12.12.08, Machacek, Milton and Homer

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David Oliver Davies

The Medieval Review 12.12.08

Machacek, Gregory. Milton and Homer "Written to Aftertimes". Medieval and Renaissance Literary Studies. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 194. ISBN: 978-0-8207-0447-0.

Reviewed by:
David Oliver Davies
University of Dallas

Machacek's treatment of poetic allusions to Homer in Paradise Lost bears a clever title. Milton and Homer "Written to Aftertimes" announces both what it appears to be, another foray into source criticism of a notoriously allusive poet, and what it is, a radical reshaping of its eponymous subjects suited to a present climate of opinion. In short, Machacek rewrites Milton and Homer to the aftertimes he inhabits.

Machacek is a devotee of new-historical synchronism in literary studies: contemporaneous culture determines the creation, reception and thus survival of literary works. To some degree this truism is painfully obvious to every author, even those who wish to transcend the parochial sensibilities of their age. Authors have to address the audience that they have. Literary synchronism, however, dismisses as naïve the notion that some authors could also aspire to another audience--one that they want--by addressing "specifiable intrinsic qualities, of universal significance or appeal, that are incorporated into [their works] as a result of their authors' genius and then simply recognized by successive generations of readers" (156, italics mine). Yet "simple" recognition would hardly have been apposite to a desire to "fit audience find, though few" (Paradise Lost [henceforth PL] 7.31). Nor would "simple" recognition require--as it seems to Machacek--that different authors in speaking about similar matters must say similar things. For Machacek, however, "diachronic" or trans-historical notions require a "focus on meaning" in the poem and, we are told, they "mire the theory of allusion in irresolvable issues of intentionality" (37, italics mine).

Perhaps so, but understanding poetry on the whole has hardly been a simple matter ever since Socrates teased a recently victorious rhapsode to interpret for him "what the poet [i.e. Homer] means" because he surely knew "what the poet says" (both are senses of hoti legei ho poiêtês). [1] Then too, apart from theory, there is what a poet actually does. There is, for example, a self-referential practice of allusion, when Homer and Milton each allude to their own works. Instances of such allusion--if not reified as a mere "formulaic utterance," or "echo," or even a disjunctive parallelism--are surely synchronic, and yet can reveal a trans-historical practice of one poet shared by another. [2] Moreover, allusions operate in the realm of notable similarities that bear notice to inherent differences. Milton discusses such matters in detail in Artis Logicae, esp. 1.12, "De diversis," concerning "dissentaneous arguments." [3] There he notes that dissentanies are of particular interest because "they (i.e. the differences) shine forth more clearly" (clarius elucescere). A "fit audience" could reflect on what those differences suggest. The logic of a shared practice rather than "issues of intentionality" would be noteworthy. Lastly, scholars naïve or not could be sure that certain facts "of universal significance or appeal...recognized by successive generations of readers" do exist even if modest little books with titles like Homer on Life and Death are no longer fashionable. [4] But Machacek is not naïve. He will rest his case on the way "we now read literary works" (48), i.e., "since the 1980s" (38).

The matters above do not concern Machacek. Rather, he offers a "new historical insight," that allusions are "culturally mediated," to remove a dilemma for theorists of synchronism (52). Literary synchronism would obliterate--Machecek says, "cannot easily construct"--literary histories, i.e.,"diachronic narratives of past events" (53). (Perhaps this is why New Historicism is called "new.") Milton presents a particular challenge since "trans-historical" allusions to the works of others in Paradise Lost so massively outnumber the few patent synchronic references to events of his own day. How then could Milton scholars any longer talk of diachronic poetic influences? Machacek has a solution: "Milton alludes not to Homer, but to mid-seventeenth-century Homer" (53). Thus "Homer is always 'à la mode'" (41). He supports his theory with the variety of editorial opinion on the Homeric poems--in particular, various Latin and English translations in editions of Homer in proximity to Milton's own time (38-54).

There would seem to be a difficulty here, since he cannot prove (cf. Appendix, 165-170) but appears to assume that Milton would consult such aids (53). Machacek himself supplies ample testimony at the outset of his tract to Milton's prodigious command of the poems--a command surely aided by the dactylic meter of the original (1-2). It would be improbable, therefore, that Milton's view of these materials of allusion would be shaped by those aids. But Machacek does not exactly make such a claim, because he quietly elides talk of "Milton alluding" with "a reader's" reception of those materials. Cognizant of "irresolvable issues of intentionality," he now speaks exclusively of "the impact of a reader's historical moment on the reader's interpretation of an allusion" (47). This shift is the vantage of "cultural mediation"; it allows Machacek to avoid Socrates' question of Ion--"what does the poet mean?"--and to replace it with what "a reader" opines as determined by his culture: "Whether a reader notices an allusion in the first place and how he or she interprets it once it has been noticed are matters determined by the political and cultural circumstances of the reader's particular historical moment" (42).

