Milton's Burden of Interpretation

By Dayton Haskin | Go to book overview

2. The Parable of the Talents as Milton's Uneasy Place

"...the holy Ghost never intended that men who have Gifts and Abilities should bury them in the earth, but rather did command and stir up such to the exercise of their gift, and also did commend those that were apt and ready so to do, they have addicted themselves to the ministery... ."

-- John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (p. 84)

Since late in the seventeenth century, when an early anonymous biography of John Milton appeared, the parable of the talents ( Matthew 25: 14-30; see Appendix) has often been pressed into service as if this biblical place above all others defined his "calling." Since late in the nineteenth century, critics and biographers, undaunted by the fact that Milton never wrote a spiritual autobiography, have often enlisted a familiar plot to supply what seems to them an unaccountable lack in the record: Milton's individual life is assumed to recapitulate a larger cultural "progress" towards an enlightened secularism. In this plot the concept of "talent" is made the hinge on which Milton turned from his youthful expectation that he would be a churchman to his mature identity as a political writer and a poet. It is now quite generally supposed that the parable influenced in a decisive way the choice of a poetic vocation in which Milton, after having been "Churchouted by the Prelats" ( CPW, I, 823), could use his uncommon gifts to fulfill his natural abilities. Particularly indicative of the construction of an edifying biographical narrative is the proposal, put forward by William Haller in the 1930s, that Milton left behind the virtual equivalent of a spiritual autobiography, "singularly complete," although it requires "to be pieced together from various sources in his writings of different dates." Haller had to admit that Milton never revealed a "precise moment when he first felt the conviction of grace;" but he nonetheless managed to create the impression that Milton had had the requisite conversion. According to Haller, Milton voiced in "Lycidas" a "personal confession of his effectual calling from God

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