Milton’s Global Reach

Thomas N. Corns, Bangor University

Does Milton’s writing indeed have a global reach? The question need scarcely trouble us. The evidence is manifest in this assembly of Milton scholars from five continents, as the International Milton Symposium musters for the first time in Japan. My paper engages a different, and I think more challenging, set of questions: what were the stages by which that process of internationalisation was accomplished, and, more interestingly, what were the impulses, the imperatives, the agenda that drove that process. But I want to set that enquiry in a broader context by situating this Miltonic narrative in relation to two other writers, one, John Bunyan, a younger contemporary, often associated with him in the critical tradition; the other, perhaps more surprising, is Lucretius, a Latin poet of the first century B.C., whose larger impact on the cultural transformations of early modern Europe is increasingly recognised. My aspiration is to arrive at a larger understanding of the principal drivers in literary internationalisation.

But perhaps I may seem to be looking past the obvious to find a complex explanation when a simple one would suffice. Epic poetry was recognised in Milton’s own age, as in the following century, as the elite, transcendent genre. As a major exponent of the form, surely Milton’s status should be obvious. As John Dryden put it, in the epigraph he supplied to de luxe 1688 edition of Paradise Lost,

          Three Poets, in three distant Ages born,
          Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.
          The First in loftiness of thought Surpass’d;
          The Next in Majesty; in both the Last.
          The force of Nature cou’d no further goe:
          To make a Third she joynd the former two.

I can, however, assure you that neither Homer’s loftiness of thought nor Vergil’s majesty played much a part in Milton’s global success.

But let me glance across to Bunyan, of course, in most respects a simpler writer than Milton, and by the most obvious criterion, more popular in his own lifetime as judged by the multiplicity of editions of his major works; Pilgrim’s Progress part one went into about twelve lifetime editions. Bunyan was translated very early.

Pilgrim’s Progress appeared in Welsh in 1688, translated by the energetic dissenting minister Stephen Hughes and several unnamed collaborators. Why that text and why then? The choice of text in part surely reflects the broad spectrum of appeal Bunyan’s work had enjoyed in English, though the apparent ecumenicalism of his more popular work, at least for seventeenth-century readers, still disclosed a puritan tendency. The state of Welsh religious life had greatly exercised English puritans in the 1640s and 1650s, leading to a sustained initiative to promote the gospel in Wales along radical lines, an initiative that retained some momentum even after the Restoration. Hughes’s endeavours to introduce Bunyan to a literate Welsh-speaking audience were essentially missionary and followed with rather greater impact his translations of Richard Baxter, Arthur Dent and others.

What Stephen Hughes had realised, that the right Bunyan text could serve a missionary purpose, was rediscovered by the missionaries of Victorian Britain as the zeal to spread Christian conversion followed the advances of British imperialism. The relative simplicity of Bunyan’s vocabulary and syntax facilitated the process of translation, into Tamil, Dakota, Fante, Ibo, Luo, Maori, Raratonga, Inuktitut, Ganda, Tahitian, and so on. In this case, global reach was achieved in the service of missionary zeal and on the heels of imperialist expansion. Language and style made the process possible, but politics and religion set the agenda.

Lucretius is a rather different case, but a fascinating one. Stephen Greenblatt, in The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (2011) has traced the impact of De Rerum Natura from its rediscovery early in the fifteenth century across early-modern Europe, and earlier this year Reid Barbour and David Norbrook, in an edition that sets a new standard for the scholarly treatment of vernacular translation of seventeenth-century texts, have given us Lucy Hutchinson’s rendering of it, with an introduction that greatly clarifies the status of Lucretius in Milton’s England. Greenblatt argues that the Latin text fed into the intellectual life of Europe a secularising philosophical materialism necessary for the cultural and scientific transformations of that age. He does, however, qualify that claim:

      One poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual,
      moral, and social transformation--no single work was, let alone one that for
      centuring could not without danger be spoken of freely in public. But this
      particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference. (14-15)
      Indeed, I suggest that an alternative hypothesis is worth consideration: that
      those same cultural and scientific shifts provided the necessary conditions for
      the reception De Rerum Natura achieved. Of course, the hypotheses are not
      mutually exclusive and the twin processes could well have worked together
      with a potent synergy.

