Milton Now pp 51-68 | Cite as

“What dost thou in this world?”

  • Jonathan Goldberg
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


Over the last decade or so, Milton criticism has come to be dominated by a group of republican critics. Milton and Republicanism, a 1995 anthology, sought to establish a claim for Milton’s lifelong political commitment to classical republicanism as key to understanding his writing.1 It includes essays by such literary critics as Thomas Corns, Martin Dzelzainis, Nigel Smith, and Nicholas von Maltzahn, all of whom are among the editors of the forthcoming 11-volume Oxford University Press Complete Works of John Milton, which appears to be being launched under the aegis of this critical paradigm. The first volume to appear, volume 2, “The 1671 Poems: Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes” edited by Laura Lunger Knoppers, announces a historicist agenda in its title.2 These poems, the last Milton published, appeared together in 1671; for Knoppers, this means the poems are to be tied to that date and to what she refers to as a “print event” (inexplicable quotation marks accompany her phrase). This thesis shapes the volume’s 100-page introduction, most of which is about Thomas Starkey, the publisher of the volume, and John Macock, its printer. What matters about the poems is their supposed politics. On the basis of Starkey’s list of books, Knoppers argues for his “longstanding interest in republican theory” (xxxv); this made him a “‘kindred spirit’” (xl, more inexplicable quotation marks surround that phrase) for “the republican Milton” (as he is called from the first page of the introduction, xix), “the inveterate republican” (as he is declared just a few lines down).


Paradise Lost Longstanding Interest Republican Theory Kindred Spirit Modernist Poetics 
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  1. 1.
    See David Armitage, Armand Himy, and Quentin Skinner, eds., Milton and Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    All citations from Laura Lunger Knoppers, ed., The Complete Works of John Milton Volume II The 1671 Poems: Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Nigel Smith, Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    All citations from John Milton, The Major Works, ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, 2003). Douglas Lanier links some of these and the features of the poem to which I turn to Milton’s anxieties about publication in “‘Unmarkt, unknown’: Paradise Regained and the Return of the Expressed,” Criticism 37.2 (spring 1995): unpaginated electronic text from Literature Online.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    In The Return to Eden (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), Northrop Frye contrasts these as a beginning in physical generation and a beginning as epiphany, continuing by remarking that in the eastern church nativity serves as epiphany. The point of turning the son’s being in the world into an event of showing is to make identity not a matter of birth, “not the feeling that I am myself and not another, but the realization that there is only one man, one mind, and one world” (142–43). Although Frye’s terms are theocentric, they are capable of pointing in precisely the opposite direction, to a oneness I would associate, philosophically, with the equation of God and Nature in Spinoza, for instance; or to the strand of queer theory represented by recent work by Leo Bersani that reads the “homo” condition as the basis for a universalism, one in which an “impersonal narcissism” could be the basis of a politics that recognizes sameness in difference; on this see inter alia, the final pages of Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 124–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 10.
    Hugh MacCallum, Milton and the Sons of God (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 227.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Gordon Teskey, Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 164 ff. Teskey insists on the full humanity of Jesus and concludes that the poem is telling us that “everything is up to us,” that divinity is not “reserved for a transcendent God” (179). In “Paradise Regained and the Memory of Paradise Lost,” in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 589–612, John Rogers carefully demonstrates that Milton’s Arianism creates a Jesus in the later poem unaware of the Son in the previous epic, and producing thereby a poem with an “out-sized commitment to epistemological equivocation” (612).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 12.
    See Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    See Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). I am grateful to Graham Hammill for drawing my attention to the relevance of this book to Milton, and to him for a chapter on Paradise Regained from his forthcoming The Mosaic Constitution, which historicizes the poem in terms of questions of political theology.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Edward W. Tayler, Milton’s Poetry: Its Development in Time (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1979), brilliantly explores the riddling cross-identifications in the simile, 170–76, only to retreat into what we must know, that Satan and Jesus cannot be identical even if identified; following Tayler, as he acknowledges,Google Scholar
  12. William Kerrigan, The Sacred Complex (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 90, insists on the psychoanalytic and theological rightness of the identification, recalling as well William Dunster’s 1795 bafflement at “him” at 4.583, which must refer to Christ being received by the angels but, grammatically, has to refer to Satan falling. In considering the lines here I also am indebted to recent conversations with Brent Dawson and George Gordon-Smith.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 15.
    Tayler, Milton’s Poetry, 159. These identifications have been further pursued in Stephen Fallon, Milton’s Peculiar Grace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 238–50.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    See T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) and The Sight of Death (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), the latter of which was written at the same time as he participated in the collective production of Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, as he notes in the preface to The Sight of Death, vii, and he wonders later whether “this book is addressed more specifically to the politics of the present than the others I have written,” precisely in the context of “the kinds of critical thinking that images can make possible” (185). That Poussin can do this for Clark could perhaps be put beside the position that Edward Said enunciates in Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso, 2003) about “extraordinary writers and thinkers,” that their “writing travels across temporal, cultural and ideological boundaries in unforeseen ways to emerge as part of a new ensemble along with later history and subsequent art” (24).Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    In addition to Fallon, see Thomas N. Corns, “‘With Unaltered Brow’: Milton and the Son of God,” Milton Studies 42 (2003): 106–21.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    See Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Edwin Curley (London: Penguin, 1996), 71 (IIIP2S).Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    David Norbrook, “Republican Occasions in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes,” Milton Studies 42 (2003): 122–48.Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    Barbara K. Lewalski, The Life of John Milton (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), notes that Beale’s letters to John Evelyn constitute the earliest responses to Paradise Lost; she devotes a paragraph on page 458 to his interest in and admiration for Milton and then, not missing a beat, to his objection to Milton’s republicanism. Like Knoppers, Lewalski finds no need to reconcile the facts she purports to deliver; not surprisingly, her information about Beale’s objections to Milton’s republicanism are fetched from an essay by Nicholas van Maltzahn, which also lies behind Norbrook and Knoppers. The way republican critics only quote from other republican critics also can be seen in the bibliography to Smith’s Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare, which almost without exception directs readers to criticism by other republican critics.Google Scholar

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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Jonathan Goldberg

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