Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence edited by Peter Medine, John Shawcross and David Urban
Medine, Peter E., John T. Shawcross, David V. Urban, eds. Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2011. 346 pp.
With its consistent emphasis on the political dimensions of mid-seventeenth century literature, Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence is a fitting register of contemporary scholarship on John Milton. However, despite some provocative pleas for the poet’s twenty-first century relevance, the book misses an opportunity to bring the poet’s work into new theoretical territory. Since the publication of John Carey’s much-scrutinized article in the Times Literary Supplement in September 2002, “A work in praise of terrorism? September 11 and Samson Agonistes,” Milton’s late work in particular has generated sporadic, often reactionary, debates over the nature of religious violence, past and present. Prior to such reflections, however, Michael Lieb’s Milton and the Culture of Violence (1994) had traced this theme throughout the poet’s writings, from the dismemberment of Opheus in Areopagitica to the mass slaughter depicted in Samson Agonistes. Featuring essays from some of the most celebrated names in early modern criticism, Visionary Milton demonstrates the indebtedness of current Milton studies to four decades of Lieb’s scholarship, most of which has served to highlight Milton’s political and theological radicalism. Rather than engaging and criticizing Lieb’s work, however, most of the essays in this volume treat it as a point of departure for various readings of Milton’s poetry and prose.
The book is divided into four parts, each of which places Milton’s visionary mode in relation to a different theme or period in the author’s life. The first section features essays that deal explicitly with themes of “Prophecy and Violence” in Milton’s early poetry and elucidate similar moments in the poet’s biography; the second considers Milton’s work in “Contemporary and Later Contexts,” ranging from discussions of visual art to political philosophy. The third section, “Milton’s Visionary Mode and Paradise Regain’d,” gives special attention to Milton’s brief epic, while the fourth section, “Milton’s Visionary Mode and the Last Poems,” features a single attempt by David Lowenstein to make sense of the divergent politics of Milton’s final volume of poetry published in his lifetime, Paradise Regain’d . . . to which is added Samson Agonistes (1671).
While one might expect an anthology on prophecy and violence to give attention to recent theoretical work on such topics, only Sharon Achinstein finds it necessary to situate her essay against the backdrop of recent critical theory. In her essay, Achinstein works to produce a reading of Abraham Polonsky’s You Are There, a television series from the 1950s that focused on the lives of historical figures, which featured an episode titled “The Tragedy of John Milton.” Abraham Polonsky (1910-99) was a novelist, screenwriter, and director whose work during the McCarthy era lent him notoriety among government officials. Beginning with some cursory definitions of law-preserving and divine violence from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” Achinstein proceeds to Zizek, Agamben, and others for their observations of the contemporary geopolitical climate, where, she suggests, “ethical norms” and “transcendent possibilities” are currently being rethought (46). Drawing a parallel between the blacklisted Polonsky and the “refugee” Milton, Achinstein suggests that, following the events of 9/11, we are again in an age where “domestic and international security [are] made to trump civil liberties, and where law-preserving violence justifie[s] the abandonment of humanitarian principles” (47). But despite the currency of its interlocutors and the relevance of its topic, Achinstein’s essay never ventures beyond the suggestion that Milton may be useful for current debates over state-sanctioned freedom.
More helpful than this familiar appeal to Milton’s persecuted idealism is Barbara K. Lewalski’s essay, “Milton and the Culture Wars.” Here, Lewalski reads Milton’s publications as a series of political interventions, each of which address the critical issues of his day. Such issues, she argues, remain at the heart of contemporary culture wars in America: “religious toleration, separation of church and state, a liberalized definition of marriage, an unfettered press, and the free exchange of ideas and opinions” (23). Like other contributors, Lewalski emphasizes Milton as a poet of confrontation, one who believed that the force of words could “begin to transform English culture one reader at a time, through the challenging educative experience of reading” (38). In similar fashion, David Lowenstein’s concluding essay “From Politics to Faith in the Great Poems?” challenges what many critics, beginning with Milton’s contemporary Andrew Marvell, have accepted as a plea for political quietism. Focusing on the 1671 volume of Paradise Regained, a poem that valorizes the Christian virtues of patience and temperance, and its tragic companion, Samson Agonistes, Lowenstein argues that the brutality of Samson and his “dreadful God” is but one manifestation of Milton’s conflicting responses to Restoration culture that these poems present (277). According to his reading, the 1671 volume represents a divergent group of political voices that do not simply “complement each other, but jostle against each other” in contradictory and productive ways (283).