The internationalisation of Lucretius’s text was driven by multiple considerations. It allowed the relatively safe contemplation of the near-atheism at the core of its Epicurean philosophy. Its admirers -- and Lucy Hutchinson can scarcely have been motivated to translate its 7400 out of pious antipathy -- reserved the option of distancing themselves from its more challenging messages. As Greenblatt observes, ‘The [printed] editions were routinely prefaced with warnings and disavowals’ (297). Hutchinson in the prefatory epistle to the manucript transcription she presented to the Earl of Anglesey repudiates ‘the sin of amusing my selfe with such vaine Philosophy’ (I. 7). Paradise Lost offers a complex homage to Lucretius in its atomist accounts of chaos and its materialist rejection of ex nihilo creation. But for Milton it’s no aleatory swerve of the atoms that brings the cosmos into existence, but rather ‘the omnific Word’ and ‘the golden compasses, prepared | In God’s eternal store’ (7. 217, 225-6) that produce form from the formlessness of chaos; in Milton Epicurean atomism is readily levened with Christian providence. The early-modern English encounter with Lucretius allows the frisson of brushing against the almost forbidden, but it brings, too, the cultural cachet of drawing on the high culture of the classical world. As with Bunyan, though in a very different way, language played a part in the Lucretian reach; the text, inscribed in the lingua franca of the international intelligensia, secured a ready transmission. At the same time its insistence on observing the world unmediated by reference to divinity made it as surely as Galileo’s alleged sotto voce ‘and yet it moves’ a text for the times.

Thus we may glimpse how culture, language, and ideology in these cases shaped their transnational progress. What of Milton’s? I’m going to divide my account into five principal sections.

First: Milton and Italy. Unlike Bunyan and perhaps we may surmise unlike Lucretius the young Milton actively sought profile and celebrity, and he sought it, rather surprisingly, in an Italian context. His sojourn in Italy in the late 1630s, unusual in itself, was distinguished by his apparently well-received entry into several academies. Language, however, and particularly his facility in Latin and Italian, were a necessary condition. But so, too, was a particular kind of literary merit. On his return, Milton actively cultivated the continuity of those connections. He for long kept up a correspondence with the Italian intellectuals in whose circles he had moved. His first major composition once back in England was Epitaphium Damonis, the Latin pastoral elegy for Charles Diodati, in which, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, he also pays compliment to recent acquaintances from his Italian visit, actually distinguishing two of them by name. Despite the poignant subject, Milton stretches out towards a continental fame. On his own account, he sent copies of the privately printed poem back to Italy. Milton evidently thought his Italian reputation marked him out as an Englishman of exceptional culture. In the biographical digression at the start of the second book of The Reason of Church-Government (1642), even as he is projecting his future career as laureate epic poet to the English nation, he reverts to his recent cultural triumph:

         In the privat Academies of Italy, whither I was favor’d to resort, perceiving
         that some trifles which I had in memory, compos’d at under twenty or
         thereabout (for the manner is, that every one must give some proof of his wit
         and reading there), met with acceptance above what was lookt for, and other
         things which I had shifted in scarsity of books and conveniences to patch up      
         amongst them, were receiv’d with written Encomiums, which the Italian is
         not forward to bestow on men of this side of the Alps. (CPW 1. 809-10).

Indeed, he not only kept those encomia but also reprinted them in preface to the Poemata section of his Poems of Mr John Milton, Both English and Latin (1645).

But whatever his Italian fame may have amounted to, eventually the waters closed over it. Yet academician Milton did not reliquish it without a struggle. When he republished an extended edition of his minor poetry in 1673, he stripped out nearly all the metatextual material of the 1645 edition, the publisher’s preface, the letter from Sir Henry Wotton, the notes on the aristocratic entertainments. But he kept the Italian encomia.

I turn to the second phase: Milton’s surging reputation in northern Europe in the mid-seventeenth-century. Again, language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the success. Although few in continental Europe knew English, Latin was the lingua franca of a cultural elite, and excellence of Latinity, which Milton evidently demonstrated, was singularly valorised. Here the key text is Joannis Miltonii Angli Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651), the first Latin defence. It is, in some ways, an extraordinary document, and functions as a star vehicle for its author, whose profile is guaranteed by the subject matter, by the actions of the government that sponsored it, and by its adversarial context. Although Milton writes, explicitly, as spokesman for a revolutionary regime, his status is declared on the very titlepage. As in the digression in The Reason of Church-Government, or indeed in his Epitaphium Damonis, Milton appears Janus-faced. He looks to his English sponsors, declaring on the titlepage that he writes as John Milton Englishman; but he faces a continental opponent and addresses a continental readership. Claude Saumaise, whose Defensio Regia he confutes, had an academic reputation and profile so stellar that his opponent necessarily commanded attention; only a heavyweight can fight a heavyweight. John Hale has recently done much to reconstruct the temper, the aggressive, playful relentlessness of such neo-Latin exchanges, demonstrating that Milton ‘was performing, in his fattest role to date, to his largest and most cosmopolitan audience ... his most congenial part, to great and pleasurable effect’ -- and Hale very deliberately italicises ‘pleasurable’. For this is witty entertainment for a high-culture readership that delighted in Latin puns and wordplay, and delighted also in its own appreciation of them.

