‘Lodge and Dislodge by turns’: Rethinking the Milton Controversy

John Leonard, University of Western Ontario 

To the dismay of many Miltonists, F. R. Leavis in 1933 proclaimed that “Milton’s dislodgment” had been “effected with remarkably little fuss.” Leavis’s own verdict has now been dislodged, and many critics find it hard to see what all the fuss was about, but “the Milton Controversy” warrants renewed scrutiny, for it matters just which version of Milton was dislodged, and which version has been restored. Christopher Ricks took Leavis head-on and argued that Milton satisfies Leavis’s rigorous criteria, but in recent years several critics and theorists have written as if Leavis’s error was to read Milton with false principles and expectations. Terry Eagleton in particular has coined the term “the incarnational fallacy” to describe Leavis’s statement that “it is as if words as words withdrew themselves from the focus of our attention and we were directly aware of a tissue of feelings and perceptions.” Leavis thought that Milton mostly failed to live up to this ideal of poetry; Ricks argued that he does live up to it; Eagleton ridicules the very notion that it is possible to write verse that “acts the meaning, not merely says, but does.” Drawing on my recently completed reception history of Paradise Lost, forthcoming from OUP, I shall argue that Leavis’s principles are philosophically respectable and have deep roots in the history of Milton criticism. I shall also point out that Leavis’s attack on Milton is based on T. S. Eliot’s misquotation of one key passage from Paradise Lost. Eliot’s misquotation that has never before been noticed, and has been passed from one critic to another, both detractors and defenders, vitiating criticism for sixty-five years.