"Lawfull Charms" and "Wars of Truth": Voice and Power in Writings by John Milton and George Wither

By Gay, David | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

"Lawfull Charms" and "Wars of Truth": Voice and Power in Writings by John Milton and George Wither


Gay, David, Papers on Language & Literature


David Loewenstein and James Grantham Turner have called attention to the relationship between poetics and politics in Milton's prose and poetry and to the implications of this relationship for various discursive fields in the seventeenth century (2). As Loewenstein and Turner argue, when "critics try to isolate the sublime canonical bard from the vehement polemicist, the separated halves cling together again" (1). An integral view of Milton's canon allows us to see more clearly what Loewenstein and Turner call the "conjunction of literary and political discourse" between Milton and his contemporaries as well as between Milton's poetry and prose (3). The specific conjunction I wish to examine, one linking the early hymns and later prose writings of Milton and his contemporary George Wither, concerns the representation of poetic voice as a source of power and truth in conflict with authority and error. My approach calls attention to the shared language and ideas of these two writers as each identified his respective conflicts with the revolutionary impulse of the Reformation.[1] Both writers characterize words with power as what Wither calls "Lawfull charms" (Haleluiah 21), and both deploy this power in what Milton calls the "wars of Truth."[2] Their distinctive representations of voice as "charm" circulate between the broad heritage of Reformation theology and polemics and the specific politics and economics of book publishing.

Wither is considered a pioneer of English hymnody because of his Hymnes and Songs of the Church published in 1623. Wither's hymns may be "the very earliest attempt at an English hymnal" (Eskew and Mcelrath 114). But the hostile response to these hymns, culminating in a boycott by the Stationers Company, which resented the Royal patent given to Wither's hymns, led Wither to defend his publication in a treatise that anticipates Milton's Areopagitica. Published in 1625, The Schollers Purgatory is a bitter indictment of the Stationers Company and its attacks on his hymns. Evert Clark calls the Purgatory an "eloquent appeal for the freedom of authors from the tyranny of booksellers" that invites comparison with "the subsequent and related Areopagitica" (628).

During Christmas season of 1629, at the age of twenty-one, Milton tested his poetic voice by writing a literary hymn.[3] As Paul Fry remarks "The universe of the 'Nativity Ode' teems with stars and choirs of every origin and magnitude, each with its own influence, and what disturbs Milton's celebration is his concern about his own place, and that of Christian hymnody, in the 'maze' of light and sound he has imagined" (38). Milton's "concern about his own place" persists in successive contexts. The ode links two specific moments in Milton's career: 1629, when the ode was written, and 1645, when it was published with his collected poems. As Louis Montrose argues, the ode in its 1645 context "is not focused on ingeniously paradoxical descriptions of the Incarnation or on homely details of the Nativity, but on the intense imagining of a revolutionary moment" (112). If this "revolutionary moment" is characterized by Milton's political prose writings, particularly Areopagitica, it also relates the earlier Ode to the later prose writings and declares the integrity of Milton's voice and vision in both poetry and polemical prose.

The publication of the 1645 poems (the "Nativity Ode" is the first poem in the collection) both synchronizes and coordinates the poetry and the prose in part because Milton saw a new significance for the Ode in a new context. The implied significance deserves critical analysis. The "revolutionary moment" Montrose identifies is portrayed in the iconoclastic routing of the pagan gods in the latter stages of the poem, but it also entails an understanding of Milton's treatment of vocal power and authority in the poem. In Areopagitica, Milton argues that the Reformation initiated a perpetual contest of voices figured as "wars of Truth. …

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