“England a Free Nation”: Milton’s Prose and the Ancient Constitution
At the start of “Milton and Bentley,” William Empson writes that “English critics adopt a curious air of social superiority to Bentley; he is the Man who said the Tactless Thing,”1 and the same can be said of Empson himself. Although he remains a constant presence, Miltonists usually cite Empson so as to refute him.2 As we have seen, Empson’s point about Bentley is that despite his eccentric ideas about the textual issues surrounding Paradise Lost, he, nonetheless, “raised several important questions about Milton’s use of language”—questions that should not be dismissed or explained away.3 The same can be said of Empson himself,4 whose “tactlessness” lies in his tendency toward making such assertions as “The picture of God in the poem … is astonishingly like Uncle Joe Stalin; the same patience under an appearance of roughness, the same flashes of joviality, the same thorough unscrupulousness, the same real bad temper.”5 Such statements retain their power to shock, and they have (understandably) upset Milton’s critics who rushed to prove Empson wrong.6
KeywordsFree Nation Ancient Constitution Paradise Lost English Subject Marriage Contract
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