According to Karl Marx, “a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant.” Gordon Teskey reminds us that Milton saw himself not as a silkworm but as a milking cow, holding heavenly rhymes in his head of a morning while awaiting his scribe’s arrival. Teskey sees the physical context of the great epic poem’s composition as part of its excitement: “To imagine the blind poet building his poem – shaping it under the force of his breath with the different parts of his mouth and throat, occasionally counting it out on his fingers (at least for some lines), and stopping to think, or to listen – is part of the pleasure of reading it.”
The pleasure of reading Milton is something that Teskey conveys with abundant ease in this major guide to the poetry, from Lycidas to Samson Agonistes. Pleasure is one thing – even Milton’s enemies could never deny the power of his verse – but politics is another matter. Teskey’s division of the poems into a sort of Hegelian dialectic of “transcendence”, “engagement” and “transcendental engagement” assumes that Milton’s early work was less engaged than that of his middle period, and that the later poems, the great works of the post-Restoration period, including Paradise Lost, found a middle way between transcendence and engagement. To write about Milton’s poetry without bringing in the prose and the politics is a challenge, and one to which Teskey rises with wit and invention.
Shakespeare worked collaboratively in the theatre. Milton laboured at the end in solitary darkness. That fact, and of course Paradise Lost, made Milton a magnet for the Romantics, as Teskey argues in a lively chapter at the end of the short middle section on “engagement”. One senses that Teskey is less attuned to engagement than he is to transcendence, as witness his tendency to discuss what he sees as the poems of engagement in relation to their reception rather than the context of their composition. That said, he has much of interest to say in comparing Milton and the Romantics.
Ironically, William Blake and his contemporaries took to Milton, the great iconoclast, with an idolatry that the object of their admiration would have roundly mocked. Like Milton, the Romantics lived through a revolution that failed – albeit a French rather than an English one – but their politics was not the lifetime of commitment shown by Milton, even in Teskey’s revisionist approach, where engagement becomes a phase rather than a faith: “Wordsworth was not perhaps interested in any clearly identifiable political cause. But he was interested as an artist in the voice of revolution, longing for its savage indignation and prophetic power, whether it be sounded by a reincarnated Milton or by…Wordsworth himself.”
Teskey’s treatment of On the Late Massacre in Piedmont is a model of the kind of close criticism he executes so well, and while his reading appears light on the historical context, he is impressively attentive to the language, sources and afterlife of the poem. There is sensitivity and subtlety here that made me return to the poem and scan it anew: “Milton is instinctively disinclined to linger on the pathos or the outrage of the scene because it is, after all, over; it is no longer happening. Merely the bones, the blood, and the ashes are left to us – and to him, to use rhetorically. The victims will never be what they once were in the past, living people, and they should therefore not be thought of nostalgically as people anymore.”
Reading this provocative passage, I found it hard to reconcile this version of the poem with Milton’s cry for vengeance both here and in his prose account of the massacre of Ulster Protestants in the Rising of 1641 in his Irish Observations, which arguably contributed to the Cromwellian massacres of 1649 at Wexford and Drogheda. The prose and poetry, taken together, make transcendence a tricky task. While I felt that the “blindness and insight” Teskey detects in Milton is evident in his own oversights, I found the long final section of this engaging study moving and inspiring, particularly the handling of Paradise Regained. I was reminded of just how rich Milton’s poetry is. There is still a lot of milking to be done.
Willy Maley is professor of Renaissance studies, University of Glasgow.
The Poetry of John Milton
By Gordon Teskey
Harvard University Press, 640pp, £29.95
Published 25 June 2015