Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

30 August 2019

In this further blog arising from my new study of Milton’s Christian Doctrine, I’m reflecting how I came to write it, as reflections on the purpose and meaning of this kind of research.

See also my other blogposts: Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology and A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget.

Till just before I finished my BA at Oxford (1957-61), my working mind was fully occupied by Greek and Latin, and their history and philosophy. These demanded full attention, in vacations too, the way I was being educated! Then it occurred to me that “work” and “working life” had other meanings. If I wanted to be paid for working, I might well have to do something else for the rest of my days. Rather belatedly I considered: banking; librarianship; the civil service; other things, unspecified. None appealed as much as continuing to engross myself in Greece and Rome. I trained to teach secondary-school Classics, since I saw no future tertiarily, feeling overshadowed by the swifter greyhounds (prizewinners and the like) in my Oxford’s Classics cohort.

   All I knew was: I wanted to be paid to do what I could enjoy; and conversely.

Training instead as a secondary teacher (1961-62), I discovered the joy of teaching English. Then, teaching at a grammar school (1962-65) confirmed the scope and delight of working within my own mother tongue. It showed me too that I did not enjoy teaching more Latin than Greek, nor teaching compulsory Latin to unwilling students. I went back to university, to Edinburgh (1965), to train in English studies, which then meant English literature; canonical, the good and proven stuff. That way I could be paid to do what I could enjoy more of, and enjoy more of what I would be paid to do.

Just before taking this plunge, which I have not once regretted, I consulted my Oxford mentor, Eric Gray. “If you do this,” he said, “do focus on scholarship not criticism.” I took him to mean, “Avoid the evaluative subjectivism of the likes of F. R. Leavis.” Yet I found Leavis stimulating to read, in fact exciting, alongside the works he deemed “great,” as in his “Great Tradition” of the English novel. Only five novelists! Then six, when he readmitted Dickens. Freakish but challenging. Was I taken in by Leavis’ egotistical rhetoric, as if no one knew what was good literature but him? No, I had my own unsystematic but quite varied reading experience to compare with his. Strong personalities can inspire or mislead students. So can one-eyed teachers. But English studies, and reading itself, remain “the common pursuit of true judgment.” Good reading, and comparing notes, is life-blood for the mind.

Scholarship, however, must guide and control it. Leavis’s narrowness led him into mistakes. John Butt, lecturing us by tape-recorder from his deathbed in my first days at Edinburgh, pointed some out. It makes a difference in which edition you read Henry James; or the Prelude, or Hamlet. And in each case it makes a different difference. How best can scholarship inform evaluation? Both are part of our civilized heritage, as for music.

I learnt something of systematic scholarship and its value in that first year at Edinburgh. Eclectically, in only two or three papers, and their periods of literature. How spotty English studies can still be! Now more so, taught by specialists, and wooed into taking our humane subject at all in these mad utilitarian times, students can ignore most authors and periods and even genres if they choose. It has been made worse.

So real immersion, and responsible learning of what there is and how it has been preserved and studied and theorized, tend to wait till graduate studies. Now, by the chance of my own changeover from Classics to English, this happened to me. I waited till the doctoral years, having at last found how I wanted spend my working life, to study literature seriously, systematically, for practice and theory— every which way, in the year of “reading into my field,” Shakespeare’s comedies. I knew I wanted to stay with Eng Lit, to the highest level of research and teaching I could attain. This was in the vague hope that research would equip teaching, without needing too much dilution or compromise. Good reading should achieve this: good reading, I had by now found from exemplars, is infectious.

Sometime in the four years at Edinburgh I was sitting in the Library café with a friend, Brian, discussing The Future, our futures. I had been reading Anna Karenina, and somehow or other this led me to confide that all I wanted out of life was to write books, have children, and garden. Career, apparently, didn’t figure, though somehow or other the three prime aims would need to be funded. Was I being realistic, absurd, pathetic, or what? Some satisfactions of life are simple and deep, and if you feel this, then you find some way or other to fulfill them, often without foreseeing how. If you want to be a medievalist you will write books. If scholarships won’t fund you, you do it the old way, in the rest of your time. Publishers likewise: will find ways, one way or another, to connect intelligent people with each other through books.

