John Leonard, The Value of Milton

John Leonard, The Value of Milton THIS is an excellent and long-needed book. Its value is manifold: while acknowledging the significance of Milton’s prose, it returns us back to what truly matters—his poetry, particularly Paradise Lost; it summarizes the fundamental cruxes in the texts and critical disagreements, making them intelligible and exciting for the general reader; within a fairly narrow space it demonstrates Milton’s mastery of language, his ambivalent usage and wordplay; and above all, it teaches both wide readerships and critics that Milton’s works accommodate multiple viewpoints. Leonard clearly has firm views on the issues he discusses and he tells us candidly what he thinks, but he tries to bring out the lasting quality of the poet’s oeuvre, what is still relevant to our times and what differs. Refreshingly and usefully for Milton criticism, he does not concentrate on what divides us but on what we can share! The first chapter discusses Milton’s controversial concept of toleration and free speech in Areopagitica, showing how the author was torn by irreconcilable impulses, the rival freedoms of Dionysius and Arminius, how he wanted to be an invulnerable reader on the one hand, and not a mere puppet on the other. Drawing a parallel with the current controversy as to whether Germans should be allowed to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Leonard makes it clear how relevant Milton’s argument, evoking the Pauline aphorism ‘To the pure all things are pure’, is to our times, as it advocates accessibility of harmful ideas for readers to judge and refute. The double meaning of ‘merely’ in the passage about Arminius is a reminder that Leonard never loses sight of Milton’s effective engagement with words. The second chapter focuses on the minor poems, particularly Sonnet 8, which promises to immortalize ‘Captain or colonel’ in the poet’s verse if they spare him. Leonard makes us see that Milton is not joking, but entirely serious in believing that poetry has ‘the power to save’. Again, he points to a modern analogy with the case of Richard Strauss, who on the arrival of the US Army refused to evacuate his mansion and whose genius the Jewish officer acknowledged despite the fact that Bergen-Belsen and Dachau had just been liberated. Leonard argues that the sonnet has been undervalued and unfairly thought of as naïve: from early on Milton knew and wrote about crushed hopes, as his Nativity Ode reveals. One might add that even contemporary writers, Ian McEwan to name but one, have often contemplated, or wished to believe, in the usefulness and value of art that can make a difference. Leonard then discusses Comus and suggests quite candidly that it may not be ‘wholly palatable to a modern sensibility’ because no one takes the subject of virginity seriously any longer, as his teaching experience particularly confirms. He reminds us that poets of the past and their language have different values and meanings from ours. He points to the Puritan concept of virginity as married chastity and brings out the Lady’s most resonant ideas. Finally, he turns to Lycidas, summarizing the controversy about how radically anti-episcopal Milton was when he wrote the pastoral, and maintains that the poet distinguished between false bishops—prelates—and a true one like St Peter. The widely disputed ‘two-handed engine’, we learn, can be any of the biblical implements suggested by critics. The third chapter claims to deal with political prose, but by and large treats of the more interesting divorce tracts. Leonard analyses Milton’s somewhat problematic use of ‘conversation’, which left him open to criticism, and concludes that his argument about divorce was right even if his opinion on marriage was limited. Further, Leonard refers to the recent iconoclastic scholarship by William Walker on Milton’s unrevolutionary leanings to make us aware of the sensible points in it, yet he also provides counter-arguments to some of the suggested ideas. Again, he closely engages with Milton’s usage, this time the word ‘revolt’, which Milton employs pejoratively though not always in the sense that Walker proposes. Quite rightly, Leonard devotes two chapters to Paradise Lost. First, he discusses the sublime, pointing out that the epic should not primarily be valued for its ideas, but the power of poetry—Milton’s expression and imagination. He warns against the danger of adopting an exclusive interpretative approach, for the poem can speak to people of all faiths and beliefs, including non-belief. He then concentrates on three particularly sublime areas of Milton’s epic: its vast cosmic spaces, supernatural beings and verse. A detailed analysis of Milton’s cosmology can be found in Leonard’s magnificent monograph Faithful Labourers; here he offers a compact picture of its most compelling, yet to many readers, often puzzling images. He touches on the sound of Milton’s verse and also the poem’s visual effects. Leonard subtitles the second chapter on Paradise Lost ‘solid good’ and explains why its subject is universal. His best idea, true to both the poem and its haunting title, is that ‘Great suffering in real life often has trivial causes’ (87). Appropriately, he is chiefly concerned with the fall, making us realize how easy it is to underestimate Milton’s credible treatment of Eve’s fall. One might think Leonard’s application of Edward Smith’s 1922 Confessions of a Confidence Man: A Handbook for Suckers to the individual steps of Satan’s temptation unnecessary, but his account is witty and entertaining, and helps the general reader to see the subtlety of Milton’s strategy. As always, Leonard’s discussion of the epic offers a number of illuminating moments regarding its ambivalent language. Leonard tells us quite candidly that he prefers Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, but he demonstrates that there is enough subtlety in the shorter epic. To that end, he again employs his close reading skills, and not intent on solving the mystery of the Son’s identity, he argues that Satan in this poem is more interesting than Jesus and has been underestimated, especially his humour. The last chapter is centred on Samson Agonistes. Leonard presents both sides of the Samson controversy, started by Stanley Fish and countered by John Carey, evenhandedly, often disagreeing with both. Although Leonard praises the strongest point in Carey’s argument, he is wrong to say that Carey is anxious ‘to distance God from the final slaughter’ (147); rather, Carey wishes to rescue Milton’s dramatic poem from the charge of deserving no place on the syllabus for being potentially dangerous. Like some other scholars, Derek Wood for instance, Leonard returns us back to the Greek tragedy; his aim is to highlight the importance of terror for Milton’s drama, often overlooked by critics. Leonard’s new book is very-well written, with ease and, above all, humour. It shows what his previous acclaimed monographs and editorial work have already confirmed—that he is among the most knowledgeable contemporary scholars of Milton and certainly the best close reader of his poetry. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Notes and Queries Oxford University Press

