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Milton and the Incarnation

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John Milton

As I mentioned in my first review of four recent books about Milton (Milton and History, posted May 5, 2013), this book by Bryan Adams Hampton explores how religious thought shaped the works of Milton, especially in the 1640 and 1650s. Hampton is well positioned to write such a scholarly examination, being a Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of English at the Univ. of Tennessee.

Hampton exhibits a superior command of the English language, but one that may not be matched by all his readers. The word redargutive appears first on page 84. A check with online dictionaries comes up blank, so don’t be surprised if you don’t know it. Fortunately this reviewer is also an expert on English, so I can tell you that a redargutive sermon is one that is formulated to counter or rebut an error of heresy.

The role of both sermons and Puritans during the period of England’s great revolution is one of the central aspects of Hampton’s book. Philipp Melanchthon’s On The System of Preaching (1553) asserts that the most useful rule of preaching is that the sermon on any text should go back and forth from thesis (a general doctrine or belief) to hypothesis (a particular activity or case). This was the germ of the dominant sermon form among Puritans from the late 16th century, but the author does not mention this. He does, however, say that Melanchthon’s writings influenced Milton’s “overall positive assessment of the passions.”

One fascinating chapter (and the epilogue) in the book tells the story of the Quaker James Naylor, who imitated Christ’s entry into Jerusalem by parading into the city of Bristol one fine day in October 1656. By attempting to incarnate the image of Christ he was charged with “horrid blasphemy.” His sentence was to be tied behind a horse and paraded through Bristol once more in disgrace, being whipped along the way.

Such was the power of “incarnation” in those far-off times of the 17th century in England! Unfortunately “what Milton thought concerning the Christic theodrama at Bristol is unknown to us,” writes Hampton.

He looks closely at Milton’s greatest work, Paradise Lost, particularly at the demonic council scene. While this has received much scholarly attention over the years, Hampton has found a unique insight into it. “To my knowledge,” he writes, “no one has approached the infernal speeches within the context of preaching, itself a very political endeavor. Milton left the ministerial path in part because of his refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the king. When we examine the discussions in hell within the context of preaching, we find that Milton’s fallen angels follow suit as a congregation of dissenters who “dislodge, and leave Unworshipt, unobey’d the Throne supreme.””

Hampton notes that “many Protestants figured themselves as not only as angels, but as “incarnation” or embodiments of the Word. Martin Luther certainly has this sense in mind when he exults, “Yes, I hear the sermon, but who is speaking? The minister? No, indeed! You do not hear the minister. True, the voice is his; but my God is speaking the Word which he preaches or speaks.””

Phrasing these arcane concepts in modern language, Hampton says the popular preachers of the 17th century exuded such charisma, and stirred such passions, they were akin “to what rock stars are to contemporary culture.”

It appears that Milton thought it had all gone too far in the real world. He wrote in Paradise Lost that Satan refused readers of his scriptures to be also interpreters of them. “These are the very things for which Milton caustically upbraids the prelates in his tract The Reason of Church Government.” Milton thought that everyone, not just priests, have the right to be heard. The people should not be wordless.

Later in the book, Hampton makes use of a short passage in Paradise Lost to reinforce this point. It is the story of the inexperienced sailor who, mistaking a great sea-beast for land, moors his small ship upon its back. Milton uses this popular image “as an imaginative picture of the individual ‘ark of the soul’ navigating the waters of spiritual life, as well as a figure for the ships of state and church. The latter recalls for us Milton’s caustic rejection of the Wordless clergy.”

It all goes to the heart of what Hampton identifies as Milton’s vision. “For Milton the rigors of personal discipline can save a sinking church without direction, and can guide the citizenry of a nation very nearly into bliss itself.”

This is a fascinating book, with many powerful insights into the Milton’s thought and the state of England in those tortuous years.

The book is completed with 60 pages of detailed notes about the sources. The index concentrates on surnames and book titles, giving concepts short shrift. For example, neither music nor harmony of the spheres is included in the index, even though the concept appears on page 46. Like the book reviewed in my article “Milton and History,” the Putney Debates also come up short in the index. In fact there is no entry for the Debates at all, even though they are mentioned on page 290. There is a typo on pg. 99: “it is that” should be “is it that.”

Fleshly Tabernacles: Milton and the Incarnational Poetics of Revolutionary England (374 pages, softcover), is $40 from University of Notre Dame Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

More in this category: « Young Milton Milton and History »
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