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Gordon Teskey, The Poetry of John Milton
by Michael Bryson

Teskey, Gordon. The Poetry of John Milton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015. xvii + 619 pp. ISBN: 978-0674416642. $40.00 cloth.


Gordon Teskey’s The Poetry of John Milton is an ambitious undertaking that takes a reader through the entire poetic career of Milton, from his earliest poems through Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes near the end of his life. As such, it is the kind of book that many non-specialist readers will gravitate toward, when such readers are inclined to approach the often difficult, but always rewarding poetry of Milton outside the confines of an academic syllabus and classroom. In service of just such readers, Teskey is to be praised for having written a book that eliminates all traces of the jargon associated with the kinds of academic criticism that have spent the last four to five decades drinking a bit too deeply from the well of structural, post-structural, and New Historicist (Foucauldian) waters. What Teskey gives us is a book of old-fashioned (and the better for it) literary criticism, which he describes as aiming for an appreciation of literature and its capacity to cultivate “wisdom, courage, generosity, breadth of outlook, intellectual and moral judgment, a reflective passion for justice, and … pleasure” (xi). As Teskey argues, literary criticism serves a very specific purpose: “to show why certain works of literature are good, why they have enduring quality, and, however different their values are from our own, why they are not only civilized but civilizing” (xi).

Teskey’s approach is chronological, and his discussions of such early works as “L’Allegro” and “Il’Penseroso” are detailed and of unquestionable value both to inexperienced and veteran readers of Milton. His comment on the early pair that “part of growing up is discovering that there are two distinct kinds of pleasure around which prudent people try to organize their lives,” quite neatly captures what he goes on to call “the two states Milton personifies in his twinned poems,” before noting that “[i]deally, the two kinds of pleasure come together in what we call work” (95). At times, Teskey seems to credit Milton’s poetry with a radical, even subversive power. In discussing the funeral ode “Lycidas,” Teskey remarks that “[t]he poem’s stance is one of continual, uncertain, and perilous questioning” (191), a questioning that even extends to the divine itself: “[t]he poem questions the natural and the supernatural, and on the latter it questions both divinity in nature and divinity beyond nature” (192).

Teskey’s treatment of the sonnets and other shorter poems of the 1640s and 1650s is both eminently readable and conducted with an admirably deft combination of close reading and attention to historical context. Any teacher or student of Milton will benefit from Teskey’s subtle approach to Sonnet 19, “When I consider how my light is spent.” Here, Teskey reads the whole concept of service to a God who needs nothing of the kind, not as a paradox, but as an indication that service is for ourselves: “If God doesn’t need our service, what is service for? Service must therefore be for us, though we seem to be doing it for God: doing it for God is its form, whatever its substance… . How to serve God is a problem because it means, how is one to live? It means, what is one to do, and even, what is to be done?” (257). Here, Teskey’s book is at its best.

With such an auspicious start, what disappoints this reader is just how conservative—and predictably so—Teskey’s reading of Milton’s late poetry turns out to be. Less civilizing than it is domesticating, Teskey’s reading of Milton’s later work gives us much the same poet and poetry that we see in what William Empson once called the “neo-Christian” tradition of criticism running from C.S. Lewis through Stanley Fish, a tradition that bends the knee at the altar of obedience to the point that it insists that one of the most crucial scenes in Milton’s Paradise Lost should have been written differently, in order that obedience might have been better displayed. 

In retrospect, Teskey’s point of view as a critic becomes clear quite early in the book, as do what one might call his literary sympathies. In telling the reader what he, Teskey, thinks of Milton’s Satan, Teskey makes the perfectly reasonable comment that “there is much to be gained from an aesthetic point of view by making evil characters complex, glamorous, and persuasive” (xiii-xiv), a point of view that Teskey cites Aeschylus’s Agamemnon to support. But rather than using Agamemnon—easily one of Western literature’s least admirable and sympathetic characters—to support his observation, Teskey turns to Clytemnestra—the queen whose daughter was sacrificed, the queen left behind for over a decade, the queen that Agamemnon has betrayed and abused at every turn—as his example of an “evil character.” At that moment, with a fair portion of the human sympathy having been drained out of the book before it has even gotten completely underway, it also becomes obvious what Teskey means when he says that literary criticism functions “to show why certain works of literature are good.” Works that praise obedience and/or punish rebellion are good, and such characters as Clytemnestra are wicked precisely because they reached a limit beyond which they could obey no longer. By that standard, the ideal character would be some variation of patient Griselda, willing and able to take infinite abuse in the name of obedience.

