Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Milton and the Parable of the Talents: Nationalism and the Prelacy Controversy in Revolutionary England

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Milton and the Parable of the Talents: Nationalism and the Prelacy Controversy in Revolutionary England

Article excerpt

John Milton's Sonnet 19 "When I consider how my light is spent" famously evinces his fascination with the biblical parable of the talents and his skillful ability to recreate it within his own historical moment. (1) The sonnet suggests that the parable was central to his understanding of service to God and the nation. In the parable, a lord is about to take a journey, and he entrusts funds to servants in his absence. The King James Version reads, "unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to every man according to his severall ability." (2) The first servant capitalizes upon the five he received and gains another five, and likewise with the second servant, who also doubles his amount. The third servant, however, buries his talent in the ground. After a long time, the lord returns and "reckoneth" with his servants. The first and second servants present their accounts and receive the praise "Well done, thou good and faithfull servant, thou hast been faithfull over a few things, I wil make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord." The third servant, however, is reproved as a "wicked and slouthfull servant." His talent is taken away, and he is cast into "outer darkenesse." Within these sixteen verses of scripture, seventeenth-century writers discovered an allegory malleable to any number of exigencies, whether private or public, political or moral. The parable was favored as a passage that epitomized Christ's teachings on eternal rewards and punishments, and religious writers encouraged a personalized reading to promote industry, stewardship, and piety. For example, James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh and Milton's opponent in the prelacy debates, admonished parishioners that "thou must give an account of all that thou hast received." At that time, God would ask, "I gave thee learning, how didst thou use it? I gave thee other gifts of mind, how didst thou imploy them?" (3) The parable was also interpreted as an allegory for reckoning with Christ at the Last Judgment, which many believed was fast approaching. Certain that the Second Coming was near, Jeremy Taylor, bishop of Down and Connor, prayed that Christ "at his sudden coming may finde me busie in lawful, necessary, and pious actions, improving my talent intrusted to me by thee my Lord, that I may enter into the joy of my Lord to partake of his eternal felicities." (4) In Taylor's estimation, one must be found "busie" when Christ returns, so as to be a living record of what divine investments had yielded. In a similar manner, Milton demonstrated a concern throughout his life for putting his talents to fit employment and remaining busy until the day of reckoning. His reinvention of the parable, moreover, had important implications for English identity during the English Revolution. In the hands of one the great polemicists of the age, the parable of the talents became a sophisticated literary device for describing the national work of religious reformation in what were believed to be the final days before Christ's Second Coming.

Recent scholarship on Milton and the parable of the talents has focused on religious themes and mined Milton's references to the parable for what they indicate about his uses of scripture. David Urban, Margaret Thickstun, Tobias Gregory, and Dayton Haskin are among those critics who emphasize the parable as a biblical place of solace or discomfort for Milton and a gateway into his sense of vocation. (5) While this personal dimension is critical to our assessments of Milton's authorship, scholars have not considered the parable of the talents within the larger context of politico-religious polemic during the English Revolution. The parable, I argue, was much more politically significant than has been recognized. It was a major discursive site in polemical writings of the 1640s, and it functioned as a locus communis for writers advancing reforms in national church government. Milton and others seized upon the well-known parable as a rhetorical tool for championing England's opportunities for change. …

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