Tag Archives: Paradise Lost

The American Contagion: Matthew Arnold and the Milton Window

For the past week I have been reading and re-reading Matthew Arnold’s final public address, “Milton” (1888). That following April the critic died of heart disease–an attack ensued upon leaping over a small fence to visit an American grandchild (Trilling 27). Hardly mentioning Milton, and doing so without much elaboration, the address was delivered to dedicate a newly installed window in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. The window, which I will likely never see, includes representations of the poet as a child, the poet visiting Galileo, and Milton (in his blindness) dictating to his daughter. The window was installed as a gift (solicited by Archdeacon Farrar of Westminster) from George William Childs, a wealthy, childless, co-owner of the Philadelphia Ledger.

Although stuck on the essay, I’ve never cared much for Matthew Arnold. Perhaps I have been uncharitable. Without Arnold’s notions of “Literature” as a subject of study (as a power to strengthen the moral character of its students, to make them better citizens, shining devotees of a secular ideal, a high mindedness; and proponents of the “grand style”) would we have English departments at our universities? Would I have had the professors and the books I have admired? Nonetheless, Arnold was a snob–and worse, a sort of upper-middle class elitist. In his dedication of the Milton window he boasts of his nationalism and croons over the British empire; this, despite the fact that he opens with a warning against the spread of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon contagion”–a malady which threatens to “overpower all nations”.

What was this “contagion”? Not the empire and not the bourgeoisie, but rather a popular aesthetic, a populist fervor for the “common”. As Arnold saw it, folks were too quick to identify and declare genius when in fact they were merely witnessing a small accomplishment. Perhaps the book, poem, painting, symphony, play, or stained-glass window in question demonstrated some mastery, some craft, but was it truly “excellent”? Did it exemplify the “grand style” at the heart of Arnold’s vision of a literate, empathetic, morally educated culture?

The “contagion”, in other words, was a kind of aesthetic grade inflation. Grade inflation might take hold anywhere, but clearly, Arnold saw the States as the principle vector for the spread of this virus. Ultimately, the “Anglo-Saxon contagion” was an American disease–one that would best be cured with some highbrow English culture. The cure could be found among those who could better taste and proclaim Milton’s style (the “grand style”) in Paradise Lost without giving two hoots for the religious and political message of the poem.

Arnold, therefore, distances himself from Milton’s admirers. Partly, as Boocker demonstrates, Arnold cultivates this distance to avoid Milton’s Puritanism and (lingering 150 years after the Restoration) Cromwellian associations. Boocker observes that a “fissure” followed, one in which readers had one opinion of the poet and another of the man. I suspect that many readers preserve this divide today. It seems to me, at the very least, one must have some notion of sin and grace as personal realities if one hopes to experience the poem as anything more than a clever rendition of an antiquated mythology. Appreciative readers who rejecting Milton’s basic religious foundations must adopt the fissure or else endorse, whole hog, the Blakean notion that the devil is the true hero of the poem.

Boocker is right, Arnold needed the fissure to buffer himself from the low-church Milton of the Interregnum. But the divide also insulates Arnold from another irritant, Milton’s American readers. These readers included the wealthy George Childs, perhaps, but also the leading American poets of Arnold’s day. One of these, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote a few lines of verse which were (and are?) displayed with the window:

The new world honors him whose lofty plea
For England’s freedom made her own more sure,
Whose song, immortal as its theme, shall be
Their common freehold while both worlds endure.

Thus, Whittier (unwittingly, perhaps) asks all who admire the window in St. Margaret’s to endorse his vision of Milton as a proponent not only of 17th century English “liberty”, but of American independence. Whittier’s verse goes so far as to suggest that all that is free in Arnold’s country is Milton’s freedom and by association, America’s freedom … the “common freehold” of the two countries. Facing such propaganda, though fed on the spoon of American philanthropic generosity, I can understand how Arnold would chafe and even swell with pride for his elitist empire. I don’t envy Arnold’s task at this dedication, but how odd that Milton is at once the occasion for the spread of the American contagion and the antidote against it. Ultimately, Arnold’s devotion to a “grand style”, an aesthetic standard that floats beyond the reach of religious sectarianism and political agendas, failed when he (echoing and sparring with Whittier) concluded:

Milton … and his hearers on both sides of the Atlantic, are English, and will remain English …. The English race overspreads the world, and at the same time the ideal of an excellence the most high and the most rare abides a possession with it for ever.


