Milton's works are crowded with political figures—kings, counselors, senators, soldiers, and envoys—all engaged in a comparable variety of public acts—debate, decree, diplomacy, and warfare—in a manner similar to those who exercised power on the world stage during his time in public office. Traditionally, scholars have cited this imagery for two purposes: first, to support studies of the poet's political allegiances as reflected in his prose and his life; and, second, to demonstrate that his works are sympathetic to certain ideological positions popular in present times.
Fallon argues that Paradise Lost is not a political testament, however, and to read its lines as a critique of allegiances and ideologies outside the work is limit the range and scope of critical inquiry and to miss the larger purpose of the political imagery within the poem. That imagery, the author proposes, like that of all Milton's later works, serves to illuminate the spiritual message, a vision of the human soul caught up in the struggle between vast metaphysical forces of good and evil. Fallon seeks to enlarge the range of critical inquiry by assessing the influence of personal and historical events upon art, asking, as he puts it, "not what the poetry says about the events, but what the events say about the poetry." Divided Empire probes, not Milton's judgment on his sources, but the use he made of them.
In the opening essay, John T. Shawcross sets the tone for the volume in identifying Milton as spokesperson, first according to eighteenth-century standards, then in light of modern attention to issues of politics, feminism, and hierarchy. He concludes that Milton's voice has often been used in support of opposing causes both in the eighteenth century and in ours. The essays that follow confirm that, in its range and scope, Milton's powerful voice was not one but many.
In part II the authors address and interpret religious themes in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. The essays in part III suggest the extent to which politics inform Milton's poetry and contribute to the shaping of his prose, and they consider the effect of those political views on Milton's contemporaries and on later generations of readers. Part IV investigates ways in which Milton establishes his own authority within texts and encourages readers to choose between conflicting models of authority.
Milton's adaptation of traditional literary motifs and forms is addressed in part V, and part VI explores issues of gender and hierarchy in light of Milton's portrayals of the relationships between Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost and Samson and Dalila in Samson Agonistes.
Although the scholars represented in this collection apply different theoretical approaches to their examinations of Milton's poetry and prose, they all challenge earlier critical assumptions and are evidence of the energizing dialogue that occurs when readers converse with each other and engage in dialogue with the many voices of a spokesperson such as John Milton.