- Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of “Paradise Lost,” 1667–1970 by John Leonard
In book 6 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael is charged with recounting “the intestine War in heaven.” Leonard’s massive and painstakingly detailed two-volume reception history of the poem recounts the battle not between angelic and satanic hosts but between Milton’s warring critics, from its publication until some fifty years ago. Leonard happily adopts the language of warring camps, relating, for example, how Douglas Bush, in 1945, referred to “anti-Miltonists”—the likes of T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis—as “guerilla warriors” and to the “commando raids” of “Mr. Eliot’s camp” as akin to a “full-scale invasion.” A meeting of the Milton Society of America, held in New York “at the Hotel Statler on Thursday 28 December 1950,” although usually these were “mild” affairs, had, Leonard observes, “something of the flavor of a debate in hell.”
Leonard is at his best, writing for his own imagined “fit audience though few,” when he moves out from local debates to elicit patterns in the poem’s [End Page 107] reception over the centuries, aligning “modern critics with the old.” Following the critical fate of a passage in book 2, for instance, he shows how Christopher Ricks, in confronting contemporary “anti-Miltonists,” fell into a pattern of debate established by Milton’s eighteenth-century editors and critics. One also finds, reading through the “nine debates” of Leonard’s two volumes, patterns of self-disagreement or ambivalence; on the nature of Satan, for example, Leonard notes that the greatness of Alasdair Fowler’s “monumental edition” of 1998 lies in its provoking “objections even as it tries to quash them.” Critics on both sides of the debate, Leonard shows, “find that their best arguments turn out to be two-edged swords.” So Fowler, an angelic apologist, and William Empson, an earlier satanic defender, although seeming to have “little in common,” each make arguments that “one would expect to hear from the other side.” Christopher Hill found that Milton himself was “of both parties.” In Leonard’s view, the best of Milton’s critics are those who adopt Eliot’s late, conciliatory line that opponents in the Civil War were “United in the strife which divided them.” Amid the minutiae of the twentieth-century controversy among Miltonists about epic style, Leonard recalls that Leavis, the devoted anti-Miltonist, carried a dog-eared copy of Paradise Lost in the trenches during World War I. Even so, however, he thought there were things worth fighting for.
William Kolbrener is associate professor of English literature at Bar-Ilan University and the author of Milton’s Warring Angels. The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and the Talmudic Tradition is forthcoming. He coedited Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith with Michal Michelson.