Book Review: The Poetry of John Milton
by Gordon Teskey.
Harvard University Press: 2015
Gordon Teskey has lavished a life in scholarship on one poet. The Poetry of John Milton is a long book, but only just big enough to hold its wealth of commentary. It is an exercise in a pure kind of literary criticism, beholden to no particular ideology, bringing in biographical and social details only where strictly necessary, dwelling rather on matters of meaning and form, influence and reception, than character and event.
In his first chapter, Teskey describes Milton’s poems as possessing a “Greek” quality, by which he means that they are clear in outline, complex in detail. The same may be said of Teskey’s book about Milton’s poetry.
In outline, it is an account dividing the poetry into three periods corresponding to Milton’s changing view of his art’s function. First Milton viewed poetry as an expression of transcendence, a fundamentally religious and otherworldly exercise. Then, during his years as pamphleteer and cultural statesman, Milton viewed his poetry as another form of activism. Finally, in the period of his great work, Paradise Lost, he viewed poetry as a form of “transcendental activism,” a way of effecting contemporary politics by retelling biblical myths.
This periodization of the poet may correspond to the commonly recognized phases of the man, but Teskey believes he has discerned a logic deeper than biography:
These phases are not merely circumstantial developments to be explained away by where Milton was in his life and by what was happening in England at the time, so that, for example, he was an idealist when privileged and sheltered, a realist when entangled in the world, and a great author when political defeat forced his withdrawal from public affairs. We are not dealing in the first instance with a life; we are dealing with the progress of thought… As a result, there is a development from one phase to the next in a dialectical pattern that suggests a struggle to grow, not a passive response to altering circumstances.
It is Teskey’s purpose to expound the nature of this “dialectical pattern.” In doing so he departs from the typical modern approach to Milton, an approach that tends to follow the incomparable lead of Christopher Hill in firmly contextualizing Milton in the tumultuous politics of his time: the English civil war, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and the Restoration. Teskey’s emphasis may be less revelatory of the man, but it also tends to put our focus where it probably belongs: on the poems themselves.
Appropriately, therefore, the book’s best passages discuss the techniques by which Milton achieved his poetic effects. Teskey lends to such discussions, limp and dry in other hands, a sense of purpose, by unfolding them as the narrative of a poet’s growing powers, a narrative in which early experiments lead on to the triumphs of maturity:
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of [one of Milton’s earliest poems] “At a Solemn Music” is its syntax: the first twenty-four of its twenty-eight lines are comprised by a single sentence winding down through its variations like a long musical phrase. Through the dance of prepositions and participles, we see Milton experimenting with lengthening that musical phrase, building a rhythmical system above that of the shorter poetic line, while heightening the articulation of its parts. For the first time in Milton’s English poetry, the technical foundations of the art of Paradise Lost – its elaborately vehement syntax – are being explored.
If Teskey’s book is shaped by a clear structure and enlivened by a narrative of poetic development, the details are more complex. Teskey barely packs a lifetime’s reflection on Milton’s work into this book, and even so bemoans in his introduction what he had to leave out. The comprehensive ambit of his remarks prepare the ground for a multitude of excurses, each pursued with enthusiasm and authority, but rarely with a sense of graceful proportion. A whole chapter breaks the clean arc of the book to report – fascinatingly, but discordantly – on the reception of Milton’s poems and politics by the English Romantic poets. To read this book straight through is exhausting. But its tight construction almost forbids any other approach than the linear and the fleet.
Teskey’s book is not for the newcomer either to Milton’s poems or to his life, but for the initiated it offers a compelling total interpretation of the work of one of our greatest poets.