http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Milton, Oxford Handbooks of Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-921088-6, xxii + 715 pp. Hbk. £85.00

Reviewed by Willy Maley

[1]  In the first issue of this journal, Andrew Hadfield mapped out ‘The Idea of the North’ in terms of a republican tradition which, as it ‘declined in the South … must be kept alive in the North’ (Hadfield 2009: 7). Translations of Tacitus, Hadfield argued, ‘posed particular questions for an English audience uncertain of its national identity and place within the pantheon of nations … Should England look North or South for inspiration?’ This question vexed English republicans like John Milton, who looked north in his search for models of anti-monarchal thought. Hadfield’s reading of the North-South divide in European politics during the Renaissance is a good route into the monumental collection that is The Oxford Handbook of Milton. To begin to do justice to the thirty-eight original and authoritative essays gathered here would tax the talents of the most experienced reviewer, and the patience of this journal’s readers, so I propose to touch only on those aspects of the volume that deal directly with the North, a region that preoccupied Milton from ‘Lycidas’ (1637), a poem caught between the Irish Sea and the Hebrides, through the Observations upon the Articles of Peace (1649), with its long riposte to the Belfast Presbytery, to the History of Britain (1670), with its claim ‘that the Scots, whoever they be originally, came first into Ireland, and dwelt there, and nam’d it Scotia long before the North of Britan took that name’ (Milton 1670: 112).

[2]  Belfast-born editor Nick McDowell well knows the importance of the North – of Ireland, and Britain more broadly – to Milton’s politics and poetry, while his co-editor, Nigel Smith, has stressed Milton’s impact in North America. In sonnet XV ‘On the Lord General Fairfax at the Siege of Colchester’ Milton decried the ‘fals North’ that was Scotland. But what was the true North, and why did Milton, even as he denounced the Belfast Presbytery in his Observations of 1649, still devote more space there to Scotland than to Ireland? Why did he leave the door open for Presbyterians like Fairfax even as he deplored the ‘Scotch Presbytery’ at Belfast? Attacking the Belfast Presbytery, Milton separated them from the genuine article: ‘Of this Representation therefore wee can esteem and judge no other then of a slandrous and seditious libell, sent abroad by a sort of Incendiaries, to delude and make the better way under the cunning and plausible name of a Presbytery’ (Milton, Observations 1649: 56).

[3]  In the second edition of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which appeared in the autumn of 1649, Milton cited four Scots – George Buchanan, John Craig, Alexander Gibson and John Knox – in order to answer Scottish objections to the killing of the king. ‘These were Scotchmen and Presbyterians’ who opposed monarchy in a manner Milton found admirable, yet their heirs were all too quick to condemn the regicides (Milton, Tenure 1649: 31). Milton knew his history, including the history of Presbyterianism, well enough to recognise backsliding in Belfast. As one historian observes, ‘James I of England understood the matter well enough when he said, “A Scotch presbytery agree-eth as well with monarchy as God with the Devil”’ (Tierney 1966: 15). Milton was obsessed with Presbyterianism’s anti-imperialist inclinations and republican roots, and irked by the negative reaction of the Scots and the Belfast Presbytery to the killing of the king, which he saw as hypocritical and worse, forgetful of their own ideological foundations.

[4]  The North informed not just Milton’s prose, but also his poetry. In Archipelagic English, John Kerrigan argues that the complex politics of Anglo-Scottish engagement in Northern Ireland inspired the verse: ‘The shape of Milton’s thinking here recurs in Paradise Lost. If the Irish rebellion left its mark on the epic, by showing Charles, in league with the rebels, to resemble Satan and the fallen angels, so, rather more obviously, did the corrupted militancy of the Scots’ (Kerrigan 2008: 230). Likewise, David Loewenstein points to Ireland and, through its place in the Ulster Plantation there, Scotland, as key sites of conflict on which the poet drew: ‘A great poetic text like Paradise Lost … has its specific and localized contexts, historical conditions which illuminate its complex polemical and political meaning’ (Loewenstein 1992: 310).

[5]  These localised contexts are evident in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, and in particular in the essay by Nick McDowell on ‘Milton’s Regicide Tracts and the Uses of Shakespeare’, which contains a passage on Macbeth (255–67) that will intrigue Shakespeareans and Miltonists in equal measure. Those familiar with the arguments of David Norbrook, Jonathan Goldberg and Alan Sinfield among others on the George Buchanan-inspired republican undertow of the Scottish play will be fascinated by McDowell’s painstaking excavation of Milton’s ambivalent attitude to Shakespeare and in particular his use of Macbeth in the opening gambit of his Tenure, where, according to McDowell, ‘The Presbyterians are like Shakespeare’s Scottish witches in their demonic equivocation over the regicide’ (261). Joad Raymond, in ‘John Milton, European: The Rhetoric of Milton’s Defences’, points to a telling passage in Defensio secunda in which Milton defines his own perspective over and against the Scottish betrayal of republican principles: ‘Discussing the treacheries of the Scots, a favourite topic that he had already covered in Tenure, Observations, and Eikonoklastes, and the agreements made between the English and Scottish parliaments concerning the treatment of the king, he asserts that “a parliament or a senate is at liberty, according to expediency, to change its counsels”’ (285-6). Neil Keeble, in ‘Milton’s Later Vernacular Republican Tracts’ points to the part played by General Monck and the North on the eve of the restoration of the monarchy. At that decisive juncture, at the very moment when Milton was writing The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, as Monck’s biographer put it, when Monck ‘“came out of Scotland … no man knew what he would do, or declare”’ (317). That the North in general, and Scotland in particular, was key to England’s liberty was clear. As Paul Stevens notes in ‘Milton and National Identity’, Cromwell’s conquests take a northern route, ending in Scotland in 1650-51.