John Leonard, The Value of Milton

Notes and Queries , Volume Advance Article (2) – Apr 12, 2018

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
0029-3970
eISSN
1471-6941
D.O.I.
10.1093/notesj/gjy049
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Abstract

THIS is an excellent and long-needed book. Its value is manifold: while acknowledging the significance of Milton’s prose, it returns us back to what truly matters—his poetry, particularly Paradise Lost; it summarizes the fundamental cruxes in the texts and critical disagreements, making them intelligible and exciting for the general reader; within a fairly narrow space it demonstrates Milton’s mastery of language, his ambivalent usage and wordplay; and above all, it teaches both wide readerships and critics that Milton’s works accommodate multiple viewpoints. Leonard clearly has firm views on the issues he discusses and he tells us candidly what he thinks, but he tries to bring out the lasting quality of the poet’s oeuvre, what is still relevant to our times and what differs. Refreshingly and usefully for Milton criticism, he does not concentrate on what divides us but on what we can share! The first chapter discusses Milton’s controversial concept of toleration and free speech in Areopagitica, showing how the author was torn by irreconcilable impulses, the rival freedoms of Dionysius and Arminius, how he wanted to be an invulnerable reader on the one hand, and not a mere puppet on the other. Drawing a parallel with the current controversy as to whether Germans should be allowed to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Leonard makes it clear how relevant Milton’s argument, evoking the Pauline aphorism ‘To the pure all things are pure’, is to our times, as it advocates accessibility of harmful ideas for readers to judge and refute. The double meaning of ‘merely’ in the passage about Arminius is a reminder that Leonard never loses sight of Milton’s effective engagement with words. The second chapter focuses on the minor poems, particularly Sonnet 8, which promises to immortalize ‘Captain or colonel’ in the poet’s verse if they spare him. Leonard makes us see that Milton is not joking, but entirely serious in believing that poetry has ‘the power to save’. Again, he points to a modern analogy with the case of Richard Strauss, who on the arrival of the US Army refused to evacuate his mansion and whose genius the Jewish officer acknowledged despite the fact that Bergen-Belsen and Dachau had just been liberated. Leonard argues that the sonnet has been undervalued and unfairly thought of as naïve: from early on Milton knew and wrote about crushed hopes, as his Nativity Ode reveals. One might add that even contemporary writers, Ian McEwan to name but one, have often contemplated, or wished to believe, in the usefulness and value of art that can make a difference. Leonard then discusses Comus and suggests quite candidly that it may not be ‘wholly palatable to a modern sensibility’ because no one takes the subject of virginity seriously any longer, as his teaching experience particularly confirms. He reminds us that poets of the past and their language have different values and meanings from ours. He points to the Puritan concept of virginity as married chastity and brings out the Lady’s most resonant ideas. Finally, he turns to Lycidas, summarizing the controversy about how radically anti-episcopal Milton was when he wrote the pastoral, and maintains that the poet distinguished between false bishops—prelates—and a true one like St Peter. The widely disputed ‘two-handed engine’, we learn, can be any of the biblical implements suggested by critics. The third chapter claims to deal with political prose, but by and large treats of the more interesting