The Return of Eden
Milton’s Brief Epic
“The literati,” says Douglas Bush with something of a tremor, “have not for decades granted Milton a place in the canon of poets who minister to our needs.” An overstatement, of course—Miltonists like Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, C. S. Lewis, and Northrop Frye are scarcely illiterati. But it brings out that Milton has (all along) been the most controversial poet in English. Of all the needs to which he ministers, the greatest is our need to commit ourselves in passionate argument about literature. Not as part of the academic industry, but because literature is the supreme controversy concerning “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” By the energy and sincerity of his poetry, Milton stands—as no other poet quite does—in heartening and necessary opposition to all aestheticisms, old and new.
“Poems should not mean but be”? “Words alone are certain good”? Not for Milton, though his are certainly good. His moral and intellectual commitment to literature as argument, his anti-aestheticism, comes the more powerfully from one whose poetry lacks none of the subtlety, suppleness, and formality of patterning which aestheticism rightly relishes. So that we can push “our needs” back a stage—Milton ministers superbly to our need to comprehend how variously magnificent and strange the English language is, how finely it can communicate what we wish to say, how dextrously it can help us to discover what we wish to say. Milton’s mastery of language fortifies not merely our sense of what is beautiful, but our sense of what is human.
Yet this, in some degree, must be true of all good poets. What is more immediately true of Milton is that he leaves his readers no choice but to commit themselves with their minds and hearts. To stand up and be counted—all the more important when so much poetry leaves us “stretched on the rack of a too easy chair.” When Professor Bush says of “Lycidas,” “Milton is wrestling with Job’s question: why should the just man suffer?” the word wrestling (which is altogether right for Milton) serves to remind us of our commonplace suspicions: that the wrestling is all fixed, that the antagonists are going through the motions. Not only in literature itself, but also in our tussle with it. Faked wrestling, shadowboxing. Lionel Trilling has wittily said about modern criticism: “Attributing to literature virtually angelic powers, it has passed the word to the readers of literature that the one thing you do not do when you meet an angel is wrestle with him.” But the over-polite word cannot be passed to readers of Milton—not even the most arid of Miltonists has been able to make Milton safe for pedagogocracy.
MILTON ENGAGES, he even makes you give yourself away. Which is why the criticism of him is so freshly infuriating. What in other contexts would be irrelevant autobiographical eruptions are the very stuff of the argument. Professor Bush can snort that however well Milton might have …