Milton is the greatest English poet whom it is possible for serious readers to dislike. There are no fans of Marlowe, Jonson or Webster who cannot also find pleasure in Shakespeare; there are no admirers of Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who cannot also appreciate The Canterbury Tales. But it is not hard to find enthusiastic readers of Marvell or Spenser or Dryden or Donne who cannot warm to Milton, and make no apology for it. Anti-Milton sentiment became respectable literary opinion with the Modernists. Woolf thought of Milton as the 'first of the masculinists', a judgment since echoed by many. Eliot blamed him for the 'dissociation of sensibility'; Pound deplored 'his asinine bigotry, his beastly hebraism, the coarseness of his mentality'. More widespread these days is the belief, common among those who encounter Milton as required reading, that his poetry is difficult, humourless, unsexy and, heaven forbid, theological. Though the academic Milton industry is thriving, it sometimes has a strain of defensiveness, an impulse to champion its man; and this often results in efforts to make Milton ideologically acceptable to present-day liberal opinion. Joseph Wittreich has been one of the staunchest proponents of those efforts, and his latest book sums up and extends the themes of his previous work.
LRB 6 March 2008 | PDF Download