Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Milton's Messiah: The Son of God in the Works of John Milton

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Milton's Messiah: The Son of God in the Works of John Milton

Article excerpt

Milton's Messiah: The Son of God in the Works of John Milton. By Russell M. Hillier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-959188-6. Pp. xii + 253. $110.00.

Milton and Homer: "Written to Aftertimes." By Gregory Machacek. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8207-0447-0. Pp. 220. $58.00.

Milton Studies, Volume 52. Edited by Laura L. Knoppers. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8207-0451-7. Pp. 275. $58.00

The Oxford Handbook of Milton. Edited by Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0199697885. Pp. 752. $150.00.

John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography 1989-1999. By Calvin Huckabay and David V. Urban. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-82070443-2. $100.00.

The nature and extent of Milton's radicalism, whether in religion or politics, continues to divide and invigorate Milton scholarship. In the books under review here, the debate as to Milton's orthodoxy or heterodoxy is vigorously contested, with, for example, profoundly variant views being put forward concerning his Arianism (or lack of it). Readers seeking critical consistency, even within a single collections of essays, will be disappointed. Then again, those looking for sophisticated expressions of post-modernist plurality will also come away empty-handed. The vast majority of the works under review here adopt traditional critical approaches, grounding their readings in historical, theological, or literary contexts, and asserting implicitly or explicitly the primacy of their own evidentially-based interpretation.

An example of this can be found in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, which its publisher, Oxford University Press, claims to be the "most comprehensive collection of original essays ever published on Milton" with equal attention paid to the prose as to the poetry. This review cannot possibly do justice to all thirty-eight offerings, so I will merely select pieces that might be of interest to readers of Christianity and Literature. Milton's most recent biographers, Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns, make a number of claims about his controversial theological work, De Doctrina Christiana, in their essay subtitled "An England That Might Have Been." They suggest that all the evidence points toward Milton abandoning, rather than completing, the project around the time of the Restoration (426), driven by his fears as a known regicide in a political climate in which the ownership of dangerous papers could mean death. Despite this acknowledgement of Milton's regicidal views, Campbell and Corns continue their campaign to make Milton a religious (and even political) moderate. They argue that it has been unhelpful to understand Milton in the context of the "vernacular writings of English radicals" Instead, Milton uses "a formula echoed throughout the Protestant tradition" when he "asserts the primacy of the biblical texts; ... (solo dei verbo)" (425) and De Doctrina should be understood as a work of systematic theology, regarded as "almost exclusively a Continental Latin genre" (429). Milton's theology is "for the most part unexceptionable" although he does adopt "minority positions" on a few central (e.g., Christology) and "some clearly adiaphorous (e.g., mortalism)" doctrines (429). Campbell and Corns further argue that there was no consensus on trinitarianism in the seventeenth century (430), and therefore Milton's unitarianism does not make him as radical as has perhaps been thought.

On the same page, however, the reader is reminded, in parenthesis, that "(people were burned for anti-trinitarianism)" (430). This parenthetical note hints at the target readership for this Oxford Handbook: undergraduate students who might read only one essay on Milton's theology during their undergraduate years. If it is this essay, then they will come away with a mild-mannered Milton, even a nostalgic Milton; De Doctrina "memorializes an England that might have been" (435), the land of the free of the 1650s, in which debate was possible. …

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