Teskey acknowledges, however, that Milton himself was “not an obedient man” (326). No patient Griselda he, Milton could only conceive of obedience as something—according to Teskey—properly given to God. But Teskey defines Milton’s concept of God in an interesting way, calling it “God [as] is known in our conscience,” which he further defines as “the best part” of any man or woman. Thus, as Teskey constructs Milton, disobedience means “failing to do what the best part of you wants to do, according to the lights of your conscience and reason” (326). This idea will be crucial for understanding how and why Teskey reads the Fall in Paradise Lost as he does, and how Milton may very well have been making a radically different claim than the one Teskey (and so many other Milton scholars) seem to wish for.

As Milton writes the scene in book 9 of Paradise Lost in which Eve offers Adam the fruit she has plucked from the tree of Knowledge, Adam considers briefly what he should do, concludes that he cannot and will not live without Eve, and decides to take and eat the fruit along with her: 

Certain my resolution is to Die;
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join’d,
To live again in these wild Woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no no, I feel
The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.

But there has been a long tradition in twentieth- (and now twenty-first) century criticism of insisting that Adam should have behaved otherwise (an “otherwise” he could only have engaged in had his author written him differently). C.S. Lewis is the first critic to make this objection, arguing that Adam should have “scolded or even chastised Eve and then interceded with God on her behalf.”[1] Irene Samuel famously argued that Adam should “have risked himself to redeem Eve,” going on to argue that he should have maintained “faith that the benevolence he had always known would remain benevolent.”[2] Dennis Burden insists that Adam should have divorced Eve, an astounding rewriting of a poem in which such a concept does not even exist: “the important thing is that Adam has a remedy and Milton of all people must know it [a reference, of course, to Milton’s own writings on the subject of divorce in an England where Burden’s “remedy” was all but impossible for most people to obtain],” and “[w]hat he should do is leave her. He would have good grounds for divorce.”[3] Stanley Fish further develops Samuel’s suggestion that Adam should have interceded with God on Eve’s behalf: “He might have said to Eve, ‘what you say is persuasive (impregn’d with reason to my seeming), but I would rather not make such a momentous decision without further reflection.’”[4] Dennis Danielson argues that that Adam “could have [offered] to take the punishment of fallen humanity on himself, to fulfill exactly ‘The law of God,’ as Michael puts it in Book 12.”[5]

Teskey enthusiastically joins the chorus on this question, arguing that “Adam should trust God to find a better solution than his own. He forgot to trust, and might have remembered to if he had taken more time” (462), as if Milton’s Adam is standing there with Eve muttering, “wait, I’m forgetting something … Eve, can you give me a minute? … I’ve got it! I should trust God!”—a rewriting of the scene that reaches for the comic, but merely grasps the absurd. The continuing insistence that the literary character called God in Paradise Lost is in what Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester might call the “(for)giving vein” is astounding, and while Teskey claims that he finds himself “a little bored by … discussions of the frigidity, or the wickedness, or the goodness of Milton’s God” (xiii), here he lays his cards on the table: Adam should have remembered to trust what Teskey (following along with Lewis, Samuel, Burden, Fish, and Danielson) simply seems to assume is a good and merciful being. And so the rewriting of the poem in the image of its more pious critics goes on and on (Teskey even refers back to C.S. Lewis as he delivers his judgment).

