His wan, stern, somewhat feminine face gazes down on me as I write, Cromwell’s Latin Secretary, surely a figure that no one today can warm to or make a song and dance about. Britain, so fond of money-spinning centenaries, treated the fourth centenary of his birth in 2008 as an occasion for recycling old clichés: How horrible to be married to him! How unkind he was to his daughters! The celebrations were remarkable for their non-occurrence. Instead we had snide articles in The Guardian and The Spectator with such titles as ‘Milton was a prig and a bore.’ Here is what Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian, December 12, 2008:
‘Milton lacks the qualities now considered essential in a poet: concision, humour, or romance. As Dr Johnson said of Paradise Lost: “No one ever wished it longer.” Readers can handle the poignancy of “On His Blindness” and snatch pleasure from the great quotes. But the imagery and subject matter of the epics are rooted in a theology and mythology that today are gone.’ Jenkins knows little about poetry, and of Milton he recalls only the most familiar quotes: ‘Lycidas, supposedly an “honest shepherd,” is an elegy on a dead friend, a mix of pagan myths and Puritan Christianity. The least we owe it is, “Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new,” even if most people say fields for woods. Milton’s poetic works were couched in inverted Latinate sentences, their imaginative power dependent on the reader’s familiarity with the Bible and God, Satan, archangels, devils, damnation and redemption, or the classics and Zeus, Neptune, Prometheus, Ariadne and Clio. Such allusions would have been rich with meaning to those educated in the 17th to 19th centuries. By the second half of the 20th they were largely empty. God and Satan seem forever perched on the poet’s shoulders. Milton described sex as a “brutish congress” with “two carcasses chained unnaturally together.” With such a man for a husband it is unsurprising that his first wife ran screaming back to her parents within a month. That Milton can seem emotionally impenetrable has nothing to do with his language. His English is modern compared with the more popular Chaucer or Shakespeare. Yet both these writers have an accessibility, a capacity to come alive before our eyes. They display earthy English humanism that is absent from Milton, or which has to be mined from deep within his work. This, and their sense of humour, keeps them evergreen.’
Happily, there are some people who are still able to read; here is one reply from the Jenkins article combox:
‘I fell in love with Milton when I was at school and love all his works - the prose and the poetry. I’m hoping to re-read Paradise Lost this Christmas for the pleasure it provides on so many levels, from the music of the words to the intelligence and thought behind them. Although it may seek to “justify the ways of God to man,” the poem is also full of questioning complexity addressing the difficult question of when obedience is right and when rebellion is demanded. Without a framework of religious belief, neither Milton nor the Diggers and Levellers would have been able to question so much about the state in which they lived. Today most people imply different ethical systems when they criticise or seek to overturn unjust laws and governments. One of the most interesting things about reading literature is the opportunity to experience a range of perspectives on the world. Sometimes I read for cosy reassurance but I also want books that extend my knowledge and understanding of a range of civilizations past and present.
‘Simon Jenkins may consider Milton’s poetry difficult and unfit for modern readers who are unfamiliar with his frame of reference. But he was widely read by working-class readers in the 19th century - and they found the process sufficiently rewarding to seek understanding of Milton’s classical frame of reference. The self-educated cobbler’s wife, Janet Hamilton, read Milton before she taught herself to write and dictated an essay on him which was published. (She preferred Paradise Regained to Paradise Lost.) And Thomas Cooper, the Leicester Chartist, had learned the first three books of Paradise Lost by heart before his twenty-first birthday; its influence is apparent on the long poem he wrote in gaol - The Purgatory of Suicides. He also lectured on Milton and the English Commonwealth after his release. If we read Milton for nothing else, we should read him for the breadth of his influence.
‘Today the internet makes it easy to follow up Milton’s references and the cadences of his intricate sentences are as delightful as ever. And I’d like to draw Simon Jenkins’ attention to the detailed discussion of “amorous delights” in Book VIII of Paradise Lost. Adam finds so much pleasure in sex with Eve that he wants to know whether the Archangel Raphael also has a satisfying sex life. At this innocent question, the Archangel blushes before reassuring Adam that angels have really great sex. As Raphael puts it:
Let it suffice thee that thou know’st
Us happie, and without Love no happiness.
Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy’st
(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
In eminence, and obstacle find none
Of membrane, joynt, or limb, exclusive barrs:
Easier then Air with Air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure
Desiring; nor restrain’d conveyance need
As Flesh to mix with Flesh, or Soul with Soul. (VIII, 620-629)’
Jenkins misrepresents the poet’s attitude to marital sex, glowingly described in Paradise Lost, IV, 736-75, admittedly in a prelapsarian setting, with a contrasting postlapsarian pendant in IX, 1034-63). The ‘brutish congress’ passage cited by Jenkins refers to forced sex between a couple who do not love one another; Milton is saying much the same thing as Blake, Shelley and Lawrence would say. It is simply lazy thinking to imagine that Milton, because he was a Puritan, must have had a negative attitude to sex or an Augustinian suspicion of it. If anything, Milton was a sexual liberal (though not a libertine).
Milton, we were told, was a sexist – ‘He for God only, she for God in him’; no mention of other passages in which the equality of man and woman is stressed in a way that puts Milton ahead of his time. The texts asserting female subordination are based on St. Paul, in any case. We were told that it must have been unpleasant to be Milton’s wife – no mention of his elegiac sonnet for his second wife or his happy third marriage (which A. N. Wilson gratuitously calls a licenced concubinage). The third wife protected her blind husband against his daughters’ pilferings better than the critics have against their médisances.
Dr Johnson has a lot to answer for. His dog-in-the-manger criticisms of Milton have been taken up by lazy academics and journalists who are unwilling or unable to read and enjoy. Meanwhile the literary masterpiece for which Johnson is best remembered was written by somebody else. His remark that no one wished Milton’s epic longer is not ‘unanswerable’: that a great long work of art is not wished longer is a testimony to the completeness of its achievement. No one wished the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante, longer, nor the operas of Mozart for that matter.
Milton is portrayed as icy, yet he wrote some of the most moving poetry in English. He is portrayed as self-obsessed, yet he confined his remarks on his tragic experiences, including blindness, to a few well chosen lines – a sonnet, the proem to Paradise Lost III and the opening monologue of Samson Agonistes. He was too classic an artist to revel in self-pity, preferring to build an edifice ad maiorem gloriam Dei.
Milton as a man had sterling qualities of heroism and integrity. As a poet he is inexhaustible. The intertextual density of his writing is what most offends his compatriots. To understand him fully one would need to study six or seven foreign languages, Latin and Italian being essential. As in the case of Shelley, such continental leanings do not endear a writer to the self-enclosed English-speaking culture.
The French do not trash Corneille or Racine, nor the Italians Dante, Ariosto or Tasso. Why do the British insist on tearing down their greatest thinkers and artists? He is a staple author and there is a busy but quiet industry of Milton scholarship, but his name has not figured at the centre of any major literary or ideological controversy in recent decades. The relative inertness of his mass of writings is probably due to the incapacity of contemporary British culture to respond creatively to his poetic and historical greatness, as well as the incapacity of Departments of English Literature to come up with new creative approaches to his work.
Even in so humble a matter as punctuation, literary critics can fail Milton in disheartening ways, as I discovered when teaching the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost. While Alisdair Fowler in his edition (London: Longman, 1971) modernized the spelling of the poem but ‘reproduced old punctuation with diplomatic faithfulness’ (p. vii), warning that to tamper with punctuation can involve falsifying the tone, rhythm and syntax of the poem, Teskey believes that the punctuation of the two editions of the poem to appear in Milton’s lifetime has ‘no authority’ (p. xii) as the blind poet left the punctuation to be decided by the person taking dictation. (But one of Milton’s amanuenses was his nephew Edward Phillips, who should deserve trust, even if we believe that Milton did not check the punctuation.) ‘I have therefore punctuated as lightly as possible, that is, only where for lack of a comma the reader would take a wrong turn and be forced to go back’ (ib.).
