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Reviewed by:
  • Milton's Leveller God by David Williams
  • David Gay
David Williams. Milton's Leveller God. Montreal and Kingston: McGill UP, 2017. 494 pp. $39.95.

In Milton's Leveller God, David Williams offers a bold thesis on the genesis of Paradise Lost. Poetically, the epic is the culmination of a lifetime [End Page 125] of preparation in preliminary genres. Politically, its final form reflects the turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century England, from civil war to regicide and from interregnum to restoration and the culture of dissent it produced. Many view 1660 as a defining event when the English people devolved their hopes on a single monarch rather than grasping the discipline of liberty as Milton hoped. Williams argues for an earlier defining event: the emergence of the Leveller movement in the early1640s culminating in the Agreement of the People, issued in the "sudden vacuum of legitimate authority in England in 1647–49" (3). The Agreement offered a national constitution based on "government by consent, legal and political equality, and religious freedom" (3). Cromwell quelled the movement, but their principles survive in modern democratic constitutions. Milton never mentions the Levellers in his writings, but Williams argues skilfully for their role. As his title indicates, he sees a comprehensive influence of Leveller principles on the theology and politics of Paradise Lost.

Williams's title echoes William Empson's Milton's God, which questions the ways of Milton's God, and Dennis Danielson's Milton's Good God, which affirms the integrity of Milton's theodicy. Williams sets God firmly among Milton's contemporaries, notably Nedham, Lillburne, Walwyn, Overton, and others. He engages with current scholars of Milton's political, governmental, and pamphleteering careers, including Martin Dzelzainis, Joad Raymond, David Norbrook, and Nigel Smith. He briefly distinguishes his view from Sharon Achinstein's exploration of Lillburne in Milton and the Revolutionary Reader. If Achinstein sees Milton's implied reader as broadly revolutionary, Williams sees a reader shaped specifically by Leveller republicanism. He draws from David Masson's monumental early biography of Milton for Leveller connections. Recent biographies, notably Campbell and Corns, who briefly question Milton's refusal to refute Lillburne's England's New Chains in 1649 as a sign of sympathy. Williams's main evidence for such sympathy is stylistic. The "sheer abundance of Leveller echoes in Milton's prose" (12) led him to transcribe tracts into searchable texts and so to find discernible parallels and possible influences. Crediting this method to the historian Blair Worden, he compares William Walwyn's trope of spiritual combat in The Compassionate Samaritan—truth becomes "more glorious by a victorious conquest after a fight in an open field"—to Milton's precept in Areopagitica," "who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter" (37). Both works appeared in 1644, a significant year for writers advocating religious toleration. Williams sees "countless turns of phrase" adapted from Walwyn. The opening two chapters carefully analyze events and debates too detailed [End Page 126] to summarize here; Williams uses a wealth of primary sources to set the political scene with erudition and insight.

Paradise Lost is a vast literary heterocosm in comparison to the prose works. Williams adapts his method to the epic with a sequence of binary topics. A major premise is the range of heretical and unorthodox ideas Milton embraced politically and theologically. He contrasts moral classical republicanism with Machiavellian republicanism to frame the Leveller political vision. Reigning in Hell rather than serving in Heaven, Satan practices a feudal power politics; the Leveller God, in contrast, equitably devolves his power to his creatures in gifts of free will and choice. Thus, the Leveller God is not a tyrant but a creative force animating successive binaries from matter and spirit to divine and human to man and woman. Heretical or unorthodox thought is vital to the process. For example, Milton's idea of matter created ex deo rather than ex nihilo is unorthodox, but it implies a holistic goodness in physical life that informs human and natural relationships. Williams emphasizes possible Leveller sympathies in the heresies eventually recorded eventually in De Doctrina Christiana, Milton's personal theological treatise discovered in 1825. Williams...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1913-4835
Print ISSN
0317-0802
Pages
pp. 125-128
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-02
Open Access
No
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