Milton and the Divine Plan, Part II

This is the second and final post in our series considering John Milton’s conception of the Divine Plan.
John Milton

John Milton

When thinking about the God and his control over the universe, a topic which weighs heavily on everyone’s mind is death. If God has a plan, why must it include death? Milton addresses such questions in his great pastoral elegy Lycidas, written on the passing of Edward King. In this poem Milton expresses surprise and disdain that King, a man who had given up the ‘high life’ of the educated for the vocation of preaching, should perish at such a young age. “Where were ye nymphs when the remorseless deep/ Closed o’er the head of your loved Lycidas?” (Lycidas, 50-51) Milton asks. Where was God when this man died? Why was it that a man so committed to the work of the Lord died at such a young age? “What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?” (Lycidas, 92) How could God let such a thing happen? Milton seems to be asking these questions, not only for King’s sake, but for his own sake as well. The death of King seems to have collapsed Milton into the realm of doubt: If God let Edward King die before he fulfilled his purpose in life, then why should he not expect the same to happen?Within the body of the Lycidas, Milton entertains two possible answers to why King died, the first involving Phoebus Apollo (god of poetry) who suggests that true fame is not found on earth. The second possible solution to Milton’s question comes from St. Peter, who offers that King was being saved from the corrupt clergy of the Church of England by his death: “How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,/ Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake,/ Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?” (Lycidas, 113-115) But Milton rejects these answers as sufficient warrant for the evil that has been done to King and concludes differently.

Weep no more, woeful shepherd weep no more,

For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,

Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor,

So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,

And yet anon repairs his drooping head,

And tricks his beams, and with new spangeled ore,

Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:

So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,

Through the dear might of him that walked the waves;

With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,

And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,

In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.

-Lycidas, 165-178

Here Milton suggests that although King has perished, he has not perished for eternity, and those in mourning should now rejoice that he is in heaven. Though professing not to understand why this tragedy has occurred, Milton proclaims the good news of God and His sovereignty amidst the tragedies of evil. The odd switch from first-person narrative to third-person narration at line 186 extraordinarily effects the hearers of this pastoral elegy, further cementing that God has given each person a purpose to which they must strive (Evans, 50-3). Even when evil is incomprehensible, we must carry on to “fresh woods, and pastures anew” (Lycidas, 194), remaining faithful and committed to the divine plan of God.

In Samson Agonistes, Milton writes of the life and ultimate death of the Israelite judge Samson, he of Old Testament fame. Written as an apparent tragedy, the work has many parallels to Milton’s own life, suggesting some powerful theological implications for Milton’s own view of the divine plan. The tragedy opens with Samson blind in his Philistine prison, enjoying a day of rest because the Philistines are celebrating a feast of Dagon (Samson Agonisties, 1-15). Samson begins to recount how his life in retrospect, saying:

Let me not rashly calling doubt

Divine prediction; what if all foretold

Had been fulfilled but through mine own default,

Whom have I to complain of but myself?

-Samson Agoinsistes, 44-47

Samson

Samson

Samson blames himself for not using the gift of strength that was God’s blessing, and now blind and under Philistine power, he realizes his failure to use this gift for its specific purpose. One cannot miss the parallel here: Milton, now blind and under Royalist power, realized his failure to use God’s gift of writing for its specific purpose. Samson had strength to rid Israel of Philistine power; Milton had the gift of poetry to write for God. Both men, while seeking pleasures in their early lives had cast aside their God-given purposes for other activities, Samson through womanizing and Milton through prosaically engaging politics. Among the many parallels between Samson and Milton, one statement from the Choir concerning Samson’s lot in life seems to especially resonate: “Just are the ways of God/ And justifiable to men” (SA, 293-294) accords well with Milton’s own battle against those who said his blindness was punishment for siding with Cromwell during the English Revolution. Yet through this poem the reader sees the building resolution to fulfill the will of God whenever possible. In Samson’s eventual defeat of the Philistines and death Milton seems to be resolving himself to the task of completing his great epic masterpiece for God, even if such a task proves fatal in the end. Just as Samson initially freely misused the gift of strength, and God worked His purpose out over the Philistines in the end, so also God’s plan may find its completion in Milton’s own life.

As this review of Milton’s poetry has demonstrated, he undoubtedly had intricately thought out one way to understand the divine plan. In On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, we saw the importance of Christ’s nativity for the redemption of humanity. In his sonnets, we noted the importance of human freedom, including the freewill to disobey God’s commands. In Lycidas, we found the primacy Milton put on the sovereignty of God over all of life’s situations, even those which seem unexplainable and evil. In Samson Agonisties, there is much emphasis placed on remaining faithful to God and fulfilling His purposes, no matter what. The combination of all these factors, then, make clear the importance Milton placed upon a Christian faith and understanding of the world in how we should think about the divine plan.

All is best, though we oft doubt,

What the unsearchable dispose

Of highest wisdom brings about,

And ever best found in the close”

-Samson Agonistes, 1745-1748


Sources

Bennett, Joan S. “Reading Samson Agonistes.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Second ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 119-235. Print.

Evans, J. Martin. “Lycidas.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Second ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 39-53. Print.

Hall, R. F. “Milton’s Sonnets and His Contemporaries.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Second ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 98-112. Print.

Milton, John. “Lycidas.” Milton: The Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. John Carey. Second ed. London: Pearson, 2007. 237-56. Print.

Milton, John. “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Milton: The Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. John Carey. Second ed. London: Pearson, 2007. 101-16. Print.

Milton, John. “Samson Agonistes.” Milton: The Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. John Carey. Second ed. London: Pearson, 2007. 349-413. Print.

Milton, John. “Sonnet XII.” Milton: The Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. John Carey. Second ed. London: Pearson, 2007. 296-97. Print.

Milton, John. “Sonnet XVI.” Milton: The Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. John Carey. Second ed. London: Pearson, 2007. 331-33. Print.

Milton, John. “Sonnet XIX.” Milton: The Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. John Carey. Second ed. London: Pearson, 2007. 347-48. Print.

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