This sounds innocuous, though one may doubt if Milton would have wished to preserve his readers from wrong turns that have to be corrected. However, in reality, Teskey’s treatment of the punctuation does not correspond at all to the programme he announces here. In general his punctuation is far heavier than that of the 1674 edition, since he multiplies full stops, slowing the movement of the poem and breaking its rhythm, as well as on occasion breaking up a single sentence into ungrammatical segments. The publisher’s blurb on the back cover of Teskey’s edition says: ‘Spelling and punctuation have been modernized, the latter, importantly, within the limits imposed by Milton’s syntax.’ In fact, Milton’s syntax has been impaired in many places.
Barbara K. Lewalski’s edition of the poem (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) provides the best antidote to Teskey’s erratic edition; she is praised by the Milton Quarterly for ‘her sound decision to reproduce the original language, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and italics of the 1674 text.’ None of these form a serious barrier to understanding, and there is no reason why they should not be placed before any student of the text at university level.
Teskey regularly puts full stops where the 1674 text has commas or semi-colons. This is sometimes welcome, as at IX, 356. But often it brings the poetry to an abrupt halt and breaks its rhythm, as in I, 34: ‘Th’infernal serpent. He it was whose guile’; the abrupt three-word sentence is not Miltonic style, and rhythmically brings the verse to a violent stop. ‘He it was whose guile’ then becomes a laborious new beginning, rather that being carried along by the momentum of the preceding three words, which Milton no doubt intended to be the subject of the sentence running from line 34 to line 44, in apposition with ‘he.’ Teskey’s punctuation has thus not only spoiled the rhythm of the passage, but tampered with Milton’s grammar.
More disturbingly, the full stops sometimes cut up a sentence into ungrammatical segments. Thus the full stop introduced in I, 78 leaves the three lines following it isolated even though they do not form a sentence:
the companions of his fall...
He soon discerns. And welt’ring by his side
One next himself in pow’r and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine and named
Beelzebub. (I, 76, 78-81)
Milton is a grammatical writer, who does not leave incomplete sentences lying about. Beelzebub is the object of the verb ‘discerns,’ from which it is here brutally cut off. Generally Teskey misses the long periodic structures that are the backbone of Milton’s style, replacing them with short sentences that suggest a jumpy and impressionistic approach to his verse.
In IV, 5 Teskey again cuts off a clause from the sentence to which it belongs, starting instead a new ‘sentence’ that reads as follows:
While time was, our first parents had been warned
The coming of their secret foe and ‘scaped,
Haply so ‘scaped, his mortal snare. (IV, 5-8)
Here is another incomplete, ungrammatical ‘sentence’:
As one whose drouth
Yet scarce allayed still eyes the current stream
Whose liquid murmur heard new thirst excites
Proceeded thus to ask his Heav’nly guest: (VII, 66-9).
To be grammatical, ‘his Heav’nly guest’ should be the subject of this sentence. In fact the subject is ‘Adam’ in line 59.
IV, 288-94 reads:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native Honour clad
In naked Majestie seemd Lords of all,
And worthie seemd, for in thir looks Divine
The image of thir glorious Maker shon,
Truth, Wisdome, Sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom plac’t;
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honor clad
In naked majesty, seemed lords of all.
And worthy seemed for in their looks divine
The image of their glorious Maker shone:
Truth, wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom placed,
The full stop here falsifies the meaning of the ensuing ‘And worthy seemed’; the meaning is that they worthily seemed lords of all, not that they seemed worthy in general. Also the colon after ‘shone’ makes it seem that the image of God consists in ‘truth, wisdom, sanctitude,’ whereas these are in apposition with ‘looks divine.’
For one of many examples where periods spoil the movement and vividness of a series of sentences, see VI, 210-3:
and the madding wheels
Of brazen chariots raged. Dire was the noise
Of conflict. Overhead the dismal hiss
Of fiery darts in flaming volleys flew
Isolated as a separate sentence ‘Dire was the noise/Of conflict’ (set off by semi-colons in Milton) punctures the exciting movement of the battle scene and makes a lamentably flat impression.
UNGRAMMATICAL COMMAS, ETC.
