The Poetry of John Milton by Gordon Teskey - review by John Stubbs

John Stubbs

‘The World Was All before Him’

The Poetry of John Milton


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One day in the early weeks of June 1723, a line of schoolboys trooped from Westminster to visit a celebrated prisoner in the Tower of London. Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster, had been sentenced to perpetual banishment for treasonous activities on behalf of James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender. His trial had been the most spectacular and one of the most blatantly corrupt of the century. Lacking the evidence to pursue a case in court, the government tried him before a special meeting of Parliament. In an extraordinary clash of wits, Atterbury was cross-examined by Sir Robert Walpole himself – and, while losing on points, proved perhaps the one worthy opponent the minister faced during his robustly amoral ascendancy. While in the Tower, the champion of the High Church and the Roman Catholic claimant to the throne received his final visits before embarking on a few years of near-hopeless intrigue in Paris (for, notwithstanding the lack of due process, he was guilty as charged). The representatives of Westminster School packed into his cell and recited verses in his honour. He responded by adapting lines from Book XII of Paradise Lost:

Some natural tears he dropt, but wiped them soon.
The world was all before him, where to choose
His place of rest; and Providence his guide.

Poignantly, Atterbury, a widower, changed Milton’s ‘they’ – Michael is gently expelling Adam and Eve from Eden – into ‘he’. The bishop was to be a very lonely voice in the wilderness, speaking up for Anglican tradition and the lost England of the Tory imagination. The impromptu quotation of Milton by this conservative scholar and polemicist confirmed the classic status that had long been attributed to Paradise Lost. Milton published his masterpiece in 1667 and its longer and definitive version appeared in 1674. Jorge Luis Borges once remarked, in relation to Dante’s works, ‘no one has read all the commentaries’, and the same probably goes for the myriad responses to Milton that have built up over the centuries. By Atterbury’s time, in the space of two or three generations, a considerable bulk of Miltonism had already accumulated. The most striking early reaction to Paradise Lost was Andrew Marvell’s, which was subsequently included in the later edition of the epic. However, Atterbury’s quiet and instinctive recourse to the poem in the aftermath of his own personal crisis is remarkable for the fact that it shows how Milton’s vast rewriting of Scripture had been internalised by a man who opposed almost everything Milton had supported. Milton’s ground zero, the Restoration of 1660, was Atterbury’s point of rebirth – the revival of a strong episcopal Church entwined with a soundly empowered monarchy.

Yet in at least two crucial respects, Atterbury belonged to a class of reader well equipped to appreciate Milton. First, a command of Latin, Greek and Hebrew enabled him to distinguish the resonances in the often overwhelming echo chamber of Milton’s verse; secondly, he was a principled renegade. The first quality is arguably dispensable for a rewarding reading of Milton. Who, really, if they give the work time, can fail to be swept away by Paradise Lost on its own terms? It can take on the guise simultaneously of (at least) a titanic space opera and an involving domestic drama. Milton’s realisations of the cosmos, of human actions and of landscape and nature are surely unequalled in any other single English work. In Satan, Milton created the one figure of complex evil who can really vie with Shakespeare’s villains. On one rereading, Harold Bloom admitted to seeing the poem anew as a work of science fiction – though in Milton’s special effects there is sometimes the danger of what Frank Kermode once called ‘mere astronomy’. Samuel Johnson was critical of Milton’s early-ish masterpiece Lycidas, and, as Gordon Teskey points out in this major new response to the poetry, the poem was probably spoilt for Johnson precisely because he could detect and place so many of its manifold allusions to classical pastorals. ‘The disgust with pedantry,’ Teskey remarks, ‘can be even more intense among those who are profoundly learned in books.’ Throughout his study, Teskey displays his own erudition with a light hand. He illustrates how classical, mythological, historical and Scriptural resonances are significant and functional in Milton, but never lets them clog the poem under discussion.

Radicalism, however, or at least a willingness to consider revolutionary approaches, is necessary for the study of Milton – certainly the Milton that Teskey presents here. Teskey is clear that Milton spent his life urging his readers to reimagine their world. Teskey’s approach to this life is compendious and in careful touch with recent Milton scholarship. His book is like a Renaissance commentary, long-meditated and expansive. There is a close and delicate attention to the historical and biographical frames of individual poems, which in turn prompt and inform rich formal analysis and interpretation. We also get Milton’s themes as they are caught and refracted through later texts: there are countless fine asides on writers ranging from Heidegger to Larkin.

Milton is possibly the most sonorous and strange of all English poets. He is full of grandiose weirdness, real feeling mixed up with telescopic rhetoric. Mourning a dead college-mate as the drowned shepherd Lycidas, Milton’s monody insists: ‘He must not float upon his watry bier/Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,/Without the mead of som melodious tear.’ The ‘tear’ the poet sets aside for Lycidas is metaphorically a comforting ‘mead’, a restorative drink – here, perhaps, offered in a toast. Yet by synaesthesia the tear is also the sound of lamentation; and by metonymy it stands for the mourning song or monody that Milton is about to offer. Overall, the line is an example of what the Elizabethans quite understandably called ‘farfetched’ writing. Throughout his book, Teskey is immersed in such permutations. A representative example of his musing might be the obsessive way he returns to a line in Lycidas where dolphins are urged to ‘waft’ the shepherd’s corpse (or spirit?) to some haven:

The image of the drowned shepherd wafted by dolphins is like a question mark floating on the surface of the sea, a portent heading to land. We see a body in the sea carried by dolphins, and then the image dissolves and is gone. Was it ever there

Who knows? This poem will always seem to be mourning something other than Lycidas – Milton himself, perhaps, or all of us stranded beings; and ultimately nothing remains to lament him or us except the ‘parching wind’, which Milton shows initially as pitiless. Teskey submits himself to the intellectual and emotional tombola in which Milton’s meanings exist – and shows how it spins. Rather daringly, he suggests Milton might have cut the famous final stanza, ending ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new’, for its incongruous note of resolution.

The moving core of Teskey’s book is the career of a revolutionary. Whether in the successive incredible stanzas – like carnival floats, Teskey says – of the early ‘Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, or in the metrical departures in the ‘late’ style of Samson Agonistes, Milton was at constant pains to show that the potential for change lies constantly at hand, and almost always in the form of timeworn instruments and familiar vocabularies. The challenge comes in using them to do or say something new.

Teskey’s book is a painstaking account of how Milton went about doing this. It is superbly balanced in appreciation of both the language of the poetry and its moral arguments. ‘Milton,’ says Teskey, ‘felt that the attainment of freedom was possible at any moment in history, like the coming of Christ.’ Naively evangelical this may sound, but Teskey shows that the forms it took were anything but. Milton sought ever more ambitious ways of bringing his readers to reconsider their position in history and to think of ways of changing it. The means he used to provoke such wondering are considered beautifully and extensively in The Poetry of John Milton. Yet Teskey also brings out the depth and variety of words Milton found for those who are brought to stare into the void, the dark amid the blaze of noon. He was a poet calling for transformation, but also, ultimately, a voice for those left waiting for Christ, with no choice but to find purpose in defeat and to look for sense in catastrophe. This was surely the basis of Milton’s appeal for Atterbury in 1723, and so it probably remains for us now.

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