Academic journal article Cithara

Tradition and the Budding Individual Talent: Milton's Paraphrase of Psalm 114

Academic journal article Cithara

Tradition and the Budding Individual Talent: Milton's Paraphrase of Psalm 114

Article excerpt

Milton's first written poem, set forth in his 1645 volume, Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin, is his paraphrase of Psalm 114. The head note to "A Paraphrase on Psalm 114" in that volume reads: "This and the following Psalm were don by the Author at fifteen years old." This explanation, retrospectively portraying himself as an "Author," Mary Ann Radzinowicz argues, shows Milton's recognition that the early presence of the psalms helped form his sense of vocation (ix). But this self-conscious presentation of himself as an author is only possible because Milton has first been a poet, a creator. Thus, it makes sense to begin by seeing what the young poet has done in his metrical paraphrase, which follows:

When the blest seed of Terah's faithful Son,

After long toil their liberty had won,

And past from Pharian fields to Canaan Land,

Led by the strength of the Almighty's hand,

Jehovah's wonders were in Israel shown,

His praise and glory was in Israel known.

That saw the troubl'd Sea, and shivering fled,

And sought to hide his froth-becurled head

Low in the earth; Jordan's clear streams recoil,

As a faint host that hath receiv'd the foil.

The high, huge-bellied Mountains skip like Rams

Amongst their Ewes, the little Hills like Lambs.

Why fled the Ocean? And why skipt the Mountains?

Why turned Jordan toward his Crystal Fountains?

Shake earth, and at the presence be aghast

Of him that ever was, and aye shall last,

That glassy floods from rugged rocks can crush,

And make soft rills from fiery flint-stones gush. (1624)

In the following essay, I consider Milton's paraphrase as the convergence of the poet's individual talent, which is already beginning to emerge in this inaugural work, with the traditional authority of previous Psalm translations. That tradition includes not only prose versions in several languages, such as George Buchanan's Latin paraphrases and the English Authorized Version, but especially metrical versions appearing both in the Psalters and in the pages of other early modern poets, such as LHi Bartas. In taking this approach to Milton's poem, I use the terms articulated by T. S. Eliot in his classic essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1917), terms elaborated in Eliot's subsequent "The Function of Criticism" (1923). For Eliot, the poet's "peculiar essence" is that about the poet's work which is unlike anything else in the literature of the culture. While distinctive, this individual talent is not, in Eliot's view, a quirk of personality or a Wordsworthian overflow of the poet's emotion. ' Rather, Eliot saw each poet's unique contribution as "an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet" (22). Eliot's essay gently prods Milton scholars to enquire, among the rich and diverse proliferation of psalm translations up to 1624, what young John Milton's peculiar essence, his distinctive contribution to literary tradition might be. My answer in brief, to be developed and supported in what follows, is that Milton's individual talent reflected in his paraphrase of Psalm 114 lies in three of the poet's unique emphases: his emphasis on liberty; on natural order humanized; and on the possibility of radical human transformation by divine power. In order properly to isolate and appreciate Milton's unique contributions, we need tobe mindful not only of alternate translators' approaches but also of the cultural milieu out of which these psalm translations and paraphrases arose. Informed in both of these ways, readers can better appreciate Milton's remarkable debut, one conjuring up wonder at the young poet's precocious achievements and their anticipations of themes that would preoccupy him later in his career.

The tradition of paraphrasing Scripture goes back at least to the earliest rumblings or even premonitions of the Protestant reformation. …

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