The poverty of context: Cambridge school history and the new Milton criticism

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My title, “The poverty of context,” with its implication that Cambridge School History, informed by the methodology of Quentin Skinner, has not been salutary for Milton studies is certainly hard to fully justify. In the past generation, some of the most important critical work on Milton has relied upon Skinnerian method - in particular, the emphasis on the recovery of discursive contexts to elicit intentions, as well as the performative force of those utterances in the contexts in which they are made. Sharon Achinstein’s Milton and the Revolutionary Reader of 1994, for example, builds, as she writes in her Introduction, upon “Skinner’s emphasis on the recovery of the text’s position within the framework of its own system of communication.” Nigel Smith, in the Introduction to Literature and Revolution in England of the same year, though not citing Skinner, explicitly invokes the performative nature of “speech acts,” that is, the action entailed by a text in the context in which it was uttered. David Norbrook’s Writing the English Republic 1999 describes itself as explicitly following the Skinnerian model - as “concerned with the links between language and action” and “the kinds of ‘illocutionary act[s]’ the author was performing,” as well as how he was “intervening in a contemporary context of debate.” That Skinner was the only historian featured as a plenary speaker at the 2008 International Milton Symposium in London, and that a version of the lecture which he delivered was featured in the London Review of Books released to overlap with the symposium testifies to Skinner’s stature and influence among contemporary Miltonists. But perhaps more than that, Colin Burrow’s recent review of Blair Worden’s Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England, which focuses on Milton, Marvell, and Marchamont Nedham, demonstrates Skinner’s pervasive influence among scholars of seventeenth-century literature in England. To Burrow, Worden’s book exemplifies the “New Model Criticism” which “subjects literary works to more and more intensive contextualization,” affirming that “poems are acts or events, or testaments to political positioning,” that require “highly specialised contextual labours.” The unnamed presence behind the reading of Milton and his contemporaries, emphasizing the centrality of contexts and texts as performative acts, is of course none other than Skinner. To be sure, Milton scholarship has become more rigorous and disciplined because of Skinner’s attention to contexts, but the subordination of Miltonic intention to singular contexts - very often political - has sometimes simplified the work of both the political thinker and poet.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe New Milton Criticism
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781139094238
ISBN (Print)9781107019225
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2012.


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