The Cambridge Introduction to Milton
Stephen B. Dobranski
Cambridge Introductions to Literature
Cambridge: University Press, 2012
Paperback. xviii, 243 p. ISBN 978-0521726450. £12.99
Reviewed by Roger Lejosne
“Milton has traditionally been depicted as an isolated genius holding exclusive conversation with Homer, Virgil, and God.” Thus Stephen Dobranski introducing one of his favourite and most welcome points, that Milton “was not an isolated artist” [xi] but “a social writer, engaging directly and indirectly with other people, whether participating in a printed debate about church hierarchy, writing on behalf of the Interregnum government, or composing occasional verses about people whom he met and admired” . Strangely enough, it still seems necessary to warn students against age-old misconceptions which have been repeatedly exploded by the best commentators.
Dobranski’s Introduction to Milton is a very commendable addition to the already abundant series of Cambridge Introductions to Literature. It is organised in five chapters, devoted to Milton’s Life, to “Contexts” (Literary traditions, Literary contemporaries, The book trade, The civil wars, and Theology – something of a medley, this one), Prose, Poetry and Afterlife (Milton’s posthumous reputation and Milton criticism to this day). Milton’s prose pamphlets are given adequate consideration for their biographical, historical and ideological value. The idea, found most prominently in Areopagitica, that a true Christian (Protestant, of course), endowed with “free will”, should endeavour to “think by himself” even though Scripture must be his guide, recurs again and again in both Dobranski’s commentary and Milton’s writings, including Paradise Lost.
Dobranski gives all essential information about his author’s life and the historical situations and events in compact but highly readable form. His analyses and comments on Milton’s works, whether prose or poetry, are clear, well-argued, always to the point, never simplistic. He is at his best when he deals with the subtleties and ambiguities of his text, not necessarily to reconcile them but to shed light on the intricacies of Milton’s thinking. To take one of the simplest instances, he notices “the tension between the hierarchical and the egalitarian aspects of Adam and Eve’s marriage” in Paradise Lost .
The student who reads attentively this comparatively slim book (xviii+243 pages) will gather more information and inspiration than can be found in many a ponderous learned treatise. And of course it is to be hoped that he/she will be encouraged to read Milton’s works, both prose and verse. The task is difficult because Milton’s intellectual world was vastly different from ours, but it will prove highly rewarding. It is necessary: when all is said, Milton is unescapable—the student of English who has neglected to at least immerse him/herself once in the poetry of Lycidas and Paradise Lost will always lack something essential to the knowledge and appreciation of English literature. He/she will always be grateful to Stephen Dobranski for introducing him/her to it.
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