[Milton-L] HILL ON THE BIBLE

Alan Rudrum rudrum at shaw.ca
Tue Nov 27 18:00:21 EST 2007


Here is the review, for those who don't like looking things up (I 
enjoyed on looking through it again the reference to my Cambridge 
landlady and her husband):

 

Christopher Hill, _The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century 
Revolution_.  Harmondsworth: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1993.  xiv + 
466 pp.  £25.00.  ISBN 0 713 99078 3. 

Christopher Hill writes that his object is "to try to assess the part 
played by the Bible in the lives of Englishmen and women during 
England's revolutionary seventeenth century."  This has a fine 
generosity and breadth, answering to the splendid quotation from 
T.Grashop's Introduction to the 1603 edition of the Geneva Bible, with 
its assertion that "Scriptures contain matter concerning...the common 
life of all men."

Hill, here as elsewhere, paints on a large canvas, and with a broad 
brush.  In the introduction he argues that the early modern period in 
England was a "biblical culture"; he then examines in turn how the Bible 
was used as a manual for revolutionaries; its role in international 
Catholicism and national politics; its relation to English literature; 
and, finally, how it was "dethroned," that is, how England ceased to be 
a biblical culture.

Productivity such as Hill's is not achieved by devoting entire mornings 
to the cadence of a single sentence or entire days to the refining of a 
single assertion.  Some sections of this book read less like an argument 
in process than like the chronological outpourings of a very full 
notebook.  The result is, that on the one hand categorizations put 
forward in chapter and section headings will be found useful, as 
guidebooks to be both followed and argued about; and on the other Hill's 
(sometimes undocumented) assertions  are likely to provoke sharp 
questioning and disagreement.

As example, his dealings with Henry Vaughan may be noted.  Hill states 
that most of his reading for this book has been in Fast Sermons, Puritan 
and radical writings, and Anglican commentaries on the Puritan wing.  
Despite this third category, Vaughan figures very little, though _Silex 
Scintillans_ is both a tissue of biblical allusion and a product of the 
seventeenth century revolution.  A poem cited more than once is "In 
Amicum Foeneratorem," not as especially biblical in its language, but as 
illustrating the continuation into the period of biblical hostility to 
usury.  It is cited without comment on a page which begins with the 
observation that "seventeenth century radicals could derive fighting 
creeds from the Old Testament"; in a sentence which follows the remark 
that "particularly relevant to seventeenth-century England was James's 
assertion that the cry of underpaid agricultural labourers had reached 
God's ears" (not King James, in case anybody is wondering); and in the 
same sentence as a quotation from Abiezer Coppe.  From this context, the 
reader could derive an impression of Vaughan that scarcely accords with 
the facts.

Hill correctly notes that Vaughan supported the concept of animal 
resurrection, but fails to fine-tune by remarking that he goes further 
and writes in "The Book" of God restoring "trees, beasts and men" and in 
"And do they so?" of stones, trees, flowers, highway herbs, and flowing 
springs "expecting" their date, with an allusion to the earlier of 
Beza's translations of Romans viii 19, in which created things expect 
the revelation of the sons of God. Nor does Hill note the use made of 
the heresy of animal resurrection by Presbyterian propagandists of the 
late 1640s, though this is certainly relevant to his theme.  Elsewhere 
he remarks that passionate fears of popery were not confined to Puritans 
and that "Spenser was fiercely anti-Catholic, as were many other poets - 
the two Fletchers, Quarles, Henry Vaughan, Benlowes; the last three were 
royalists during the civil war."  Here one would like to see the 
evidence.  Quarles took most of his work in the _Emblems_ from Catholic 
sources, and in _The Loyall Convert_ (1644) "defended the employment of 
Roman Catholics in the royalist army"(DNB).   As for Vaughan, his 
grandmother was of the old religion, and survived into his boyhood; as 
Hutchinson points out, he was "connected by kinship or friendship with 
many recusant families," and was "notably free from any prejudice 
against reading widely in the writings of adherents of the old faith." I 
know of no evidence that Vaughan was "fiercely anti-Catholic"; the works 
he translated, and his poems in the 1655 _Silex_ on St. Mary Magdalen 
and the Virgin Mary, scarcely support Hill's point.

