David Gay. The Endless Kingdom: Milton's Scriptural Society.
David Gays book is the first study of its kind: an intensive analysis of oppositional readings and interpretations of Scripture on the eve of, during and soon after the Restoration in England. Characterizing England in this era as a scriptural society, Gay explains how royalist divines sought biblical justification for monarchy as a form of government, one that imitated on earth the heavenly monarchy. Quoting scriptural passages in support of monarchy, and elaborating on them in religio-political interpretations from the pulpit, royalist divines predisposed the English to accept favorably the restored kingship.
Situating Milton in this scriptural society, Gay identifies how this opponent of monarchy also cited Scripture and developed thereby a view inimical to earthly kingship. At and after the Restoration, Milton's means of opposing monarchy were no longer the polemical tracts that he had composed earlier in his career but, rather, his three major poems, all completed after the Restoration: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. By drawing on Wisdom literature--Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Gospels--Milton, who alludes to those scriptural texts in his major poems, expounds a view that runs counter to the predominant historical circumstances that favor the return of monarchy to England.
In this process, Milton underscores the paramount importance of "double scripture," the term and concept that he uses in his theological treatise, De Doctrina Christiana. For Milton, the external scripture is the text itself, inevitably corrupted by the work of unreliable editors and translators and by the royalists' religio-political interpretations, which were uniformly favorable to the monarchy. The internal scripture, on the other hand, is inscribed within each believer whose free conscience, enabled by guidance from the Holy Spirit, arrives at interpretations opposite of what the Church of England advocates. What in Paradise Lost Milton calls "the upright heart and pure" becomes the site of inner knowing, a place or space free from external constraint and from institutionally imposed interpretations.
To demonstrate the counter-historical tendency of biblical myth, Gay proceeds through extensive analysis of the major poems, with especial attention to the Wisdom literature in Scripture, literature cited by Royalists for their purposes but interpreted differently by Milton to serve his oppositional ends. Accordingly, a royalist divine, John Spencer, cites Ecclesiastes and its emphasis on "happiness" as a biblical analogue of the national joy at the Restoration; whereas Milton in Paradise Lost alludes to the same biblical text to identify happiness as open engagement between truth and error, whether in the debate between Abdiel and Satan, Satan's seduction of Eve, or the clarity of the Son's vision and narration during the celestial dialogue in book 3 of the epic. Equally important, when Satan in book 5 is enthroned, Paradise Lost portrays him as an analogue of the outward and material kingship of the restored monarchy, in contrast to the truly righteous kingship of the Son, whose filial wisdom informs not only the epic but also the dream-vision that Adam witnesses of the Son's death, resurrection, and leadership of "the multitude of ... redeem'd."
Using the emphasis on the term "wisdom" in Samson Agonistes, Gay highlights the developing insight that the protagonist acquires after his blinding and bondage. Enriched by irony of situation in which the former victor Samson is a captive enslaved by his enemies, verbal irony proliferates throughout the dramatic poem, which echoes Wisdom literature, notably Proverbs. Indeed, the Book of Proverbs stresses the importance of verbal rather than visual means of understanding and analysis. In his encounter with Dalila, Samson, who resists her "honied words," manifests greater and greater wisdom until he experiences "rousing motions," or inner knowing from heavenly inspiration, thereby vindicating his inclusion among the heroes of faith recounted in the letter to the Hebrews.
In Paradise Regained, the ongoing dialectic between Satan and Jesus provides the most sustained encounter of truth and falsehood. If an informing theme distinguishes that dialectic, it is Satan's emphasis on the outward, material, and literal significance of objects and words and the countervailing stress by Jesus on their metaphorical significance. A case in point is the proposed conversion of stones into bread, an action that Jesus resists because he stresses that the word of God, in effect, is the bread of life. As Jesus manifests wisdom in order to engage and refute each of Satan's three temptations, he exemplifies the enlightened interiority that issues from an acute awareness of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Gospels. Issuing from Jesus are the perceptual understandings that emerge when the law is inscribed within oneself and when the Holy Spirit guides one's interpretation of that inner Scripture.
Gay's study succeeds admirably in filling a niche among the recent spate of books that dwell on the religio-political underpinnings of the English Revolution, the Commonwealth, and the Protectorate. Continuing in that vein but extending his outlook to the Restoration and its aftermath, Gay aptly locates Milton's post-Restoration religio-political perspective in the three great poems that bring to a close his career as an author. While reading the poems as redactions of Wisdom literature, Gay enlightens us concerning Milton's use of scriptural allusions. Whereas the earlier prose tracts laid the groundwork for the views that Milton expresses in the three great poems, Gay highlights how Milton's biblical poetics are the aesthetic counterparts, in many ways, of the religio-political rhetoric of Milton the polemicist.
ALBERT C. LABRIOLA
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|Author:||Labriola, Albert C.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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