So, to Paulin’s piece on Milton and his illustrators in the Guardian yesterday. I thought it was going along pretty nicely until the following happened, three paras in. He’s talking about Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes:
These works are coded accounts of the defeat of the English Commonwealth, and prophesy the fall of the Stuarts and the reintroduction of a republican state.
Is that it? Is that what you have to say about them? That they’re basically ‘about’ politics? The dynastic politics of the later seventeenth century? Is that really it?
Back in the day, if I remember my anecdotes correctly, he caused a stir at Nottingham with a lecture course entitled ‘Romanticism from Rousseau to Hitler’. Maybe that was a killer back in the 80s – hey! literature’s political! – but it’s not a shocking or interesting idea now. Saying that Paradise Lost is about Republicanism is about the least interesting comment that you can make on the text. It might blow the mind of an undergraduate who’s spent their teens lost in the beauties of Keats, but it’s hardly a shocker to anyone who’s looked at this stuff for more than a second.
If you want to understand Paradise Lost in context, if you want a complex reading that places it as a politico-religious text of C17th England, then go for it. Get the history straight, read De Doctrina Christiana, find MS references to PL in the BL. I’m not convinced that you’ll end up enjoying it more; in fact, I think you’ll have a lot less fun with the poem. You’ll have a damn hard time, too, persuading other people to like it, if you lay it out as a big radical poem, keep going on about figurations of revolution in the text, and can only argue about Cromwell and Fairfax when reading book II.
That unpersuasiveness is my problem with the piece: Milton gets in the papers, and Paulin makes him sound two-dimensional, a political nag who has something to do with the Glorious Revolution (or, as Paulin calls it ‘a Dutch invasion organised by a group of Whig aristocrats’; accurate, but again not as startling as I think he thinks it is.) It’s an attempt to popularise a mode of interpretation which I’ve come not to trust, as it does flatten the reading experience: everything becomes context and history.
Paulin’s reading of Milton and Romanticism as a join-the-dots history of English radicalism is depressing. It takes poetry, the junction of complexity, beauty and density in literature, and cuts it down to a sequence of political encodings. It’s dour and utilitarian and unimaginative, reductionism masquerading as tough-mindedness.
The annoying thing is that he’s not exactly wrong, just blinkered. God knows I’m not demanding that more readers should be worse-informed (although there’s a strange appeal to that idea as I think about it), it just seems frustrating to close down the aesthetic, the sensual, the verbal, the sexual, the intertextual (just in terms of influence and descendants, there’s no-one more interesting than Milton in this respect) the everydamnthing else in this way.
As Paulin would be quick to point out, his distrust of the aesthetic is typically protestant, as is his tendency to wrangle texts into allegory. Check out his reading of the close of PL:
Adam and Eve, who symbolise the defeated English people, here leave the ruins of republican England to face an uncertain future under the Restoration.
That makes almost no sense to me. To write that sentence, I think you have to ignore the fact that A&E are, to Milton, real historical figures, and the fall of man a real event. There’s a sleight-of-hand somewhere in there, making a subsidiary aspect of the poem the dominant. It’s a weird perversion from a critic so concerned with religion to miss the main fact about it, i.e. that people believe it.
It’s so tiresome mapping everything onto politics: it’s the dread that falls when you start blithely shit-shooting with a body, but then realise that they’ve got a party line: you’re being lined up for an Alpha Course, the SWP, or Lacanian analysis.
Time to stop. This is meta-criticism, and not particularly healthy. I’ve nothing personally against Paulin, and won’t mention either his poetry or Late Show persona (one I like, one I dislike). The exhibition sounds great.
I should also say this isn’t meant as a general slam on academia, which is full of good scholars and critics doing extraordinary research and readings which can scrub a text so it shines in a whole new way.
Probably has more to do with me. A declaration of interest, for those who care. I used to do this for a living, or at least an AHRB grant resembling a living. In fact, it was quite specifically this: I was a Drydenist, but there was a lot of Milton in there. Here’s a wayback page that’s got a link to a pdf of me in the HLQ (it’s prestigious, I promise). I got very, very sick of putting everything in context, and arguing for precise political location of texts. It was useful (and good training) in some ways, but it seemed to be getting further and further from literature. What I was doing bore no relationship to books and poems and everything they’d given me.
In the end, I wasn’t sure I liked what I did to Dryden. The essay I’ve linked to above was early; I was more of a reader, less of a scholar as time went on. I tried to make the thesis good and true: it felt wrong to treat a writer’s bones as rungs on the career ladder. I’m not sure I managed it well enough.