The challenge for any reception history of a great poem is to give due coverage to the criticism without burying the poem. – John Leonard (vii).
We long ago passed the moment when a true variorum edition of Paradise Lost was advisable (or perhaps possible). Like the “wanton growth” that plagues Adam and Eve as they try to keep the walkways of Paradise tidy, criticism on Milton’s great poem has accumulated in such heaps of (sometimes unwelcome) abundance that it threatens to impede rather than illumine our path through the poem. John Leonard states at the outset that his “aim is to uncover the poem, not bury it” in criticism (x). The result is a two-volume reception history that sets the riches of over three centuries of criticism before our eyes and ushers us along multiple pathways full of delights and wonders that might have eluded us without Leonard’s faithful labors.
Before Leonard’s volumes, the most recent attempt to survey the critical history of the poem was Paradise Lost 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary edited by Miner, Moeck, and Jablonski (2004). The resulting volume remains useful, but is also an apt illustration of the problem. The editors opted to produce variorum-like commentary, keyed to book and line numbers, but without including an edition of the poem itself. As a reference for a particularly interesting passage, it can be helpful if one knows what one is looking for and realizes that this isn’t all-inclusive. In contrast, Leonard’s approach to the reception history of the poem is, as he admits, “an unusual decorum” (ix). His extensive survey of criticism from the year of the poem’s publication until 1970 traces nine different paths of critical inquiry through three centuries of debate and exploration.
Leonard’s work can be used as a reference if one wants to dip into any one of these controversies. With the exception of the first three, each chapter explores a discrete subject from 1667-1970, including “Milton’s Style” (three chapters), “Paradise Lost and Epic, “Epic Similes,” “Satan,” “God,” “Innocence,” “The Fall,” “Sex and the Sexes,” and “The Universe.” The chapters create a narrative that traces a particular theme through the criticism of the poem in discrete chunks, with the great benefit of putting particular critics into conversations with one another. Although each discrete topic thus “resets” to trace the theme from 1667 onward again, this has surprising benefits. This organization allows one to discern the outlines of certain “lineages” of critics who engage these topics. Recently, for instance, David V. Urban (“Surprised by Richardson,” Appositions 2012) has pushed back against claims that Stanley Fish’s influential Surprised by Sin (1967) was strongly influenced by C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942). Careful attention to Leonard’s chapters on style, Satan, and God will perhaps provide some lost perspective about Fish’s debts to Lewis. More surprises are likely to be unearthed as these critical conversations are explored and unravelled by Leonard’s readers.
Leonard’s volumes can be read cover-to-cover as well as dipped into by subject. In fact, the first three chapters exploring the controversy over Milton’s style deserve to be read as a unified narrative. These chapters are haunted by the figure of F.R. Leavis and the “anti-Miltonists” of the early twentieth century. Even as he introduces the earliest critics upon the poem’s style, Leonard is sensitive to moments that will provide ammunition for the “Milton Controversy” to come. Leavis looms large. Some have said it is significant that readers of Paradise Lost view Eden initially through Satan’s eyes. Here, our earliest views of the poem and its critical landscape are through the most uncomfortable bifocals: we see through the eyes of the earliest critics as well as those more skeptical ones of Leavis. Readers are continually reminded that the critical conversation is careening toward an inevitable confrontation with Pound, Eliot, Leavis, and the other “anti-Miltonists” as Leonard traces the foreshadowings of their fall back to the ambiguities and unresolved questions left by earlier critics.
Throughout these three chapters, readers are constantly aware that Leonard is aware of Leavis reading over our shoulder as we read the earlier critics. Leonard is at his most sensitive as he traces the manner in which ambiguous (and sometimes not-so-ambiguous) words of praise by earlier critics would be turned to disparaging use by the anti-Miltonists to come. For instance, in one of the later instances, as Matthew Arnold proclaims in 1888 that “Milton has made the great style no longer an exotic here; he has made it an inmate amongst us, a leaven, and a power,” Leonard reminds us not to rest easy. He reads Arnold with an uneasy eye toward Leavis: “Arnold’s use of the word ‘inmate’ will not reassure twentieth-century anti-Miltonists who view Milton’s style as a suffocating prison” (159).
When the “Milton Controversy” finally arrives in about 1917 (around page 169), we have been suitably admonish’d and forewarn’d. Leavis’s thunderous announcement that “Milton’s dislodgment… was effected with remarkably little fuss” still has some shock-and-awe power, but we’ve been well prepared by Leonard. The battle is almost anticlimactic by the time Christopher Ricks (the hero of this particular drama and a few others as well) “routs the Leavisites” in 1963. Perhaps that is as it should be. It is clear what side Leonard is on, and from the outset he promised he would not feign neutrality in this or any of the critical debates he traces for us. In fact, Leonard’s honesty as a critic is at its most laudable when he proclaims that “Leavis was always an honest critic” even though “honesty is not the whole story” (181).
These chapters are Leonard at his best. Not only because we often see him exercising his own formidable critical acumen on the crux in question, but also because he so enjoys issues of style. It is fitting that he includes a section entitled “Doing what he Described” (a remark from the Richardson’s 1734 criticism), for Leonard seems to see these chapters on style as a playground in which he can also “do what he describes.” Not only does this appear to invite more of his own critical performances, but he playfully appropriates the language he discusses. These chapters abound with puns and hidden treasures, to include a “six-degrees of separation” moment relating Eve to Sibyl Fawlty. The more charismatic critics, particularly Richard Bentley and F.R. Leavis, give Leonard priceless material. Anyone who has heard Professor Leonard give a talk can hear him “doing all the voices” as he quotes their most bombastic or outrageous critical moments.
Leonard’s playfulness doesn’t disappear in the later chapters, but it isn’t as obvious as when he is dealing with matters of style. There is a later moment in which he invokes This is Spinal Tap. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is there. The title I’ve used for this review, “much writing, many opinions” is from Milton’s description of Civil War London in Areopagitica, which Leonard invokes in his introduction to the volumes. It aptly describes not only the corpus of critical response that Leonard reviews, but his achievement here as well. Often, his many opinions are just the leavening that the critical tradition requires.
Samuel Johnson famously (and spitefully) said of Paradise Lost that “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Ironically, despite this reception history being a hefty 853 pages long, one of its shortcomings is that it is not longer. Ending the critical review at 1970 may have been necessary due to the volume of criticism since that date, and I’ve heard that a sequel may be in the works. That would be good, because ending these volumes in 1970 leaves the uncomfortable impression that Stanley Fish’s reader-response critique of the poem stands unassailed. William Kolbrener has aptly described Milton critics as “Milton’s Warring Angels” engaged in a seemingly unending battle to cast Milton as orthodox or heretical, and to characterize Milton’s God as “good” or “bad.” Leonard’s chapters on Satan and God treat this controversy fully… up to 1970. It is unfortunate that ending prior to the vigorous (and largely successful) later responses to the likes of Patrides, Hunter, and Fish will leave some readers dissatisfied.
As nobody shall wish this review longer than it is, I will wrap this up with the verdict that these volumes deserve to be on any serious Miltonist’s bookshelf. Unfortunately, however, they are priced to be found only in the libraries that can afford them. This, of course, is a problem in academic publishing as an industry, and isn’t unique to Oxford or this particular work. The pricing of “low volume sales” editions does what it describes and sets the conditions for “low volume sales,” no matter how necessary and lovely a work may be.
– May 27