John Leonard, a Western English professor and renowned John Milton scholar, recently published Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of ‘Paradise Lost’, a two-volume work dealing with centuries of Milton scholarship. It has been praised for its attention to detail and fair-mindedness, for its contributions to astronomical thought in Milton’s time and has been called “one of the most sustainedly informative and carefully pondered single-authored academic books on Milton’s Paradise Lost ever to have been published.”
Western News reporter Adela Talbot recently spoke to John Leonard about his most recent publication.
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This is an extensive work, covering almost 1,000 pages. Talk a bit about the process of writing this.
It’s taken me 14 years; I started this in 1998. It was initially not going to be a book with the Oxford University Press; it was going to be for something called the Milton Variorum Project. The Milton Variorum Project is mostly a line-by-line commentary on Milton’s poems, but the one thing that’s been missing for years is a volume on the commentary on Paradise Lost.
The problem is that it is such a huge project, the two people doing it before me died on the job. They made the mistake in the past of giving the job to senior scholars who didn’t live to complete it. They’ve died, or were exhausted on the job, and gave up. I actually finished the project, but the big interruption I had was the big (financial) crash in 2008. The Milton Variorum ran into difficulty and there was no way they were going to be able to publish a book of this length and it looked as if they were going to abandon the whole project. When it looked like they were going to cut me off after 12 years of work, I jumped ship to Oxford.
How has the discussion of Paradise Lost evolved over time? Why stop in 1970?
Let me take the second question first; I just stopped there for this particular volume. My intent is to write a sequel that takes us to at least 2010 or later, depending on when I write it.
So, how then, has the discussion evolved? I know you discuss Milton’s vision of universe, one critics have assumed for years to have the Earth at the centre. Maybe you could comment more on that specifically.
There are lots of discussions about that poem. And I’ve devoted one chapter to each of the major discussions. Each has its own history. I think Milton’s universe has a particularly interesting one because I’ve come to believe that everybody’s got it wrong for the last 260 years, simply because they failed to get a joke. The evidence Milton uses for the Ptolemaic system of solid spheres rests on three lines in a poem of 10,565 lines and those three lines are a joke. (There) Milton is describing a universe that is imagined to exist by people who end up in the paradise of fools. Once you realize that, you realize this is not a blueprint for the poem’s universe at all. And yet, since the middle of the 19th Century, critics have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to make the poem fit those three lines. Once you realize that Milton’s joking, and you get the joke, it becomes simply astonishing what has happened.
Why do you think people failed to get the joke for so long?
The first person to fail to get the joke was a very important editor – and a very good editor – in the middle of the 18th Century. His note gets repeated for the next 100 years. His name is Thomas Newton. He didn’t try to make the rest of the poem fit those three lines. He just has a note on the three lines in which he misses the joke. Because it’s such an important edition that gets reprinted again and again, and because the editor is usually so reliable, he gets trusted.
As soon as you drop those three lines, the rest of the poem’s pronouncements on the universe leap free. There is the case Milton does keep an open mind about geocentrism. There are places in the poem where Milton does hedge his bets and write respectfully about the possibilities of geocentrism but what he is referring to is not the old Ptolemaic system but rather Tycho Brahe system.
English professor Michael Groden gave a lecture on Ulysses when I was an undergrad in which he talked about having worked on the text, and having taught it for so long, it became a presence in his life so much so that there were two Mollys at his dinner table. You’re a renowned Milton scholar. How has your work played a role in your own personal life? Are there two Johns in your life?
Oh yes. I read Paradise Lost when I was 19, instantly fell in love with it, and have lived with it ever since. I’m sure it will be a lifelong partnership. But I have two lifelong partnerships, one with Milton, one with my wife. We’ve been married for 30 years and my wife has never read Paradise Lost. She married me only on the condition that she’d never have to. She did once concede to let me read it to her.
Did you read it to her?
I did, yes. There’s a rumour around, that’s not true, that I know the whole poem by heart. In fact, I don’t. I can quote a lot from memory but not the whole poem.
Why study Milton today? What do you gain, taking a Milton course?
For many people, he matters because he is a poet of freedom. The difficulty is his notions of freedom are different than ours and he doesn’t always live up to them.
I think Milton matters because the idea of a paradise lost, the idea of the gap between what societies or human life should be like, and what they actually are, is always with us. I think much of the great literature addresses that. Why is it that good intentions turn out so badly so often? That’s a perennial problem all human beings face. And I think Milton addresses it more eloquently and powerfully and movingly than any other non-dramatic poet in English.
I often hear students say they expected Milton to be irrelevant and boring and distant from their own lives and what they find is he actually is very relevant in ways both expected and unexpected – because of issues like freedom and justice between the sexes, questions about religion. Atheism is a big topic these days.
Many things Milton took for granted are no longer taken for granted and I think that’s a good thing. Students of all beliefs find Paradise Lost a work that is relevant to them. It’s one of the great works of science fiction, one of the great works of evangelistic literature to describe space travel in a compelling way.
Anything else you want to touch on?
You’ve not asked me whether I’m a person of faith, did you?
Believe me, I am not really the kind of person to ask that sort of question.
I mean, my answer would be a wishy-washy cop out – that I’m a wishy-washy agnostic. I don’t believe in the literal truth of the Genesis story – I don’t believe the earth is 6,000 years sold. I think we’ve moved beyond that.
One of the things that makes Paradise Lost so great is enduring questions like that. When Satan rebels, some of the arguments he uses sound uncannily like Darwin. When he denied he was created, he comes up with the alternative hypothesis that matter just becomes aware of itself. There are classical references to that as well. You can find examples in Lucretius and philosophers but Satan sounds very much like Darwin and it may not be coincidence that Milton was Darwin’s favourite poet. When Darwin went for a tour of the Galapagos Islands, Paradise Lost was the one book he took with him.
I don’t know whether it’s because of Satan being a good Darwinian or some nostalgia for the world picture he was dislodging, but either way, Paradise Lost speaks across boundaries and predictable limits, and that’s one of the great things about it, I think.