In joining the chorus, Teskey (as the others do) is tacitly arguing that Milton’s poem should be rewritten to better fit his moral sensibilities. Teskey’s attitude (shared with/borrowed from so many previous critics) of condemnation of Adam’s action along with speculation about what he should have done, is implicitly a criticism of Milton for writing the scene as he did. From this point of view, Paradise Lost fails to be “good” in the sense Teskey deals with earlier in his book, because it fails to “civilize” its audience in the way Teskey (and Lewis, Samuelson, Burden, Fish, and Danielson) would have them be civilized.

What is so disappointing about such a predictable (and seemingly borrowed) reading of Adam’s choice is that it flies in the face, not only of the poem’s progression to that point, but of a long literary tradition of treating Adam’s choice in much the way Milton does. The attentive reader of the poem who has not yet been overmuch addled by criticism is by no means surprised by Adam’s choice. In fact, the poem has prepared him or her for this choice, not just by following the bare outlines of the story as presented in Genesis 3, but through the characterization of Adam and his tempestuous emotions (which he seeks council for from the unhelpful Raphael at the end of book 8). Additionally, any knowledge at all of other seventeenth-century treatments of Adam’s choice (not to mention a basic familiarity with Genesis) renders the objection that Adam should have done otherwise than he is written to do odd and irrelevant, saying more about the critics than about the poem.

Milton’s choices are more akin to those of Hugo Grotius, who in his Latin drama Adamus Exul of 1601, written while he was in his late teens, portrays the scene of Adam’s choice in terms similar to those that will later feature prominently in Paradise Lost. Similarly, in L’Adamo, an Italian play of 1613 by Giambattista Andreini, Adam’s decision is to eat the fruit, as it also is in the 1647 Italian play Adamo Caduto by Serafino Della Salandra. There is, however, no cottage industry working furiously to argue that Adam should have behaved differently in these works, no implicit tradition of arguing that Grotius, Andreini, and Salandra should have written their works to break with the story of Genesis 3. Such arguments would be absurd, but for whatever reason, such arguments are frequently made about Milton’s treatment of the same scene. And in such cases, the implicit demand that Milton break from Genesis 3 is equally absurd.

Teskey seems to try having it both ways, however. Not long after arguing that Adam “forgot to trust,” he goes on to claim that “Adam’s decision to remain with Eve is moving, and surely right.” He then maintains that “[t]he place of criticism is not to take sides at such moments” (464), a high-minded and disingenuous statement coming from someone who just took sides two pages earlier by arguing (very much in the tradition of Lewis, Samuels, Fish, and Danielson) that Adam should have chosen otherwise than he did. That’s exactly what “tak[ing] sides at such moments” looks like. But frankly, taking sides is not a problem, having been a part of English-language literary criticism since Samuel Johnson, and Milton (no stranger to polemics) would surely have no problem with it. As recently as 2014, David Quint took sides by arguing a more humane case, writing that Adam’s is an act that combines “marital love, human solidarity, and Adam’s fear of repeating his earlier loneliness before Eve’s creation,” thus taking at least a brief break from the over seven-decades-long trend of moralizing over and rewriting Milton’s scene. Quint goes on to emphasize that it is “the force of his love [that] causes Adam to stay by [Eve’s] side,” and describes the narrative voice that accuses Adam of being “fondly overcome” as “censorious.”[6] It seems long past time that the “censorious” critical voices that insist Milton was wrong to write Adam as he did learned some new lines.

In his analysis of Paradise Regained, Teskey often seems less interested than elsewhere, as he sustains his momentum by interweaving his reflections on Milton’s philosophical dialogue (disguised as a mini-epic) with the beginnings of his work on Milton’s final piece, Samson Agonistes. But he comes to an interesting conclusion: Paradise Regained is perhaps the most radical of all of Milton’s poetic works, for in it, Milton pushes aside the notion of the crucifixion as the central episode in the Christian drama of redemption and salvation. Instead, Milton elevates the resistance to temptation in the desert. Why? Because “[a]s Milton sees it, Jesus’s Crucifixion is a victory over the consequences of the original sin of Adam and Eve … But Jesus’s victory in the desert is a victory over the cause of original sin” (513). This is one of the book’s most valuable insights.

