- Milton and Gender
The 1999 International Milton Symposium in York, England produced several critical collections. Among them, Graham Parry and Joad Raymond's Milton and the Terms of Liberty (2002) reflects the conference's primary focus on Milton's republicanism, while Milton and Gender derives in part from the symposium's several discussions of how gender, sexuality, reproduction, men and women, and women writers manifest themselves in Milton's work. The appearance of these two volumes suggests a split in the field — at best a polite coexistence between "mainstream" Milton studies and "feminist," or gender-based, Milton criticism — even as it makes clear that students of Milton and republicanism often draw on gender, sexuality, and women, while gender-based scholars regularly explore the interrelations between particular metaphors or allusions and larger cultural or political issues. I would suggest that the key question raised here — should gender be explored as a separate issue or is it integral to all aspects of Milton studies? — remains unresolved, that such irresolution can be fruitful, and that gender-based critics in particular need to address this irresolution to clarify their own projects and methodologies.
The helpful introduction raises these theoretical issues, though it does not entirely clarify them. Martin embraces recent critical work involving historicism, subjectivity, and gender, but her real focus is on the history of Milton's reputation (as a man writing about women and men) from the divorce tracts to the present day — how he was spurned as a licentious radical after the divorce tracts, admired by women at the Restoration, perceived from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries either as a romantic idealist or as a misogynist possessed of a "'Turkish contempt' for women" (1), understood by twentieth-century scholars of Puritanism as a proponent for spiritual equality, and reviled in the 1970s as a patriarchal "bogey" by feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (and their successors). Influential as this reception history has been, exclusive attention to it can reduce gender [End Page 307] to the question of whether Milton was a(n) (anti)feminist, demonize Gilbert and Gubar, and leave the larger terrain of Milton and gender unmapped.
Happily, such a map emerges from Milton and Gender's fine essays and bibliographies. And a number of strong essays do not evaluate Milton but use gender as one of several tools in their historical, philosophical, and poetic analyses. James Turner's claims for the irreconcilable coexistence of "patriarchal-masculinist" and "ecstatic-egalitarian" principles in Milton's work (51) explodes any notion of being for or against the poet, clearing the way for his insight into the centrality of divorce — defined as separation, exclusion, and compensatory creation — to Milton's godly voice. Marshall Grossman explores scenes of generation in Paradise Lost to show that Milton's self-literalizing metaphors constitute a rhetorical version of the poem's foundational processes of creation — God's separating creation out of himself so it can struggle against materialist inertia (and evil) to return to him, and Adam's participation in the creation of a complemen-tary Eve. Amy Boesky, Rachel Trubowitz, and Achsah Guibbory all explore the Hebraic content of what they see as a Christian Samson Agonistes. Boesky links images of wounding and generation to the (Jewishly) maternal and material to confirm established readings of the poem as typologically Christian. Trubowitz sets nursing metaphors in historical context both to separate Milton's drama from Puritan arguments for domestic and national purity and to align Samson with millenarian uses of Jewish physicality as raw material for a transformative Christianity. Guibbory's analysis of Samson as a man who frees himself from (Jewish) slavery, law, nation, and women to (Christian) spiritual liberty in God provides a definitive account of the Hebraic, but nonetheless anti-Semitic and Pauline, nature of Milton's work.
Other strong essays argue for Milton (as feminist) with equal sophistication and insight. Reading Milton's Masque as a defense of Reformation virginity, William Shullenberger deftly deploys Lacan to read the Lady's speech as...