Milton's Rival Hermeneutics: 'Reason Is But Choosing.' Edited by Richard J. DuRocher and Margaret Olofson Thickstun. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2012. Pp. v-xiv, 278. $58.00.
This collection of eleven essays (in part a tribute to the late and deeply lamented Richard J. DuRocher, and to the scholarship of Mary Ann Radzinowicz) is presented under the rubric of "rival hermeneutics." It does not appear, however, that this approach is carried out consistently; new interpretations of Milton's texts based on a reassessment of current Milton scholarship are found in many of the essays, but competing or "rival" interpretations of the same texts only occasionally.
Suzanne Woods adheres closely to the theme in her essay, "Inviting Rival Hermeneutics: Milton's Language of Violence and the Invitation to Freedom." Milton's Protestant reader, Woods suggests, is free to exercise the same interpretive expertise in assessing Milton's literary texts that one deploys in reading and interpreting the Bible. Milton presents a qualified truth torn apart by violence, and leaves his readers to their own devices: "Milton's image of dismembered truth sets up an invitation to his readers to exercise liberty by freely searching for meaning in the hesitations of his text, notwithstanding the orthodoxies of his time" (10). In Diane McColley's "? Table Richly Spread': Nature, Place, and Choice in Milton's Nativity Ode," the "rival hermeheutics" reside in the reader's varying interpretations of the Psalms, the building blocks of the Nativity Ode. Gordon Teskey's brilliant essay, "Dead Shepherd: Milton's Lycidas," focuses on the "amplification and fullness" (52) of the poem, its uneasy relationship to time, its "collocation out of dead languages of the dried flowers of song" (56). The pathetic attempt to glorify Edward King's dead body recalls the Neanderthals arranging flowers around the dead: "They were doing something purely beautiful, and they were doing it to defy what strikes us as most disgusting in our nature: death and physical decay" (56). Thus Teskey links all of the funerary rites enacted in the poem to the problem of human time and its necessary termination.
Hugh Jenkins, in "Toward Latinitas: Revising the Defensio," explores the irony of Milton addressing the English people in a language (Latin) they don't understand, even though "the elegance of Latin becomes part of the ethical proof of the argument" (60). Indeed, "it remained a constant struggle, an unending dialectic, for Milton to reconcile his faith in the people in a religious sense and his frequent despair of their actions in a political sense" (72). Barbara Lewalski's essay, "Interpreting God's Word - and Words - in Paradise Lost," extends hermeneutics to include the hermeneutics of the Bible (see also Woods): Milton "also devises scenes and situations in which the central characters have to make choices grounded upon better or worse interpretations of God's pronouncements, of divine revelation" (77). This includes Eve, who "is called upon to construe a divine text [the prohibition in Genesis 2.16-17] in the light of her own experience of God's ways" (94). Joseph Wittreich's "Sites of Contention in Paradise Lost: Scenes of Instruction, Lessons in Interpretation," asks hard questions: e.g., with so many narrators in Paradise Lost, "whose is the authoritative voice in this poem"? …