Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms, Whose chance on these defenseless doors may seize, If ever deed of honor did thee please, Guard them, and him within protect from harms; He can requite thee, for he knows the charms That call Fame on such gentle acts as these…
Milton’s playful sonnet requesting leniency from Royalist forces expected to ransack London is titled in the Trinity MS as On his door when the City expected an assault. I like to imagine that it was, indeed, posted on his door. And I invoke it now as Milton studies appear to be under threat of a different sort of assault.
The proposed reorganization of MLA divisions is not, of course, as worrisome as the sacking of a city. But even with all hyperbole set aside, the draft proposal presents a challenge to Miltonists and other scholars of the periods concerned.
The (draft) proposal:
Paragraphs 79-80 suggest collapsing current divisions “16th Century British,” “Literature of the English Renaissance Excluding Shakespeare,” and “17th Century British” into one division renamed “British Early Modern.”
Paragraphs 82- 83 suggest collapsing “Restoration and Early-18th-Century British” and “Late-18th-Century British” into a new division named “The Long 18th Century.”
The result of these proposed changes would be to make an already imperfect division even less so. Milton would be lost somewhere between a “British Early Modern” and “The Long Eighteenth Century.”
This isn’t simply an issue for Miltonists concerned about having fewer opportunities for panels and less visibility as a legitimate field of study, but should also concern others who don’t wish to see the unique features of Civil War and Restoration literature obscured. Even the current division, “Restoration and Early-18th-Century Literature,” tacitly assumes a continuity from 1660 into the first decades of the 18th Century that, frankly, isn’t there. This new division and the codification of an ever-longer 18th Century will add even more divergent periods together, benefiting none.
As a someone who writes often about Milton’s 18th-century afterlives and has greatly enjoyed attending the last couple ASECS annual meetings, I know that there is a place for Milton in these larger divisions. And yet, I can’t help but fuss that he isn’t of either of them. And if faculty searches may align with these division in the future, now more than ever scholars like me will find ourselves having to explain how we fit in – essentially advocating for a subdivision that speaks toward both larger divisions but also has its own unique concerns and literature.
While I am hesitant to suggest an “Age of Milton” or a separate division for Milton alone, I do think it is reasonable to ask that MLA divisions recognize the quite distinct discontinuities between the literature of the Civil Wars and Restoration (from about 1649 onward) and those of the Early Modern period and 18th Century. I can’t pretend to have the answers, particularly for an end date for any “Restoration” period. I am drawn to 1732 as the date of Bentley’s edition of Paradise Lost, but others have proposed that the defeat of the last Jacobite threat marks the end of a longer “Restoration.”
Chances are, the divisions will be restructured as in the draft proposal. None-the-less, it worth having these discussions and making our voices heard in the comments of the draft. If you are an MLA member, you may do this by clicking here.
My only hope is that if we can’t protect Milton from the assaults of time, we do no harm.
And he can spread thy Name o’er Lands and Seas, Whatever clime the Sun’s bright circle warms. Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ Bow’r…
-David A. Harper 13 Sept 13