What does Machacek gain by his "new historical insight"? If allusions are not forbidden ventures into the trans-historical, but rather, determined synchronic events, present-day literary critics can still speak of poetic influences and still write literary histories--or, at least appear to do so. At the same time Machacek promises to palliate poststructuralist and New Historicist discomfort with poetic allusions. The focus of traditional source criticism on allusion supported (if not conferred canonical dignity on) certain texts and authors; it elevated classical models as heteronomous norms; and it entangled critics in the ambiguities of authorial intent--all of which occluded New Historicist claims for contemporary culture as the preferred interpretative instrument. The attack on the "literary status, prestige, and reputation" (4) of the canon therefore substituted "intertextuality" for "allusion" (6, 16-17). Defined as "a discursive space of a culture," "intertextuality" now claims that "meaningful social phenomena" are texts (16-17). But Machacek wants to add that "allusions to earlier authors are no less 'cultural' a phenomenon than the relations between literary texts and such things as sumptuary laws, accounts of colonial enterprise, medical treatises...etc." (38).

Miltonic allusions will now be useful to the opponents of a literary canon. In the mid-seventeenth century, he says, Homer was seen as a canonical work in certain specific respects. Therefore, since Milton in the excursus of The Reason of Church Government wrote of his desire to "leave something so written to aftertimes as they should not willingly let die," in Paradise Lost he adverted to "Homer 'à la mode.'" [5] That, Machacek thinks, could "teach him something about how to create an enduring poem" (5). "Written to aftertimes" means Milton strove for "canonicity" (7). Here Machacek transmutes a content "of universal significance or appeal... recognized by successive generations" implied in the Miltonic context of Machacek's own titular epigram (156). In the excursus Milton went on to associate his endeavors with prior ages--"[t]hat what the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of Old did for their country, I...might do for mine." In other words, those "wits" so wrote to "aftertimes" that "they"--those "aftertimes"--found not only their own patrimony but a patrimony that could be recognized as such by others--like Milton--in spite of linguistic, historical and cultural difference. Milton certainly knew the Thucydidean expression of an author's hopes: "[This work] is composed as a possession for all time rather than as a prize essay attuned to the present moment" (ktêma te es aiei mallon hê agônisma es to parachrêma akouein sugkeitai; Historiae 1.22). Machacek, though, would have Milton chiefly concerned by, and yet shaped by, the vagaries of momentary opinion (cf. especially 139-40).

Machacek's account, therefore "focuses on...the institutional and discursive mechanisms of canonization operative in the mid- to late seventeenth century" (8). To that end, he confines his inquiry to "textual snippets reminiscent of a phrase in some earlier author's writing but smoothly incorporated into the new context of the imitating author's work" that are "brief, discreet, and localized" (26). With this limited sample in mind, he observes that "early modern writers...wrote of prior authors less as providing them with the means for enriching the significance of their work and more as providing them with models for composition. The relations they established with classical authors figured more in the making than in the meaning of their works and were thus more a matter of poetics than of hermeneutics" (65). In contrast to the absolutism of his theoretical pronouncements Machecek now tempers his claims in the comparative degree. The first is surely true; there was a good deal of attention to poetic forms and practice in Milton's time. The second is merely a surmise from his sample and method.

Machacek's central chapters (2-5) thereafter describe Milton's methods to achieve "canonicity" for Paradise Lost. To this end he proposes in chapter 2 a revised taxonomy of allusion of greater terminological precision, "to put the study of allusion on a better footing within contemporary literary studies" (15-16). Though his revisions serve his purposes, neither the selected instances of allusion, nor their "poetic" use, nor even the limited sense granted to these allusions would surprise a competent student of both authors. His "textual snippets" are the stock-in-trade of traditional source criticism. Nonetheless, the fruits of his "new historical insight" deserve an inventory.

