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  • Uncertain Futures: History and Genealogy in William Godwin’s The Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton
  • Tilottama Rajan

In 1815 William Godwin published his Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton. 1 Little known today, Godwin’s book stimu lated enough interest to make possible a reissue of his novels Caleb Williams and St. Leon. Where Samuel Johnson had credited “the pupils of Milton” with only one literary production, and others had found half a dozen, Godwin unearths forty or fifty texts by the nephews, and is the major source for information about them in David Masson’s biography of Milton. To write the Lives, Godwin read manuscript notes on Milton at Oxford, did research in parish records, and produced a bibliography of the Phillips’s Scriblerian oeuvre. Not unreasonably, Miltonists take him to have written a life of Milton’s nephews on whom, according to Parker, no one has since written, with good reason (2: 1166). Yet Godwin did not see himself as engaged in trivial pursuits, and his archival work was a byproduct of a larger historiographical project. His claim to be writing on Milton begins on the first page, where he reflects ambivalently on the relationship between cultural legacies and time. Here he introduces Milton as an example of the way time perpetuates the errors that impede progress, yet also consolidates cultural potential. He continues on the next page by offering his book as an indirect life of Milton:

Lives of Milton have been written in profusion; and each successive biographer has done little more than repeat the tale of his predeces sor . . . . It struck me however, in ruminating on the subject, that there was one way of approach to considering the history of Milton, that was untouched on, and that promised a new gratification yet in store for those who feel an interest in all that concerns him.

(L: vi)

Lest one mistake the subject of the book after some hundreds of pages on the nephews, at the end Godwin again describes his book as “consecrated to the name of Milton” (L: 387). And indeed the strange medley which is Godwin’s text does include much material on Milton. Interspersed through the accounts of the nephews’ literary and political activities are the standard facts about Milton available in the earlier brief lives, now assembled by Darbishire, and opinions (all highly defensive of Milton) on the standard controversies about his daughters, 2 his temporizing with Cromwell (L: 30), and his marriages. The last part of the 335-page Lives is concerned with Milton’s reputation. The last quarter of Godwin’s larger 410-page volume includes five appendices, comprising a transcription of Aubrey’s notes, a reprint of Edward Phillips’s Life of Milton with Godwin’s afterword, a chapter on Ben Jonson’s legacy to Milton, as well as amendments to two of the chapters on the nephews.

But a quantitative defense of Godwin’s claim is a weak argument that would miss his point. Godwin [End Page 75] writes his life of Milton by not writing directly on Milton. That he identified powerfully with Milton is well known. Milton’s work from the early poems to Paradise Lost is a strong presence in Godwin’s literary corpus from Imogen (1784) to his novel on the Cromwellian period, Mandeville (1817). Godwin saw in the Puritan writer a revolutionary, a republican, who like himself was spurned in his own time. He shared Mil-ton’s interest in education and freedom of opinion; like Milton he wrote political as well as literary works; and last but not least he too had a vexed relationship with his children. Nevertheless Godwin, who wrote a life of Chaucer (1812), does not do the same for Milton. Instead the nephews become the detour by which he approaches an elusive potential that Milton himself perhaps signifies rather than embodies. Godwin’s indirect, parenthetical treatment of Milton has much to do with his own history as a dissenter. In addition it responds to the politics of Milton’s period, as the site of a lost republican moment that appears only through a glass darkly.


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pp. 75-86
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Archived 2000
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