Arnold, Matthew. 1892. Essays in criticism: second series. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz. Google Books.

Arnold, Matthew, and Lionel Trilling. 1949. The portable Matthew Arnold. New York: Viking Press. Internet Archive.

Boocker, David. 1994. A fissure in the Milton window? Arnold’s 1888 address. In Spokesperson Milton: voices in contemporary criticism, ed. C. W. Durham and K. P. McColgan, 126-137. Susquehanna UP. Google Books.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. “Milton”. The Works of Whittier, Volume IV (of VII). Personal Poems. Project Gutenberg.

Paradise Lost; Readers Found

I half-read and half-slept through Addison and Steele’s The Spectator in my third year of college. It was my lifestyle, not the text that failed to keep me awake. Nonetheless, I recall an appreciation for the project–two wig-donning Englishmen writing a daily on arts and culture. (For today’s readers, The Spectator would have been a blog.) Perhaps I recall less of Joseph Addison than I do of the kindness and patience of my professor, Wayne Martindale. Truthfully, I have would not (and have not, until now) read The Spectator but for his satisfaction. I did, however, keep it on my bookshelves for two decades.

In the last week I have stumbled upon Addison’s contributions to The Spectator twice … once in a discussion of his aesthetics of “wit” and again in the Norton Critical edition of Paradise Lost. I don’t think I will read the entire collection, nor even merely the Addison contributions, but there’s a familiarity I now have with Addison’s voice. He seems younger than me (in truth, he wrote most of The Spectator at exactly my current age), but there is a kind of youthfulness, a mixture of arrogance and wayfinding, in his writing that I would not have heard as a young college student. I will not attempt to explain this realization, as he did not explain many of his assertions in The Spectator.

One of these, as I see it, mostly unexplained assertions can be found in his appreciation of a passage from the first book of Paradise Lost, lines 789-797:

Thus incorporeal Spirits to smallest Forms
Reduced their Shapes immense, and were at large,
Though without Number, still amidst the Hall
Of that Infernal Court. But far within,
And in their own Dimensions like themselves,
The great Seraphick Lords and Cherubim,
In close recess and secret conclave sate,
A thousand Demy-Gods on Golden Seats,
Frequent and full—

Writing in No. 303, Saturday, February 16, 1712, he finds here a kind of beauty–by which, I think he means: the combined impact of imaginative invention and appropriate “signifying”. This is, perhaps, Milton’s “Judgment” that he praises earlier in the paragraph–superior judgment that the poet should think to include such a fitting description. Addison writes:

As soon as the Infernal Palace is finished, we are told the Multitude and Rabble of Spirits immediately shrunk themselves into a small Compass, that there might be Room for such a numberless Assembly in this capacious Hall. But it is the Poet’s Refinement upon this Thought which I most admire, and which is indeed very noble in its self. For he tells us, that notwithstanding the vulgar, among the fallen Spirits, contracted their Forms, those of the first Rank and Dignity still preserved their natural Dimensions.

In other words, the demons shrunk themselves in order to crowd into the cramped quarters of their new temple. However, true to their deceitful and self-important characters, the most powerful demons hid themselves in a secret room and gave themselves the luxury of size and space. Greed and pride and deception, all at once.

It may be that Addison found the “Refinement” admirable because it reminded him the world we all know so well, a world in which the rich and powerful reward themselves with what they see as their just entitlements–think of the “golden parachutes” for the CEOs of failing corporations. Perhaps, Addison (like Milton) possessed a deep suspicion of the Catholic church. Perhaps the presence of a priestly “conclave” in a demonic temple, made Addison scoff with delight–a kind of partisan snickering. In any case, I do not begrudge him his pleasure.