[6]  From the National Covenant of 1638 to Monck’s descent in 1659, Scotland held the key to England’s future. And of course this influence had its origins in the Scottish succession of 1603 and the Ulster Plantation of 1609. But there are other Norths too, like Russia, to which Milton turned his attention in the posthumously published A Brief History of Moscovia (1682). Nicholas von Maltzahn, in his chapter on ‘The Later Life (1641-1674)’, dates this work to 1648-9, and roots Milton’s reason for writing it ‘in the climatic explanation for the difficulty of governing northern nations’, seeing in this Russian history a rehearsal for The History of Britain (41). Charles Martindale, in ‘Writing Epic: Paradise Lost’, observes that ‘Satan’s heroism is clearly flawed, like that of the Englishmen in A Brief History of Moscovia who discovered Russia by the Northern Ocean in what “might have seemed an enterprise almost heroic if any higher end than the excessive love of gain and traffic had animated the design”’ (451). The North for Milton was both a source of inspiration and a crucible of conflict. Even after he turned against Presbyterianism and in particular the Scots and the Belfast Presbytery, Milton continued to turn to figures like Knox and Buchanan as intellectual touchstones in the war of liberty against tyranny.

[7]  The answer to the question ‘Should England look North or South for inspiration?’ had to be an equivocal one, for the ‘fals North’ was also the place where truth spoke to power, making Milton more ambivalent than he would have liked to be, less polemically and politically assured, but arguably enriching his poetic sensibility. The North remained for Milton both beacon of hope and baleful influence. Even within that Belfast Presbytery at which Milton directed so much ire, calling them ‘a generation of High-land theevs and Red-shanks, who beeing neighbourly admitted, not as the Saxons by merit of thir warfare against our enemies, but by the courtesie of England to hold possessions in our Province, a Countrey better then thir own, have, with worse faith then those Heathen, prov’d ingratefull and treacherous guests to thir best friends and entertainers’, there was dissent and resistance (Milton, Observations 1649: 64-5). ‘The Necessary Representation of the Belfast Presbytery’ was designed to be read out to congregations but as the anonymous News from Ireland Concerning The Proceedings of the Presbytery in The County of Antrim in Ireland (1650) reveals, at least two ministers refused, or rather James Ker of Ballymony and his fellow minister Jeremy O Queen delayed reading the Representation and were suspended. Ker eventually signed a confession for the Presbytery at Bangor so that he could resume his ministry. Had he known about these Abdiel-like objectors to the anti-republican line taken by their peers, Milton may have had more faith in the North.

University of Glasgow, July 2011.

References and Further Reading

Anon, News from Ireland Concerning The Proceedings of the Presbytery in The County of Antrim in Ireland, in several Sittings in that County Against Mr. James Ker, & Mr. Jeremy O Queen. Two of their fellow Ministers in the same Presbytery, for their rufusing to reade that Treasonable Representation which was by the said Presbytery then at Belfast, commanded to be read publiquely by all Ministers, in Febr. 1648 [1649] (London: Edward Husband and John Field, 1650).

R. D. Bedford, ‘Milton’s Journeys North: A Brief History of Moscovia and Paradise Lost’, Renaissance Studies 7.1 (1993): 71-85.

Lloyd E. Berry, ‘Giles Fletcher, the Elder, and Milton’s A Brief History of Moscovia’, The Review of English Studies, 11,.42 (1960): 150-156.

Allan H. Gilbert, ‘Pierre Davity: His “Geography” and Its Use by Milton’, Geographical Review 7. 5 (1919): 322-338.

Andrew Hadfield, ‘The Idea of the North’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance 1.1 (2009), pp. 1-18.

John Kerrigan, ‘The Archipelago Enlarged: Milton and Marvell to 1660’, in Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 220-43.

David Loewenstein, ‘“An Ambiguous Monster”: Representing Rebellion in Milton’s Polemics and Paradise Lost’, Huntington Library Quarterly 55 (1992), pp. 295-315.

John Milton, Articles of peace made and concluded with the Irish rebels and papists by James Earle of Ormond … also, a letter sent by Ormond to Col. Jones, Governour of Dublin, with his answer thereunto: and a representation of the Scotch Presbytery at Belfast in Ireland: upon all which are added observations (London: Printed by Matthew Simmons, 1649).

John Milton, The tenure of kings and magistrates (London, 1649; 2nd edition).

John Milton, The History of Britain (1670), ed. Graham Parry, Milton’s History of Britain: A facsimile edition with a critical Introduction (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1991).

H. F. Robins, ‘Satan’s Journey: Direction in Paradise Lost’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 60.4 (1961), pp. 699-711.

Elbert N. S. Thompson, ‘Milton’s Knowledge of Geography’, Studies in Philology 16.2 (1919): 148-71.

Brian Tierney, ‘Medieval Canon Law and Western Constitutionalism’, The Catholic Historical Review 52.1 (1966): 1-17.