1. Teskey puts a comma in the middle of I, 9: ‘In the beginning, how the heav’ns and earth’, creating the confusing impression that ‘in the beginning’ goes with ‘That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed’ (I, 8), whereas the absence of the comma makes clear that it goes with the following words as in Genesis 1:1. The added comma ruins one of Milton’s beautiful effects. The placing of the phrase ‘in the beginning’ long before the verb it qualifies (‘rose’) underscores the echo of Genesis and makes one feel the majesty of that first beginning. In reciting the poem there should be no pause after ‘beginning’; the comma after ‘seed’ marks a pause before we hear, all in one go, the sublime teaching of the shepherd: ‘In the beginning how the heavens and earth rose out of Chaos.’ A poor reciter of the poem might initially put a pause after ‘In the beginning,’ but on revision he would correct it and read the line without a pause; by his punctuation Teskey has canonized and perpetuated what would be the initial error of a first-time reader.
they around the flag
Of each his Faction, in thir several Clanns,
Light-arm’d or heavy, sharp, smooth, swift or slow,
Swarm populous, unnumber’d as the Sands
Of Barca or Cyrene’s torrid soil,
Levied to side with warring Winds, and poise
Thir lighter wings. (II, 900-6)
They around the flag
Of each his faction in their several clans,
Light-armed or heavy, sharp, smooth, swift or slow,
Swarm populous, unnumbered as the sands
Of Barca or Cyrenè’s torrid soil,
Levied to side with warring Winds and poise
Thir lighter wings.
The omission of the comma after ‘winds’ is ungrammatical if it is the ‘sands’ of the simile rather than the atoms that are ‘levied’ (and awkward even if not). Fowler also speaks of the atoms as being levied, but the warring winds fit better in the context of the simile; the scene of Chaos is not one of warring winds but a war of the four elements. Would they ‘poise’ (add weight to) their wings if they were fighting for winds?
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veild. (III, 19-26)
Teskey’s only punctuation here is a full stop after ‘rare’ and a comma after ‘dawn.’ The question here is one of taste rather than grammar, but it certainly seems to me that the original punctuation adds beauty to the lines that is lost when they are stripped of it. This comment would have to be repeated for every part of the poem. Teskey also eliminates the commas in ‘Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,/Smit with the love of sacred song’ (28-29), where they are the very least serve as useful prompts for a slow and contemplative or elegiac reading of the lines. He changes ‘Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath’ (30) to ‘Thee, Sion, and the flow’ry brooks beneath,’ which may alter the rhythm.
if no better place,
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wrongd. (IV, 385-7)
If no better place,
Thank Him who puts me, loath to this revenge,
On you who wrong me not for Him who wronged.
This gives the nonsensical ‘thank him who puts me on you’ instead of ‘thank him who puts me to this revenge on you.’ A comma after loath would be true to the sense.
Such ambush hid among sweet flow’rs and shades,
Waited with hellish rancor imminent
To intercept thy way. (IX, 408-10)
The comma added after ‘shades’ makes the past participle ‘hid’ into an active verb: Satan went into hiding and then waited – but that is not Milton’s meaning. One does not say that an ambush hides, but that it is hidden.
they towards the Throne Supream
Accountable made haste to make appear
With righteous plea, thir utmost vigilance,
And easily approv’d; when the most High
Eternal Father from his secret Cloud,
Amidst in Thunder utter’d thus his voice.
They towards the throne supreme
Accountable made haste to make appear
With righteous plea their utmost vigilance,
And easily approved when the Most High
Eternal Father from His secret cloud,
Amidst in Thunder uttered thus His voice. (X, 28-33)
With no semi-colon after ‘approved,’ the reader may miss the fact that this is a past participle – their vigilance is approved, i.e. confirmed (see Fowler ad loc.). Instead one is misled into reading it as an active verb: they approved (intransitive! – a too modern usage) when the Father spoke.
where the Sword of Michael smote, and fell’d
Squadrons at once, with huge two-handed sway
Brandisht aloft the horrid edge came down
Wide wasting. (VI, 250-3)
where the sword of Michael smote and felled
Squadrons at once with huge two-handed sway:
Brandished aloft the horrid edge came down
Wide wasting. (VI, 250-3)
‘With huge two-handed sway/Brandisht aloft’ is a vivid picture lost in Teskey. When the first four words are cut off from ‘Brandished aloft’ the movement from the brandishing to the coming down is too quick.