At the end of the Preface Hill remarks that he had originally "intended 
to give full Biblical references for... key names and words - Cain and 
Abel, idols and groves, wilderness and garden, covenant, idolatry and 
the millennium," but that the interested reader "can find them for 
himself with the help of a concordance."  "Millennium" occurs neither in 
Strong's "Exhaustive Concordance,"nor in Young's "Analytical."  Better 
to try the word "thousand," and end up in Revelation xx 2-6, presumably 
the primary source of millennarianism.  My Cambridge landlady and her 
husband, fortified by a supper of hot peas, used to spend their Sunday 
evenings figuring out how to align Revelation with the week's gleanings 
from the _Daily Telegraph_.  In the first half of the seventeenth 
century, just about everybody seems to have been at it.  Hill implicitly 
explains the preponderance of Old Testament reference in his study by 
suggesting that it is "harsher and more brutal than the New, concerned 
with the indiscriminate collective elimination of God's enemies, and 
with the salvation of the Jewish people, rather than with individuals."  
Of Revelation he remarks that "it alone in the New Testament shares the 
Old Testament enjoyment of massacring the ungodly."

One of Hill's broader brush-strokes occurs in this part of his 
discussion, where he writes (75) that "the protestant doctrine of 
predestination arose from attempts to adapt the Old Testament's message 
to the world of the sixteenth century."  This calls for documentation.  
If by this remark Hill means an adaptation of the message concerning a 
chosen people, it accords well with what he has suggested elsewhere, 
that predestinarian doctrine was used by those who regarded themselves 
as "the elect" as their licence to dominate others; but history, like 
historical criticism, should surely be concerned in the first instance 
with "the words on the page,"and in the sixteenth century these were 
surely the words of Romans 9 - 11, as interpreted by Calvin.   If 
mid-century English Calvinists were indeed more fanatical about 
predestinarian doctrine than Calvin himself, it was presumably because 
it was their justificatory myth, as the "Elizabethan world-picture" was 
for the Tudors.

Given the very different level of influence of the Bible as between the 
modern world and the seventeenth century, it is fascinating to notice 
the similarities in the treatment of the "sacred truths."  Galileo, who 
was doubtless brought to a fine sense of tact in these matters, said 
that "wise expositors" must "seek out the true sense of Scripture texts" 
while leaving the commonplace language of the Bible intact for "the 
all-too-numerous vulgar." In his day the main issue may have been to 
reconcile the Copernican system with biblical language; in ours one can 
listen to a thousand sermons without being given a hint of the numbers 
of theologians and biblical scholars who do not believe the words of the 
Creed they recite week after week, as they refer to Virgin Birth and 
Resurrection.

Hill's aim in his literary chapter is to "emphasize the part that the 
English Bible played in the transformation of English literature" in 
what he calls its greatest age.  This chapter offers a general 
introduction, followed by a section on Milton, Bunyan and Marvell.  Hill 
begins by noting the importance of the bible in the development of a 
vernacular literature in the sixteenth century, suggesting that the 
bible offered much that appealed to "the new middle-brow reading public 
which printing was creating." Paraphrasing the psalms became a standard 
exercise for aspiring poets; and in the late sixteenth and early 
seventeenth centuries ballads on biblical themes enjoyed a vogue, to be 
replaced, as their stories became well-known, by "penny godlies," as 
family singing gave way to private reading.  Hill relates the paradoxes 
of the bible to those of the metaphysical poets, wondering whether the 
vernacular Bible prepared for and influenced metaphysical poetry, or 
whether "the mood which produced that poetry open men's minds to this 
aspect of the Biblical message." Even today, readers are still shocked 
by Donne's saying to God that he will be "nor ever chaste, except you 
ravish me"(one loses count of the times one's pupils point out to their 
innocent mentor that this is an invitation to homosexual rape), and by 
the suggestion that Christ's bride the church is most pleasing to Him 
when she is behaving most like a harlot.  In these examples, Donne seems 
to go some way beyond biblical paradox, in the second contracting into a 
single utterance two distinct biblical strands, of woman as bride and as 
whore.

Hill suggests that protestantism initially fostered a religious drama, 
which "the cult of the Word" then killed, reinforced as it was by the 
association of stage plays with the licentious suburbs, immorality and 
profanation of the Sabbath.  Perhaps political rather than religious 
reasons were influential here (it does not always make sense to say they 
should not be distinguished).  Hill himself quotes a proclamation of 
1559 banning "unlicensed interludes and plays especially on religion or 
policy" on the grounds that such were "not convenient in any good 
ordered Christian commonwealth to be suffered." Given the close 
connection between "religion" and "policy" it is not altogether 
surprising that plays on biblical themes were banned; that they were 
represents one of the constraints within which Shakespeare and his 
contemporaries had to work: in this period, and for some time to come, 
the notion that literature is shaped in response to such constraints 
makes sense.

Hill begins the third section of the chapter "Some Biblical Influences" 
by suggesting that we should think more about the Bible and literary 
genres, or literary fashions, and goes on to say that "much of the Old 
Testament, and Revelation in the new, is in the epic vein." The fact 
that "Revelation and other related texts provide the pattern and most of 
the imagery for Book I of The Faerie Queene" seems insufficient reason 
for regarding Revelation as epic.  In a well-known passage in /The 
Reason of Church-Government/ , Milton writes of it as "the majestic 
image of a high and stately tragedy, shutting up and intermingling her 
solemn scenes and acts with a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and 
harping symphonies," backing up his view with "the grave authority of 
Pareus, commenting that book." This view of Revelation as a drama has 
persisted into twentieth century scholarship.

