Milton's Burden of Interpretation

By Dayton Haskin | Go to book overview

3. Two Discontinuities in the History of Milton's Thinking About Places

"...not to make verbal curiosities the end, that were a toylsom vanity, but to be an interpreter & relater of the best and sagest things among mine own Citizens throughout this Iland in the mother dialect...."

-- The Reason of Church Government ( CPW, I, 811-12)

When early in 1642 Milton declared his ambition to become "an interpreter & relater of the best and sagest things," he likely could not have foreseen how soon he would effect the most significant discontinuity of his interpretive career. The change by which a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to Milton did not take place as a spiritual conversion on the model of Paul and Augustine and Luther. It did involve, however, contemplation of his life in relation to specific biblical places. In time this gave rise to a radical rethinking of the interpretive criterion known as "the analogy of faith" and to an extraordinarily elaborate account of his personal faith on a scale unequaled in the spiritual autobiographies of the era. That his account appeared in a De Doctrina Christiana rather than a Confessiones is an indication of a quiet violence to the existing order wrought by an individual talent. As he immersed himself in layer upon layer of received texts, Milton came to deal with the inevitable ambivalence of his stance by conceiving himself as a grateful beneficiary of the rich poetic store contained in the Bible and as an inspired iconoclast in the face of the interpretive tradition.1

While Milton's mature writings suggest that this understanding of himself endured through the rest of his life, it is nonetheless possible to define two telling discontinuities in his adult thinking about biblical places and thus to isolate three principal phases in the history of his work as an interpreter. Until 1642 there seems to have been nothing especially problematic for Milton in the standard practice whereby any obscure place in Scripture was to be explained by reference to what were commonly considered plainer places. He was accustomed to accepting the familiar doctrine

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