Milton, John°

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MILTON, JOHN°

MILTON, JOHN ° (1608–1674), English Puritan poet, whose works contain an unusual concentration of biblical and Judaic sentiments. Milton may have learned Hebrew while he was at Cambridge from the Semitic scholar, Joseph Mede (1586–1638). His knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic was sufficient to enable him in later years to read the Hebrew Bible and probably also the classical Hebrew commentators. On the other hand, it seems certain that he had no first hand knowledge of Talmud or Kabbalah, although he read the works of Maimonides and other post-biblical texts in the Latin translations of Johannes *Buxtorf. The result of these studies is apparent in two tracts, Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) and Tetrachordon (1645), obviously prompted by his own unhappy marriage. In pleading for more liberal divorce laws, Milton tends to view the Hebrew legislation on the subject in Deuteronomy as the normative code for Christians. He was attacked as a flagrant heretic by many fellow Presbyterians, including William Prynne (1600–1669), who was later to oppose the re-entry of the Jews into England. In 1659 he became Cromwell's Latin secretary, and continued to maintain his covenant faith in the God who had chosen England as the messiah-nation and himself as the prophet-poet of Reformation. The end of the Commonwealth in 1660 found him a blind, abandoned, and aging revolutionary.

Milton's great epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), which seeks to "justify the ways of God to men," frames the biblical account of the Creation and the fall of Man in the Christian tradition, relating the battles in the fall of the angels; however, its fundamental emphasis is on human freedom and responsibility. This indicates Milton's relative proximity to Hebraic norms and his remoteness from the deterministic views of the more orthodox Puritans. Paradise Lost also reflects in part Milton's early acquaintance with Sylvester's English translation (1605) of *Du Bartas' epic On the Creation. In Samson Agonistes (1671), he clearly identifies himself with his hero, the Hebrew judge, "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves," whom God had nevertheless chosen for special tasks and revelations. Biblical and Judaic elements are also prominent in the sonnets On His Blindness (1651?–5) and On the Late Massacre in Piedmont (1655), and in the pamphlet Areopagitica (1644).

Milton's most heretical work, the De Doctrina Christiana (written c. 1658–60, but published in 1825), which rejects the orthodox view of the Trinity, indicates his virulent Puritan objection to the Jewish priesthood and ritual code. His theological and philosophical position was marked by considerable internal conflict as he sought to resolve the tensions set up between the Hellenic, Hebraic, and Christian elements of his cultural inheritance. Milton's biblical verse had a considerable influence on the romantic poets Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge.

bibliography:

D. Saurat, Milton, Man and Thinker (1924); H.F. Fletcher, Milton's Semitic Studies… (1926); W.B. Selbie, in: E.R. Bevan and C. Singer (eds.), Legacy of Israel (1927), 407–31; M. Kelley, This Great Argument… (1941); D. Daiches, Milton (1957); Wolfe, in: Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 60 (1961), 834–46; H. Fisch, Jerusalem and Albion… (1964); idem, in: R.D. Emma and J.T. Shawcross (eds.), Language and Style in Milton (1967); H.F. Fletcher, Milton's Rabbinical Readings (1967). add. bibliography: odnb online; W.R. Parker and G. Campbell, Milton: A Biography (1996); L. Ilfrah, De Shylock à Samson: Juifs et Judaïsme en Angleterre au Temps de Shakespeare et Milton (1992).

[Harold Harel Fisch]