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It seems that biological genetic engineering is not a contained threat; in the last decade it seems to have spilled significantly into cultural and literary studies. In Renaissance studies, this trend becomes evident in Richard A. Goldthwaithe's Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy: 1300-1600 (1993) and especially in Lisa Jardine's Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (1996). These "new histories" of "worldly and wealthy" Renaissance attempt to present consumerism and Thatcherism as the moving spirit of Renaissance society and art. Considering the mere fact that less than 5% of the population could have afforded art, this search for Thatcherite "motions" in Renaissance society and culture seems to correlate, in its result, to what T. S. Eliot defines as artists' search for new emotions in art. Unfortunately, this trend of engineering the cultural history can be observed, albeit in a slightly different form, also in the studies of individual authors and their works, and John Milton and his Areopagitica are no exception.
One of the reasons for this trend in Milton studies and this particular pamphlet can be sought in the over-saturation of Areopagitica criticism dealing, to a great extent, with various aspects of authorial intention and textual authority. This particular strain seems to have been brought to the point of absurdity in Paul M. Dowling's Polite Wisdom: Heathen Rhetoric in Milton's "Areopagitica" (1995), a book from which one can conclude, in contrast to earlier criticism (Barker, Kendrick, Belsey), that Milton's main intention for his pamphlet was to be understood at two levels—as suggested in Dowling's title— and to defend simply the freedom of philosophic speech.
As D. F. McKenzie has noted, recently there has been a shift of scholarly interest in Milton's Areopagitica from "questions of authorial intention and textual authority to those of textual dissemination and readership" (Miller 26). While this distancing from the authorial intention has resulted in some illuminating works about the world of printing, Renaissance economy, censorship and public sphere (Miller, Sherman, Norbrook), it has also produced some curious side-effects because the critics cannot avoid, in their final analysis, touching upon the authorial intention in the light of their newly made discoveries. Thus, Stephen B. Dobranski suggests that, since Areopagitica is about books, "the reading of the text should begin (but not, of course, end) by placing the pamphlet within the world of printing"
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What is disturbing about this journey is the fact that Milton does not mention any of its steps in Areopagitica; interestingly enough, when it comes to influential walks, friendships and "books" Milton is pretty explicit, as in his other pamphlets, about his Italian journey, his walks, talks and friendship with various poets, artists and scientists of his time. These are the "judicious friends" Milton has in mind when he talks about writing as a collaborative process. Thus, Dobranski implants into Areopagitica the mechanical pulse of the book production and trade, the pulse of "life" which Milton supposedly tries to protect. As a result, Milton emerges as a hybrid of poetically inclined Benjamin Franklin rather than a singer of divine mysteries. For the mechanical side of the book production one should read Franklin's Autobiography; when Milton talks about the life of a book, on the other hand, he talks about a living organism and that is not an arbitrarily chosen metaphor.
This organic pulse of a living poetic spirit seems to have been overlooked in a large body of Areopagitica criticism which places the pamphlet within various religio-political controversies and the context of the accomplishments of Milton's left hand, his prose works, rather than within the context of his poetic aspirations and growth. Despite Marjorie Nicolson's warning that "Surely this is one piece of prose that Milton did not write with his left hand" (128) the critics have succumbed to the syndrome of a "left handed" Milton.
One possible explanation for the neglect of Milton's poetic aspirations and career in Areopagitica criticism might be the fact that during the period between 1640-1660 Milton did not complete or publish any major poetic works—with the exception of the publication of his early poetry in 1645. Another misleading feature seems to be embedded in the pamphlet itself; unlike Sir Philip Sidney in his Apology for Poetry, Milton, in his defense, uses more general terms such as books, learning and learned men rather than poetry and the poet. However, this difference simply marks a reversed procedure of the same defense. While Sidney takes the threat to poetry also as a threat to all learning, Milton takes a "wayward" approach by dealing with the threat of licensing of books to all learning and then also to poetry. These are merely tactical differences; the strategy of both poets seems to be the same—to defend poetry. Furthermore, Areopagitica's "poetic style" does not simply reveal the pulse of a temporarily threatened and awakened poet in Milton; there seems to be a double pulse in it: one revealing the aroused poetic parental instinct, and the other, a more latent one, revealing the life of an unborn poetic child whose planning, conception and birth spans his writing career. Thus, the pamphlet appears to be a double defense: Milton's defense of poetry and, more specifically, the defense of the shaping fetus of his great poetic work Paradise Lost. The throbbing of Milton's poetic heart aroused by his parental instinct in Areopagitica is louder than the noise of printing press, paper mills or busy streets and the history of this pulse might be more germane to our understanding of the purpose of this work than the history of book trade.
That Milton had aspirations of becoming a visionary poet, the singer of divine mysteries, becomes evident already in his youth. The throbbing of his poetic pulse becomes audible in his "Vacation Exercise" (1628): "I have some naked thoughts that rove about / And loudly knock to have their passage out" (ll. 23-24). However, the subject at hand temporarily suppresses his aspirations for a more serious poetic work.
