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  • Milton Encompassed
  • Balachandra Rajan

I suppose my qualification as a respondent is that I have been in the Milton business for fifty years and have lived through some of the coalescences that Professor Labriola has outlined. I cannot say that I have single-handedly engineered these coalescences and I also cannot point with confidence to any collectivity that may have engineered them. There is a lesson to be learned from this inability and perhaps the lesson can be more sharply defined by glancing at a critical moment in the scholarship of another period.

In 1971 M. H. Abrams published Natural Super naturalism, the distinguished climax of a long com mitment to the exploration of Romantic poetics. In the same year Paul de Man published Blindness and Insight. These two works marked a watershed so decisive that it was almost a razor’s edge. The sharp revisionary turn marked by the watershed led to remarkably productive decade which domesticated French theory on this continent by giving it both a literary site and a New England habitation.

In Milton scholarship the post-structuralist infiltration lasted for much less than a decade. It was mild as well as brief. It left behind a book by Rapaport*, an essay or two by Goldberg, and a slim volume by Catherine Belsey with gentle post-structuralist accents. The new historicism which followed was restricted [End Page 86] in its newness. It was prepared to treat literary sites as conflicted rather than consensual, and it made its salutations to the interdisciplinary by contextualizing literary works in relation to the political and religious thinking of their day. It had been engaged in this practice for thirty years before awakening to its avant-garde possibilities. Milton scholarship did not proceed beyond this cautious contextualization which was scarcely avoidable, given the nature of Milton’s work. In particular, it shied away from the idea of cultural poetics and even today the prospect of imperialism as a cultural genre—a natural development of cultural poetics—treated as a reckless generalization, unscholarly rather than premature.

Milton scholarship is the work of the Milton community rather than of individuals or of groups. Its guild character safeguards the quality of its work-manship; but it also makes it assimilative rather than methodologically adventurous. It seeks to re-orient itself rather than to move itself to another location. The fixed foot of the compass stabilizes the world of Milton scholarship while the errant foot takes what is possible into that world’s circumference.

If we proceed with a conceit which is Donne’s as much as Milton’s we can translate the fixed foot as the authorial presence and the just circumference as drawn and redrawn by the politics of reading. The politics of reading are prominent in Elizabeth Sauer’s paper and the post-colonial reader takes the her-meneutic spiral to a point in alignment with that seventeenth-century reader whom I tentatively in-vented fifty years ago. Both readers of course have to be emblems of reading communities characterized by moderate varieties and brotherly or sisterly dissimili-tudes, but communities nevertheless, drawn together in dialogue rather than segregated by their differences. The post-colonial community in particular will be im-poverished if its brotherly dissimilitudes do not embrace readers from the West as well as from the East.

We do not simply apply the politics of reading to Milton. Milton teaches us those politics because of the issue-laden nature of his work and because a poem such as Paradise Lost is read internally in many dif ferent ways which interrogate and yet articulate the poem. Within the poem the politics of reading are dynamic. Outside the poem they are dynamic *too with the just circumference continually redrawn by the fresh intervention that the poem makes and by the changing nature of a response which has itself partly constructed the intervention.

The politics of reading question boundaries. They enlarge the just circumference by drawing attention to its injustices, by problematizing the once transparent work, so that its world can contain more without ceasing to be a world. As Sharon Achinstein indicates, the politics of reading may have had their beginnings in the...

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pp. 86-89
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Archived 2000
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