An answer

Now here is one student answer to this question. It’s presented as it was submitted, and has not been edited. Remember, its author was a third year undergraduate.

At least two of Pembroke’s English Fellows think it’s very good. But it’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not the only way of approaching the question. See how it compares with what you’d write. If you were a teacher, see what you’d change. See what you like about it: emulate it! See what you’d change. Learn from that too. That’s the way our own critical practice develops, in and beyond our weekly practical criticism classes and writing exercises.

 Practical Criticism Essay (1hr 10mins)

 1. Compare and contrast the following discussions of words and books

In the second section of passage a.), Milton sets out a programme of Christian morality based on uncensored exposure and good judgement:

As therefore the state of man is; what wisdom can here be to choose, what continence to forebeare without the knowledge of evill? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian.

 At the heart of this programme is the notion of work and active engagement with moral choices. Milton’s language is mimetic of such work. The words used to qualify ‘vice’ – “all her baits and seeming pleasures”, enforce the reader to dwell on the concept of this vice. To move beyond this consideration, the reader must grapple with the polysyndeton of the next three clauses, and the semantic negation implied in the triple repetition of “yet”. The reader must concentrate on the itemised processes of abstaining, distinguishing, and finally preferring; Milton’s prose demands the kind of attention and awareness that he is arguing should be applied to moral decision-making. Stanley Fish’s conception of Milton’s readers, being “surprised by sin” remains relevant to this text; the very consideration and choice that the author is calling for must be enacted when dealing with this labyrinthine sentence. Thus, just as the author argues that good is “invol’d and interwoven” with the knowledge of evill, this moral programme is tied up with exposure to literature and the process of readerly interpretation. In the context of his “speech […] for the Liberty of Vnlicens’d Printing”, Milton must demonstrate how a text may be “lively, and […] vigorously productive”.

In Bacon’s essay (passage b.)), the author complains that “men study words not matter”; it would seem perhaps that for Bacon – such deliberately explicitly demanding prose as Milton’s would “clothe and adorn” meaning. However, at the heart of Bacon’s text is a similar concept of active work:

[…] it is too early satisfactory to the mind of man, and quencheth the desire of further search, before we come to a just period. But then if a man be to have any use of such knowledge in civil occasions, of conference, council, persuasion, discourse, or the like; then shall he find it prepared to his hands in those authors which write in that manner.

Bacon’s text also draws attention to the process of careful reading – his own conception of a   “just period” demonstrated artfully with a full-stop and the deployment of his own “knowledge” made evident in the extensive list of scenarios (“civil occasions […] discourse”) where one might need to put one’s reading to use. His despair for those who “quencheth the desire of further search” prefigures Milton’s for virtue “unexercis’d & unbreath’d”. For there is sympathy between Bacon’s reader, the depth of whose interpretation stops at “the first letter of a patent or limned book”, and Milton’s, who is ‘cloister’d’ from potentially harmful texts. In both cases, this imagined reader is not being set to work and whose conceptual/moral horizons will therefore be limited.

However, there is a marked difference in the feeling of what is at stake in the two texts. Certainly, there is an urgency to Bacon’s theory that words impose their agency upon their creators, that “as a Tartar’s bow, [they] do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pevert the judgement”. However, despite the violence of Bacon’s metaphor, what he is calling for is merely close scrutiny and precision in the choice of diction. Milton’s metaphor of violence, however, has somewhat different implications:

[…] we see a kind of homicide may thus be committed, sometimes a martyrdome, and if it extended to the whole impression, a kinde of massacre, whereof the execution ends up not in the slaying of elementall life, but strikes at that ethereall and fist essence, the breath of reason it selfe, slais an immortality rather than a life.

Milton’s language conveys a different kind of urgency; the accumulated nouns of termination (“homicide”, “matyrdome”, “massacre”, “execution”), demanding absolute readerly attention and engagement. It is the closing oxymoron, “slaics an immortality’, bespeaks the anxiety of the passage as a whole. Like Bacon, Milton ascribes great power to the written word (and potential longevity: “immortality”). However, here violence is not committed by words upon man, but rather by man upon book. This should seem a less alarming prospect, but in Milton’s text, this is in fact a form of self-violence: “a kinde of homicide”. In Bacon’s text, “we govern our words”; there seems to be a clear subject/object relationship between the teller and the said. In Milton’s text however, incentivised by the threat of censorship, the author presents the relationship between humans and words as much more fluid: “Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them as active as that soule was whose prognency they are”. Therefore, the accusation implied in the texts are not equivalent. Bacon cautions the wise from confusing themselves by virtue of their own writings – failure to properly delineate their terms may ultimately “mightily tangle and pervert the judgement”. In Milton’s text, however, the very holding back of writings is rendered equivalent to, or worse than murder.

The texts are thus divided by context and intention – Bacon’s concern is with correct interpretation (“the severe inquisition of truth”) while Milton’s is with the conditions needed to foster such interpretation. (the conditions in which “whole Nations” may or may not “fare the worse”). Yet there is a final concept which unites the two passages. Both authors observe a limitation to the representative power of words – Milton imagines “Truth hewd […] into a thousand pieces” while Bacon concludes that “it is not possible to divorce ourselves from these fallacies and false appearances”. But while Milton’s text is more anxious, it is also perhaps more optimistic. For while Bacon’s passage ends on an admission of deficiency, Milton pleas for the provision of conditions in which human beings may “continue seeking”.

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