Yet I had rather, if I were to choose,
Thy service in some graver subject use,
Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heav'n's door . . . (ll. 29-30, 33-34)
This "graver subject" reflects Milton's aspirations toward heroic poetry: Homer and the Odyssey are his examples (ll. 35-52). The vigor of this poetic pulse reveals the impatience of a young poet who cannot wait for what he believes to be his "calling," to try his hand at a subject reserved for mature poets. Furthermore, this impatience and complaining about thwarted poetic aspirations is going to become one of Milton's chronic complaints from his early poetry to his prose works and even to Paradise Lost, from his youth to his old age. Only the distracting forces will change.
While Milton believed in the hierarchy in poetry and the notion that young poets should begin with pastorals and that heroic poetry is the product of mature years, already at the age of seventeen he tried his hand at a heroic poem in Latin, In Quintum Novembris, a "little epic" of 226 lines that foreshadows, as Marjorie Nicolson notes, his Paradise Lost (177). Milton's belief that he has been "called" to write heroic poetry influenced his self-education during the Horton period (1632-38) and eventually resulted in plans for an English Arthuriad during his Italian journey (1638-1639). The tremendous formative influence of this journey on Milton's poetic career becomes evident as he invokes its memories in his Latin eclogue "Mansus" as well as in the passages of The Reason of Church Government (1642), Areopagitica (1644), and Second Defense of the English People (1654).
A significant public announcement of Milton's poetic plans came out two years before Areopagitica in The Reason of Church Government. Although Milton claims the pamphlet to be a "wayward subject against prelaty" (667), the more "wayward" part seems to be a detour at the beginning of "The Second Book," the autobiographical part about his poetic "calling," education, Italian journey and planning of "something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die" (668). The significance of this "dislocated" argument is that it shows where Milton's heart was. Upon his return from Italy and under the impression of the acclaim he received there for his poetic abilities he must have started composing Adam Unparadised, the prototype of Paradise Lost (Bradford 27, 49). While he claims the competence on the subject of church reformation on the account of his studies, it becomes clear that the end of all his "labor and intent study" was meant to be poetry, in accordance with his "strong propensity of nature" and the recognition received in "the private academies of Italy" (667-668). The only unresolved question for him at this moment is whether to write an epic, a tragedy or a lyric (668-669).
The placing of this type of public announcement in a pamphlet about church reformation shows that Milton could not dissociate his poetic "calling" and his aspirations from the need for reformation of English church and society. It seems that the question here should not be how this announcement fits into the general argument of reformation but rather how this reformation fits into Milton's poetic plans. There is no doubt that in the Prelacy Milton recognized a threat to the reformation of the church but also as an oblique threat to all learning and poetry. In a way, Milton is John the Baptist of his own poetic child, paving the way through a hostile environment.
A year later a more direct threat came in the form of the Parliament's licensing order, 14 July 1643, the Stationers Company's demands for its strict enforcement and personal attacks on Milton and his "Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce" by Thomas Hill and the Presbyterian divine Herbert Palmer in the following year (McGrail 99). Consequently, in Areopagitica, Milton recognizes in Presbyters the threat to various freedoms and tolerance posed earlier on by the Inquisition in other European countries and the Prelacy in England: "This project of licensing crept out of the Inquisition, was caught up by our prelates, and hath caught some of our presbyters" (720). That he took it also as a threat to his poetic aspirations becomes evident as he once again, albeit in more general terms, presents his poetic credentials in a paradigm that actually represents the history of his own poetic education.
When a man writes to the world, he summons up all his reason and deliberation to assist him; he searches, meditates, is industrious, and likely consults and confers with his judicious friends, after all which done he takes himself to be informed in what he writes, as well as any that writ before him. If in this the most consummate act of his fidelity and ripeness, no years, no industry, no former proof of his abilities can bring him to that state of maturity as not to be still mistrusted and suspected . . . and if he be not repulsed, or slighted, must appear in print like a puny with his guardian, and his censor's hand on the back of his title to be his bail and surety that he is not idiot or seducer; it cannot be but a dishonor and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege and dignity of learning. (735)
Like a composition instructor, Milton asserts that writing does not begin with the hand but in the head; it is a long and painstaking procedure of research, meditation, study, and consultation with "judicious friends." However, this theory offers at the same time biographical data that enables us to locate Milton at a particular stage in his poetic career. His studies in London, Cambridge and Horton, his Italian journey and conversations with Italian poets and their acclaim of his early poetry and poetic plans for the future are all represented here. While Milton elaborates upon the concept of poetic creativity that includes "labor and intent study," as presented earlier on in The Reason of Church Government, he also indicates that he has reached the point of poetic "ripeness." He recapitulates his poetic manifesto not in a manner of comfortable musing over his plans but with deep concern about the causes by which they are threatened. Once again he recalls the memories of the Italian journey.
