Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton's Poetry
An appreciation of Milton, Mark Pattison said, is the last reward of consummated scholarship. The remark, with its remote echoes of the proverb “See Naples and die,” was made about a hundred years ago, when commentary on the poet might well have been housed in the six good-sized rooms that the younger Scaliger thought sufficient for a proper humanist library. Now that works of explication, criticism, biography, textual analysis, background information, and introductory explanation have multiplied beyond all calculations, what Pattison said is more true than ever. What sort of general three-hundred-page book can one write about Milton’s poetic achievement when the pile of commentary is already so thick?
It isn’t simply that thousands of passages are open to variant readings and contrasting emphases. Out of all this material have been composed a number of entirely different Miltons, sometimes incompatible with one another, more often just ill-assorted. There is a high-church Milton (Augustinian, hierarchical, Catholic) and a Puritan Milton (libertarian, strict-constructionist, illuminate) who really do not get on well together; not even Milton the Christian humanist can quite reconcile these quarrelsome offspring of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
There is an Arian Milton, an eschatological Milton, and a Talmudic Milton whose primary interest was subtle medieval rabbis like Rashi and Ibn Ezra. There is a Milton whose greatest poem records only partially successful struggles with an intractable fable and a malign, tyrannical Deity—One who deliberately creates agents whose sin He foreknows, and Who then punishes them for sinning. There is a Milton who cheerfully imitates his Creator’s dirty tricks by trapping his reader into worldly if not sinful responses, then beating him over the ear with a theological pandybat. There are Promethean Miltons, Whig Miltons, patriotic English Miltons, ironic Miltons, plus a whole coven of nasty Miltons, mostly Victorian in their costuming, who can be found in the works of the modern anti-Miltonists.
Working one’s way through these various Miltons and the critical evidence out of which they have been compounded can be heavy going, and an introductory book is almost bound to select its own particular Milton and present him at length, while relegating other Miltons to the outer darkness of footnotes and appendices. That, at least, is the procedure adopted by Professor Louis Martz in his new book; and the first thing to be said of it is that the figure he gives us is very much a high-church Milton. This Milton is not a revolutionary propagandist, not a rude bishop-baiter, not a harsh derider of dead King Charles’s book. He is a poet of exile because his real country is that of the soul.
“Poet of exile” sounds rather odd when applied to a man who spent all but two years of his life in his native land, and rarely ventured more than a few miles from his native city. Still, it denotes very accurately the emphasis of Martz’s book, which implies that Milton was a lofty spirit fallen into an ugly world and out of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.