divorce tracts. Leonard analyses Milton’s somewhat problematic use of ‘conversation’, which left him open to criticism, and concludes that his argument about divorce was right even if his opinion on marriage was limited. Further, Leonard refers to the recent iconoclastic scholarship by William Walker on Milton’s unrevolutionary leanings to make us aware of the sensible points in it, yet he also provides counter-arguments to some of the suggested ideas. Again, he closely engages with Milton’s usage, this time the word ‘revolt’, which Milton employs pejoratively though not always in the sense that Walker proposes. Quite rightly, Leonard devotes two chapters to Paradise Lost. First, he discusses the sublime, pointing out that the epic should not primarily be valued for its ideas, but the power of poetry—Milton’s expression and imagination. He warns against the danger of adopting an exclusive interpretative approach, for the poem can speak to people of all faiths and beliefs, including non-belief. He then concentrates on three particularly sublime areas of Milton’s epic: its vast cosmic spaces, supernatural beings and verse. A detailed analysis of Milton’s cosmology can be found in Leonard’s magnificent monograph Faithful Labourers; here he offers a compact picture of its most compelling, yet to many readers, often puzzling images. He touches on the sound of Milton’s verse and also the poem’s visual effects. Leonard subtitles the second chapter on Paradise Lost ‘solid good’ and explains why its subject is universal. His best idea, true to both the poem and its haunting title, is that ‘Great suffering in real life often has trivial causes’ (87). Appropriately, he is chiefly concerned with the fall, making us realize how easy it is to underestimate Milton’s credible treatment of Eve’s fall. One might think Leonard’s application of Edward Smith’s 1922 Confessions of a Confidence Man: A Handbook for Suckers to the individual steps of Satan’s temptation unnecessary, but his account is witty and entertaining, and helps the general reader to see the subtlety of Milton’s strategy. As always, Leonard’s discussion of the epic offers a number of illuminating moments regarding its ambivalent language. Leonard tells us quite candidly that he prefers Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, but he demonstrates that there is enough subtlety in the shorter epic. To that end, he again employs his close reading skills, and not intent on solving the mystery of the Son’s identity, he argues that Satan in this poem is more interesting than Jesus and has been underestimated, especially his humour. The last chapter is centred on Samson Agonistes. Leonard presents both sides of the Samson controversy, started by Stanley Fish and countered by John Carey, evenhandedly, often disagreeing with both. Although Leonard praises the strongest point in Carey’s argument, he is wrong to say that Carey is anxious ‘to distance God from the final slaughter’ (147); rather, Carey wishes to rescue Milton’s dramatic poem from the charge of deserving no place on the syllabus for being potentially dangerous. Like some other scholars, Derek Wood for instance, Leonard returns us back to the Greek tragedy; his aim is to highlight the importance of terror for Milton’s drama, often overlooked by critics. Leonard’s new book is very-well written, with ease and, above all, humour. It shows what his previous acclaimed monographs and editorial work have already confirmed—that he is among the most knowledgeable contemporary scholars of Milton and certainly the best close reader of his poetry. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Notes and QueriesOxford University Press

Published: Apr 12, 2018

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