Milton's Words

The individual phrases of a great poet's work are freighted with significance, says Sophie Read

November 19, 2009

There is much to admire in this snappy new volume on John Milton's verbal artistry, that familiar but perennially productive topic. The central premise of Milton's Words is that paying attention to instances of individual words across his oeuvre - sometimes their frequent recurrence, more rarely their surprising absence - can show them to be freighted with unexpected significance.

If this sounds broad and rather weak as the ending to a precis, that is because a neater pattern refuses to emerge. The intellectual energy of this book resists the constraint offered by its notional organising principle: the interests of its chapters are more disparate and less uniform in style than its title, elastic though it is, allows.

It declares its real agenda by starting with an elegant and forceful biography of the poet: this is necessarily elliptical in places, and features one or two slips (Charles Diodati was a school friend of Milton's who went to the University of Oxford, not "his close companion at Cambridge"). But it is a cleverly economical introduction to the book's chief concern: to probe Milton's psyche by noticing some of his more pregnant verbal tics. Its method is to read Milton's words as betraying his thoughts: to watch them act, in Patterson's formulation, as "linguistic smoke signals of distress".

Such an interpretative concept presents obvious opportunities, which the book deftly exploits; at its best, ingenious and acute lexical connections across genres and languages work to illuminate a fascinating life, as when the striking locutions of Milton's divorce pamphlets are made to tell the story of his difficult first marriage. This approach, however, has some equally obvious pitfalls; "we can easily read between the lines" is an alarming phrase to find even once in such a work, as is: "This I shall now demonstrate by counting."

There are times when Patterson's uneasily psychobiographical project threatens to construct a map-by-numbers of the nether reaches of Milton's mind: but it's a threat for the most part fortunately unfulfilled. There is a subtlety of apprehension here, underwritten by great learning, that offers sometimes quite startling and sustained insights.

The patient exfoliation of the multiple valences of "death" in Paradise Lost is an excellent (indeed important) example; at the other end of the conceptual scale, the little word "perhaps" comes beautifully into focus as a complex negotiator of temporal and ontological uncertainty.

The problem with grubbing around in someone's subconscious, however, is that one is liable to encounter some pretty slimy things. I am unconvinced by the contention that the poet's verbal energy "derives from his unknowing obsession with the body, or the lower parts of it", or at least by the idea that such an obsession is shocking and strange; the accents of sorrowful distaste ("One should really stop right there") with which Milton's scatological exuberance is regretted seem overly fastidious.

This comes in an otherwise fascinating chapter, "Rude Words", which introduces readers to an entertainingly potty-mouthed Milton that few would have expected to find. The serious strength of this chapter, however, as in the work more generally, is the impressive aplomb with which it brings his prose pieces (those in Latin as well as those in English) into prominent and significant conversation with the great poems. This facility is disappointingly rare in Milton studies, and here it is used to excellent effect.

In the end, Milton's Words suffers and benefits from its split personality: the absence of footnotes and other such apparatus, its neat and arresting format, suggests that it is intended for a general, rather than a specifically scholarly, audience. But there are moments of pedagogical imperiousness that assume a daunting degree of knowledge in the reader: the difficult allegory of Sin and Death in Book III of Paradise Lost is a response to the Epistle of St James, "as everybody knows", apparently. That neat format, too, is deceptive: as I've said, the chapters outreach their bounds, and the ostensibly helpful section divisions are quick to abandon their own logic. But these are minor cavils. At the beginning, Patterson looks to Christopher Ricks' example in his seminal Milton's Grand Style (1967), and her book has some of his boldness, acuity and conversational intimacy. For all its unevenness, it is an important and energetic contribution to the field.

Milton's Words

By Annabel Patterson

Oxford University Press

224pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780199573462

Published 24 September 2009

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