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Milton's Epics and the Book of Psalms
By Mary Ann Radzinowicz
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
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"Where God is prais'd aright"
When Milton began to write Paradise Regained on the model of Job, he brought to the new poem hermeneutic habits made precise and boldly imaginative by having written both Christian Doctrine and Paradise Lost. The new theme came to him inspired and authorized by the Book of Psalms, "Where God is prais'd aright, and Godlike men" (4. 348). Paradise Regained quickly exposes the inadequacy of the term literal to describe Milton's thematic analysis of psalms and directs the modern reader to reinstate the distinction English Reformed exegetes sought to make in using the terms carnal and spiritual for biblical interpretation. Psalms are "strew'd" throughout Milton's New Testament sources for Paradise Regained, the most important being Luke, Matthew, John, Revelation, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Luke providing plot and structure for Paradise Regained in addition to ideas. Those are also the New Testament books, together with the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, densest in psalm allusions. When psalms were transferred from their Old Testament context to the New Testament, they were of course subjected to new readings by the early Christian redactors, who used a messianic interpretation certainly not literal to Hebrew midrash. Milton thought, "Each passage of scripture has only a single sense, though in the Old Testament this sense is often a combination of the historical and the typological." When he set forth the correct way of interpreting scripture in Christian Doctrine to reach that single sense, he adduced psalm texts to instance doctrines found in the Old Testament, to show how the early Christian hermeneutic developed Old Testament materials, and finally to argue his own independent readings. In correlating the Old Testament with the New as proved by the Old, he took both to be intended "for the use of the church throughout all succeeding ages."
Milton argued that the historically prior text, the Old Testament, is authoritative because it is divinely inspired and was also "handed down ... in an uncorrupted state"; the later New Testament text, although much more difficult to establish, since it was "entrusted throughout the ages ... to a variety of hands, some more corrupt than others" and since "[w]e possess no autograph copy: no exemplar which we can rely on as more trustworthy than the others," is authoritative because it was inspired to be "useful for teaching" and proves its doctrine by reference to the Old Testament. Then turning to the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament Scripture, Milton cited a number of psalms in sequence with Luke and Acts, both establishing that the Old Testament contains saving truth and showing its congruence with the New. Finally, still interweaving New Testament examples with the Old, Milton established areas of "indifference" in Scripture and proved the "liberty of prophesying" or the right and duty of each reader to interpret for himself. Milton concluded with the concept of the "double scripture," privileging "the internal scripture of the Holy Spirit" to the "external scripture of the written word."
Milton endorsed a personal insight derived from the spirit within man, when that faculty undertook a sustained comparative analysis of Scripture, technically known as "the analogy of faith." He qualified any meaning he might derive from a single text by reference to the progressive understanding he had of the whole. Thus spiritual inner light in Milton is not a beam shining now on this, now on that notion but a sustained self-correcting reason, continuously cross-questioning parts of the text against the whole or retrospectively considering moments of insight against a total understanding progressively achieved. He called this manner of breaking out of the hermeneutic circle manly freedom; he thought the alternative of submitting interpretation to an established church to be childish and monkish.
This line of argument may seem the familiar polemic by which Milton used Scripture to argue divorce by consent or the presbyterian way of organizing the church. In Paradise Regained, however, Milton became a poetic witness who suspended biblical polemic to offer a testimony of faith; his biblical hermeneutic now upheld a new imaginative strategy. The thematic use of psalms in Paradise Regained involves a particularly interesting dramatic deployment of the concept of "double scripture." The poet, dividing literal into spiritual and carnal, split interpretation (the spirit) from text (the letter) and maneuvered them into dialogic confrontation. In Paradise Regained Satan quotes Scripture in his own cause, and the Son generates interpretations that wrest Scripture back from him again. Milton constructed a dramatic conflict by opposing to Satan's literal but "carnal" reading of psalms an evolving higher reading of them by the Son. Satan tries by an adversarial, worldly, or ironic use of psalms to trap the Son into betraying their spiritual values to achieve earthly or "carnal" messiahship; contrariwise, the Son uses a clairvoyant reading through an inspired hermeneutic to defeat Satan's strategy, eluding entrapment and achieving true messiahship by his higher reasoning.
