(p. v) Preface
(p. v) Preface
9 December 2008 saw the 400th anniversary of John Milton's birth. It also saw the publication of the first instalment of Oxford's Complete Works of John Milton—the 1671 Poems, edited by Laura Lunger Knoppers. A further ten volumes will appear over the next few years. The Oxford Works will be the first complete works since the Columbia edition of the 1930s. While the project is still very much ongoing, the editors of these volumes are already excavating new contexts for Milton's life and work and proposing new interpretations of both the poetry and prose. As well as throwing fresh light on all aspects of Milton's writing, the Oxford Works will have to take account of the huge increase in Milton scholarship over the last fifty years. The rise of critical interest in Milton's political and religious prose is perhaps the most striking aspect of Milton studies in recent times, a consequence in great part of the increasingly fluid relations between literary and historical disciplines. The Oxford Works looks set both to embody the interest in Milton's political and religious contexts in the last generation and to inaugurate a new phase in Milton studies through closer integration of the poetry and prose, in particular some of the prose that has been neglected due to the relative rarity, inaccessibility, and age of edited texts.
The Oxford Handbook of Milton similarly seeks to incorporate developments in what can broadly be termed historical criticism over the last twenty years and to place both the poetry and the prose in a more continuous, unfolding biographical and historical context. Consequently this volume is unusual in the amount of space it gives to discussions of the prose while still aiming to offer wide-ranging, diverse interpretations of the poetry, open to the full range of Milton's aesthetic accomplishment in verse. It is divided into eight sections—three on the poetry, three on the prose, arranged in broadly chronological sequence, while the opening essays explore what we know about Milton's biography and what it tells us, and the concluding essays offer perspectives on Milton's massive influence on eighteenth-century and Romantic writers. Several of the volume editors of the Works have also contributed essays to the Handbook, and they have been encouraged to elaborate on their current research in ways that may not be suitable to the formal strictures of an edition. Topics which are currently attracting the most interest in Milton scholarship are thus to the fore in the essays collected here: liberty, encompassing republicanism, national identity, and gender relations; theology, encompassing heresy, toleration, and biblical interpretation; and the history of the book, encompassing issues of editing, publishing, and readership.
(p. vi) But while the space given to discussion of the prose in what follows tends to necessitate engagement with historical context, the contributors, who are based in seven countries and range from veteran Miltonists to relatively new names, were invited with the intention of capturing something of the diversity of critical approaches to the Miltonic canon. Some of the essays on the poetry display the unparalleled virtues of close reading, of exhaustive attention to minute matters of language, form, and rhythm. Yet the rewards of close reading need not be derived only from the verse: essays here illuminate the literary power and intricacy of the prose, in Latin as well as English. Few, however, would deny that the reason why Milton still matters four hundred years on is above all Paradise Lost, and that fact is registered in the eight essays devoted to the epic here. Samson Agonistes has become the most controversial of Milton's works in the light of world events in the last decade and so is given more room in this Handbook than it has found in earlier, less capacious collections.
Of course even thirty-eight essays cannot do justice to the variety and richness of Milton's life, mind, and art. If all thirty-eight essays had been devoted to Paradise Lost, we could still not hope to claim anything like ‘comprehensive’ coverage of the poem; and while we have essays on topics stretching from the Latin verse to the Commonplace Book to the use of Paradise Lost in eighteenth-century gardening manuals, we would like to have found space for greater consideration of, say, Milton's Italian verse, or of the influence of the polemical prose on leading figures of the American and French Revolutions. While we hope that readers find much in the essays below with which they can consent, some will probably discover an approach with which they disagree. It will quickly become evident that the contributors disagree among themselves about how we should read and regard Milton. But that is the point of offering, for instance, four different critical perspectives on Samson Agonistes. The Handbook has been assembled in the spirit of the Miltonic vision of heretical reading in Areopagitica: ‘perfection consists in this, that out of many moderate varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportional arises the goodly and graceful symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure’.
Chapter 3 first appeared in Metaphrastes. Or Gained in Translation: Essays and Translations in Honour of Robert H. Jordan (Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations, 9; Belfast, 2004); we are grateful to the publisher for permission to reproduce it here. Chapter 26 appeared in Review of English Studies, 59 (2008); we are grateful to the editors for permission to reproduce this article.
The editors are indebted to Andrew McNeillie for commissioning us to edit this collection and more generally for his commitment to publishing on Milton, and to Jacqueline Baker for her patience and support during the lengthy process of compiling such a large book. Nicholas McDowell would also especially like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for the award of a 2007 Philip Leverhulme Prize, which granted precious time to work on the volume.
N. McD. and N. S.