A few lines later we have another such colon:
‘Author of evil, unknown till thy revolt,
Unnamed in Heav’n, now plenteous, as thou seest:
These acts of hateful strife, hateful to all…’ (VI, 262-4)
Teskey takes ‘plenteous’ to qualify ‘evil,’ whereas in Milton’s punctuation it qualifies ‘acts of hateful strife,’ which gives a better sense. The adjective ‘plenteous’ fits better with a plural noun. ‘Plenteous these acts of hateful strife’ makes a sentence, whereas what comes after the ill-judged colon is again a mere noun clause lying about disjointed. The verb ‘seest’ cannot govern this noun clause in Teskey’s version, for it governs ‘now plenteous [evil].’
In addition to the proliferation of full stops, Teskey also liberally sprinkles the texts with new exclamation marks and question marks, as well as occasional dashes. There are some rare exclamation marks in the 1674 text, as in I, 75: ‘O how unlike the place from which they fell!’ Teskey’s lavish use of them gives a cartoon-like emphasis to Milton’s lines. Examples: ‘And none but such from mercy I exclude!’ (III, 202); ‘Man shall find grace!’ (III, 227); ‘Ingrate! He had of Me/All he could have’ – this lends an intonation of excited indignation to God’s words, where a certain resigned sadness is more appropriate; ‘O! for that warning voice’ (IV, 1); ‘None arguing stood!’ (VI, 508); ‘Fit audience find, though few!’ (VII, 31); ‘Sad task!’ (IX, 13); ‘O Woman!’ (IX, 343). This plague of exclamation marks falsifies the tone of the Miltonic voice. Milton’s eloquence relies on vocabulary and syntax, and has no need of extra emphasis. The extra emphasis actually weakens the poetry.
The use of exclamation marks tends to trivialize the lofty theological utterances of the poem: ‘Father, Thy word is past: Man shall find grace!’ (III, 227); ‘Adore Him who to compass all this dies!/Adore the Son and honor Him as Me!’ (III, 342-3). God’s commands of creation in Book VII are furnished with quotation marks (as are all quotes within the narratives of Raphael) and exclamation marks, which are particularly inappropriate as there are none in Genesis: ‘when God said/“Be gathered now, ye waters under heav’n/Into one place and let dry land appear!”‘ (VII, 282-4). Absurdly, quotation marks are added in the following lines: ‘“Creator” him they sung/Both when first evening was an when first morn’ (VII, 259-60); ‘And heav’n he named the “firmament”‘ (VII, 274); ‘congregated waters he called “seas”‘ (VII, 308).
Emphatic punctuation actually loses the sense on occasion, as at IV, 52-3, where
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome, still paying, still to ow;
The debt immense of endless gratitude
So burdensome—still paying! still to owe!—
What is ‘burdensome’ is not ‘paying’ and ‘to owe’ as such, but ‘always to owe though one is always paying.’
Similarly misleading is this passage:
who him received
With joy and acclamations loud, that one
That of so many myriads fall’n—yet one!—
Returned not lost. (VI, 22-5)
My interpretation of these lines is that the line ‘That of so many myriads fall’n, yet one’ is an augmentation of the previous line’s ‘that one.’ The repeated ‘one’ is the subject of the verb ‘returned,’ whereas Teskey obscures this simple grammar, making it seem that the phrase ‘that of so many myriads fall’n’ is a relative clause attached to the preceding ‘one.’ The grammar would be clearer if Milton had placed a comma at the end of both lines, or at least at the end of the first, but it is nonetheless quite clear. Teskey’s isolation of ‘yet one’ by dashes makes a hash of the lines.
Milton uses italics for names, but Teskey introduces italics for emphasis, something foreign to Milton and liable to alter radically the rhythm and sense of a passage:
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (III, 51-5)
In Teskey this becomes:
So much the rather thou, celestial Light,
Shine inward and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate. There plant eyes. All mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
Notice that by dividing the passage into three sentences, Teskey connects the closing ‘that I may see’ only with the purging of mist, not with the more crucial ‘shine inward’ and ‘there plant eyes’. The italicized ‘there’ is meaningless, since it suggests that the Celestial light might be planting eyes elsewhere instead. Note also that in capitalizing ‘light’ instead of ‘celestial’ Teskey jettisons the contrast between an inner celestial light and the outer light of day.