With his treatment of Samson Agonistes, Teskey comes back to his early comments on Clytemnestra and Agamemnon in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. For Teskey, Agamemnon is a hero, “although one for whom our approbation is qualified, because of the injuries and crimes of which Clytemnestra speaks” (536). Agamemnon is a strange sort of hero (described in the Iliad and the Agamemnon as arrogant and even foolish: compare his blithe entrance into his long-abandoned home to Odysseus’s caution when stepping onto his own shores), though he is perhaps understandable in the Greek sense in which heroes are more inhuman than human, more monstrous than humane. Agamemnon is a “polluted man” (536), which, as Teskey goes on to remark, “Samson is too” (536). Yet Teskey holds on to the notion of Samson as heroic, not just in the Greek sense of inhumanity, but somehow in the more humane Miltonic sense as well. For Teskey, there is, apparently, no irony in Milton’s use of a Greek dramatic form with which to present Samson—Milton uses the form, not to critique, but to valorize the monstrous and bloody carnage with which Samson ends his life (and untold numbers of other lives). Those untold other lives belong, after all, to mere Philistines, whom Teskey is quick to assure us (in a brilliantly back-handed remark) that Milton regards as “not absolutely evil” (515), but as “self-satisfied, triumphalist, sensationalist, and, always, for one plausible excuse or another, at war” (536), an oddly contemporary-sounding political critique that sounds rather more at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts than in the lines of Milton’s play. Without any semblance of irony, Teskey refers to the Philistines as “bien-pensant,” or right-thinking, an oddly-telling epithet from an author who has been at such pains to join a long and unvarying critical tradition about the crucial fall-of-mankind scene in Paradise Lost. For Teskey, the killings of so many bien-pensant Philistines, and Samson’s own bloody death, prepare the reader of Samson Agonistes for the catharsis of its final lines, as “[b]y washing the body, and raising a tomb to put it in [actions which it should be noted are merely spoken of in the play, never taken], ‘calm of mind’ is restored, and ‘passion’ is ‘spent’” (536), while the lives lost are simply not worth the effort of speaking of again. Catharsis? Perhaps, but for many readers, Milton’s last work leaves more questions than answers, and is more disturbing than settling, and finally, even Teskey admits that the work is “a dark conclusion to Milton’s poetic career” (537).

Gordon Teskey’s book is deeply learned, refreshingly well-written, and comprehensive in its treatment of Milton’s poetic career. As such, it is a valuable contribution to Milton studies and to readers across the spectrum from general to specialist. Teskey’s treatment of Milton’s early- and mid-period poetry is perceptive, persuasive, and clearly written (a virtue upon which I cannot put too much emphasis). But behind the erudition and elegant prose, there is a disappointing sameness to the treatment of much of the late poetry, especially of Paradise Lost, the work that nearly all of the readers of Teskey’s book will know best, if they know Milton’s work even slightly. Especially disappointing is the book’s treatment of Adam’s all-too-human choice of love over obedience, of Eve over God. It is disheartening to find yet another critic (especially one of Teskey’s standing) repeating the same, seemingly eternally-recurring argument. Hopefully, this old argument, passed down from one critic to the next like a pair of hand-me-down shoes, can finally be put to rest.


Michael Bryson
California State University, Northridge 

[1] A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford UP, 1942), 123.

[2] “The Dialogue in Heaven: A Reconsideration of Paradise Lost, III. 1-417,” PMLA 72.4 (1957): 611.

[3] The Logical Epic: A Study of the Argument of Paradise Lost (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1967), 169-170.

[4] Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998), 269.

[5] “Through the Telescope of Typology: What Adam Should Have Done,” Milton Quarterly 23.3 (1989), 124.

[6] Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014), 153, 178.


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Cite as:

Michael Bryson, "Gordon Teskey, The Poetry of John Milton," Spenser Review 45.3.15 (Winter 2016). Accessed March 20th, 2018.
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