As part of the ongoing celebration of Milton’s fourth century, Frank Kermode has reviewed three new books on Milton in the NYRB. It’s gratifying to see that he keeps Johnson at the center of his review, devoting a large block of his text to some of the best parts of Johnson’s Life of Milton (1779):

Johnson was, understandably, reluctant to be Milton’s biographer, remarking that there already existed plenty of biographies of the poet, based on much “minute enquiry”; but another was thought necessary to preserve the uniformity of his Lives of the Poets. He wrote it in 1779, in six weeks, obviously against the grain; and despite its cantankerousness it remains the best biography. With due respect to the scholars who have conducted so much more “minute enquiry,” no other is so brilliantly written, scathing yet sourly deferential.

Milton, as a young man beautiful as well as clever, had a good if pious opinion of himself. He appended dates to his juvenile Latin compositions, and Johnson sneers at him for the vanity of his desire to prove his “vernal fertility.” Yet he recognizes Milton as the first Englishman to write Latin verses “with classick elegance.” It is recorded that the poet performed well as a student at Cambridge, but according to Johnson nobody really liked him there. There is a dubious tradition that he was whipped by his tutor, and Johnson feels obliged, with feigned reluctance, to mention it. When Milton is reputed to have read “all the Greek and Latin writers,” Johnson is ironical: “With what limitations this universality is to be understood who shall inform us?”

In an autobiographical excursus in one of his ecclesiastical tracts, Milton speaks of his long stay in Italy, and claims that he sacrificed a planned visit to Sicily and Greece when news reached him of the threat of armed conflict between Charles I and his parliamentary opponents. He thought it wrong to be enjoying what is now called a gap year at a time when his countrymen, preparing to fight for their freedom, were entitled to his assistance. But he paid visits to Lucca and Venice before returning to London via Geneva, after an absence of fifteen months. Back home, he settled down pacifically to act as schoolmaster to his two nephews. No doubt his swordsmanship, on which he prided himself, might still be useful; but he chose a sedentary trade. “Let not our veneration for Milton,” says Johnson,

forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performance, on the man who hastens home because his countrymen are contending for their liberty, and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school.

Whenever Milton speaks with due reverence of the Christian faith Johnson approves, but in political and ecclesiastical controversy he finds the poet’s manner very offensive: “such is his malignity that hell grows darker at his frown.” So, with evident distaste and occasional praise, Johnson works his way through a writer he deeply disliked but who, in carefully limited respects, deserved admiration. Of course Johnson could not be expected to speak well of Cromwell, or condone Milton’s services to rebellion. He was shocked that the poet dared to speak of being, after the Restoration, “fallen on evil days and evil tongues”; for what Johnson rather implausibly regarded as the incomparable clemency of the returned Charles II should have stifled such complaints.

Yet at the same time Johnson sympathized with Milton in his blindness, and in his having to watch “his reputation [as author of Paradise Lost ] stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current through fear and silence.” Of the old, blind, gout-stricken poet’s life in the Restoration years he says, “I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness.” That is a typically generous exercise of sympathetic imagination. Johnson was for thirty years a benevolent friend of Milton’s blind but learned granddaughter, the remarkable Anna Williams. When Milton’s masque Comus was performed for her benefit at Drury Lane, Johnson, again a generous enemy, contributed a prologue, to be spoken by Garrick, and did what he could to swell the audience.

Criticizing the poetry, Johnson is less generous. His condemnation of “Lycidas” (“Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief”) is perverse but exhilarating; his praise for the twin poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” is hardly more than dutiful, while in Comus, to most admirers of Milton an early work of genius, he finds little to commend. He seems to save his critical strength for Paradise Lost, for which he claims a high place “among the productions of the human mind.” As a Christian he might in any case have approved the design and execution of the poem, though he complains of some of its features; what he never overlooks is the stature of the author. “The poet whatever be done is always great…what other author ever soared so high or sustained his flight so long?” And yet the richness of such commendations has to be modified in the interests of truth: ” Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.” The candor of this observation strengthens the whole critique.