Here is another example of italics for emphasis:
By Thee I live
Though now to Death I yield and am his due:
All that of Me can die.
This makes the Son sound too self-consciously emphatic.
Again we have:
I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon (IV, 462-4)
Here the smooth mirroring of the clauses, correlated with Eve’s self-mirroring in the lake, modelled on the Narcissus legend, is spoilt by the emphasis of the italics.
Often at the end of long periods that are grammatically a question Milton omits the question mark, as it would intrude in a distracting way on the rhythm and intonation of the verse. Teskey frequently, but not consistently, introduces question marks in a fussy way, irrespective of the consequences. Again, the effect is sometimes to alter the sense and introduce ungrammatical divisions.
But since thou hast voutsaf’t
Gently for our instruction to impart
Things above Earthly thought, which yet concernd
Our knowing, as to highest wisdom seemd,
Deign to descend now lower, and relate
What may no less perhaps availe us known,
How first began this Heav’n which we behold
Distant so high, with moving Fires adornd
Innumerable, and this which yeelds or fills
All space, the ambient Aire wide interfus’d
Imbracing round this florid Earth, what cause
Mov’d the Creator in his holy Rest
Through all Eternitie so late to build
In Chaos, and the work begun, how soon
Absolv’d, if unforbid thou maist unfould
What wee, not to explore the secrets aske
Of his Eternal Empire, but the more
To magnifie his works, the more we know.
But since thou hast vouchsafed
Gently for our instruction to impart
Things above earthly thought (which yet concerned
Our knowing, as to Highest Wisdom seemed)
Deign to descend now lower and relate
What may no less perhaps avail us known:
How first began this heav’n which we behold
Distant so high with moving fires adorned
Innumerable and this which yields or fills
All space, the ambient air wide interfused
Embracing round this florid earth? What cause
Moved the Creator in His holy rest
Through all eternity so late to build
In chaos and, the work begun, how soon
Absolved? If unforbid thou may’st unfold
What we, not to explore the secrets ask
Of His eternal empire but the more
To magnify His works the more we know,
The question marks make the list of topics, governed by the verb ‘relate,’ into separate interrogative sentences. This leaves the last four lines dangling as an incomplete sentence, which the replacement of the final full stop by a comma connects with what follows (‘And the great light of day yet wants to run/Much of his race’) in a way that makes no sense. Lewalski (p. xxxiv) also notes that the parentheses enclosing ‘which yet… seemed’ create ‘a strong subordination not necessarily intended.’ Note the difference in rhythm between ‘In chaos, and the work begun, how soon/Absolved’ and ‘In chaos and, the work begun, how soon/Absolved?’ The phrase reads better as a topic of report rather than as a direct question. Note how the capitalized pronouns draw rhythmic emphasis away from where it should fall – on ‘rest’ or ‘empire’ rather than the preceding possessive pronouns.
so bent he seems
On desperat revenge, that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head. (III, 84-6)
Teskey places a question-mark at the end here, because the sentence had begun with ‘seest thou’ (III, 80), but an interrogative intonation does not suit the declarative character of the immediately preceding lines; God’s question to the Son is merely rhetorical in any case; it is pedantic to insist on attaching the question-mark. There are many more of these intrusive and distracting question-marks:
Whose but his own? (III, 96-7)
Say Heav’nly Powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Mans mortal crime, and just th’ unjust to save,
Dwels in all Heaven charitie so deare? (III, 213-16)
Teskey adds question-marks to the first and third lines here. The effect is to split God’s questions up inappropriately. They are three formulations of the same question, as the single question mark better indicates.
And shall grace not find means, that finds her way,
The speediest of thy winged messengers,
To visit all thy creatures, and to all
Comes unprevented, unimplor’d, unsought,
Happie for man, so coming; (III, 228-32)
Teskey introduces another interruptive question-mark after ‘unsought.’
