[Milton-L] Cosmic and Sublime

HANNIBAL HAMLIN hamlin.22 at osu.edu
Sat Feb 2 12:22:23 EST 2008

Here we go again with another assessment in the mainstream media of Milton's problems for today's reader.  John Gross is of course much more sensible than Sophie Gee, but I am still left wondering about the validity of some of his broad generalizations.  List members would, I am sure, be happy to challenge his statement that modernization of spelling and punctuation is the right decision.  But I am more concerned with the remark that Milton is "strenuously, oppressively great."  What does this mean?  Is he simply too hard for the average reader?  This is surely a criticism of readers rather than then writer.  Or is it rather that his reputation gets in the way of the reading experience?  This makes a certain sense, but can one can really then say that Shakespeare, by contrast, wears his greatness lightly?  Surely "the Bard" has a far greater cultural weight attached.  I suppose, though, that Shakespeare is also supposed to be miraculously accessible.  But this isn't really tr
ue in practice, I think.  From my experiences teaching Shakespeare and Milton, I conclude that Shakespeare is actually the more difficult writer.  Undergraduates have a hard time figuring out the language of the plays, dense as they are with complex intermixed metaphors and (archaic) puns.  Not that I question assessments of Shakespeare's greatness; I just think is accessibility is something of a myth.  Milton, by contrast, is a much easier read.  Sure, his syntax is Latinate, but it's still less knotty than Shakespeare's, and his language is much more familiar.  Even his subject matter is not so inaccessible as some might think.  Perhaps, ironically, religious matters are much more alive now in the U.S. (one of the most religious countries on the planet) than they are in Britain.  I also challenge Gross's comparison of PL to the earlier poems.  My students can't make head nor tail of "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," whereas they embrace PL.  Pl, after all, has a rich narrativ
e and complex characters.  This is what they understand most easily from their experience of novels, film, and TV.  Lyric is a strange and foreign country.

It seems to me that one should be more careful in making generalizations about modern readers, their preference and predilections, as well as the current status of this or that great writer.  One really ought to have some evidence on which to make such claims.  This would apply to Eliot as well as Gross and Gee.  Academics, for instance, tend to accept Eliot's assessment of Milton's status for the Modernists.  But this has little bearing on how he was actually read by most in the 20s and 30s, except by the small circle around Eliot and Pound.  And how many in the same period were avidly reading Eliot, Pound, and Joyce?  Certainly they had some devotees, but might many ordinary readers not have thought them "strenuously, oppressively great"?


Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
Book Review Editor and Associate Editor, Reformation

Mailing Address (2007-2009):

The Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003

Permanent Address:

Department of Englis
The Ohio State University
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Columbus, OH 43210-1340

----- Original Message -----
From: Paul Miller <pm9 at comcast.net>
Date: Saturday, February 2, 2008 10:08 am
Subject: [Milton-L] Cosmic and Sublime

> This is a Wall Street Journal article about the new Modern Library 
> Milton 
> collected poems and selected prose
> http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120182675406533779.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
> Paul Miller 
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