Milton’s defence rapidly achieved a wide European circulation. In the United Provinces, a constituency the council of state of the Purged Parliament particularly sought to address, it was soon reprinted and soon translated into Dutch. The Dutch envoy to London bulk purchased copies for his political masters back home. But Milton’s fame -- or notoriety -- spread further. Within months of publication it was ordered to burnt in Toulouse and Paris. The continental humanist community buzzed with excitement, discussing the merits of the combatants in Nuremburg, in Stockholm, in Leiden. The first defence continued to be published in sundry unauthorized editions, sometimes in a composite volume that included Salmasius’s Defensio Regia. For educationalists engaged in inculcating in their pupils an appreciation of and skill in neo-Latin rhetoric, the exchange had an obvious attraction, given the established status of Salmasius and the brilliance of his adversary. Such was its circulation that it attracted the attention in 1653 of the Reichstag meeting in Regensburg. One delegate proposed that the ‘aforementioned writings and particularly Milton’s should be banned so that in the universities they will not be able to carry on unrestrained disputations of those principles’. The Reichstag concurred, ruling that regicidal tracts, exemplified by Milton’s, ‘shall be banned under heavy penalties, and where they are found, they shall be confiscated’ (C and C 240). The second defence and Pro Se Defensio kept Milton’s standing high among continental humanists, and this status lasted through his lifetime: in the 1660s and early 1670s, in his political eclipse, he continued to receive respectful visits from that community.

My third section concerns Milton’s standing in North America. In a sense, there are two manifestations of Milton which we need to distinguish, Milton the radical writer and Milton as England’s and Protestantism’s Vergil. The latter emerged, largely posthumously, in Jacob Tonson’s commodification of Paradise Lost, and was confirmed in the depoliticised readings of the epic in Joseph Addison’s eighteen papers on the poem in The Spectator. Milton’s status was aided by the frequently reprinted operatic libretto Dryden adapted from it. The splendid illustrated folio of 1688, for which Dryden composed that epigraph, was a subscription edition that the English establishment, including former adversaries, paid into in considerable numbers. Addison’s agenda pulled Milton from the domain of political diatribe into the mainstream of neo-classical criticism, setting as the context for his appreciation not the blood-letting of the mid-century but rather the Vergilian tradition. Nevertheless, albeit in a minor way, radical Milton lived on on the radical fringe of Whiggism, in the writing of John Toland and the publication of his collected prose works.

George Sensabaugh offers a still persuasive account in his Milton in Early America (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964). Milton’s foot was from the outset in the door of some of the American colonies, as a puritan writer addressing a puritan audience. Roger Williams of Rhode Island was an acquaintance and quite probably a friend; Cotton Mather of Massachusetts certainly read him. Milton’s works, in their early London-printed editions circulated as surely there as they did in provincial England, albeit with a more extended line of communication. By 1714 Yale had copies of all Milton’s poetry and prose. But Milton also emerged as an influence on and in some sense a touchstone for the poets of colonial America. As with Lucretius, the presence of an evident classic draws a readership and draws imitation. But as with Lucretius, the more controversial Milton also was perceived as articulating safely-- in that he was long dead -- radical ideas that chimed with early revolutionary thinking. Though James Harrington and John Locke, with their sharp emphasis on property-owning as the bedrock of constitutional thought, remained more powerful influences, Milton in his assertion of individual liberty of conscience, his opposition to church hierarchy, and his potent critique of kingship plainly spoke to John Adams and specially to Thomas Jefferson, who drew heavily on his anti-prelatical tracts in drafting the ‘Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom’. In post-colonial America Milton made a relatively easy transition from revolutionary militant to liberal icon, while the professionalisation of literary criticism as an academic discourse readily secured for him the sort of canonical pre-eminence he currently holds.

