Milton's Burden of Interpretation

By Dayton Haskin | Go to book overview

Preface

From its earliest years the movement that we know as Protestantism encouraged an intensely personal way of reading. It took definitive shape in the experience and writings of Martin Luther. The general practice that grew out of this experience was aptly characterized in the advice that William Tyndale offered, out of Luther, to readers of the English Bible: "thinke that every sillable pertayneth to thyne awne silf." This encouragement of introspective reading was amplified by a further claim that "the storyes of the byble" provide "ensamples" of every human "case or state."1 Tyndale's plan to put the English Bible into the hands of ordinary people proved astonishingly successful: by the time John Milton was born, in 1608, it was widely urged throughout England that the Bible be read "feelingly" and its message applied "experimentally." Reading for "experimental" knowledge was thought to involve testing one's spiritual experience against normative biblical patterns, to find a proper fit between the two. The general assumption was that readers would find precedents that confirmed their faith. This inward-looking reading was understood to be the principal locus of the operation of the Holy Spirit, whose special work was to enlighten the believer in the task of applying the Word of God to the heart.2 But what if a reader should feel that a biblical "ensample" identifies his or her "case" with a "storie" that ends in "utter darkness"? This book began in a conviction that Milton well-known sonnet, "When I consider...," explores this question and works against as well as with the tradition of reading for "experimental" knowledge.

A good deal of recent scholarship, seeking to counter popular stereotypes about "puritanism" and Bible-reading, has called attention to the more beneficial consequences (for readers of both the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries) of attending to biblical language and paradigms. It is now common to place religious poetry written in England during the seventeenth century in relation to the broad tradition that descends from the magisterial reformers, and not uncommon to suppose that the doctrines of Luther and Calvin inspired a distinctive "poetics." For the most part critics who, ten and fifteen years ago, were extrapolating a so-called "Prot-

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