Not that I thought mine had been the right way of coming to these realizations! Far from it. Much too roundabout and accidental. But that’s showbiz.

And I was still doing catch-up with reading of basic authors through the first few years of my working life. Not at first in Canada (1969-71), where the students’ first degree, and consequently my own teaching load, remained spotty. I got away with being narrow and eclectic while still completing my PhD (1971). Not so at Otago (from 1971 onwards), because of its belief (then) in the canon, and its peculiar way of encompassing it in the BA degree. Continuing from an earlier time when staff resources were few, and New Zealand did not attract many expats, we lectured to all three years of students at the same time, for one period of literature. Next year, similarly, on a second period. Same on the remaining third, the year after. This was called the Cycle. It compelled me to read just ahead of my students for the first three years. No time to publish anything!

It wouldn’t happen now. It couldn’t. I’m a unique species, if not extinct. Yet I must just say, I met some of the great minds at an age when I could appreciate and understand them, better than if I had met them at age 17 or 18. Coleridge for example: the thinker, about poetry and much else. “Mind-blowing” is for once the right word.

Of course I knew that if I wanted to secure tenure, and make my mark among peers, I must also research and publish. “Publish or perish” is a cliché from before my time (where it is becoming “Publish and perish,” more of which in a moment). I should have had a book, or at least essays, to peddle, from my thesis work. I didn’t, for some years. Why not? Isn’t a doctoral dissertation meant to contribute original work to our knowledge, and to be publishable?

So it was said, yet already this was doubtful —papering over the cracks, ignoring the funding imperatives and societal / bureaucratic realities. Universities obey money imperatives, including student consumerism, and institutional pandering to it. Laboriously, I made chapters into conference papers, and sometimes published essays. But fashions were changing. My thesis topic, how Shakespeare used his sources — evaluation based on scholarly research, thereby meeting the criteria of both Gray and Leavis, in fact—did not suit Shakespeare studies by the 1970s. The air was filled with performance study, with political or feminist or postcolonialist readings, and the imminent surge of theory. And it soon got worse, taking attention further from a base in literary scholarship. I finally published my book The Shakespeare of the Comedies: A Multiple Approach in 1996! It incorporated a few of the emerging trends, this time just before they changed again.

Trends are constant in change. It was a fashion to favour criticism over scholarship. The proportioning of theory to reading practice keeps changing, and also which theories out of the centuries of theorizing, are trending. What endures is reading, and sharing the understanding of it. To these, scholarship is essential. And, despite protests, personality— not our own but those enduring authors’. Writers are our companions. Great writers are good companions. Think of Chaucer or Dryden, They still illuminate books, and life, and our lives, social or existential. Reading and research must always serve them, connect us with them, on their terms as well as our own. Books, in whatever form they come to us, must on the whole and in the main serve these constants.

From the outcome with Shakespeare, I saw that my research and publishing life had to change. Yet it was initially only by chance that I switched to Milton, to his voluminous Latin works, and so eventually (Eureka!) combining what I had studied, to appraise his works on their own terms, terms Latin and Neo-Latin, Classical in the broadest sense. That I did this was necessity but first of all, a happy accident. A reading-group was formed from among humanities departments and medicine, to read later Latin classics; anything between Augustine and Newton. We began with Boethius. (What a key text for medieval studies! Everyone for centuries knew this, Chaucer translated it, and so on.) After Boethius, Augustine, then Galileo. Tough stuff. Not many of us could understand Galileo’s study of the moons of Jupiter even after translating its Latin… Which prompts the thought, that some of the time spent on Latin, for example doing Latin proses ad nauseam, would have been better spent on Galileo. Syllabuses and curriculums and timetabling were imperfect, then as now.  Let us hope today’s nonsensical mixture of utilitarian constraint and unthinking permissiveness will change; and teaching and publishing with it. (Humanities are cheaper than most STEM subjects…)

At all events, one such neo-Latinist neophyte turned to me and said: “what about English Latinists? What about Milton? Didn’t he have a reputation for his Latin poems?….”

