important. Regina Schwartz's essay approaches Samson in a similar way, but concentrates on Milton's engagement with discourses about the sin of idolatry, ranging from the Hebrew Scriptures through the Church Fathers and beyond, while considering “idolatry” in its widest ethical, political, and theological senses. Again, the political dimensions of the poem are primary, presented as expressions of the equation Milton famously drew in the Tenure between the “double tyranny,” of “Custom from without, and blind affections within” and the tendency of people to “favor and uphold the Tyrant of a Nation” (646-47). The essay has particular resonances with Blair Hoxby's piece on Areopagitica and Dzelzainis's on the politics of Paradise Lost. Schwartz ends with some compellingly dark reflections on the implications of Samson for the more difficult choices that face us in modern political life.
Finally, Elizabeth D. Harvey's essay on Samson, goes even deeper into the interior space at its heart, and fulfills perhaps more fully than any other essay in the collection, the editors' promise that the political Milton and the poetic Milton need to be understood together. Harvey, with illuminating attention to early modern and classical ideas about the passions, shows how the poem invites us compellingly, if uncomfortably, into Samson's inner world in order to help us map “the interstitial space between individual subjectivity and the ethical and political obligations of the nation . . .” (650). The essay is particularly striking in the way it draws lines of connection between the work's political and ethical dimensions and the ways in which it depicts sensory experience, the experience of living in a suffering body, drawing richly on seventeenth-century physiology and classical treatments of the passions or emotions, including a careful new account of the way Milton uses medical language to describe the effects of tragedy in his note on the genre. In a sense, although she does not explicitly say so, Harvey's essay bridges the gap that often opens in analyses of the poem between the claustrophobic and painful aesthetic/sensual experience that its verse elicits (immuring us on the one hand in Samson's suffering body and then forcing us to imagine his infliction of worse suffering on others) and its more external, social, and at times abstract political implications. All of the essays on Samson Agonistes presented in the Handbook bring its political abstractions to ground in the concrete historical events of Milton's day, but Harvey's also unites these implications with a powerful sense of what it feels like to imagine inhabiting the world of the poem (a way, really, of imagining in particular terms what it means to inhabit the same terrifying and violent world that Milton inhabited and we still inhabit). Especially satisfying are her observations about the effect of Samson's account of his own blindness at the outset of the work, her comments regarding Milton's use of the word “importune,” and the way in which her account of Dalila's blandishments unites the political dimensions of the poem with both its sense of Samson's ethical failures and the piercing way its verse overwhelms us with sensory images designed to correct and rebalance our passions rather than simply to excite them in order to seduce. Whether or not Milton's poem goes so far in the direction of exciting passions that it cannot ultimately quell remains a more open question for some readers than it does for Harvey, but the fact that so much vehement argument still surrounds the work is clearly evidence that the “new acquist / Of true experience” the Chorus claims to have at the end actually excites more ongoing passion than it calmly spends. In any case, the essay is an important contribution to ongoing debates about Samson. It, like the volume as a whole, has new things to say about both the political and the aesthetic dimensions of Milton's achievement.