"Allusions," he says, "can help to determine the genre of a work" (37). In chapter 2, he reveals that the War in Heaven (PL 5.561-6.892) is "a negative or admonitory exemplum" (60, cf. PL 6.894). Insofar as "classical poets like Homer included patterns of virtue and vice," Milton alludes to such patterns to produce a "sustained evaluative engagement" (73). Chapter 3 addresses another "discursive mechanism of canonization," the Christian epic. Machacek tells us that Milton solved the problem--"the difference between the value system to which Christians adhere and the one celebrated in pagan epic" (76)--by mixing "Christian and classical elements" such that marvelous events "sound at least vaguely familiar" (92). A further "discursive mechanism," the "notion of originality," is thereafter considered (chap. 4) in two senses: an older notion of "something that follows from an origin" and a newer seventeenth-century notion of a "radical departure from what had preceded" (97). Milton, we learn, does both. Chapter 5 reveals that Paradise Lost is a poem that aims at "sublimity." Finally Machacek argues in chapter 6 that Milton "consider[ed] the school a setting in which his future poetic work might be disseminated and reproduced" (145). "Cognizant of...developments in the institutions of canonical reproduction, [Milton] chose the genre of epic and composed Paradise Lost with schools and universities in mind as sites in which his work would be received, appreciated and perpetuated" (149). Milton, Machacek would claim, was fashioning a "schooltext" (149-53). For evidence among other remarks he observes that a recent critic "shows how appropriate the issues raised in Paradise Lost are to college-age students" (150). [6]

These discoveries might put one in mind of a character in Molière who was amazed to discover he had been speaking prose. Machacek's labored exegesis of them is, however, surely faithful to his title. He reduces these two canonical poets to the strictures of literary synchronism: he has "[re-]written" Milton and Homer "to aftertimes." Nevertheless, the dilemma of literary synchronism obviates his account of Milton's mid-seventeenth-century relation to Homer. On his own terms he cannot--nor does he wish to--render a Miltonic motive for allusion that has any greater validity for his colleagues "since the 1980s" than the more traditional notions of prior scholars and poets would have had for their times. He cannot even claim that "Milton thought that, but we think this", but only, "we now think that he thought this." The latter poses as literary history, but it is only a pose.

In his conclusion Machacek burnishes his own accomplishment. He concedes that "Milton... seems to have believed that the author's own efforts could play an important role in his work's endurance" (158). Of course Milton was mistaken about that. For a hundred and fifty pages Machacek describes what he thinks Milton thought he was doing at the time. But each era has its own opinion of canonicity. Judgments change--so "cultural mediation" tells us. We now no longer seek "moral exempla"; we care little "to reconcile biblical content with pagan forms" (159); thus, we have little taste for "sublime" themes; and "originality" is now but an "honorific" title (161). So what is left? If anything, it will not be "a possession for all time." Rather Machacek draws upon the obiter dicta of his contemporaries: "It is quite possible...in the future, we may...[be] unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare" [7], and in summary, "canonicity is externally conferred by the efforts of readers, critics and theorists...No works of literature are born great...they all have greatness thrust upon 'em" (158). [8]

Thus does Machacek take his place among the purveyors of greatness. Milton "entrust[ed] the perpetuation of his epic to the institution of the school" (161). Machacek describes the new course of study. Milton "asks his readers to evaluate the poem relative to the Iliad, the Odyssey and other classical epics" (162). This is "the very activity--judging, evaluating, prioritizing--by which the literary canon is established" (162). In Milton and Homer "Written to Aftertimes" Machacek judges, evaluates, and prioritizes to inform us that what is canonical now is how "we now read literary works." With his guidance we may soon not get anything out of Milton or Homer either.

More often than not, much of poetry--and allusion in particular--is best left to poets themselves to describe. One poet, W. H. Auden, could even predict the fate of all great poets in this "cold, dark day" of literary synchronism:

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities

And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections, To find his happiness in another kind of wood

And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.

The words of a dead man

Are modified in the guts of the living. [9]



1. Plato, Ion 530c3-5.

2. For example, in Milton, PL 2.390-416 refers back to PL 3.168-216, by virtue of the resemblance of PL 2.420 & 3.216 ("all...sat/stood mute"). This internal allusion resembles two passages in Homer, Iliad 2.111-118 and 9.17-25, by virtue of Iliad 9.26: "all silently fell mute" (hoi d' ara pantes akên egenonto siôpê) in contrast to Iliad 2.114.

3. The Works of John Milton, ed. F. A. Patterson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), 11.98-108.

4. Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

5. Works, 3(1).236.

6. Margaret O. Thickstun, Milton's Paradise Lost: Moral Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

7. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 10.

8. Daniel Javitch, Proclaiming a Classic: The Canonization of "Orlando Furioso" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

9. W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," ll. 18-23, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 245.

Article Details

Author Biography

David Oliver Davies

University of Dallas