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  • Milton as Multilingual: Selected Essays, 1982-2004
  • Alastair Fowler
Milton as Multilingual: Selected Essays, 1982-2004. By John K. Hale. Edited by Lisa Marr and Chris Ackerley, with an Introduction by Beverley Sherry. Otago: Department of English, University of Otago, 2005. Pb. NZ$50.

Serious students of Milton who know John K. Hale's Milton's Languages (reviewed in these pages in 1998) will approach his new collection of seventeen essays with keen interest. But if they expect more of the same they may be surprised, for this is a very different book. It treats fewerof Milton's languages (only Latin, Greek, Italian, and Hebrew) and so can find room for longer, more detailed analyses. Most of the essays (fourteen of which were previously published in journals) deal with reception of Milton and ways of editing him, or else are close read-ings that focus the sense and bring out textural qualities. And mostof the effort goes towards helping readers to enjoy Milton's poetry accurately.

Freed perhaps from the constraints of his monograph, Hale evidently feels ready to voice strong opinions, to throw his weight about. Unfortunately his weight, although considerable, is unevenly distributed.His strengths - rigour of textual scholarship, sharp focus, awarenessof verbal textures - are all in adjacent fields. Unsurprisingly, the criticshe turns to for agreement or dissent are seldom recent. He regretsthat for sixty years 'there has been a general move away from formalist study, which includes verbal criticism, towards an emphasis on Milton's thought – moral, religious, philosophical, and political' (as Beverley [End Page 277] Sherry puts it in her lucid introduction). I'm not sure this period has been quite so devoid of good verbal criticism of Milton: think ofClaes Schaar, Mary Nyquist, Diane McColley, Philip Gallagher, or James Nohrnberg (none of whom receives mention here). I too regret some of the changes in criticism, and no-one is likely to call me antiformalist. But I can see there is no returning through the fiery gate to an innocent old consensus. We know too much now about textuality and about how meaning depends on non-literary contexts and pragmatic situations. To focus Milton's meaning entails studying the theology of his time, the astronomy, mathematics, biography, and politics (for example). We need to know about his reading at various dates, and his religious orientations. Such studies, however, seem to interest Hale only occasionally.

His strengths and weaknesses show up dramatically in four papers on the De Doctrina Christiana. Hale is the 'resident Latinist' of a group currently studying De Doctrina with a view to settling the elusive question of authorship. And he is currently preparing a new translation that aims to do justice to the different levels of finish in different passages, not to speak of the 'wartiness'. He shows easily enough he can produce a more accurate translation than John Carey's for the Yale Prose Milton, which he thinks mistranslated in the interest of stylistic elegance. Servitutem ac metum, Carey's 'tyranny and superstition', means rather 'slavery and fear' (a change that entails recasting a whole paragraph). Well, one might expect Hale the mature scholar to be a better Latinist than Carey the beginner, in one of his first publications. But why is Milton not elegant? Why is the De Doctrina so uneven? Is it, perhaps, a mere 'gathering' of material? How far does it represent Milton's own views? Why is it not Arminian, like Paradise Lost? Hale himself feels the disparity ('difference … more than similarity'), but doesn't relate it to the development of Arminianism out of Calvinism.

Often Hale is needlessly categorical: like the author of De Doctrina,he 'argues with more, not less, emphasis where the ground is most uncertain'. Having made a good point about Poems of Mr John Milton – 'volumes of verse by one author, assembled for a book by the poet, were still rare in the England of 1645' – he spoils it by adding 'a bilingualone was unique'. Was it? Wasn't Richard Crashaw's The Delights of the Muses printed in the very next year? Similarly, Hale pontificates about numerical composition, despite being almost innumerate. He has so little grip on numbers that...


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pp. 277-281
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Archived 2009
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