Curb'd enthusiasms : critical interventions in the reception of Paradise Lost, 1667-1732
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Although recent critics have attempted to push the canonization of Paradise Lost ever further into the past, the early reception of Milton’s great poem should be treated as a process rather than as an event inaugurated by the pronouncement of a poet laureate or lord. Inevitably linked to Milton’s Restoration reputation as spokesman for the Protectorate and regicides, Paradise Lost’s reception in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is marked by a series of approaches and retreats, repressions and recoveries. This dissertation examines the critical interventions made by P.H. (traditionally identified as Patrick Hume), John Dennis, Joseph Addison, and Richard Bentley into the reception history of a poem burdened by political and religious baggage. It seeks to illuminate the manner in which these earliest commentators sought to separate Milton’s politics from his poem, rendering the poem “safe” by removing it from contemporary political discourse. Constituting the earliest sustained criticism of any English poem, the efforts of P.H., Dennis, and Addison contribute to our understanding of the development of English literary criticism as a genre. Within the more narrow bounds of Milton scholarship, this dissertation highlights the relationship between the work of the often-neglected critic John Dennis and Addison’s popular Spectator essays. Although Addison and his Spectator essays are often credited with having rediscovered or popularized Paradise Lost, Addison’s suppression of Dennis’s groundbreaking criticism set the tone for much of the later eighteenth-century criticism on Milton. This first critical conflict between a vision of Milton as heterodox and exceptional and one that cast him as orthodox and conservative provides insight into ongoing debates within the field. Addison’s retreat from Dennis’s theory of the enthusiastic sublime into the safer havens of neoclassicism, viewed in concert with newly discovered annotations by Richard Bentley in copies of Paradise Lost and the Spectator essays, helps contextualize Bentley’s infamous 1732 edition of Paradise Lost as more than an aberration in editing history and Milton criticism. While recent criticism has tried to put Bentley’s edition in context as a response to John Toland and an attempt to wrest Milton from the hands of radical Whigs, Joseph Addison had already made that move by neutralizing Dennis’s more radical theories decades prior to Bentley’s edition. Despite attempts by the wits of the day to lump Dennis and Bentley together as common members of a species of dull pedants, it is Addison who stands behind Bentley’s most outrageous interventions in Paradise Lost. In recovering the relationship between Milton’s earliest commentators this dissertation sheds new light upon long and deep-seated currents within Milton criticism.