restricted access Milton and the Revolutionary reader (review)
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Reviews Achinstein, Sharon, Milton and the Revolutionary reader, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995; pp. xiv, 272; 7 illustrations; R.R.P. US$35.00 The English Revolution was marked by an extraordinary proliferation in publication. With censorship controls removed and never effectually restored, over 22,000titleswere published between 1640 and 1661. Indeed, this explosion of publications can be seen as, in large part, a major constituent of the revolution. Not all the material, of course, was directly political. Poetry, sermons, almanacs, translations, and manuals constituted a significant amount. But poetry, sermons, almanacs, and so on, also had their political significance. Dr Achinstein presents a valuable study of this polemical material. She engages directly with current historical debate. 'Historians may never agree whether or not the revolution was at root an ideological conflict, but through m y examples, I show how writers made it one . . . W h e n writers sought to arm readers with equipment with which to fend off enemy opinions; when they invitedreadersto enter political debate by learning how to read and to understand political rhetoric; when they sought to equip readers to meet the challenge of propaganda, they were making up a new practice of public political conduct' (p. 8). The author stresses the political significance of the flood of publications: 'During the revolution, there was a transformation of the Renaissance humanist practice: rhetoric was turned to the c o m m o n street. The public, rather then the prince, could give and receive advice' (p. 59). She examines the works of the parliamentarians, the radical sectarians, and the royalists, exploring the way the pamphleteers analysed each others' works, exposed lies and contradictions, offered divergent positions for readers to accept or reject, and in doing so created a public, political discourse. The radicals believed that the public should be involved in the debate, should be acquainted with the issues. The royalists generally believed politics should be left in the private sphere of a small elite, but in answering the pamphlets of the opposition 'even Royalists unwittingly fostered the new mode of public debate' (p. 101). 132 Reviews The specific concern of the author is the creation of this new political phenomenon: the reader. She demonstrates how for those such as Hobbes 'the Common-peoples minds . . . are like clean paper' on which anything might be 'imprinted' (p. 139). But there was an opposing position that saw in those minds an active, critical, revolutionary potential. 'Milton, like the other writers w h o engaged in the propaganda wars of the English Revolution, wished to constitute subjects who were equipped with reading skills to meet the challenge posed by propaganda. These writers conceived of political subjects as those who could root out truth among conflicting opinions, who could make political choices based on a critical practice of reading' (p. 176). Achinstein discusses a wide range of polemical texts by writers such as Lilburne, Walwyn, Prynne, Taylor, Cleveland, Clarkson, Coppe, and others less well known and anonymous. She indicates the survival and adaptation of medieval and Tudor forms such as dialogues, speeches, astrological predictions, and allegories, and the uses to which polemicists put them. She examines such recurrent images as the tower of Babel, the eye salves and spectacles for clear vision, and the royalist theme of the Parliament of Hell, which Milton so significantly adapted, as she demonstrates brilliantly. It is to Milton's practice that the study as a whole is ultimately oriented, both to his prose and to Paradise Lost. She offers a new account of his project, stressing his educative programme for developing a critical readership by which a revolutionary politics may ultimately emerge. 'By encouraging humans to learn how to read as afirststep toward ethical and political improvement, Milton vouches for the exercise of the will. By this logic, just as A d a m and Eve's Fall in Paradise Lost was not proof that God foreordained it, the English Revolution was not divinely fated to fail. Rather, its current leaders, like their prototypes A d a m and Eve, freely fell by making bad political choices, by reading history badly or not at all' (p. 208). This is a most welcome and timely...


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