The contest between them concludes in the epic as it concluded in Luke 4. 10–13 with Satan's abused interpretation of Psalm 91. 11–12: "For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone." Satan pretends that the psalm advises "master reality through your power over servant angels," as though reality were established by kicking a stone or resorting to angel-propelled levitation to avoid it. Christ's reply opposes a spiritual or prophetically literal reading of the psalm. Not only the climax of the poem depends on freeing a psalm from abuse, however: the whole dialogue between Satan and the Son contests the meaning of messianic clues found in psalms. Satan tries to play on the Son's sense of his vocation, "born to promote all truth, / All righteous things" (PR 1.205–6), by treating psalm verses as though their referents were always worldly leadership; the Son offers him an inward sense of psalm meaning.
The principal psalms at issue in this hermeneutic contest are those regularly taken by Christians to prophesy the Son. The New Testament model for the Son's self-interpretation by way of messianic psalms is the Epistle to the Hebrews. The long debate between the Son and Satan focuses on Psalms 2, 8, IO, 78, 91, and 110, interpreted in Hebrews and thence in Paradise Regained to identify the Son's triple function as prophet, king, and high priest but carnally read by Satan simply as royal psalms attesting to paternal inheritance. A brief preliminary example of one conflict between Satan and the Son concern ing glory may usefully illustrate Milton's method.
At the beginning of the third book of Paradise Regained, Milton exhibits tireless Satan in renewed attack, urging the Son to misinterpret his kingly function and to intervene in the politics of his day. He reads fame and glory as heroic impulses towards empire. The Son coolly dismisses fame, defines true glory as achieved "when God / ... with approbation marks / The just man, and divulges him through Heaven" (3.60–62), and stipulates its proper means "By deeds of peace, by wisdom eminent, / By patience, temperance" (3.91–92). He concludes by repudiating human vainglory for godly witness: "I seek not mine, but his / Who sent me, and thereby witness whence I am" (3. 106–7).
At this juncture, the "Tempter murmuring" places before the Son a group of thematically related creation and royal psalms, 8 giving them an ironic "carnal" gloss:
Think not so slight of glory; therein least
Resembling thy great Father: he seeks glory,
And for his glory all things made, all things
Orders and governs, nor content in Heaven
By all his Angels glorifi'd, requires
Glory from men, from all men good or bad,
Wise or unwise, no difference, no exemption;
Above all Sacrifice, or hallow' d gift
Glory he requires, and glory he receives
Promiscuous from all Nations, Jew, or Greek,
Or Barbarous, nor exception hath declar'd;
From us his foes pronounc't glory he exacts.
Satan weaves together Psalms 19.l, "The heavens declare the glory of God"; 33.6, 8, "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made," "let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him"; 8.1, "O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens"; 90. 16, "Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children"; 115.3, "But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased"; 86.9, "All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name"; and 104. 1, 31, "thou art clothed with honour and majesty," "The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works." From those verses, Satan reads God as an emperor who created the universe to exercise his limitless power and who exacts glory as a tribute from men.
From the same psalm cluster, the Son constructs a "spiritual" reading, interpreting creation as God's generosity and glory as human thanksgiving:
To whom our Saviour fervently reply' d.
And reason; since his word all things produc' d,
Though chiefly not for glory as prime end,
But to shew forth his goodness, and impart
His good communicable to every soul
Freely; of whom what could he less expect
Then glory and benediction, that is thanks,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But why should man seek glory? who of his own
Hath nothing, and to whom nothing belongs
But condemnation, ignominy, and shame?
The Son here revisits each psalm Satan has used; to Satan's Psalm 33.6, 8 he adds 33.4–5, "all his works are done in truth," "the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord"; to Satan's 8.1 he adds 8.4–5, "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour"; to 90.16 he adds 90.17, "And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it"; to 19.1 he adds 19.13–14, "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins ... O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer"; to 115.3 he adds 115.1, "Not unto us, 0 Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake"; and finally to 104.l he adds 104.34, "My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord."
To answer Satan's carnal literalism by the Son's spiritual literalism that insists on regard for context, Milton adapted a dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees found in John 8. 12–50. That dialogue ends, "And I seek not mine own glory," the saying that opens the Son's rebuke of Satan; it begins, "I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me," the saying that closes his rebuke: "I seek not mine, but his I Who sent me, and thereby witness whence I am" (PR 3.106–7). In John 8.12–50, Jesus confronts the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees in a sequence of interpretive challenges. He tells them, "Ye judge after the flesh," adding "Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil." The disputation between the Son and Satan over the true meaning of glory puts psalms in a dialogic confrontation modeled on John. Where the priests' spokesmen for the Law insisted on their literal "single sense" of the Old Testament, the Son answered them with a spiritual reading of how the gospel fulfilled the law. John 8.50, "And I seek not mine own glory," is itself a Christian midrash of Psalm 115.1, "not unto us, but unto thy name give glory." This intricately simple instance may introduce Milton's full-scale practice of dialogically placed psalm interpretations in Paradise Regained, where messianic psalms interpreted in Hebrews are gathered within the plot structure of Luke to shape the confrontation of Satan and the Son.