Readers beginning to interest themselves in the literary use of biblical 
themes in the period are likely to find the factual rather than the 
critical parts of this section the more useful. Few will be so widely 
read as not to need Hill's account of writers who employed biblical 
themes; on the other hand there seems rather little to be gleaned from 
his account of _Absalom and Achitophel,_ - "a satirical mock-epic, a 
retort to Puritan versifications of the Bible." More interesting is his 
treatment of the historical fortunes of biblical allegory: its mediaeval 
manifestations objected to by early protestant reformers who wanted to 
return to the literal text; used by Spenser and his followers, partly 
because of the protection it offered against censorship; used again in 
the 1640s by radicals who argued, perhaps influenced by Boehme's 
inveighing against "nominal, titular, and historical Christianity," that 
"the mystery" was more important than "the history." In our own time I 
have heard a notable sociologist turned Anglican clergyman argue that 
the church should retain the traditional creeds because, for example, 
the Virgin Birth points to what is new in the movement initiated by 
Jesus, as the genealogies point to his roots in traditional Judaism.  
Presumably Gerrard Winstanley's view of the Biblical narrative, that 
"whether there was any such outward things or no, it matters not 
much,"looks forward to this and to Ian Ramsey's view of the church as a 
story-telling community.  Depending on the moral force and scholarly 
sophistication of those who enunciate such views, they can reanimate the 
text or seem merely a device for keeping the institutional church 
financially viable in an age of disbelief.

In reviewing Louis Martz's /The Poetry of Exile/, I took issue with his 
assumption that Milton could not have been expressing his own view, in 
/Paradise Regained/, when he has Christ valuing biblical over classical 
literature.  Hill makes a similar assumption when he writes of "the 
exaggerated praise of the Psalms by Sidney and Milton." He relates this 
praise to the Psalms offering "new aesthetic experiences," which he 
relates in turn to the fact that "the great literary resources of the 
Bible had suddenly become available to the English laity from the 1530s 
onwards."  It is surely odd to be writing of Milton in this way, since 
he was not dependent upon the English translation and after he became 
blind had the Hebrew scriptures read to him daily.  As early as /The 
Reason of Church Government/  he wrote, after mentioning Pindarus and 
Callimachus, that "those frequent songs throughout the law and 
prophets...not in their divine argument alone, but in the very critical 
art of composition, may be easily made appear over all the kinds of 
lyric poesy to be incomparable."  However, this chapter contains some 
splendid nuggets of information, like the change to the headnote of the 
149th psalm (p. 352) and the reference to the London Puritans in 1641 
singing psalms to drown Laudian services. It also contains a rebuttal, 
brief but accurate and relevant so far as he takes it, of Wittreich's 
curious view of _Samson Agonistes_.

The section on Bunyan might have been longer; it is a freshly written, 
attractive account, calculated to gain new readers for this 
"class-conscious" writer, whose life was turned round when he overhead 
two or three poor women sitting in the sun talking about the things of 
God "as if joy did make them speak." If this section should not quite 
convince, the remark of Bunyan quoted elsewhere, about those ordinary 
people who could not with Pontius Pilate speak Hebrew, Greek and Latin, 
should prove the clincher.

For a book of its size, this must nowadays count as a bargain, and 
represents a welcome change from the policy, pursued elsewhere, of 
pricing books on the assumption that only major libraries will buy 
them.  Nevertheless one could wish that the publishers, given the 
circumstances, had charged a little more and taken responsibility for 
improving the apparatus.  A book like this cries out for a list of works 
cited; there is none.  The index is incomplete and inaccurate; the 
footnotes are incomplete and inconsistent in format and therefore less 
useful than they might be. In works like this, usefulness and 
entertainment value go hand in hand, and there will be occasions when 
professional scholars would like to be helped and entertained just as 
much as "general" readers.   For example, how many, of those who have 
published on this period, could supply from memory the reference, 
omitted here, for the statement that when, after Milton's death, 
attempts were made to publish _De Doctrina Christiana_ in The 
Netherlands, "the whole power of British diplomacy was brought to bear 
to prevent it"(6).  The author has more important concerns than learning 
to use End-Note; but a relatively small outlay on the publisher's part, 
for a competent word-processor and for a research assistant to correct, 
systematize and amplify the apparatus, could have greatly enhanced the 
value of this already very useful book.

Simon Fraser 
University                                                         Alan 
Rudrum**

 

 

 

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