Milton’s poetry, here, is indeed excellent … although it is far from one of my favorite passages in the poem. The fact that one reader three hundred years ago read these lines, admired them, and shared them with his friends gives me more delight. Here is the power of a shared text to draw readers together (even if to disagree) across time and space. But it was not Milton, as a great as he was, that sustains this gift; rather, it is Joseph Addison, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Bush, Stanley Fish, Gordon Teskey, Wayne Martindale and many more readers, writers and teachers. Thus with “wand’ring steps and slow” the story of Paradise Lost has made its journey from reader to reader. So shared, it is, therefore, partly an antidote to alienation. Of all that is lost, readers find readers of the poem.

Noting the Delirious Footnote

Having a job (for now) and a family means reading much less than one might. My current re-reading of Paradise Lost began in March; I’m in Book X now. Given such a pitiful pace, I have mostly ignored the notes in Gordon Teskey’s Norton Critical Edition, 2005. (Teskey, the author of Delirious Milton, is a well-loved teacher at Harvard; I’ve never met him.) Fortunately, given that I need them from time-to-time, the notes are footnotes (at the bottom of the page) and not endnotes. If they were endnotes, I’d probably ignore them altogether. Anyway, Saturday, pretty much the only day that I can read, I was surprised to find the following note:

498-99: surging maze: This picture of the rising, moving complicatedly twisted loops of the serpent’s body is amoung the finest poetic images in the poem. (pg. 210)

Really?! I simply cannot imagine the “surging maze” in any memorable way. Here’s the passage (from The John Milton Reading Room) for your own assessment:

So spake the Enemie of Mankind, enclos’d
In Serpent, Inmate bad, and toward Eve
Address’d his way, not with indented wave,
Prone on the ground, as since, but on his reare,
Circular base of rising foulds, that tour’d
Fould above fould a surging Maze, his Head
Crested aloft, and Carbuncle his Eyes;
With burnisht Neck of verdant Gold, erect
Amidst his circling Spires, that on the grass
Floted redundant: pleasing was his shape,
And lovely, never since of Serpent kind
Lovelier, not those that in Illyria chang’d
Hermione and Cadmus, or the God
In Epidaurus; nor to which transformd
Ammonian Jove, or Capitoline was seen,
Hee with Olympias, this with her who bore
Scipio the highth of Rome. (9.494-510)

It’s just too complex for me–Milton made the possessed serpent partly a massive snake with burning red eyes and partly a Disney castle floating across the lawn of paradise. This, however (and apart from the fact that I disagree), is all beside the point … or is it the point? I might think Milton’s serpent moves with unimaginable complexity, but would I say so in the footnotes of “a critical edition”?

In other words, Teskey let a bit of marginalia slip into his textual annotations. This discovery has slowed my progress; I have pulled every edition from my shelves to compare notes and I have searched for others online. Most editors note that “spires” refers to the serpent’s coils; only Thomas Newton allowed himself a bit of emotion.

But our author has not only imitated Ovid, but has ransack’d all the good poets, who have ever made a remarkable description of a serpent …. (Milton, John. 1758. Paradise lost A poem, in twelve books. The author John Milton. From the text of Thomas Newton D.D. Birmingham: printed by John Baskerville for J. and R. Tonson in London. p. 168)

Although I am a bit surprised at Teskey’s subjective effusion, should we object? Should the editor step aside and let the readers find their own “finest poetic images”? Or, does such an admission from the editor win the poem a more engaged reading? I favor the first, but must confess that I am now pausing to skim backwards through the previous eight books of footnotes. (Also see, 9.372n: “they stay … more. The truest thing said in this poem.”) Add a few more weeks to my re-reading. After all, a man with two maternal grandmothers cannot be ignored.