Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. The Romantics on Milton: Formal Essays and Critical Asides [Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb, Landor, Hazlitt, Hunt, DeQuincey, Byron, Shelley, and Keats]. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970. Pp. 594. $15.00
Miltonists, Romanticists, and historians of criticism must be grateful for the material plentifully garnered by Mr. Wittreich. He has harvested the references and allusions to Milton from the essays, journals, diaries, notebooks, marginalia, letters, reported conversations, and poems of the major writers of the Romantic period, and he has thus provided us with a vade mecum into the hearts and minds of those most perspicacious readers, and, not surprisingly, with a considerable amount of excellent reading.
Wittreich does not pretend to offer complete bibliographical apparatus, but, nonetheless, the cross-referenced notes at the end of every chapter contain everything of importance concerning the influence of Milton on the Romantics. The slighter remarks of Lamb, Landor, Hazlitt, Hunt, and DeQuincey and a brief description of Coleridge’s lectures are listed in two appendices. The Coleridge section will no doubt be expanded when a new edition of this volume is called for and new material is made generally available. An additional appendix will serve to list any oversights such as the Milton references in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. de Selincourt, I, 35; De-Quincey, Collected Writings, ed. Masson, V, 211; and The Letters of John Keats, ed. Rollins, I, 397.
Wittreich intelligently surmounts the dangers of Bartlettizing and avoids the atomism and gnomic isolation of remarks by constantly quoting a sufficient amount of material to preserve the coherence and the context of each observation. This generous sampling itself assists in making the case Wittreich presents in his valuable introductory essay: namely, that the Romantics “are the unacknowledged architects of Milton criticism as we know it today” (p. ix), and that somehow, the pro-Miltonists and con were a party to either ignoring the issues raised by the Romantic critics or imperfectly labeling Romantic commentary as too narrowly concerned with verse techniques or too radically Satanizing.
Additionally, the collection makes it clearer that Milton, more than Shakespeare, was the fulcrum and the omphalos of the critical theorizing of the period and especially of resolving the problem of the role and function of the poet. The Romantics decidedly exercised Wellek’s “perspectivism” which “tries to see the object from all possible sides and is convinced that there is an object.” As if in rejoinder to Johnson’s Life, the Romantics numbered the streaks on the tulip and considered Milton as polemicist, Puritan, prophet, mythopoeicist, and poet; always before them, however, was the object of their deliberations, Milton the Man. It is more than chronologically appropriate, therefore, that the Blake selections begin the anthology.
In his literal-imaginativist way, Blake does apotheosize Milton the Man, and it is a testimony to the strength of character of Case Western Reserve Press that they printed the whole of Milton from the Keynes edition. In its new setting, jostled by similar if more parochially-formed expressions, Milton gains new significance and becomes at once more singular yet more conventional. Blake’s other mode of criticism, his ninety-odd illustrations of Milton’s poems, is an acknowledged omission (note 72, p. 21; note 22, p. 101). The cost would no doubt have been prohibitive and we can get by, at least for the time being, with Marcia R. Pointon’s numerous reproductions and interesting commentary in Milton and English Art. All in all, Wittreich has demonstrated that the Romantics were Milton’s fittest audience and that Blake was front row center.