Milton's Burden of Interpretation

By Dayton Haskin | Go to book overview

5. Conferring Places with Mary, Seeking Closure with Manoa

Ye shall lay vp these my words in your hearts, and in your soule.... And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them, when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest downe, and when thou risest vp.

And thou shal write them vpon the posts of thine house, and vpon thy gates.

That your dayes may be multiplied, and the daies of your children.

-- Deut. 11: 18-21; quoted from the title page of Eusebius Pagit Historie of the Bible ( 1613 ed.)

In each of the poems that Milton published together in 1671, the narrative concludes with the return of the hero to his parental home. In Paradise Regained, having resisted Satan's temptations in the wilderness, the Son of God repairs to his "Mothers house" in "private" and "unobserv'd"; and "Angelic Quires" pronounce him ready now to "enter, and begin to save mankind." The situation in Samson Agonistes is just similar enough for differences to be striking. Having pulled down the Philistine temple, Samson is no longer an actor. His corpse is to be taken "Home to his Fathers house," where a monument will be erected, and the chorus declares "all passion spent." This contrast in the paired poems of 1671 may be seen to recapitulate the sort of struggle between two interpretive dispositions that the preceding chapter has shown to be operative in "When I consider how my light is spent." What the sonnet dramatizes in miniature is writ large in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, where the figures of Mary and of Manoa serve to illustrate two opposing styles of interpretive practice: on the one hand a disposition to wait patiently, entertaining in memory a range of places that play freely and suggestively "without rest," and on the other an urge to invoke a definitive paradigm that serves to close one's case. A theoretical basis for this contrast is enunciated in passages in De Doctrina Christiana where Milton makes explicit some foundational assumptions of his own interpretive practice. It will be the work of the present chapter

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