Milton's Burden of Interpretation

By Dayton Haskin | Go to book overview

4. Standing and Waiting in the Face of Indeterminacy

"He speaks with great modesty of himself, as if he had not five, or two, but only one talent."

-- Thomas Newton, The Poetical Works of John Milton ( 1761)

In setting forth the argument of this book it has been no part of my purpose to propose a new theory about the dates at which Milton was at work on De Doctrina Christiana. I have only urged that his conception of this project postdates the period in which he had first been gathering biblical places, as any young scholar might, into a commonplace book. For it was not until Milton admitted to himself that "there is scarse any one saying in the Gospel, but must be read with limitations and distinctions," that he conceived the need for a massive personal synthesis. In turning now to the poem that begins with the line "When I consider how my light is spent" ( Sonnet 19), which contains Milton's best known allusion to the parable of the talents, I should say from the outset that I will make no attempt here to settle the longstanding controversy about the date at which Milton wrote the poem, which first appeared in print only in 1673. For the purposes of my argument the important point is that, whenever the poet was at work on it, "When I consider..." epitomizes the views embraced by Milton in the third principal phase of his career as an interpreter. The poem belongs to and perhaps heralds Milton's hermeneutical maturity, during which he was achieving greater certitude about the sense of some biblical places and at the same time coming increasingly to appreciate that both the sense and the "experimental" application of many places had yet to be determined. But if a precise date of composition cannot be fixed (and probably ought not to be), nonetheless a good deal can be ascertained about the historical specificity of this sonnet as a piece of discourse from the 1640s and 1650s.

As the notion of a "real life" author "behind" a text has in recent years been called radically into question, there have emerged especially good reasons for questioning assumptions on which some of Milton's sonnets

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