Books and Readers in Milton's Early Poetry and Prose



This essay analyzes John Milton's conceptualization of the monumental book, the author, and the reader in his early poetry and prose, including “On Shakespeare,”Areopagitica, and Eikonoklastes. The ambitious Milton was attracted to the classical notion that a book could monumentalize and immortalize its author. Yet Milton recognizes that books, like bones or hair, are material objects susceptible to idolatry—a troubling implication for a Puritan iconoclastic poet. In order to escape this implication, Milton posits the reader, not the book, as the true monument who apprehends, internalizes, and preserves an author's legacy. This imaginative solution, however, proves temporary. As he confronts the frenzy prompted by King Charles's book in Eikonoklastes, Milton must confront the fact that what makes a book monumental also makes reading idolatrous. This untenable impasse ultimately prompts Milton to banish his long-cherished notion of literary monumentality. (H. M.)