Graham Parry and Joad Raymond, eds. Milton and the Terms of Liberty. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002. xvi+218pp. ISBN 0 85991 639 1.
William Walker
University of New South Wales

Walker, William. "Review of Graham Parry and Joad Raymond, eds, Milton and the Terms of Liberty." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 11.1-10 <URL:

  1. This volume is a collection of some of the papers presented at the sixth International Milton Symposium which was held at York in July, 1999, and it is the seventh volume in the Studies in Renaissance Literature series, the general editor of which is Professor Parry. It clearly bears out the editors' claim that the central preoccupation of the symposium was with Milton's political thought. For the volume begins with "John Milton and the Politics of Slavery" in which Quentin Skinner reaffirms his recently adopted view that the Roman historians and the Digest of Roman law define the free citizen as one who is not a slave, where a slave is someone who is subject to the will of another agent. Skinner further observes that Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus claim that those living under a monarchy are not free citizens in this sense, and that those who are not free in this sense tend to become docile and ignoble. Citing records of the House of Commons debates and Proceedings of Parliament from 1610, 1628, and the early 1640s, Skinner then argues persuasively that Englishmen who were critical of the Stuart monarchy reaffirm this understanding of civil liberty. Since, in the tracts he published on behalf of the Commonwealth between 1649 and 1651, Milton himself reaffirms these views, he, too, participates in the "neo-Roman" vision of civil liberty ("neo-Roman" and not "republican," since many supporters of the commonwealth did not insist upon a non-monarchical form of government).

  2. Milton's knowledge of and relation to Roman law, however, is much less clear according to Martin Dzelzainis' essay, which focusses on how Milton mistranslates a passage about the emperor Justinian's revocation of the divorce laws of Theodosius and Valentinian in The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Concerning Divorce (August, 1644). After observing how Milton treats this issue in Tetrachordon and the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and shedding some light on problems of determining what Milton was studying in the early 1640s, Dzelzainis concludes only that it is "highly unlikely that Milton's handling of Bucer's text was in bad faith" (68).

  3. Taking on board Skinner's account of Milton as a proponent of the neo-Roman understanding of the free citizen as one who is not subject to the will of another agent, John Creaser contrasts it with the understanding of the free citizen as one who is not in fact interfered with by another agent (but who still might be subject to the will of another agent), which he attributes to Marvell. To use the terms which have become widespread since Philip Pettit's work on the issue, Creaser claims that Milton subscribes to the concept of liberty as nondomination, whereas Marvell works on a concept of liberty as noninterference. Creaser proceeds to present some fine detailed analysis of the verse of Marvell and Milton to justify his claims that "whereas Marvell tends to see [poetic form] as a given and as a container, Milton tends to see it as a theme for variation or as a measure for overflowing" (43), and that "Milton matches content and expression where Marvell sets them at odds" (52). But since it is not so clear how the two different concepts of liberty are expressed by the two poetic practices identified by Creaser, he is less convincing in arguing that his main claims bear out David Norbrook's view that "poetic and political liberty were parallelled" during the period.

  4. The political meanings of Milton's poetry are again identified by way of "parallels," "common features," "correlations" and "points of convergence" in Janel Mueller's essay, "The Figure and the Ground: Samson as Hero of London Nonconformity, 1662-1667." But here the parallels are between the treatment of religious persecution, plague, and fire in fifty nonconformist texts about London from 1662-67, and Milton's treatment of these experiences in Samson Agonistes (1672). On the basis of these parallels, Mueller infers, first, that Samson is a "figure" or "personification" of the post-Restoration nonconformist experience and, second, that by 1667 Milton had renounced "revolutionary militancy" (161). Katsuhiro Engetsu extends this interpretive strategy to Paradise Regained when, on the basis of the facts that the dialogues between Christ and Satan centre on the problem of the interaction between the private and the public spheres, and that during the Restoration this interaction was a subject of intense debate, he claims that this poem "addresses itself to the issue of the politics of privacy in a public world in the context of Restoration republican discourse" (166). More specifically, since, "like Tiberius" as Milton describes him in this poem, Charles II commits his public cares to a wicked favourite, the Earl of Clarendon, "the Tiberius passage in Paradise Regained proves to be a disguised criticism of the spiritual corruption in the private realm of Charles II's court" (171). Moreover, since there are clear similarities between the "wicked Abominations" described in Ezekiel 8 and the corruptions of the restored Stuart court, Milton's citation of this Biblical text in Of True Religion (1671) "aims at a disguised critique of contemporary court politics around 1670" (171).

  5. Observations of resemblances also occupy an important place in Barbara Lewalski's argument that in his final seven years, Milton did not abandon politics for religious faith, but worked in all of his writings "to promote the moral and political education of his countrymen" (190). For it is in part by observing that in Paradise Regained Jesus makes assertions which are similar to if not identical with those in the political and religious writings of Milton and the dissenters that Lewalski argues that Jesus is here a model of political response to the difficult conditions they faced at the end of the 1660s. And observing that in Samson Agonistes the protagonist's misery "invites comparison" with these Puritans and that "the Israel/England parallel" is enforced by many details of the poem (182), Lewalski, like Mueller, argues that Samson is indeed "a figure for the defeated Puritans and especially their leaders" (181), and that he, too, presents a model of heroic response for dissenters in the latter 1660s.

