[Milton-L] REV: Raymond on Achinstein, _Literature and Dissent in Milton's England_

Carol Barton cbartonphd at earthlink.net
Wed Mar 17 09:01:08 EST 2004


Colleagues:

Here is a review of Sharon Achinstein's latest book, by Joad Raymond:


> H-NET BOOK REVIEW
> Published by H-Albion at h-net.msu.edu (March 2004)
>
> Sharon Achinstein. _Literature and Dissent in Milton's England_. New York
> and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii + 302 pp. Index.
> $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-81804-4.
>
> Reviewed by Joad Raymond <j.raymond at uea.ac.uk>, School of English and
> American Studies, University of East Anglia
>
> Neil Keeble's adventurous and now widely influential 1987 book, _The
> Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later-Seventeenth-Century England_,
> sought to place nonconformist writing in the social, political, and,
> importantly, printing contexts of the Restoration and to recover for our
> view the interests and merits of writers who seemed marginal to the canon
> of polite, literary writing from the period.  Sharon Achinstein's new book
> develops a more complicated map of the literary landscape of the 1660s
> through the 1680s.  Two approaches feed into this map.  First, Achinstein
> considers the community of dissent, itself riven by political and
> theological difference.  It may be wrong to speak of this in terms of
> internal divides, as it is the hindsight of the historian or critic that
> enables her to posit the unity; but Achinstein both looks for the shared
> characteristics of dissenters, and the issues that divided them, and for
> various relations with the Anglican community.  It is through the last
> that dissenters ultimately found what appeared to be a unity, a boundary
> that separated them from the polite, communicative norms that defined both
> Restoration society and much of its literary output.  Yet, Achinstein
> takes pains to remind us, dissent and Anglicanism were not simple binary
> opposites, and to take them as such is ultimately to reinscribe the
> position of the conformist center in critical and historical analysis, to
> privilege the interests of the persecutors.
>
> Secondly, Achinstein reconstructs the intellectual impulses and some of
> the aesthetics of dissenting writing.  Here there are, again, two aspects
> to her analysis, the first concerning the relationship between writing and
> action, the second concerning poetics.  Dissenting writing, insofar as it
> has been considered at all within the remits of traditional literary
> analysis, has been associated with defeat and internalization, a spiritual
> retreat into an interiority that provides consolation and justifies
> disengagement from a world that is hostile and unremitting.  This is how
> Bunyan's aesthetic is positioned, how the increasingly-quietist Quaker
> religion and writings are understood, and, at least until recently, the
> basis for reading Milton's late work.  _Paradise Lost_ is read as an
> allegory of loss that supports a long-distant promise of a paradise within
> in return for good works and spiritual perseverance; _Paradise Regained_
> as an account of spiritual action as resistance to temptation, and,
> perhaps, the resistance to action, display, even learning.  Yet images of
> splendid violence, political terror inhabit much of this writing, not
> least Milton's _Samson Agonistes_, and the figure of the biblical judge
> Samson is a recurrent one in dissenting writing.  Violence is the most
> spectacular form of resistance, and therefore represents an extreme form
> of action.  How does the idea of violence and images of it relate,
> Achinstein asks, to the forms of writing that dissenters use to express
> their dissent?  How does the register of violent action, of the Samson
> figure, stand within a mode of writing that frequently expressly disavows
> terror?  Is it a return of the consciously suppressed or even a form of
> encoded threat?  In the language of violence Achinstein finds a work of
> memory:  it is an accounting for action that both looks back to the recent
> revolutionary past, finding even within the trauma of 1660 some limited
> signs of success, but also looks forward to the future.  In these literary
> works of dissenters the energies of the revolutionary moment survive, and
> in them too dissenting writers endeavor to imagine a way out of the
> present moment.  Memory marks the boundaries of communities, recalls
> deceased worthies, anticipates a transformed future.  _Samson Agonistes_
> is just such a work of memory:  more than an analysis of political
> oppression, it asserts that there is a future embedded in the readiness of
> those who wait for God's command.  In Milton the account of liberty is one
> guaranteed less by liberal politics than by apocalyptic faith.
>
> The book is held together by these recurrent themes:  memory and action.
> Memory suggests one account of the coherence of dissenting writing, even
> that writing which seeks to orient the future.  It celebrates individuals,
> recalls the identity and continuity of communities, and confronts the
> collective experience of defeat, perhaps even snatching from loss a
> renewed sense of purpose.  We find this memory-work being undertaken in
> funerals, which combined ritual and reflective literary texts with the
> physical gesture of collectively gathering and bearing witness.
> Achinstein's sophisticated approach to literary form illuminates funerals
