- Milton and the Climates of Reading
This handsome book collects nine essays by Balachandra Rajan, most of which have been previously published in various journals or books, or else have been presented as papers at learned conferences. The editor presents these scattered works – now revised and frequently expanded – in chronological sequence, ranging from 1979 to 2004, in order to represent the author's response to the changing world of Milton criticism, and also to celebrate the achievement of a fine and subtle scholar. In these essays, Rajan himself often looks back on previous decades of his own scholarship, revealing also how his thought has evolved and developed, and how he has responded to the many critical fashions of 'time's transhifting.' His role has been that of a wise mediator, as Joseph Wittreich recalls in a carefully wrought afterword. [End Page 243]
Rajan is well known to Miltonists, not only through his many essays and conference presentations, but also especially by his two early books, 'Paradise Lost' and the Seventeenth Century Reader (1967), and The Lofty Rhyme (1970), and his most recent Under Western Eyes: India from Milton to Macaulay (1999). In the present volume, Elizabeth Sauer presents a remarkably resilient and eminent critic, whose work embraces many of the problems of a crucial half-century of criticism. Sauer's excellent introduction offers a helpful review of this Miltonic 'art of criticism,' of Rajan's contribution to it, and of the ways in which these present essays reflect the 'stresses and strains in [Milton's] work . . . from diverse reading locations.'
The fourth essay, 'Milton Encompassed,' began as a paper read at the 1997 convention of the Modern Language Association, in the session 'Milton Studies and Critical Practice 1947–1997.' From this brief essay emerges the dominant idea of the whole collection. Fifty years of Milton scholarship – fifty years from the publication of Rajan's first book – have witnessed 'a succession of reading climates,' many of which Rajan names (post-structuralism, feminism, post-colonialism, and so on). All of these 'interventions' belong to a circumference of reading that is never fully complete – the circle (with reference to Donne's famous metaphor) is being drawn while the centre point or foot of the roaming compass remains fixed. Here is the Miltonic identity, surrounded by a community of scholarship that can 'take in nearly all that our current preoccupations call for.' With his characteristically irenic and paradoxical wit, Rajan observes that all of this is so 'because the circumference is already at the centre.'
The essays of this volume deal mainly with Paradise Lost in particular and with the concerns of epic writing at large (with a particularly fine essay on Milton and Camoens). Rajan consistently aims to 'mediate' whatever is 'contested' in an elegant style that is measured, highly condensed, often elusive, and abstract. He writes from a refined sensibility that assumes a sophisticated readership. The first chapter well illustrates this sensibility, with its desire to look above 'contestations' and discover patterns of reconciliation. 'Osiris and Urania' begins with a close reading of Raphael's early speech (Paradise Lost 5.563–76) in which he apologetically informs Adam that the affairs of Heaven need to be described according to 'corporal forms.' Rajan proposes that Raphael's statement is 'poised between two views of the structure of reality and that these views can be related to and perhaps originate in two views of the nature of language and the possibility of poetry.'
Taking up the image in Areopagitica in which Milton likens the state of truth to the torn body of Osiris, Rajan suggests that Milton's muse is Urania but the poet is necessarily beholden to Osiris. In the brilliant final paragraph of his essay, Rajan sets out these coordinates for Milton, [End Page 244] but also points further to the nature of poetry itself. He writes of the Milton who would join 'the historical and the visionary, the continuous and the discontinuous, language as discovery and language as betrayal...