Milton and the Victorians

By Leonard, John | Style, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Milton and the Victorians

Leonard, John, Style

Erik Gray. Milton and the Victorians. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2009.

Milton's influence on the Victorians has hitherto received surprisingly little attention. Many books and articles have been written on Milton and the Romantics, but only two previous critics - James Nelson in The Sublime Puritan (1963) and Anna K Nardo in George Eliot's Dialogue with Milton (2003) - have written books on Milton's reception by the Victorians. It would be easy to infer that Milton's influence abruptly stopped at about the time De Doctrina Christiana was discovered in 1 823. Gray states the problem succinctly: "By general consensus, at least implicit, Milton's sometimes overwhelming influence on forty years of English poetry came to an abrupt halt with the deaths of Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron in the 1820s." But Gray knows better than to settle for easy answers: "There are two things to be said about this view: first, that it is clearly false, and second, that it is just as clearly true" (3). It is false because the Victorians showed a new interest in Milton's prose and produced monumental biographies and editions (by Thomas Keightley and David Masson). It is true because Milton's influence upon Victorian poetry is inconspicuous: "a list of major Romantic poems - The Prelude, Prometheus Unbound, Hyperion - immediately, insistently calls to mind Milton's epic, as a similar list of Victorian masterpieces - Aurora Leigh, Idylls of the King, The Ring and the Book - does not" (4). In Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, Milton's influence "always ends in the same place: 'Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, . . . Keats'" (5). "If Milton continues to exert influence on the Victorians," Gray infers, it is "different from his influence on the Romantics." Gray examines Mlton's influence in the later nineteenth century in an attempt "to find out what it can teach us about Victorian literature above all, but also about Romanticism, about Milton, and about forms of poetic influence" (9). His thesis, explored through six erudite chapters, is that great poets like Milton "can continue to exert a powerful influence while largely disappearing from view" (24).

In his second chapter, entitled "Milton as Classic, Milton as Bible," Gray likens Milton's invisibility to that of God in Paradise Lost: "The very fact that Romantic poets so frequently and self-consciously invoked Milton rendered it unnecessary for Victorian poets to do the same." The result was that Milton, like God, became "dark with excessive bright" (25). Gray is particularly good on Milton's ability to make the unfamiliar seem familiar. His second chapter begins with a splendid discussion of Milton's exotic names and the fact that they so often appear in negative similes that tell us what Hell or Paradise or Eve's beauty were not like. T. S. Eliot, following Johnson, thought that Milton used epic catalogues for their musical value alone, but Gray makes the persuasive and (so far as I am aware) original argument that Milton's catalogues and negative similes have the mysterious effect of making us feel at home with the exotic. The big names are not pompous displays of encyclopedic pedantry but concessions to the fallen reader's presumed knowledge: "Johnson, or T. S. Eliot, might object that 'Ternate and Tidore' are mystifying and grandiloquent words, introduced to inflate the image. But the opposite is true: they are part of the mortal world, as Satan is not, and even if we have never heard of them before, we recognize them as concessions to our knowledge" (30-31). The result is "an uncanny sense of familiarity." Gray relates this to the dark brilliance of classic literature. If (as Mark Twain quipped) a classic is "a book which people praise but don't read," a "less cynical definition might be that a classic is a work that seems to be known before it is read. A great book can be read; a classic can only be reread, since the first-time reader finds it already familiar" (32). …

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