Sharon Achinstein’s Literature and Dissent In Milton’s England: A Review

Sharon Achinstein

Sharon Achinstein

In her monograph Literature and Dissent In Milton’s England Sharon Achinstein explores the work of Milton, as well as other writers, and examines how writing was used as a means to promote dissenting ideals in Restoration England.  It is an academic work, so it does not engage the reader in the manner that a work of fiction would, or even in the manner that a journalistic account would, but for a reader who has an interest in history and literature from the Restoration, especially those focused on religion, the work is an excellent piece.

 

Achinstein does a great job of demonstrating the ordeals that dissenters had to endure under the ruin of Charles II.  Figures like Edmund Calamy, who was seemingly one of the more reasonable dissenters, was the first victim of the Act of Uniformity, an act that would serve problematic for many dissenters until the Act of Toleration of 1689 came into effect.

 

John Milton

John Milton

Much of the monograph deals with how the dissenters navigated the laws.  In burial ceremonies, for example, dissenters would, in death, reject prescribed rituals and dissenting eulogies would be commonplace.  Their gravestones would often feature dissenting views as epigraphs.  This was a way in which the dissenters could continue to attack conformity even from the grave.  Both the burial and the gravestone were ways in which dissenter could combat uniformity without fear of reprisal as they were already dead.  For those dissenters who remained above ground, prisons could also serve as a breeding ground for dissenting views.  There was a trend where ‘celebrity prisoners’, like John Bunyan, would often receive a multitude of visitors whilst in prison, and since they were often in prison already, it made it hard for the state to punish them further.  Both prison and death would serve to martyr the dissenters and serve to strengthen the resolves of surviving dissenters.

 

John Dryden

John Dryden

In other instances, poetry and hymns would be used promote dissenting views.  One of the problems in spreading dissenting ideology was that censors would often prevent the publication of dissenting works.  Hymns were as excellent means to circumvent that process.  Though not innovative in form, hymns were easy to transmit as songs sung could be memorized and shared with others.  Poems worked in a different manner.  They could, in terms of content, adhere to the commonalities shared between the Anglican Church and dissenting denominations, but serve to challenge ritual by rejection traditional poetic conventions.  Topics would often speak to instances in the Bible where tyrannical state power was undermined be religion, such as the story of Samson which Milton speaks to in Samson Agonistes.  Prose writing, such as Milton’s political tracts, could also be used to combat uniformity, though censorship was sometimes difficult to subvert and so prose writings could not be overtly dissenting.

 

Overall the work does a great job of situating the dissenting views and culture during the Restoration period and contrasts what Achinstein refers to as “Milton’s England” with the “Age of Dryden”.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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