  6. In "The King is a Thing," Joad Raymond furthers this project of understanding Milton's work in the political arena by observing how he deals with the problem, faced by both royalists and commonwealth apologists, of how to refer to Charles I and his heir after the regicide. Whereas the Scots referred to Charles I's son as "King of Great Britain and Ireland" and royalist journalists called him "Charles II," commonwealth apologists such as Marchamont Nedham resorted to "The Thing of Scotland," "Presbyterian Property," and, my favourite, "the yong Lad of Scotland" (75). In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), Milton deals with the problem by naming neither the king nor his son, but in the First Defense (1651), he uses the common "Charls the Father" and "Charls the Son." After 1653 when Cromwell was made Lord Protector, however, the "word-play around king as a name and a thing" had shifted onto Cromwell (94), and Raymond observes how in the Second Defense (1654), Milton betrays the widespread anxiety that the meaning of "Lord Protector" was dangerously close to that of "king." In his essay, Christopher Orchard focuses on another specific feature of linguistic usage in the wake of the regicide: the use of military terminology to express hard-line political positions of all kinds. Thus, by figuring debate as military combat and presenting himself as both judge and second killer of Charles I, Milton in Eikonoklastes (1649) sides with the hard-line supporters of the commonwealth. By describing translation and literary criticism in terms of spying and combat, the dedicatory verses to Christopher Wase's translation of Electra (The Hague, 1649) and Davenant's preface to Gondibert (1650) show that royalist writing immediately following the regicide was not marked by fatalism and accommodation and that a military response was indeed still viable (96, 108).

  7. Milton's political radicalism as it is documented by these essays stands in stark contrast to the poet's "affinities to the dominant ideology" which Thomas Corns observes in "Milton before Lycidas" (24). Wanting not to depoliticise but to repoliticise the young Milton, Corns observes that important figures in the young Milton's life--Thomas Young, Alexander Gill, John Milton senior, brother Christopher, and the Earl of Bridgewater-were in many ways supporters of Laud and the dominant ideology. Reading the early poetry with an eye to recent research into the political and ecclesiastical history of the 1620s and 30s, Corns then forcefully argues that "its prevailing aesthetic is baroque; many of its values are the dominant values of its age; much of the Laudian agenda has been bought into..." (36). Corns presents this position as an "irenic compromise" on this contentious issue, but it appears to me that he is still holding pretty firmly, and with good reason, against the going argument in favour of the young Milton's radicalism.

  8. Not all of the essays in the volume are preoccupied with the political meanings of Milton's writing. In "Alexander More Reads Milton: Self-representation and Anxiety in Milton's Defences," Stephen Fallon observes that Milton's presentation of "himself as a central hero of the republic" (117) in the prose of the early 1650s is accurately diagnosed as a case of self-serving exaggeration by his enemy Alexander More in his Fides publica (Public Faith). And since this kind of self-representation conflicts with both "Protestant and particularly Puritan conventions of self-representations" (120) and Milton's own occasional pretences to modesty, Fallon finds a powerful anxiety at the heart of these prose works. In a sharply polemical essay, John Rumrich furthers his case against William Hunter's challenge to Milton's authorship of De doctrina christiana, as well as the "bulky, equivocal report" recently published by a committee of experts "that brought quantitative analysis to bear on the question of provenance and concluded by denying the reliability of De doctrina christiana as a guide to Milton's beliefs and endorsing scepticism as to the authorship of the treatise" (125). Because this committee not only fails to see that during the seventeenth century "authorship was understood to include compiling and ordering others' words" (133), but also neglects the extensive citation of scripture in the work, it draws unwarranted inferences from the differences the stylometric analysis reveals between Milton's Defenses and the theological treatise. I find Rumrich persuasive when he concludes that in relation to "ordinary standards of attribution for seventeenth-century texts, Milton may be confidently identified as the author of De doctrina christiana" (135).

  9. The volume concludes with an essay in which Anne-Julia Zwierlein asserts "the predominance of the religious message in Paradise Lost (192). Challenging both those who find imperialistic ideology in the poem and those who assert the continuity of the political prose and the late poetry, she observes that "in his epics Milton contests his own earlier imperial language" (195). This makes it all the more remarkable that "epigonal poets" and commentaries on these poems during the eighteenth century "rewrote Paradise Lost as a British Aeneid, or divine history as defined by Britain alone" (204), and that early nineteenth-century visual representations of Milton's surveys of empire and hell transformed them into sublime imperial visions.

  10. Much of the scholarship here is strong and informative, but I have a few reservations. First, the fact that there are resemblances between characters and scenes in Milton's poetry and characters and scenes in Restoration England does not necessarily mean that Milton is covertly but deliberately referring to and commenting on those scenes. That is why Christopher Hill himself (an important precursor for many of these essays) could reasonably claim that although the chosen people in Samson Agonistes "bear a strong resemblance to the English people after 1660," this poem is not about England but "about the people of God in defeat anywhere." Thus, I do not find the evidence for the view that Milton is referring to Restoration England in his poetry as decisive as many of these critics claim it is. Second, in some cases, it is not clear exactly what kind of reference is being postulated. For example, in saying that Samson is a "figure" of the Restoration Puritans, are Mueller and Lewalski claiming that Milton deliberately but covertly comments on them by writing and publishing this poem? Are they saying that the poem is really in some sense an allegory, or is the claim weaker than this? Finally, I think some of these essays give short shrift to Milton's religious commitments and the criticism that emphasises those commitments. The move is clearly on to displace this criticism by one that is more attuned to the particular socio-political circumstances in which Milton wrote. But the value of this move will be compromised to the extent that it disregards the insights provided by critics such as C. S. Lewis, Arthur Barker, Stanley Fish, and Joan Bennett into how Milton's commitments to the Protestant faith inform his thinking about liberty, and everything else.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)