Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?

No contemporary engagement with Milton is possible without encountering the four centuries? worth of assessment and reassessment, of celebration and denunciation, that his work and his life have invited. This is so not just because Milton?s place in the English canon has never been unquestionably cemented (no writer?s is, of course, but the question of Milton?s merits has been an open one since Johnson?s estimation of his work as “a tragedy which ignorance has admired and bigotry applauded”). In the critical polemics aimed at Milton, from Dryden and Marvell right up through Stanley Fish and John Carey, there are as many figurations of the poet as there are critics who have written about him. He never appears to us but in shards.

Think of him as the 17th-century version of Jean-Paul Sartre, or perhaps Noam Chomsky. How does one reconcile the literary or scientific achievements of a Sartre or a Chomsky with their very public biographies? How to account for the multiplicity of Milton — blind creator of Paradise Lost, the greatest epic in the history of the language; spiteful defender of regicide and partisan violence, with the sweetness and humor of a pot of brussels sprouts, to boot; tireless republican unrelenting in the fight against tyrannical government; tragic bard who has left for posterity what Walter Raleigh described as “a monument to dead ideas”; sponsor of an idiosyncratic vision whose absolute revolt from church authority resulted in a theological doctrine so extremely heterodox as to overwhelm the unmatched genius of the verse?

At least in the 400th anniversary of his birth year, through such public celebrations as the New York Public Library?s current two-gallery display of rare editions of his work as well as numerous publications, we have an expansive view of Milton available — one that encompasses both the poet mercilessly imposed on English undergraduates and the polemicist who famously downgraded the literary quality of his own prose as being produced by his “left hand.” As familiar a presence to the Great Books literate as the former is, the latter still needs some biographical unpacking, which Nigel Smith?s Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? helpfully, if briefly, provides. Following the publication of his early works Comus and “Lycidas” in 1637 and 1638, Milton embarked on his tour of Italy, which restoked his interest in composing an English epic. But returning to England in 1638 and finding himself caught in the run-up to the Civil War, he seemingly cast aside his poetic aspirations. Over the next decade he dedicated himself to the study of ancient law and history and Christian doctrine, producing a series of dissenting works: on education reform, in favor of religious liberty and the right to divorce, and in opposition to censorship. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth of England, he was appointed secretary for the foreign tongues by the Council of State; he wrote panegyrics to Cromwell and philippics justifying the overthrow of the throne — works that would be burned with the Restoration, in 1660, and would also result in his brief imprisonment. After the intercession of Andrew Marvell, his arrest was lifted, and Milton, who had now been blind for six years, retreated from public life to dedicate himself to the composition of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. He died in 1674.

Smith doesn?t flinch from Milton?s didactic prose — he uses the stern writer of Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio and Eikonoklastes (Milton?s refutation of Eikon Basilike — “Image of the King” — a sympathetic portrait published within a few days of the beheading of Charles I) to reveal the metaphysics of divine cosmology, original sin, and free will that would emerge magisterially (if, to the chagrined bafflement of commentators ever since, confusingly) in Paradise Lost. “He is thinking politics in analogies and images — politics as a poet would have it,” Smith writes after parsing a key passage in Milton?s retort to Charles I?s posthumously published brief. Throughout all his work, Milton plumbs two related themes, heresy and rebellion; they become the turbines generating the spark of his thought, from the formal decisions that guide his choice of poetic expression to his investiture of interest in such figures as Satan and Samson. The question of redemption, though, is far from Milton?s thought in doing so. “It is no surprise with these revelations concerning the poetry to find elsewhere in Milton?s writing no engagement in the process of conversion,” Smith writes, “no extensive registering of repentence — in short, no high noon with Saint Augustine. No more can Satan repent. Rather, in so many ways, Milton wants to be the Son. He is Satan. He is Samson. There is no bridge that cancels the deficit.” Rebellion is an activity that Milton recognizes both in his own political theology and in Satan?s grand revolt against the Eternal King. Coming to terms with that fact animates everything the adult Milton writes. Rebellion may ultimately be disdainful, Smith writes, but the poet attempts at least to make it intelligible and to examine all its ramifications, its seeming contradiction to God?s demand of obedience.

Smith is best when teasing apart Milton?s embrace of paradox, or at least his sometimes casuistic ability to fuse the contradictory extremes of a paradox in one deft argument. Swift once remarked that “when Milton writ his book of divorces, it was presently rejected as an occasional treatise; because every body knew, he had a shrew for his wife. Neither can there be any reason imagined, why he might not, after he was blind, have write another upon the danger and inconvenience of eyes.” But Smith elevates the paradoxical disposition of Milton?s thought beyond the public and ecclesiastic debates of the day to demonstrate its centrality to so much of the writer?s understanding of creation. In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Milton wrote that “by his divorcing command the world first rose out of chaos, nor can be renewed again out of confusion but by the separating of unmeet consorts.” This idea of the fecundity of divorce will be forcefully registered again in Paradise Lost — it is crucial to understanding Adam?s relation to God, Eve?s to Adam?s, and above all the form and structure of the Heavenly Cosmos, Earth, Chaos, and Hell.

Still, it?s at times hard to know what to make of Smith?s little book. The boastful come-on of its title, which sounds like a question a bored teaching assistant would assign to students as a take-home exam essay, is never really tested, and Shakespeare doesn?t put in much more than a cameo. Equally asserted but not argued is Milton?s presumed importance to contemporary American debates; Smith denies the Staussian reading of Milton as a figure of authority but never says why, and he disappointingly never engages that view — or for that matter, other dissenting positions on the poet. Worse, he tepidly drops in popular culture references that I can?t imagine being less appropriate to his subject. I never thought I?d read a mention of the metal band Slayer in a text on Milton, but there it is.

Reading Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? one feels there is a larger book waiting to break out of its mold. Johnson eternally skewered Milton by remarking that none ever desired that Paradise Lost be longer. Smith?s costive remarks beg just the opposite.