Messianic psalms—in particular Psalms 2, 8, 10, 22, 78, 82, 91, and 110—are used by Satan across the poem to question the meaning of Jesus' sonship. He defines sonship either so broadly as to include even himself or so narrowly as to exclude "the perfect man." The Son's increasing self-knowledge counters with the same group of Psalms given a New Testament gloss. Essentially, Satan and the Son contest the potentially conflicting implications of Psalm 2. 7, "the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee," and 82.6, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High." Their contest spans all four books of Paradise Regained. Satan concerns himself with those two texts sometimes plainly, sometimes indirectly; they are never far from his words. His apparently sincere and his ironic interpretations, reasonably and strategically offered, are "carnal." The Son gives the same group of psalms a "spiritual" reading, his study and progressively intuitive self-knowledge leading him toward the New Testament positions found in Milton's biblical sources. Hebrews, containing the greatest number of psalm allusions in any of Milton's sources other than Revelation, expounds that interpretation of the Messiah that the Son in Paradise Regained comes to understand, teach, and finally manifest. Hebrews addresses a community of Jewish Christians whose conversion has lost impetus and for whom the Law under which it was first nurtured may be reasserting itself. Hence its writer reinterpreted traditional Jewish religious events and customs to confirm the new Christian faith, drawing on well-known psalms from the Jewish liturgy. Milton commented on the special aptness of Hebrews to scriptural teaching in Christian Doctrine, particularly its exposition of Sonship.
Milton located the central argument of Hebrews in verses 5. 8–9: "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him." They gloss the plot he took from Luke 4.1–13, and they are "proved"—that is, evidenced—by numerous psalms. To the psalms already quoted in Hebrews, Milton added cognate verses in Christian Doctrine, not only acknowledging the epistle's own richness in psalm reading but reinforcing it. 11 He associated the augmented psalm clusters with the three principal themes of Hebrews: that Jesus is the true Messiah, prophet, and king (chaps. 1–3), the new high priest (chaps. 4–9), and an example of perfect obedient faith (chaps. 10–13). Thus a first group of related citations of psalms and Hebrews appears in Christian Doctrine when Milton takes up God's nature and decrees, predestination, the Son, creation, and providence (Book I, chaps. 2–8); a second group, when he discusses Christ the redeemer, his mediatorial office, redemption, repentance, and saving faith (Book I, chaps. 14–15); and a final scattered group appears when Milton considers the behavior of the faithful in Book II. Since he thought the writer of the epistle had used a method like his own in collating spiritual texts "so as to teach the main points of Christian doctrine" (YP 6:128), Milton augmented Hebrews and followed it faithfully.
Milton used Hebrews and its proof texts from the psalms synchronically and abstractly in Christian Doctrine. In Paradise Regained he isolated the temptation in the wilderness from Luke as the heroic act by which the Son "[founds] A fairer Paradise" (4.613). He withdrew the temptation from its place in an accomplished life manifesting the spiritual meanings of psalms and dramatized it as an eluded entrapment. He limited each actor to such knowledge as he could naturally possess at the commencement of the temptation or gain during it. Both Satan and Jesus begin with a quantum of Old Testament learning, including Job's sufferings and the contents of the Book of Psalms. The course of the poem produces self-knowledge in Jesus and an understanding of his role equivalent to that of the writer of Hebrews; it produces in Satan a horrifying recognition of the Son and of his own fate. Both Satan's assault and the Son's obedience turn on contrastive psalm readings; Hebrews, augmented with other psalms not cited in Hebrews, supplies the ideas, readings, and often words, contested in the struggle between Satan and the Son. Although Satan continually questions the nature of the Son's kingship, while the Son takes up both the prophetic and kingly functions of his mediation as well, the crucial contest in Paradise Regained as in Hebrews is over priesthood.
Excerpted from Milton's Epics and the Book of Psalms by Mary Ann Radzinowicz. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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