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The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake.

A.D. Nuttall. The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake.

Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1998. 272 Pp. $69. ISBN: 0-19-818462-X.

Stephen B. Dobranski and John P. Rumrich, eds. Milton and Heresy.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 266 PP. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-63065-7.

In both of these well-written and learned studies, the authors present a heterodox Milton characterized by contradiction who "rejects the Trinity, denies creation ex nihilo, and insists on the common materiality and mortality of body and soul" (Dobranski and Rumrich, 1). For the most part, these writers care much about defining Milton as heterodox, seeing in such a definition a validation of recent Milton scholarship. In most cases -- whether in Nuttall's analysis of the gnostic heresy in Milton, or the analyses presented by the twelve well-regarded contributors to the Dobranski and Rumrich collection -- the presentation of a heterodox Milton depends on consideration not merely of his powerful poetry; particularly Paradise Lost, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on consideration of the prose tract, De Doctrina Christiana, which was attributed to Milton by Maurice Kelley, to whom the Dobranski and Rumrich collection is dedicated. Recently, William Hunter, among others, has raised doubts regarding the au thenticity of Milton's authorship of the De Doctrina that, if true, weaken the central theses of Nuttall's book and of many of the essays in the Dobranski and Rumrich collection. It is not my intention to debate the authenticity of the De Doctrina here. As should come as no surprise by their subject matter, both books express doubt over Hunter's argument. The issue, however, is far from settled.

Nuttall's rich study reveals a fine close reader who is well-versed in the theological traditions about which he is writing. Against the backdrop of gnosticism, which he defines as the "exhaltation of Christ, the divine man, over the Father" (221), Nuttall considers three major British writers, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, and William Blake, in terms of their denial of orthodox Christianity and their embrace of the gnostic heresy. 'While the title might be obscure and off-putting to students or general readers, Nuttall nevertheless effectively moves from his definitions of gnosticism to nuanced literary analysis. I particularly enjoyed his reading of the Calvinist dimensions of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Nuttall's analysis of Milton and Paradise Lost is also nuanced, although, as I indicated above, it relies much on a Miltonic theology defined by the De Doctrina. Indeed, nearly all the quotations from Milton that Nuttall employs suggesting a non-orthodox theology derive from the De Doctrina and generally ar e at odds with passages in Paradise Lost. Nuttall's placing of William Blake in the heretical tradition of gnosticism is least surprising of all, as Blake has long been considered outside the traditions of orthodox Christianity. By the time of Blake and the Romantics, Nuttall argues, gnosticism means not simply knowledge, but knowledge leading to pleasure, thereby creating a direct line from Milton to the Romantics generally, and Blake specifically.

Overall, Nuttall's argument is compelling and his specific readings of literary passages skillful and enlightening. Nevertheless, Nuttall often digresses from his central thesis -- e.g., the long discussion of gardens in Paradise Lost, or his linking of Milton to the Romantics by claiming that in Paradise Lost, Milton invents the category of the sublime (177). While these digressions are interesting in their own right, they do at times obscure the book's central thesis. Nuttall concludes by identifying Milton as the dominant spreader of gnosticism in England, even before Blake. While the argument that Marlowe, Milton, and Blake all endorse the alternative Trinity of gnosticism is compelling, I am not altogether sure that Milton, at least, would want us to read him this way.

Despite my misgivings regarding Nuttall's central thesis linking Milton to gnosticism or the alternative trinity, the contributors to the Dobranski and Rumrich collection, Milton and Heresy, would certainly see Nuttall's argument as in harmony with their own. This well-edited collection presents essays by twelve Milton scholars who focus exclusively on Milton and the concept of heresy. Rather than focusing on specific heresies, however, these essays for the most part address the general question of a heterodox Milton and express pleasure in seeing Milton as one who expresses changing individual views that may not in fact be consistent within his own lifetime. Perhaps even more so than Nuttall's book, this collection, too, is much aware of current challenges to Milton's authorship of the De Doctrina, a problem to which the editors are particularly sensitive. These authors accept the authenticity of Milton's authorship of the De Doctrina, frequently making reference to the prose tract in their essays. The open ing page of the editors' introduction implies that the reburters of the authenticity of the De Doctrina are motivated by a desire to eradicate Milton's heresies in the name of orthodoxy, rather than for the sake of good scholarship (1), a view that understates their scholarly motivations. However, despite this modern controversy, there is much good here, and the collection makes an important contribution to Milton scholarship.

The editors have divided the collection into four major sections. The first section, "Heretical Theology," which includes essays by Janel Mueller, Thomas Corns, and Barbara Lewalski, looks specifically at Milton's historical place in the religious controversies of the seventeenth century and locates Milton's sympathies with heresy early in his career. Mueller's essay, which reviews Milton's use of the word heresy and its derivatives throughout his writings, argues that Milton maintained a positive view of heresy throughout his life, although toward the end he reluctantly accepts "the apostle Paul's specifically Christian claim that a universal church and heresy are mutually exclusive" (36). Corns's essay focuses on Milton's antiprelatical tracts and claims that Milton's sympathies with "views deemed heretical by the middle ground of Puritan opinion" (39) surfaced as early as 1641 and informed much of his behavior from that time forward. Lewalski, in her essay on heresy and the young Milton, would agree.

In "Heresy and Consequences," the collection's second section, John Rumrich's essay on Milton's Arianism, Stephen Fallon's on Milton and election, and William Kerrigan's on Milton and kisses explore the implications of recognizing Milton's heresies for reading his work. While each of these articles addresses an area of controversy in Milton scholarship, Fallon's on Milton and election is perhaps the most controversial, for it depends greatly on the authenticity of Milton's authorship of the De Doctrina, a question that, despite Fallon's certainty, other scholars find less sure. The collection's third section, entitled "Heresy and Community,". includes essays by Stephen Dobranski, John Hale, David Loewenstein, and Elizabeth Sauer. These essays explore the relationship between Milton's personal view of heresy and its impact on his public life, particularly his role as licenser (Dobranski), his views of the culture of insults (Hale), the meaning of blasphemy (Loewenstein), and the implications of Samson Agonist es as closet drama (Sauer). Finally, the collection ends with a section, Readers of Heresy, in which Joan Bennet and Joseph Wittreich address the relationship between Milton's sympathies to heresy and our own time.

While these writers view Milton and heresy from a multitude of perspectives, they are all linked by the common belief that Milton not only rejected set beliefs, but that he also regarded uncertainty as fundamental to human existence. They cannot begin to imagine a Milton, whether as poet or public servant, who supports an orthodox -- and in their minds, static -- position. Thomas Corns sums it up best when he writes: "Milton needs a society thus tolerant of heterodoxy and heresy in part because his own theology of salvation probably is, in Calvinist terms, a heresy, and he needs an intellectual environment permissive of innovation and deviancy as the prerequisite for the free operation of a mind and sensibility which are already pushing against the limitations imposed by those new forcers of conscience currently coming into their own" (48). Or, in light of the recent controversy regarding the De Doctrina, perhaps we are the ones who need such a Milton.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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