On the frontlines "of this great Argument" -- finding myself among the New Milton Critics!
There may be some interesting consequences stemming from my recent publication in the Milton Quarterly, for I suspect that I'll be perceived as having placed myself squarely in the camp of the New Milton Critics. Who are they? Three days ago, I couldn't have told you, but here's what they have to say for themselves:
The New Milton Criticism seeks to emphasize ambivalence and discontinuity in Milton's work and interrogate the assumptions and certainties in previous Milton scholarship. Contributors to the volume move Milton's open-ended poetics to the centre of Milton studies by showing how analysing irresolvable questions -- religious, philosophical and literary critical -- transforms interpretation and enriches appreciation of his work. The New Milton Criticism encourages scholars to embrace uncertainties in his writings rather than attempt to explain them away. Twelve critics from a range of countries, approaches and methodologies explore these questions in these new readings of Paradise Lost and other works. Sure to become a focus of debate and controversy in the field, this volume is a truly original contribution to early modern studies.Among the New Milton Critics are Peter C. Herman, Elizabeth Sauer, Richard Strier, John Rogers, Judith Scherer Herz, Michael Bryson, Christopher D'Addario, Shannon Miller, Thomas Festa, Jeffrey Shoulson, William Kolbrener, and Joseph Wittreich, for these scholars contributed to the volume pictured above. I know several of them from the Milton List and also recognize the names of others from my acquaintance with Milton scholarship. I simply didn't realize that these trees made up a forest. I suppose I'm now perceived as a sapling on the perimeter. From the passage quoted above, I can see that I have some things in common. Like these scholars, I read Milton with a focus on "uncertainties in his writings," but unlike these same scholars, my approach to the uncertainties is to "attempt to explain them away," if possible. I don't embrace the uncertainties. I'm certainly no deconstructionist. I see the uncertainties -- or better, the contradictions -- as problems for Milton's great argument, and I think that he was aiming for logical coherence without entirely achieving it. But I know that I'll now be forever misunderstood as a New Milton Critic. Why? Here in the concluding sentence of my Milton Quarterly article -- immediately following my half-ironic remarks on Satan's necessary role in resolving an antinomy in Paradise Lost -- is why:
Milton has told us that his "great Argument" (1.24) does indeed "justifie the wayes of God to men" (1.26), but surely Milton did not intend a felix culpa, even if one might entertain destabilizing doubt at such contradictory complications . . . though merely sketching out the uncertain ramifications of such as these would go far beyond this brief essay and into realms of incertitude and ambiguity explored by Peter Herman, among others (cf. Sauer 15n1).The citation is of Elizabeth Sauer in her "Introduction: The Art of Criticism," from Milton and the Climates of Reading: Essays by Balachandra Rajan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), which Sauer also edited. Concluding in this manner would seem to put my stamp of approval on the New Milton Critics -- among whom Sauer belongs (see list of scholars above) -- though I was in fact implicitly thanking Peter Herman for reading my article as I reworked it and offering his useful advice about seeking out primary sources from the 16th and 17th centuries to make my point about such terms as "cropt" and "uncropt." No one other than Peter would recognize this implicit thank-you note, of course, but there's more. Peter Herman also has an article published in the same issue of the Milton Quarterly, and it immediately follows my own -- mine thus appearing to introduce his -- and launches into a spirited defense of the New Milton Criticism through a strong offensive attack on an apparently polemical opponent:
I am not going to tax the reader's patience by repeating John Milton's mistake in Eikonoklastes and giving a tedious, point-by-point rebuttal of every single statement David Urban makes in his recent diatribe against the New Milton Criticism.I finished reading Peter's counter-critique and then sent him an email:
I just yesterday received my copy of December's Milton Quarterly, and I learned of the heated debate between David Urban and the New Milton Critics. Wow! I've only read your article but will get to those of Wittreich and Strier soon.Peter quickly replied:
There is some unintended irony in the concluding sentence of my article, which immediately precedes your own, in that my positive reference to your work on doubt, contradiction, incertitude, and ambiguity would appear to have been intended as an introduction to your article -- and the two that follow. I wonder if I will face consequences . . .
I was also very pleased by the happy circumstance of the last line of your article leading into mine. That [plus other things] . . . makes this the NMC issue of MQ, I think.I strongly suspect that Peter's right. This issue of the Milton Quarterly will be seen as the New Milton Critics' issue, and scholars will infer that I've placed myself squarely within that camp.
Oh, well, all publicity is good publicity . . .