Wouldst thou approve thy constancy? Approve
First thy obedience! Th’other who can know
Not seeing thee attempted, who attest? (IX, 366-7)
The first question mark is Teskey’s, the second Milton’s. ‘Wouldst thou approve’ is not a question but a conditional clause, ‘if thou wouldst approve,’ and ‘approve first thy obedience,’ is not a separate sentence. The exclamation mark is totally inapposite.
At VI, 219 the question mark is Milton’s but the capitalization of the ensuing word is not; its effect is to create another ungrammatical ‘sentence’:
What wonder? When
Millions of fierce encount’ring angels fought
On either side… (VI, 219-21)
Teskey systematically capitalizes pronouns referring to God, which adds an unsuitable note of reverences to the devils’ speeches. He also capitalizes pronouns referring to the Son, which may conflict with Milton’s Arian theology. Yet he decapitalizes the ‘Thou’ referring to the Holy Spirit in I, 17, 19. On one occasion this capitalization is erroneous: ‘that He no less/At length from us shall find who overcomes/By force hath overcome but half His foe’ (I, 647-9)’; the ‘His’ in this adage does not refer to God but to any person. Inconsistently, the personal pronouns for the Son are not always capitalized :
Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave
His prey nor suffer my unspotted soul
For ever with corruption there to dwell
In Book VII Teskey seems to have forgotten about capitalizing the pronouns for God (VII, 259, 269, 274, 309, 353, 355, 359, 374) but they are capitalized in VII 516-17, 524, 526, 528, 548. In ‘Let us now make Man in our image, Man/In our similitude’ (VII, 519-20) the capitalization is Milton’s; but logically Teskey should have capitalized ‘our.’ In VII, 553-7 ‘He’ is capitalized but not ‘his.’
I do not know if it is a misprint or an editorial decision that leads to the alteration of word order in I, 159, where ‘To do aught good never will be our task’ appears as ‘To do aught good will never be our task,’ imposing a crude, unmusical rhythm alien to Milton’s subtly moving style. Other misprints include I, 398 ‘Argon’ for ‘Argob’ (correct in the Glossary, p. 551); VI, 189, ‘a noble stoke’ for ‘stroke’; XI, 147, ‘one short sigh of human breath upborn,’ for ‘upborne.’ (Teskey modernizes Milton’s ‘born’ in VI, 33: ‘And for the testimony of truth hast borne’; also VI, 544.)
Teskey’s notes are sometimes irritating. On IX, 373, ‘Go, for thy stay, not free, absents thee more,’ he comments: ‘The truest thing said in this poem,’ – an intrusive comment that rather trivializes the poem. ‘Honor dishonorable’ (IV, 314; this is also Milton’s spelling) earns the gloss: ‘A tedious paradox.’ The guides to pronunciation, in Books I-II are of doubtful worth. Teskey would have us read ‘Exile or ignominy or bonds or pain’ (II, 207) as ‘Exile or ignomin-yor bonds or pain.’ I always thought one should pronounce this line is ‘Exile or ignomy or bonds or pain.’ Teskey’s comment on the opening of Book III finds Milton giving three theories of the origin of physical light, all of them in contradiction with Genesis 1. He fails to advert that Milton is primarily referring to an eternal light. There is an entry for ‘Samarchand’ in the index, referring to IX, 389; but in the text itself the spelling is altered to ‘Samarkand.’ It is inaccurate to say that Milton identifies the Holy Spirit with ‘his own creative power, and that the persons of the Trinity are ‘the three equal parts of God’ (p. 581).
I have indulged in pedantic nit-picking, which is exactly the service that any edition of a classic text requires. Since this is an edition that is designed to find its way into the hands of university students all over the world, such faults as I have found are particularly regrettable. Milton himself was the supreme perfectionist among English writers, and each word he sets down resonates with countless links to European theological and literary tradition from Homer down to Tasso, from Genesis to Arminius. All of this is at the service of telling a momentous story in the grandest epical style. The excitement of such a project and its masterful realization is such that it demands no jazzing up, no tampering, but rather deep respect that seeks to do justice to each of the poet’s fine intentions.