when I have sat among their learned men, for that honor I had, and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom as they supposed England was while themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought; that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. (737)
Although Milton begins with the general state of learning in Italy, the end of this learning seems to be poetry. The threat to all learning, in a chain reaction, affects also poetry, and the only type of poetry possible under these circumstances is "flattery and fustian," in other words panegyric. Milton seems to have come to this conclusion in his conversations with Giovanni Baptista Manso, a poet and the friend of Tasso, during his visit to Naples. It is in "Mansus" that Milton reveals his plans for an English Arthuriad and where he wishes he would have the same type of friend Tasso had in Manso. Furthermore, Manso, through his friendship with Tasso and working on his biography, must have been acquainted with the fears Tasso had had from the Inquisition on the account of Jerusalem Delivered (1675). Manso could have only bemoaned the fact that no great epic poetry had been written in Italy after Tasso and, at the same time, hailed the poetic vigor and plans of a young English poet. Both poets must have concluded that Italy had become a sterile ground for heroic poetry, and in Areopagitica Milton blames this sterility on the Inquisition and "the Franciscan and Dominican licensers" (738). If we place Milton's concern into broader historical perspective, it is interesting to note that in his extensive study of heroic poetry C. M. Bowra draws a similar conclusion upon the examples from Chinese and Hebrew history; in these countries panegyrics never developed into heroic poetry because of the growth of priestly rule which, among other things, discouraged "too great an emphasis to the individual hero" (47).
While during his Italian journey Milton could have claimed that England in comparison to Italy was a country of "philosophic freedom," in Areopagitica he expresses his disappointment and fears that "if it come to inquisitioning again and licensing, and that we are so timorous as to fear each book and the shaking of every leaf, before we know what the contents are" (738), one can expect the same type of sterility he encountered in Italy. That this type of sterile environment might prevent the English poets from matching the glory of Renaissance Italian poets such as Ariosto and Tasso was Milton's constant concern from the time he began working on what was to become Paradise Lost, and the time of Areopagitica, to the time when this project was in advanced stages of completion. This becomes evident in the preamble to book IX of Paradise Lost as Milton justifies the choice of subject for his "Heroic Song" which pleased him "long choosing, and beginning late" (ll. 25-26). Since he claims to be "Nor skill'd nor studious" in the machinery of heroic poetry, for him
Remains, sufficient of itself to raise
That name, unless an age too late, or cold
Climate, or Years damp my intended wing
Deprest; and much they may, if all be mine
Not Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear. (ll.42-47)
Not only does this passage reflect the expansion of Milton's concern about the causes that might still damp his "intended wing/ Deprest," it also points to the fact that his concern about the damped "glory of Italian wits" in Areopagitica is actually a concern for the future of his own poetic work. These complementary passages simply mark two different stages in the development of Milton's poetic parental instinct in relationship to the development of Paradise Lost: in Areopagitica it is a parental concern for the shaping fetus, whereas in the latter passage it is a concern for the child at the point of birth. Furthermore, Milton's long-term strategic concerns about the poet's "right" age and about the right age into which his "child" would be born become apparent. Neither of them seems to be favorable any more. Has he waited too long to start the poem? Very unlikely. Giving birth to Paradise Lost was for Milton a larger burden than simply composing the poem, which included a long period of study and "maturing." Milton had to fight for an age that would not be "too late" for his poetic work. Fighting for the right age or favorable cultural environment Milton never ceased to be a poet, as some critics seem to think (Bradford 46). His prose tracts are simply a part of this long-term strategy, and Areopagitica has a very crucial place in it.
As for its structure, Areopagitica has a sharp poetic crescendo marked by numerous visions and prophetic spirit. Milton definitely presents himself as one of those "pregnant souls" in "a nation of prophets" (743). He would agree with Sidney that the English "tongue is most fit to honor poesy, and to be honored by poesy" (87), and when he talks about "prophets", like Sidney, he seems to have in mind vates or poets. In his prolusions, Milton claims that the inventions of the poets and their genius are divine (598), and it is the poets who are the "wisest imagers of truth" (616). For this reason when he expresses "the common grievance of all those who had prepared their minds and studies above the vulgar pitch to advance the truth in others" (738) or those who have made a life investment in "our richest merchandise, truth" (741), Milton seems to be primarily expressing his concerns for the future of poetry in England. His defense of "free market economy," metaphorically speaking, represents his concern for his life investment of intent studies and preparation for his poetic calling. While he speaks for others, Milton is equally concerned for his own poetic shares.
Not only does Milton present himself as a visionary poet in Areopagitica, but also he appears as a visionary strategist, analyzing the past, assessing the present and looking into the future as he paves the way for a work that is going to be greater than the poet. Although one could explore numerous similarities between Sidney's Apology and Milton's pamphlet, Sidney's work does not have this long-term strategic impulse. While Sidney's work is based on great tactics, Milton's "defense of poetry" hinges on his own strategic interests. On the other hand, Milton's tactics are quite confusing because of various inconstancies and omissions as well as the plethora of metaphors and literary tropes. It is essential not to confuse those tactical maneuverings with his strategy. Mistaking Milton's tactics in Areopagitica for his strategy equals the confusion of metaphors for literal meaning.
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