Indeed he did! And then I knew nothing about it. It was not merely time to catch up on Milton, but time to know his work as a whole, and (since I had Latin, and needed a second string to my research bow) the time was NOW. Since that moment, circa 1980, I have never looked back. All my books on Milton involve his Latin as much as his English.

My new book is my seventh on Milton. His multilingualism became my gladsome niche, through the 1980s. By chance I had learnt Italian at school, but ad hoc I undertook classical Hebrew in that decade, to equip myself for exploring all of Milton’s languages.

It also happens that the world has fewer and fewer people who have those languages and share this interest. While there are any at all, and while I keep my wits, I have a niche indeed.

          My perspective pays dividends all the time, by understandings, and equally by avoidance of misunderstandings. It is a general and autonomous good, that we preserve understandings within a culture. Not to know our past is to be impoverished, and less prepared for future uncertainties.


But still it might be asked, why do you expend so much effort on what is the most obscure and least read (and longest and most fatiguing) even among his Latin writings? Haven’t you got better things to do? After all, De Doctrina Christina is a glorified commonplace-book, in an antiquated approach to an obsolete metaphysic; tedious and schematic even to look at.

A meek reply might be: (1) Milton wrote works more boring than De Doctrina! (2) It is read more, not less, these days, partly because the revived authorship controversy publicized it. (3) Theologians and intellectual historians, early-modernists in general, have ben alerted to the mid-century crisis in Protestantism, the stirrings of secularism which go with historical study of scripture.

The truer reply is personal. Because of my work on Milton’ languages from 1980 to 1991 I was recruited to the multidisciplinary research team investigating the authorship of De Doctrina. Some scholars thought it inauthentic. Most disagreed. The team looked at all the evidence afresh — signatures, writing, paper, scribes, stylometry, history of the MS, just about everything. My role, as the Latinist, was to assess the statistics of word-usage: did the work use “bad” or late Latin in ways which Milton the purist could not have? Do favourite words within De Doctrina match ones in Milton’s echt– Latin? I put much effort into this collaboration, so enjoyable after all the earlier lonelier toiling.

I used this work again in my writing for the book of the project, Milton and the MS of De Doctrina (Oxford 2008). And more still in editing De Doctrinafor the new Oxford Complete Works of John Milton (2012). Yes, Milton: our research had vindicated his authorship. All of this work helps establish what we mean by “Milton,” his body of writing, the person, his views, beliefs, his opinionated personality. How could a Miltonist not rejoice to be a part of this!? And never mind how many hours or days it needed; or how long it still takes. There is always more to do. This is really living.

           To keep company with a person you admire and respect, through their thoughts even after their death, is what makes me tick. The same holds good for anyone who enjoys living through reading, critically but with admiration. If a job or emolument comes with it, so much the better.

            These three large undertakings with De Doctrina were all collaborations. After envying scholars who had a team to slot into (as scientists do in a lab) or many other disciplines with fieldwork, I relished the teamwork and companionship, at long last. But collaboration had also meant suspending my own individual likes and dislikes regarding De Doctrina. Was Milton always so rigid? Yes and No.  So now I have written my own response to the work. Subtitled “Confronting” it. I feel I have earned the chance to offer a shorter, much more personal monograph. Milton’s Scriptural Theology, yes, and Confronting it.

I see M’s Scriptural Theology as culminating and completing my odyssey. It offers critique and scholarship, on a rare and valuable expression of Milton’s genius; made more not less intriguing by its warts and kinks. I offer a reading of it which combines scholarship with critique (true to my early belief in using both). It harnesses my Latin, too, paying incidental tribute to my languages, and to the authenticity of reading original not translated words. I dwell on this, even to Latin-less readers.

To them especially. No previous study of De Doctrina has so insisted on Milton’s original words, dictated in his blindness to a motley succession of scribes. Sometimes he was desperate, and used whoever was passing and had some Latin. A great man. What guts! Many, many thanks to Simon Forde and the noble seaworthy ARC that rescued my manuscript from the perils of publishing in these troublesome times.

by John Hale

See all the blogposts concerning Milton’s Scriptural Theology. Confronting De Doctrina Christiana:

Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

A Cover You Won’t Soon Forget

Confronting John Milton: How and Why?

Recording of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana

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