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Perez Zagorin


The World of Milton Scholarship

Autumn 2002 | Criticism

Forty years ago a volume of essays on Milton's poetry by a number of well-known academic critics bore the title The Living Milton. Is Milton the poet still alive among us today? In answer, it may be doubted whether his work is either much known or loved nowadays, even by readers who care for poetry. Although Paradise Lost, one of the classics of world literature, was once familiar to generations of English-speaking people, the religious subjects of Milton's greatest works and the erudition in many of his poems have made them seem remote and even inaccessible to many at a time when a basic knowledge of the Bible and classical myth have been disappearing as a part of education and the common culture. If Milton still survives, it is almost entirely in the universities, where he continues to be taught in English courses, though probably less so than in the past, and where his work is the subject of a very large amount of academic scholarship. Much of the latter however, is too tendentious, too little concerned with the poetry as such and too attentive to political agendas and issues of race, class, and gender in its approach to literature, to communicate either to students or a wider audience a sensitive understanding of the qualities that make for the enduring greatness to be found in Milton the poet. Two contrasting conceptions are prominent in current Milton scholarship. One is that of Milton the political man, the engaged humanist, artist, and republican intellectual whose allegiances are mirrored in his poetry and who devoted his pen in the 1640's and '50's to the publication of prose works in support of the revolution against the Stuart monarchy, the justification of regicide, and the defense of the English republic and the government of Oliver Cromwell. The other is that of Milton the Christian thinker, utterly ruled by the religious conviction that nothing has any value but faith in God and obedience to His will.


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