- Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity
Along with Martin A. Larson's The Modernity of Milton: A Theological and Philosophical Interpretation (1927) and Matthew Jordan's Milton and Modernity: Politics, Masculinity and "Paradise Lost" (2001), Gordon Teskey's Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (2006) is one of a trilogy of books, each of them embracing Milton as a poet of transition and as an agent of change, as a poet less [End Page 1330] of his own time than of ours. In English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century 1600-1660, Douglas Bush contends that "In 1600 the educated Englishman's mind and world were more than half medieval; by 1660 they were more than half modern" (1). Bush says this in the very year that, publishing "Paradise Lost" in Our Time: Some Comments (1945), he adopts Milton as the poet of a then war-torn world who would now show the way to a lasting peace. If Milton evoked past history, it was by way of glimpsing future history; if he pressed us to dwell in possibility, it was by way of raising up a new world and of making another future possible.
Its epigraph deriving from Lamartine — "Milton floated among a thousand systems" (ix) — Teskey's "speculative book" (vi) presses toward the Blakean proposition that, Los-like, poets as prophets struggle with such systems in order to deliver us from them. That struggle is evident, first of all, in Milton's poetry of allusion that is busy tearing itself from the contexts out of which those allusions are drawn. It is further evident in poems that, even when they appear to be a collection of shattered fragments, exhibit those fragments "heaped together in one nervous, energetic mass" (128). Not a philosopher or a metaphysician but a revolutionary, a theoretical poet, a poet of modernity, one not of declaration but of interrogation, Milton stood at "the threshold of a post-theological world," his creative power emanating from "a rift at the center of his consciousness over the question of creation itself" (5). For Teskey, it is that rift, "a sort of invisible rift," which keeps Milton "divided within" (9) and which also makes of him "the last major poet in the European literary tradition for whom the act of creation is centered in God and the first in whom the act of creation begins to find its center in the human" (5-6, 29). Moreover, Milton is the crucial figure in the transition of Western art from "a poetics of hallucination . . . to a poetics of delirium" (14), with Milton's poetry engaged in the process of its own creation, hence figuring "the underlying hum of its production" (19). In Paradise Lost, then, Milton shows us "the drama of an epic being made" (61). Poetic creation is the subject of this poem and the basis of any meaning we may attribute to it.
Milton's poetry, as Teskey reads it, is a revelation of the rifts within Milton's consciousness and of the divisions within his own mind, of "contradiction . . . productive contradiction" (27) within Milton's poetry and of that poetry's consequent instability. Yet, as Paradise Regained attests, these revelations are meant to manufacture revolutions not only in consciousness but also in history. In this epic of discovery, the Son, once discovering himself, a point about which the Gospels are silent, reenters the whirlwind of history where, as Samson Agonistes will then show, "everything [is] uncertain" (180), including those typological readings of history that, if fostered by Milton's epics, are undermined by his tragedy. In this "tangle" (185) of competing codes and clashing meanings, we are confronted with the question of whether we are locked in a world of blindness or released from it into a sudden blaze of light.
Its own inflections on rifts and contradictions place Teskey's book within the [End Page 1331] compass of a newly emerging Milton criticism where attention turns to "antinomies" and where...