The Poetry of John Milton by Gordon Teskey (review)
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Reviewed by
Gordon Teskey. The Poetry of John Milton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015. xvii + 619 pp.

Harvard professor Gordon Teskey has put a lifetime of devotion to Milton into his latest book, a book about only Milton's poetry, but about all his poetry. In spite of the book's daunting length, Teskey frequently laments that he must cut short his analyses and observations. Those analyses and observations combine the best of New Criticism with current insights into seventeenth-century English history as well as contemporary critical practice. Teskey's prose sweeps through the vast Miltonic landscape but frequently pauses to observe a flower of prosody or a concealed religious or theological allusion. In fact, Teskey continually shifts his perspective from Milton's great vistas to details revealed only by the closest reading, and in spite of these shifts, Teskey never loses sight of his own position vis à vis Milton's poetry.

Teskey's position is an historical understanding of Milton's development that furnishes an architectonic for the book. He divides Milton's poetic career into three rather Hegelian stages: transcendence, engagement, and transcendental engagement. By the latter, Teskey says he means "a struggle [End Page 253] on behalf of the good in this world by means of philosophical abstraction, isolating principles for study" (8). Teskey argues that Milton's poetic imagination underwent a profound philosophical development spurred by the cataclysmic events in which he participated and through which he lived. Teskey summarizes the final effect of this movement: "History is now seen in clearer, moral terms as a power acting through individuals, and ideally, ultimately, through all individuals" (8).

The first section of the book, "Transcendence," deals with the early poems up to and including the 1644 poems. Teskey deals at length with L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. He points out that both poems deal with the poet's life independent of family ties (or any ties). They are meditations on the "emotional possibilities of art" (79). He concludes his analysis of the two poems by calling attention to a theme that he later says was the preoccupation of Milton's entire oeuvre: temptation. Both poems represent the speaker as having two alluring choices. The consequences of making the choice will determine the life of the speaker, but they will not be as momentous for history or humanity as the temptations Milton dramatizes later.

The next chapter addresses "The Work Not Called Comus." Teskey repeatedly reminds his reader that the actual title is A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634. Teskey analyzes A Masque in two chapters and calls attention to many aspects that are frequently overlooked: the indeterminacy of the space(s) in which the action supposedly takes place; the music contributed by Henry Lawes; the work's peculiar status as both a poem and an action performed; and its portrayal of Milton's perennial theme: temptation. In the first chapter on the work, Teskey uses the work's reception history to illustrate his theory of art history, a theory that also falls into three rather Hegelian stages. The second chapter on A Masque deals with "engagement" in the work. "Engagement" refers to the second stage of Milton's career, and Teskey argues that A Mask prefigures that political engagement by dramatizing "the intention to reform the world by means of active virtue" (135). In making this case, Teskey counters the thrust of much current Milton criticism that finds the meaning of the work in widening social and political contexts.

Teskey concludes the first section of the book with a chapter entitled "On Lycidas as Primitive Art." The "primitive" to which he refers is the pastoral elegy dating from Theocritus. Teskey cites Stella Revard's work on Milton's debt to Pindar, but does not give Pindar the credit to which Revard says he is [End Page 254] due (169n). Teskey explains that by "primitive" he means that Lycidas "is not an art that is itself authentically primitive … but an art that sees other art as closer to bare life in nature and draws inspiration from this felt authenticity" (182). Teskey subjects Lycidas to an excruciatingly close reading that summons forth all...