ISSN: 1086-6523


Le Comte, Edward. Milton Re-viewed: Ten Essays, New York: Garland, 1991. xi+148pp. $23.00

Reviewed by Roy Flannagan
December 15, 1995

    With books like Milton and Sex and articles like "Ambiguous Milton" and "Sly Milton," Edward Le Comte is a resident curmugeon and gadfly of the Milton community. Like the late Leo Miller, he reminds us when we start to copy each other's work without close attention to primary materials or to the facts of history, biography, or transmission of texts. He hates to see us forget the past or reinvent the wheel. His own work in this collection of essays is remarkably concise, packed with valuable information, but also filled with Le Comte's dry wit and sarcasm. If you don't pay attention to what he says, if you don't read every word, the loss is yours, and there is always the danger that you may in the future repeat the egregious error that he has just exposed for the first time in print. After all, Le Comte has edited Milton, and his New American Library Mentor paperback edition, the last time I looked, was still in print. And after all, Le Comte wrote A Milton Dictionary (New York: Philosophical Library, 1961), a fine reference work whose time has come for reprinting.

    I cannot easily summarize what Le Comte has written in each of these essays, because each of them condenses sixty years or so of studying Milton. Le Comte has arrived at a prophetic age, and he has been there and done that before most of us, oldies even, were practicing scholars. The Italians have what they still call the "Seven Sages," including eminent scholars like Eugenio Garin. If Milton scholars have acknowledged sages, Le Comte would be one of the seven (he was Honored Scholar for the Milton Society of America in 1985). Le Comte realizes how concise his information is: in case we haven't paid close enough attention, he usually provides a summary of his main points at the ends of his articles, a charming anachronism in these deconstructionist days.

    One more point about Le Comte's method: it is unlike most Milton scholars' methods. He worries an idea to death. He gets to the hearts of mysteries that he himself has worried about for twenty years or so. His articles are slowly formed and accretive, like stalagmites, drops solidified. In one of the ten essays, "Sly Milton," for instance, he pursues puzzling passages, like the quotation from Vergil that prefaced Milton's masque in the published version of 1637--you know, the one from the second eclogue of Vergil addressed from one gay shepherd to the other? Le Comte pursues the second half of the quotation from Vergil. The first half, the one Milton quoted, is "Alas, what have I wished on my miserable self, for my own loss, [letting] the south wind in on my flowers" (60), but the other half of the line is translated, presumably by Le Comte, as "and the wild board on my clear springs" (60). The question is, did Milton expect his readers not only to look up Eclogue II but also to complete the line, allowing Milton to (1) allude to homosexual attraction, (2) insult his readers by saying that they will be like the south wind wilting his flowers, and (3) further insult his readers by saying they are like wild boars muddying his pure streams? Le Comte might not settle the question of why Milton does all this, but he does establish that Milton is being very sly with his epigraphs. He also establishes the fact that Milton is doing more with allusions and quotations than cutting and pasting. Milton quotes from Euripides The Suppliants on the title page of Areopagitica. Le Comte reads it closely in the uneasy and repressive political climate of 1644. The quotation, Le Comte writes, "teeters on the brink of treason" (62), since, if you read the next few lines in The Suppliants you get a reference to a king attempting to kill off the men who have declared in opposition to his party, for fear of his power. The newish book by Perez Zagorin which focuses on Areopagitica, Milton: Aristocrat and Rebel (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 1992) doesn't index Euripides. Should it? Why haven't more people noticed where that quotation came from? Milton may very well be sly in his epigraphs, as he was in that satirical Greek poem that criticised the artist who did the bad portrait to be found directly above the Greek poem in the frontispiece of the 1645 Poems.

    Though Le Comte doesn't quite settle the issue of the two-handed engine (he has published at least three articles on the subject), he does make a suggestion that the "Emilia" that J.S. Smart found buried in the geography of Milton's Italian sonnets might be someone named "Emilia Varco" (97). Le Comte bases the speculation, which is better than A.L. Rowse's probably spurious identification of Shakespeare's Dark Lady as the poet Emilia Lanier (now generally printed as Aemilia Lanyer), on Milton's use of the Italian phrase "nobil varco," and his attraction for the sonnets of the Florentine Benedetto Varchi.

    Le Comte keeps on gadflying throughout this book. He deals with subjects as varied as the theory of accommodation and its problems, the legacy of Douglas Bush, Satan's heresies in Paradise Regain'd, Milton the sly, Milton the ambiguous (the engine is just one amongst many ambiguities he has uncovered), the Index to the Columbia Milton (how it can be better or more human than a computer-generated index), Milton's echoes of himself in Elegy VII, the publication of Justa Edovardo King (which Le Comte edited), and the subject of authorial revision. In none of these thoughtful essays has Le Comte rushed into print; he is a slow and meticulous reviser (I know, from having published him). He is, as he says, "skeptical of the epicycles and orbs of modern criticism" (14), perhaps because modern critics are obligated to rush into print so often and so thoughtlessly. At the same time, he can quote from conversations with Lionel Trilling or Edward Tayler (both of whom he taught with at Columbia) in the spirit of sharing collegial wisdom, not of dropping names.

    Who should take notice of what Le Comte has written? certainly those who might be doomed to repeat the critical or biographical or textual failures he so often uncovers, those who repeat the mistakes of the past. Editors of Milton should certainly pay attention to every sentence in this book, because every sentence is an interpretation of a significant passage in Milton that we might miss the meaning of, if we blink.

    Roy Flannagan
    Ohio University

Library of Congress Information

Author:        Le Comte, Edward, 1916-
Title:         Milton re-viewed : ten essays / Edward Le Comte.
Published:     New York : Garland, 1991.
Description:   xi, 148 p. ; 23 cm-
Series:        Garland reference library of the humanities ; vol.
LC Call No.:   PR3588 .L38 1991
Dewey No.:     821/.4 20
ISBN:          0815303068 (acid-free paper)
Notes:         Except for Authorial revision, these were printed
                  between 1978 and 1987.
               Includes bibliographical references.
               Dublin battle -- What Douglas Bush stood for --
                  Satan's heresies in Paradise regained -- Sly Milton
                  : the meaning lurking in the contrexts of his
                  quotations -- Ambiguous Milton -- Shakespeare's
                  Emilia and Milton's: The parameters of research --
                  The Index to the Columbia Milton -- Miltonic echoes
                  in Elegia VII -- Justa Edvardo King -- Authorial
Subjects:      Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Criticism and
Other titles:  Milton reviewed.
Control No.:   91010830