David Williams is the author of prize-winning studies on mass media in Canadian fiction and in First World War literature. A graduate student in 1970, he studied with Joseph Frank, Pacific war survivor and author of a famous Cold War era study of the Levellers. We return to that heady moment in the opening of Milton’s Leveller God with a Milton very acceptable to the Woodstock generation: Leveller sympathizer and early modern feminist apologist for women in his creation and treatment of the character of Eve. There are some very pleasing close readings especially of the middle books of Paradise Lost in the light of these steering views. Williams argues against the long and widely held view that Milton’s radical politics were limited: that his republicanism and apparent contempt for uneducated people left him unsympathetic to the Levellers, and that he asserted male superiority in most marriages: ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him’ (PL, IV, 299). Milton’s God is not William Empson’s bad-tempered tyrant but a Leveller God, keen to assert the claims of freeborn Englishmen and women; the unfallen Adam and Eve of Paradise Lost are Leveller man and wife, equals before God and made to suffer by the persecution of the English Parliamentarian leaders articulated in the poem through Satan and (rather surprisingly) the Archangel Raphael. This is not a book for the layperson or the fainthearted. There are 393 pages of text alone, with footnotes and index extending for a further 100, including throughout continuous discussion pro et contra of secondary work. The radicals with whom Milton is associated are decidedly and only the Levellers. The other groups, often considered to the ‘left’ of the Levellers and flourishing briefly in the wake of the Leveller defeat, are not present. Of the Diggers and Ranters there is no mention in the text, while the Quakers make a piffling entrance in footnotes attesting to their promulgation of gender equality. This is unfortunate, since these groups really thought they could bring back the unfallen world, as experienced by Adam and Eve in Milton’s portrayal. Milton’s amanuensis Thomas Ellwood was a Quaker, and Friends helped Milton move from London to Chalfont St. Giles during the plague and fire periods. The Leveller leader John Lilburne died a Quaker in 1657. It is as if Christopher Hill’s hugely influential 1972 study The World Turned Upside Down (as opposed to Hill’s 1977 Milton and the English Revolution), which made these groups known to a general readership, had never appeared, since it is not cited either, although it has been much invoked in influential Milton studies, such as the analysis of Miltonic views of sexuality in contemporary context by James Grantham Turner (1987), known to Williams, and in Joanna Picciotto’s extensive exploration (2010) of the ‘new science’ as a state of awareness that had once prevailed in Paradise, which he ignores. The author is instead engaged often disapprovingly with much older criticism that reveals the gender stereotypes of the mid-twentieth century: not least the Putney Debates editor, A. S. P. Woodhouse, unable to accept the female authorship of a political treatise. The force of the argument turns on well-known issues in Milton’s prose: whether his treatises of the mid-1640s can be said to reflect or be in dialogue with major printed statements by people later known as Levellers. Can we find a way of situating Milton’s approval of divorce, toleration and tyrannicide alongside Leveller arguments for toleration, franchise extension and accountability that would eventuate in the Agreements of the People? Some of these conjunctions were entertained in introductions and footnotes of the Yale UP edition (1953–1982) of Milton’s prose, especially Ernest Sirluck’s Volume II (1958). When Lilburne, Walwyn and Overton were writing in the name of toleration in the earlier 1640s, they were not Levellers, and there was no Leveller party. They were part of a broad coalition of Parliamentarian supporters, and like Milton, they belonged to a more theologically speculative and broad-minded wing than the Presbyterian middle ground. They could claim as fellow traveller Oliver Cromwell, often figured as Milton’s Satan in this study. When they came to express antipathy towards their tyrant Charles I, they again constituted a spectrum of beliefs, some of it crystalized around support for the New Model Army. Milton appears to be in this group too. Within the New Model such supporters included army commanders as well as the junior officers and serving men who would later back the Leveller petitions. Milton was with them in so far as he wanted the tyrant removed. But once Parliamentary, or Presbyterian, or ‘grandee’ opposition to Leveller petitioning manifested itself, and some imprisonments and worse had occurred, some Levellers, Lilburne included, saw a new tyranny in the Parliament, in the New Model command and finally in the Council of State once the new republic had been established. They thought Charles had been unconstitutionally treated and like them subject to a tyranny himself. Milton did not think this, according to surviving evidence. He was with the new republican government, and very soon they would hire him as a civil servant and book licenser. Williams supposes that Milton made a bad decision in supporting the new regime, one that he would come to regret, because really he was a Leveller. Many of David Williams’ arguments depend upon what he regards as echoes of Leveller tracts in Milton’s writing. This can often seem vague: ‘Despite [Merritt Y.] Hughes’ reminder that “Lilburne and the Levellers are never mentioned by name anywhere in Milton’s work,” both epic poems do “name” the Levellers, at least by indirection, in their emplotment and surface allusions’ (p. 270). Satan speaking on the burning lake and in Pandemonium is in Williams’ terms ironically a bit like a Leveller, rather than a defeated republican, and, when Satan is being a tyrannical despot, Cromwell, rather than a Stuart monarch. The great reduction of the fallen angels’ size as they enter their conclave at the end of PL I is said by