The Baroque in English Neoclassical Literature

By J. Douglas Canfield | Go to book overview
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1
Milton: Mysteriously Meant

MY M.A. MENTOR AT JOHNS HOPKINS, DON CAMERON ALLEN, WAS obviously fascinated by the way in which Milton’s poems, among others, mysteriously meant.1 At least two instances of such meaning in Paradise Lost cry out for interpretation. Each reveals that such cryptic twists engage the reader in the kind of exegesis called for in Holy Writ. Milton’s neoclassical epic, designed to “assert eternal Providence,/And justify the ways of God to men” (1.25–26), proceeds not strictly by way of the rhetorical tropes of poetic “Argument” (24) but by way of baroque mystery.


THE BIRTHDAY OF THE SON

This day I have begot whom I declare
My only Son, and on this holy Hill
Him have anointed.

(Paradise Lost 5.603–5 [Hughes])

These words of God the Father in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the phrasing of which Milton inherited from Psalm ii.7, have troubled critics for years. The debate is between those who take “begot” literally and those who take it metaphorically. So far the best explanation is that by Maurice Kelley, who reviews the various positions and concludes that the word is to be taken metaphorically, as Milton himself took it in De Doctrina Christiana (see Hughes, 933–34) when referring to the anointing of Christ as King.2 The most salient feature of Kelley’s argument is that it saves not only the theology of Paradise Lost but also the poetry, for he shows that Milton has obviously tampered with the chronology of the anointing for artistic purposes: To make it the first event in the chronology of the poem is to provide a plausible moti

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