I’d Rather You Didn’t

Colin Burrow begins his review of the Oxford Complete Works editions of De Doctrina Christiana (edited by John Hale) and The Shorter Poems (edited by Barbara Lewalski and Estelle Haan), by stating that the “one key question” remaining after the 2008 quatercentenary of Milton’s birth is: “how is it possible to like Milton?” Predictably, this is followed by the statement that “there is certainly a great deal to dislike.” Burrow obviously has in mind a different audience than Milton’s “fit though few,” since he expects readers of the London Review of Books to be among the “most people” he claims “think of [Milton] as an overlearned poet who combines labyrinthine syntax with a wide range of moral and intellectual vices.”

“How is it possible to like Milton?”

Burrow dredges up a tired litany of charges against Milton, charges with a lineage stretching back to Salmasius, L’Estrange, Johnson, and F.R. Leavis. It is instructive that a review of new Milton editions occasions almost three pages of self-conscious and defensive arguments against liking Milton. I had thought we were past that.

In particular, Burrow claims that “Milton’s views on sex and women… were mostly gruesome.” He then contrasts Milton’s lovely description of angelic lovemaking in Paradise Lost with his claim in the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce that those yoked to an unequal partner in marriage would be doomed to “grind in the mill of an undelighted and servile copulation.” Burrow wittily focuses on the verb “grind” here, recalling Samson at the mill and suggesting that Milton’s DDD image evokes a “simple lack of mortal lubrication in a way that makes you feel it’s a very bad idea to be made of flesh.” Witty, yes. Fair? No. It is worth looking at a bit more contex from Milton’s divorce tract to see where Burrow has not only ignored decades of Milton criticism, but also misrepresented Milton’s argument.

Milton evokes the image of a misyoked team doomed to “grind in the mill,” in Book 1, chapter 6 of DDD. In keeping with Milton’s view of companionate marriage, the chapter argues that “God regards Love and Peace in the family more than a compulsive performance of marriage, which is more broke by a grievous continuance than by a needful divorce.” His image of the mill combines his disdain for those who considered copulation the highest end of marriage (and therefore allowed only adultery as reason for divorce) with his controlling metaphor of “misyoking…” the unhappy result when two unequal intellects are bound in marriage. Milton opens the chapter with the myth of Eros and Anteros, elevating an ideal of brotherly love and companionship over the mere concerns of the flesh:

…showing us that love in marriage cannot live nor subsist unless it be mutual; and where love cannot be, there can be left of wedlock nothing but the empty husk of an outside matrimony, as undelightful and unpleasing to God as any other kind of hypocrisy. (DDD, 1.6)

Milton’s concept of companionate love, and the image of “misyoked” partners laboring to sustain an unhappy marriage suggests that women as well as men should be allowed to divorce a partner unequal to their intellect. The inclusion of the Eros and Anteros myth, with its idealization of a brotherly love reflecting a “coequal and homogeneal fire,” speaks even now about the nature of marriage.

This is not to defend everything Milton writes about women or sex, but only to suggest that opening the review with outmoded claims about Milton’s misogyny and supposed disdain for sex is to ignore a lot of Milton as well as a lot of recent Milton criticism. In keeping with the blog format, I will not belabor my point. Besides, it is worth recalling that Burrow isn’t reviewing the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce anyway.

 “Was Milton a turgid little prig?”

After introducing Milton amidst “the grating sound of misogyny,” Burrow turns to his next investigation: whether or not Milton was “a turgid little prig.” This seems a less serious charge than misogyny, but it is curious how the two concerns merge as Burrow lists the “non-household” authors cited by Milton, snorting: “as though they were his bedtime reading – which they probably were, though it is not entirely clear how much he saw of his bed.” Does wide and obscure knowledge make one a prig? A strange claim from one who had just expanded upon Milton’s use of the word “turgidulus” with such delight. Is it Milton’s lack of modesty that makes him a prig? Modesty isn’t one of his strong suits, but those who accuse him of arrogance for proclaiming his desire to write something the world should not “willingly let die” must keep one eye toward the fact that Milton did just that.

Burrow’s review of De Doctrina gives Milton’s theological treatise short shrift. He seems more interested in discussing Paradise Lost and subtly elides the two works. To be honest, this isn’t unwarranted; De Doctrina has served as a key to unlock the complicated theology of Paradise Lost for quite some time. Burrow is kind enough to note that Milton’s heretical views make De Doctrina worth reading, even if he is compelled to ask once again if Milton’s soteriology is marked by “super-priggery.”

After three pages of passive-aggressive fencing with Milton, Burrow admits that it is possible to like Milton, but only if one returns to his earlier, shorter poems. However, this is exactly the problem with this review. Implicit throughout the piece is Burrow’s belief that one must acquire a taste for Milton through some process that sounds a bit like grinding at a mill. Thus, he claims the 1645 Poems are the place to start “if you want to like Milton.” As though liking Milton is unnatural act that one must commit to and work at rather than something that someone does after, say, reading Paradise Lost for the first time.

“Have I said enough?”

Once Burrow commits to a review of the Shorter Poems, one finds he rather likes Milton. Or at least a particular Milton, the young Milton who has not yet found the bardic tones that ring throughout Paradise Lost. His review demonstrates at every turn an appreciation for the beauty of Milton’s early verse. However, the suggestion that it is a labor to like Milton is never far from the surface, as when he expresses disdain for the Masque. Finally, Burrow complains that Lewalski’s introduction to the Oxford Shorter Poems doesn’t present Milton as the young poet who wrote the poems gathered in the 1645 volume, but instead treats Milton “as he eventually wanted himself to appear: a stately neoclassical godly republican edifice grounded on a comprehensive knowledge of everything.” And of course, by that Burrow means: a prig.

It is unfortunate that an often-perceptive review of the Oxford De Doctrina and Shorter Poems is accompanied by a framework that imagines reading Milton a chore rather than a pleasure. While it may be true that scholarly editions lag behind criticism by about a decade, is it not stranger still that a review of those editions should wrap itself in a mantle worthy of Samuel Johnson or F.R. Leavis? Burrow’s review borrows a line from the Masque to use as title, asking “Shall I go on?” I suspect you know my answer.

– 13 April

Colin Burrow, “Shall I go on?” London Review of Books, 7 March 2013. 3-8.





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