Williams to resemble the reported social discomfort of the senior officers when they sat to debate with the lowest ranks at Putney in 1647. There is no evidence in the epic to suggest this fanciful reading, and such special pleading works against the less historically specific confusion of principled statements, opinions and feelings expressed by Milton’s characters, itself more faithful to the painful descent of Parliamentarian unity into hateful mutual distrust. Other figures also unexpectedly appear as Levellers. That sometime republican journalist Marchamont Nedham, an associate of Milton’s in the Commonwealth years, is identified as most likely author of the pro-Leveller pamphlet Vox Plebis (1646; famous for its invocations of Machiavelli’s Discorsi, warning against a Parliamentary tyranny over the people) and for some sympathy in his newsbook editorials with the Levellers. This does not make him, pace Williams, any more a Leveller than Milton, and indeed he also attacked the Levellers in these years. Nedham was required as Commonwealth apologist to win over Leveller sympathizers to accept the republic in 1650, so he appealed to them, even as he also contrarily supported a common cause between the Levellers and the King against the Parliamentary grandees in 1647–1648, which was complete anathema to Milton. In the Restoration Nedham used his intimate knowledge of Milton to attack republicanism (and in other places the Levellers), but Williams says nothing about this. Having doubts about the character of Oliver Cromwell, and wondering at what point he had compromised true liberty, does not necessarily or at all make a Leveller out of a republican journalist with a sharp knowledge of Machiavelli or a learned secretary poet defending the Commonwealth in Latin to a European readership. Other smaller elements give an incrementally misleading picture: the unsigned Tyranipocrit Discovered (1649) is attributed to William Walwyn, by then an imprisoned Leveller, but that attribution is not generally accepted: its un-Walwynesque prose (as opposed to its theme and biblical quotations) and the fact that it claimed to be printed in Rotterdam are not addressed. The anti-patriarchal reading of Genesis as Paradise offering equality and freedom in equal proportions to woman and man is to be found in some versions of separatist theology before it is specifically Leveller, such as among the General Baptists, and many of those separatist groups would abandon the Levellers in 1649: none of this gets into Williams’ pages. In short, the book flaunts a massive Leveller fetish that obscures or ignores a broader and evolving history of radicalism. With regard to gender, Ann Hughes’s important 1995 demonstration that conventional gender hierarchies were sustained in Leveller writing is apparently unknown to the author. You do not have to agree with it, but you cannot be oblivious to it: her argument complicates Williams’ simplistic claims for the Levellers as gender revolutionaries. These matters, such as Richard Overton’s authorial pretense to be his wife Mary, are searchingly explored by Amanda Jane Whiting in her 2015 monograph. More successful is the comparison of Milton’s views of creation, chaos and matter with the mortalism and monism of Overton, voiced first in 1643 before the emergence of the Leveller movement. The connection drawn between this view of creation and the Leveller view of property rights for free men by natural law is an important insight. This is territory travelled by more recent scholarship, much of which is invoked, and so it is all the more baffling that no mention is made of Gerard Winstanley the Digger’s view of God as the immanent presence in nature. The Diggers came from the ranks of disappointed Levellers and called themselves True Levellers; in their view all of nature will be redeemed. This does not sit well with Milton’s God, who damns the erstwhile innocent serpent, since Satan is not present, before he does anything else at the judgment of Adam and Eve in PL X, and who requires an intersession on behalf of ingrate mankind to forestall their utter destruction. Williams suggests that Milton’s epic condones universal redemption (pp. 163–64), but Milton’s position is that some will be lost by their own choice. Unlike most recent studies of radical Milton Samson Agonistes is not extensively discussed and only mentioned three times very briefly. The reading of Paradise Regained at the end of the book refers back to the sixteenth century and the longer tradition of English Protestant persecution. There is an apposite discussion of the anti-Trinitarian theology of sonship, and how we may all become ‘sons of God’, but the minutely detailed historical context of the earlier chapters is absent, replaced by occasional moments of very general comparison with Leveller writings. There is nothing specifically ‘levelling’ about Milton’s version of the Incarnation (p. 163) or any proof of a ‘Leveller Jesus’ in Paradise Regained, and perhaps more evidence of republican and Quaker views in the poem; Walwyn’s ‘free grace’ is not the same as Milton’s Arminian ‘free will’. Painstaking work showing how we may see the ‘great persecution’ of Restoration Dissenters reflected in Milton’s later works (as detailed by N. H. Keeble (1987) and Sharon Achinstein (2003)) is nowhere to be seen. Abdiel is John Lilburne? If you say so. The sentiments upon which this book is based are laudable, and you can find some of the views the author most applauds spread around seventeenth-century radical writing, and sometimes in Milton. I am sure Williams’ elevation of Milton’s Eve is in general terms correct. But the larger frame of this study does not add up, its stronger insights undermined by poorly judged, unpersuasive interpretation and unsupported assertion. We are better served by scholarship that seeks to understand why the things we would like Milton and his contemporaries to have said were not said (or when they were said not ignored by David Williams), and why that should have been so. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 8, 2018
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