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The Shakespeare scholar who crossed swords with C.S. Lewis describes Lewis in the early 1950s, at the height of his fame, as “a red-faced, egg-headed, portly, jolly, middle-aged man, who was (like Old King Cole) fond of his pipe and his glass of beer…”

Father Peter Milward

Father Peter Milward SJ, who died on August 16 at the ripe old age of ninety-one, was one of a kind. An Englishman who spent most of his life teaching in Japan, he was a pioneering Shakespeare scholar, an authority on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and an acquaintance of C.S. Lewis.

In an essay for the St. Austin Review last year, Fr. Milward elevated Lewis to a place of prominence amongst those whom he considered his greatest mentors. Having listed St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, William Shakespeare, Blessed John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and G.K. Chesterton as having “exercised a profound influence on [his] mind through their lives and writings,” he singled Lewis out for special praise. Lewis had “an advantage” over these other great men, Milward wrote, because Lewis was “the one great man whom I have actually, physically, personally met during the four years of my undergraduate life and studies at Oxford, and to whom I was deeply indebted all that time, and have been ever since.”

Fr. Milward’s describes Lewis in the early 1950s, at the height of his fame, as “a red-faced, egg-headed, portly, jolly, middle-aged man, who was (like Old King Cole) fond of his pipe and his glass of beer.” Having initially made Lewis’ acquaintance at the regular meetings of the Socratic Club, Milward also attended Lewis’ lectures on medieval and Renaissance literature. “Students flocked to hear him,” Milward remembered, “not just because he was so famous, but also because they could hear everything he said and take notes of it, he spoke so slowly and clearly, making his points both intelligible and interesting.”

Fr. Milward also attended a lecture by J.R.R. Tolkien, whom he described as “little” and “wizened,” but found that he couldn’t hear a word the great man was saying. “So I had to give up on him and content myself with Lewis.”

Plucking up courage, Fr. Milward asked if he might privately meet Lewis to discuss his interest in the Thomistic view of angels. Lewis graciously invited the young undergraduate to his rooms in Magdalen College, the venue for numerous meetings of the Inklings, and took down a large tome by an eleventh century Byzantine Platonist to illustrate his own understanding of angelology.

Fr. Milward graduated in 1954, departing for a new life in Japan as a professor at the Jesuit University of Sophia in Tokyo, remaining in Japan until his death more than sixty years later. Shortly after Fr. Milward’s departure from Oxford, Lewis himself departed Oxford for Cambridge to occupy the newly created chair of medieval and Renaissance literature. Thereafter, in spite of the widely divergent paths that their respective lives had taken, Milward and Lewis kept up a regular correspondence almost until Lewis’ death. Lewis’ side of this correspondence is included in the third volume of his Collected Letters, edited with such decorous precision and painstaking devotion by Walter Hooper. In his replies to Fr. Milward’s letters, we learn all sorts of valuable tidbits about Lewis and his work which might otherwise have been unknown to us. We learn of his admiration for Julian of Norwich, the mediaeval mystic; we discover that Lewis considered his novel Perelandra “worth 20 Screwtapes”; we are given some priceless insights into the characterization in That Hideous Strength; we learn that Lewis considered Enthusiasm to be Ronald Knox’s “worst book”; we have one of the most revealing expositions of Lewis’ understanding of allegory; we learn of the influence of H.G. Wells, Lewis’ admiration for Chesterton, his views on George Orwell, and his “love-hate relation to Belloc,” particularly his love for Belloc’s humor and his loathing of Belloc’s “Pan-Latinism” which Lewis likens somewhat bizarrely to “Hitler’s dream of a Herrenfolk.” Fr. Milward, in what was evidently a somewhat tactless letter, even managed to goad Lewis into a far more candid appraisal of the rights and wrongs of the Reformation than he would customarily have given.

It would be entirely unjust, however, to see the importance of Fr. Milward solely in terms of his correspondence with Lewis, relegating him, so to speak, to being a mere footnote in the life of Lewis. Milward was a formidable foe, disagreeing with what he saw as Lewis’ constricted definition of allegory: “On this discussion of ‘allegory’ I found Lewis limiting his discussion to one, abstract meaning of the term, while I preferred a more concrete application of it—as Aquinas applied it to the Bible, and Dante to his own Divine Comedy, and Spenser to his own Faery Queene, while I wished to carry it further even to the plays of Shakespeare.” Many years later, more than thirty years after Lewis’ death, Milward published a book entitled A Challenge to C.S. Lewis in which he took issue with his former mentor on a host of topics, from the aforementioned subject of allegory to historicism and even to “mere Christianity” itself.

Apart from his controversial crossing of swords with Lewis, Fr. Milward will be remembered as a pioneering scholar of Shakespeare, discovering in the Bard’s plays and poems convincing evidence for his Catholicism. From Shakespeare’s Religious Background, an influential and groundbreaking study, published in 1973, to later works, such as The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays (1997) and Shakespeare the Papist (2005), Fr. Milward was tireless in his scholarly exposition of the Catholic dimension in Shakespeare’s works. Although some writers on Shakespeare, the present writer included, find his scattershot approach less than convincing on occasion, inviting ripostes from doubting Thomases tempted to play devil’s advocate, his work forms a valuable part of the increasing body of work on the Catholic Shakespeare. His role in this regard might be compared to the great nineteenth century Shakespeare scholar Richard Simpson, both of whom served as courageous pioneers of the study of the Catholic Shakespeare in their respective centuries.

Milward will also be remembered as a scholar of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the culmination of which was his book A Lifetime with Hopkins, published in 2005.

For those of us privileged to know him and to have enjoyed the blessing of his friendship, he will be sorely missed. Father Peter Milward, indefatigable defender of the Faith, we salute you. Ave et vale! Rest in peace, dear friend.

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4 replies to this post
  1. I’m so sorry to hear of Fr. Peter Milward’s passing. I held him in high esteem. This is a worthy tribute. Eternal rest unto God’s good servant.

  2. Thanks for this lovely essay. I never met Fr. Milward, but I remember him as one of the most interesting contributors to Moreana, the journal of the Amici Thomae Mori, for which I worked at one time. I suppose the 11th c. Byzantine Platonist must have been Michael Psellos.

  3. Never forget something that was true of scholarship then that’s often lacking today. Then scholars disagreed without openly demonizing the other. They even enjoyed the clash of ideas. What persecution Lewis suffered for being a vocal Christian was carefully kept out of sight. At Oxford he did not get the promotions he deserved, but he was allowed to teach popular classes.

    Now, many of those in academia cannot restrain themselves in their efforts to silence dissenters in their ranks. Their students are even nastier, and that is scary, Those students will be the professors of the next generation.

  4. I had the pleasure of listening to Father Milward speak at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco in 2009. He spoke for an hour and twenty minutes — he would have been almost 84 at the time — on “The Catholic Shakespeare. I treasure my autographed copy of SHAKESPEARE THE PAPIST.

    I have continued to enjoy his contributions in ST. AUSTIN REVIEW, including I understand one in the forthcoming issue.

    May he rest in peace. There will always be more saints than will ever be canonized.

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