> and funeral sermons, both their literary coherence and the implicit
> political alignments of the mode.  Funerals can be viewed, she
> demonstrates, as a dissenting literary genre in the 1660s.  It is likewise
> with hymns, dull enough on the surface, but charged with meaning and with
> political significance because of their role in bringing together
> dissenting voices in worship and testifying to an ongoing community,
> rather than for gestures of resistance we might find in the words.  Thus
> in funerals and in hymns, writing, memory and action converge.  This is
> important to Achinstein because it enables her to discover the survival of
> the energies of the revolution in dissenting writing.  Writing becomes a
> deep repository, of memories and actions, of a dissenting culture that has
> been occluded by subsequent historical developments.  Violence is
> important here, in part, because of what is says about the potential for
> human action.  The liberal enlightenment which did so much to effect the
> disappearance of the dissenters' resistance eradicated Milton's
> apocalyptic account of human action.  God was removed from the center of
> human agency at least as far as to allow another generation, John Locke
> among them, room to devise a new account of human voluntarism without this
> semantically-charged, apocalyptic violence.
>
> The second dimension of the dissenting aesthetic analysed here concerns
> poetics.  How does, Achinstein asks, an allegedly anti-sensualist theology
> result in a poetics?  She is explicitly ambivalent about the traditional
> literary merits of some of the texts about which she writes and is
> surprisingly reluctant to tease virtue out of some clumsy writings or to
> proselytize on behalf of some of her authors.  Though she does not offer a
> sustained poetics, a number of themes recur.  One is the popular
> plain-style, the "play-book" style, for which the prose opponents of
> Andrew Marvell condemned nonconformists.  This is, no doubt, in part the
> language of the Dissenting Academies, not the idealized transparent
> language of the Royal Society, but a workmanlike, clear language,
> sometimes studiously unself-conscious, irregularly rhythmic, written and
> spoken with as little as possible recourse to Latin grammar.  At the same
> time critics of nonconformists accused this same language of darkness and
> obscurity.  This was because it emerged out of religious enthusiasm,
> betraying the zeal and impoliteness of its speaker.  How the same language
> is both popularly plain and dark is unclear.  The picture is further
> complicated by the role of prophetic speech.  This was, Achinstein argues,
> exploited to assert individual inspiration and distinctness from Anglican
> orthodoxy, but it also created a dark code, a literary space from which
> the orthodox were at least partly excluded.  It was therefore a space
> reserved for the zealous godly, a place of resistance, in which difference
> could be asserted and threats spoken.  Such obscurity is somehow related
> to the homely Biblicism of the plain style:  but it is not clear just how.
> Memory plays another intriguing role in the use of the lyric:  Achinstein
> shows how important a presence George Herbert is in dissenting poetry,
> which constructed a devotional voice by reaching back to pre-civil war
> poetry, despite the theological and institutional tensions that such
> gestures might create.  Finally, there is the sublime.  The figure of
> elevation is tied to dissenters' lyric mode as well as to Milton's epic,
> and it recurs through Achinstein's book.  It is the sublime, perhaps, that
> justifies dissenters seeking to articulate thoughts and feelings in the
> fleshy voice of poetry.  At one point Achinstein suggests that the poetry
> of the Welsh Baptist Vavasor Powell eschews poetic affect in favor of
> artlessness; this is a measure of his directness in calling for action. Is
> this so very far from what Samuel Butler suggested in _Hudibras_, in
> representing dissent as a violent and confused, transparent and obscure,
> simple-minded and disingenuous?  Achinstein's work suggests that in order
> to appreciate dissenting writing we might want to listen hard to the
> intricacies of Butler's calumnies.  While not offering a comprehensive
> manual of dissenting poetics, Achinstein does navigate a path through the
> complex literary and political terrains of Restoration England, showing
> how dissenting religion and writing, and conforming religion and writing
> mutually defined themselves and each other.  Sometimes suggesting that we
> need a more tolerant aesthetic, sometimes stating the merits of relatively
> obscure writings on traditional grounds, and consistently bringing a
> diversity of approaches to thought, action and aesthetics, _Literature and
> Dissent in Milton's England_ offers a new and more nuanced and
> complicated, if fragmentary, account of the value of dissenting
> literature.
>
>
>          Copyright (c) 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits
>          the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit,
>          educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the
>          author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
>          H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
>          contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks at mail.h-net.msu.edu.


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