Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Tobias Gregory


In Defense of Empson

A Reassessment of Milton's God

In 1961, William Empson's Milton's God made bold entrance into the critical debate over Paradise Lost. Its argument picks up where Shelley had left off. In Paradise Lost, Empson claims, Milton provides his God with the strongest defense he possibly could, and succeeds in representing a deity “noticeably less wicked than the traditional Christian one”; despite the poet's best efforts, however, he cannot alter the basic facts of the case, and the inherent wickedness of the Christian God rubs off on Milton's version as well. 1. The book caused a stir when it appeared, and its bold argument and vigorous prose have continued to provoke strong reactions for four decades; in 1995 the Milton Society of America recognized the importance of Milton's God by naming Empson posthumously as one of its honored scholars, though the decision prompted sharply dissenting opinions from a number of the society's members. While Milton's God is generally acknowledged as a landmark in the field, it remains a landmark in whose vicinity later scholars have been reluctant to build. Secular-minded Miltonists tend to view Empson's book as an interesting wrong turn, an idiosyncratic reading by a brilliant critic; scholars sympathetic to Christianity tend to view the book as willfully perverse, and have spent considerable energy trying to refute it. At the present it is widely assumed that their efforts have succeeded, and direct response to Empson is in abeyance. 2.Milton's God occupies a singular position; it belongs to that rare class of critical works still widely read forty years after initial publication, yet

____________________
1.
Empson, Milton's God (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), 11. Page numbers are hereinafter cited parenthetically.
2.
This lack of substantive engagement was evident at a 1998 MLA session devoted to Milton's God (the character, not the book), at which each of the panelists began with a nod to Empson's work, but none presumed to take a stand on his central thesis.

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