The political and historical thrust of Lowenstein’s conclusion is a fitting counterpoint to the book’s previous section, which is organized around Paradise Regained. Michael Bryson’s essay, “From Last Things to First” avoids the historical context of the poem’s original publication and instead sets Paradise Regained in relation to Paradise Lost. In his reading, Bryson argues that the “visionary mode” of Paradise Regained implies an “apophatic movement” away from the idolatry of last things, toward the realm of first things: namely, the “paradise within,” which he defines as the “inner awareness of divine similitude” (261). A similar tone is adopted by Mary Beth Rose in her essay on the depiction of the Virgin Mary in Paradise Regained, where she reads Jesus’ “passive fortitude” as reflective of “a transformation in the gendering of heroism,” where Milton’s emphasis on public deeds shifts to an affirmation of private endurance (197). Yet, as Lowenstein makes clear in his reading of Paradise Regained along with Samson Agonistes, the construction of interiority in the poems of 1671 remains an unresolved site of political agency for Milton’s readers.
In Milton criticism, most discussions of violence tend to focus on Samson Agonistes, a poem that assumes the conventions of classical tragedy and moves its hero’s destructive act off-stage. It is, then, curious (and somewhat refreshing) that the sole essay to deal exclusively with Samson Agonistes does so through the history of visual art. In their essay, Wendy Furman-Adams and Virginia James Tufte assemble a genealogy of artistic renderings of Samson, including Gustave Dore’s nineteenth century prints, inspired by Milton’s poem, and Rembrandt’s series of oil paintings, which attend solely to the biblical story.
Another blind spot in this anthology is Paradise Lost. Only one essay, Diana Trevino Benet’s “God’s ‘Red Right Hand’: Violence and Pain in Paradise Lost,” gives extended attention to Milton’s epic. Benet draws convincingly on early modern accounts of physical pain and illness to explain how Milton’s audience would have sympathized with the depiction of the fallen angels’ “fierce pains” (PL 1.336). While pain is causally related to sin in Milton’s theology, she suggests that all accounts of suffering in Paradise Lost can be finally traced back to God. Benet’s essay does a fine job of weaving together Michael Lieb’s assessment of Milton’s theology, biographical details from the poet’s life, and the history of Western medicine; but perhaps the most enjoyable essay in this volume comes from its best-known contributor and nearly avoids Milton’s writing altogether. In his essay, “How Hobbes Works,” Stanley Fish deftly performs what has become a signature move in his work on Milton, and turns Thomas Hobbes, the poet’s political rival, into a post-structuralist figure (at one point noting Hobbes’ resemblance to the American pragmatist Richard Rorty). While Milton poetry works on the individual from the inside out, “Hobbes works exclusively on the outside and regards the inside as a realm to be avoided (literally) at all costs” (68). As the editors suggest in their introduction, the “visionary mode” is “prophetic,” “typically iconoclastic,” and “transformative” (xi-xii). Along with Stella P. Revard’s essay, “Charles, Christ, and the Icon of Kingship in Paradise Regain’d,” Fish’s treatment of Hobbes helpfully distinguishes Milton’s visionary mode from a conservative preference for outward order over internal chaos.
Topics of violence and prophecy are nothing new to Milton scholarship, and the essays in this volume do little more than reproduce current critical perspectives. While the dust jacket of Visionary Milton claims to “extend the literary discussion of Milton’s work into a larger geopolitical area,” its contributors give scant attention to its topics as theoretical problems in their own right. In this way, this anthology misses its opportunity to give the work of Michael Lieb and the violence of Milton’s writing the kind of rigorous engagement they deserve.
Jonathan Dyck is a graduate student in the Department of English and Film studies at the University of Alberta and is currently completing a Master’s thesis on the relationship between reading and political theology in John Milton's post-Restoration writing.