One of the reasons I like Kermode is the breadth a passage like this demonstrates. He really understands English literature, not just primary works or current critical debate, but all the sinuous turns of biography and reputation that create the history of a canonical author. His next paragraph sketches the phases of Milton biography from Johnson’s time to the present, in preparation for the review proper:

The history of modern Milton biographies is an epic in itself. David Masson’s six-volume Life of Milton, Narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical and Literary History of his Time (1859–1880) was for a long time the standard work, and it has given later biographers a sense of the vast scope of their subject. William Riley Parker’s Milton: A Biography came next, in 1968. Parker describes himself as “perched like a pygmy on Masson’s noble shoulders,” but his volumes, though there are only two, are huge, and they amplify and correct Masson. A second edition of Parker (1996), edited by Gordon Campbell, was again greatly augmented and updated.

I might add that there’s now a second edition of the Parker/Campbell second edition, but that’s a small quibble. More significant is Kermode’s polite but unmistakable derogation of the third book in his review.

So the celebrants of the four hundredth anniversary of Milton’s birth in December 2008, if there were any, and whatever their party, should have given some thought to the idea of heroic virtue, and some, perhaps, to modern Milton criticism. Among the books mentioned above there is none that could be called a work of criticism except Nigel Smith’s Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare? The title is silly but it is fair to say that the book is not. Smith contributes seven essays on Milton in which Shakespeare briefly appears to answer charges that he couldn’t equal Milton’s “riveting” interrogations of free will and liberty and has to manage instead with “staggering performances of his plays.” After that everything improves. Smith is moved by the allegorical quest in Areopagitica for the lost body of Truth, by Milton’s exalted notions of the purpose of true poetry, and by the identification of the heroic poet as “national redeemer.”

Elsewhere it is easier to disagree with this critic, for it often seems that he shoots wildly and would rather hear the report than consider whether he has missed: for example when he suggests, with no benefit to his argument, that in Samson Milton “trashes” Shakespearian characters by making over Cleopatra into Dalila, Polonius into Manoa, and Hotspur into Harapha. The resemblances are surely slight and not much to the purpose. There are other passages no less fanciful. The chapter on divorce, and on sex in Paradise Lost, is good, more engaged than Campbell and Corns, and only occasionally mysterious (“‘joys’ connote sperm”), and some readers may resent a peremptory rhetorical wake-up call from the author: “Did you hear that?” he cries. We are told that the naked Adam and Eve before the Fall “replicate the appearance and piety of his contemporary Puritans,” that is, of the very small number who went about with nothing on. Naked Puritans do not figure largely in Christopher Hill’s encyclopedia of dissent, Milton and the English Revolution.

“It often seems that he shoots wildly and would rather hear the report of his gun than consider whether he has missed.” Given the recent surge in popularity of sport studies, this sentence strikes me as doubly, maybe even triply funny and ironic. This is Kermode proving that he isn’t quite as out of touch as some would like to think.

This is the kind of review that makes me want to sit down at the keyboard and keep working on my reviewing. I recently read (but sadly cannot recall the name or the figures precisely) that one of the retired editors at the NYT (or maybe the NYRB?) wrote something like 3,000 odd reviews in twenty odd years. I do clearly remember that I worked out the figures on the calculator, and it came to a review roughly every three days, year-round. Reviewing is an art in itself, and a difficult one to master, but it’s also a numbers game. It’s writing against the clock: a review that appears too late isn’t a review at all, but a reappraisal. Speed and timeliness are elements that are just as difficult to acquire as intellectual precision and breadth.

At the center of good graduate instruction is teaching students how to read in a way that takes in hundreds of years of comment, yet leaves time enough for writing. I’m always trying to impress on my students the need to read quickly and variously without sacrificing content. To bring the conversation to a close on Johnson, who was a master of exactly this skill, is to remember Mrs. Knowles’s remark: “He knows how to read better than anyone; he gets at the substance of a book directly; he tears the heart out of it.” After all, the violent bear it away.