ISSN: 1086-6523


Benet, Diana T. & Lieb, Michael (eds). Literary Milton: Text, Pretext, Context, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1994. xxi+270pp. $48.00 ISBN 0-8207-0259-5

Reviewed by Geoff Ridden   <>
November 12, 1996

    of the principal tensions in literary studies, as in the study of any art form, is that between meaning and aesthetic. We look for meaning in literature - even as you read this review, you are seeking meaning in addition to pleasure. One of the ways in which the study of literature has come to replace Biblical study is this pursuit of hermeneutics, this search for a universal meaning, equally true for and equally relevant to all ages. In Milton studies, this has led to a prioritizing of work concerned with meaning rather than with art: students have come to read Paradise Lost as if it were a novel, ignoring both the aesthetic appeal of the poem, and the forces which bring 'meaning' into being. It may be that the medium is not only the message but also the process by which that message is massaged into being.

    collection of ten essays reverses that trend, working from the premise that it is necessary for context once more to assume the highground of literary criticism, and for critics to engage in consideration of the 'limina' or thresholds which define the identity of the literary text, and, indeed, define what it is to be 'literary'.

    concept of 'limina', presented in the exceptionally acute introductory pages, derives from the work of John T. Shawcross, to whom the volume is dedicated, and whose work and name are regularly invoked in the essays which follow.

    is a valuable body of work, which gives attention to detail rather than restricting its concern to the overarching architectonic. Its contributors are drawn from the front rank of Milton scholarship; in addition to chapters from the editors themselves, there are chapters from Regina M. Schwartz, Annabel Patterson, Mary Ann Radzinowicz, Diane McColley, Joseph Wittreich, Stephen M. Fallon, Jason P. Rosenblatt and Barbara K. Lewalski.

    is difficult and seems almost invidious to select essays for particular praise, but I did especially enjoy the contributions from Annabel Patterson, Michael Lieb and Joseph Wittreich. Professor Patterson, in 'That Old Man Eloquent' reviews how the term 'literature' has been used by Joan Webber, Mary Ann Radzinowicz and Anna Nardo. She demonstrates how carefully one must attend to the ordering of Milton's sonnets in their different published forms, and how shifts in the wording of their titles might become very significant. Michael Lieb considers the description of Adam and Eve in Book IV, as seen through the eyes of Satan, and notes the relationship of this description with its contexts: the context of the Satanic perspective upon Eden, and the context of the earlier descriptions of Satan's view of Sin and Death:

    intratextually as the product of Satan's act of beholding both within the immediate confines of the Edenic environment and within the larger framework of the landscape of Hell, the passage exhibits its own set of limina through which its problematic nature is given full expression." [p 122]

    He then moves on to consider the intertextual determinants, not least the influence of Pauline writings on the male/female relationship.

    very next essay in the collection (is this in itself a significant contextual feature of this work?) is Joseph Wittreich's chapter on gender Discourse in Paradise Lost. The library copy on which I was working had acquired its own patina of extra liminal meaning in the marginal annotation by a previous reader, perhaps a student writing an essay on Milton and misogyny. This reader clearly found it hard to deal with the large parts of this chapter which were concerned with the broader issue of the situation of Paradise Lost within a whole array of available discourses on gender in the seventeenth century: I hope that s/he will return to this debate at a later stage. The chapter examines in stimulating fashion the way in which Paradise Lost is situated within ambiguous and contradictory scriptural traditions of gender discourse, and how Milton seeks to accommodate his epic within the conflicting and competing accounts of Creation presented in the early chapters of Genesis.

    Geoff Ridden
    King Alfred's College of Higher Education, Winchester

Library of Congress Information

Title:         Literary Milton : text, pretext, context / edited by
                  Diana Trevišno Benet & Michael Lieb.
Published:     Pittsburgh, Pa. : Duquesne University Press, c1994.
Description:   xxi, 274 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Series:        Duquesne studies. Language and literature series ; v.
LC Call No.:   PR3588 .L58 1994
Dewey No.:     821/.4 20
ISBN:          0820702595 : $48.00
Notes:         Includes bibliographical references (p. 221-264) and
Subjects:      Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Criticism and
Other authors: Benet, Diana.
               Lieb, Michael, 1940-
Control No.:   94011292 

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November 12, 1996