My fourth section deals with Milton and revolutionary France, and here I rely to a considerable extent on the work of Christophe Tournu. There was something of a false-start: Eikonoklastes was translated early into French, in 1652, as part of a propaganda initiative by the English republic. But the major surge in French interest in Milton largely mirrored the American revolutionary experience though perhaps more emphatically. The radical leader, the Comte de Mirabeau, in 1788 translated Areopagitica into French, following that in 1789 with a translation of Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, available to him John Toland’s 1695 edition of the complete prose. Of course, Mirabeau finds in Milton’s revolutionary prose classic texts of in immediate pertinence to the developing crisis in contemporary France. The first defence was reissued in 1792, the year after Mirabeau’s death and the year before the execution of Louis XVI though it appeared in a form that marked a republican and potentially regicidal shift from Mirabeau’s own reformist position. Its titlepage, purposefully, carried the endorsement ‘The right volume to illuminate the current circumstances wherein France finds itself.’ Milton had already achieved some celebrity in France -- Paradise Lost had first been translated in whole or part several times in the mid-eighteenth century, and there is an obvious attraction in having dangerous ideas articulated by a writer who is both safely dead and enjoys the cachet of literary pre-eminence.

I am, of course, conscious that there are similar issues to be discussed in other transnational Miltonic impact in central and eastern Europe, and I am conscious, too, that others here could better describe the cultural impact of his writing in Europe and North America. However, I feel an obligation and a particular hesitation as I turn to my fifth and final section, which deals with China, Korea, and Japan. I am conscious that our next speaker, Professor Akira Arai, will address these issues with a genuine expertise, and I am aware, too, that several of our panels, which I keenly anticipate, exactly cover these fields. But perhaps I may offer a comment or two, because Milton’s impact in eastern Asia, it seems to me, manifests some common ground with his impact elsewhere, and indeed with the transnational impact of Lucretius and Bunyan, with whom I began. I’m indebted to Professor Tianhu Hao’s recent and very helpful article in Milton Quarterly on Milton is China, 1837-1911. In the Chinese context, if I understand the argument correctly, there are two principal impulses behind Milton’s role in transnational cultural transactions. First, and here he shares common ground with Bunyan, he is incorporated into the cultural agenda of Christian missionaries.

Just as Bunyan’s engaging and accessible allegory finds a role in the British imperial experience, so Milton has a sort of high-culture equivalance in the work particularly of non-conformist missionaries, both British and American, to China. Secondly, like Lucretius in early-modern Europe, Milton acquires a profile as a classic and celebrity advocate of an ideological transformation that his advocates are currently promoting. Thus, Milton, defender of the English republic, finds a readership among some of the progressive Chinese intelligensia engaged in a modernising agenda of their own, much as he found a readership in revolutionary America and revolutionary France. On the Korean and Japanese contexts, I will venture only one comment and one example, and of course I stand open to correction: it does seem to me that once more the principal vehicle for Milton’s impact seems to be the educational initiatives launched by Christian missionaries that led to the establishment of Christian universities such as the institution in which we are now standing. Most significantly, perhaps, one could point to the achievements at the Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, which was established in Kyoto in 1876 by American missionaries. As many colleagues will know, under the leadership of Professor Emerita Fumio Ochi it became the home of the Milton Center of Japan and of MCJ News, which is 1977 began to inform the global community about Milton studies in Japan.

So: some conclusions. The final session of the Ninth International Milton Symposium, hosted by the University of London in 2008, engaged the question of why Milton matters now. I suggested then that Milton matters now as the author of the richest, most influential, most challenging narrative poem in the English literary tradition, without which the modern academic world probably would not accord him the status he enjoys. However, this paper on Milton’s global reach suggests how Milton mattered in former eras of cross-cultural interaction and exchange. Of course, the Milton of those Christian missionaries, or Jefferson or Mirabeau or Lu Xun was not the Milton we Miltonists labour so long to reconstruct through a sort of scholarly archaeology -- any more than the Milton repackaged by Jacob Tonson in 1688 or scoured clean of his radicalism and heterodoxy by Joseph Addison was our Milton or Miltons. But those transformations speak eloquently of the sometimes rather asymmetric interactions of Anglophone and other cultures.

But of course there should be a sixth section, the section that really explains what brings us to Tokyo. The necessary but not sufficient causes are easily identified in the professionalisation of English studies and in the expanding role of the English language in the modern world. But such explanations only set the broader context. Each of us carries his or her own narrative of how and why Milton has so profoundly shaped our work and our lives, though it would be impertinent for me to generalise or speculate. Those narratives, however, are profoundly inscribed in the rich and diverse agenda for this, the tenth meeting of the International Milton Symposium.