David Loewenstein ~ University of Wisconsin - Madison
Milton's Double-Edged Volume: Religious Politics in the 1671 Poems

This paper elaborates upon a point briefly made at the very end of my Representing Revolution in Milton and His Contemporaries: that by publishing Paradise Regained together with Samson Agonistes, Milton created a doubled-edged volume that could function like a "two-handed engine" during the Restoration. I want to modify the use of that term "indeterminacy" that I used in my book and stress instead the calculated ambiguity of the 1671 volume and its religious politics. One influential line of criticism has stressed that Samson the old-fashioned, active, military hero is superseded by the Jesus of Paradise Regained whose method (as Michael Wilding put it in Dragon's Teeth: Literature of the English Revolution) is "patience and heroic martyrdom, suffering for truth's sake instead of killing." But this polarized view of the 1671 volume--which valorizes Jesus's pacifism and rejects Samson's Old Testament militarism--diminishes the power of the volume's calculated ambiguity. It aligns the Restoration radical Puritan poet unequivocally with pacifism when Milton's position remains more complex, ambiguous, and open-ended than this view allows. And by treating Samson as basically a negative model, this polarized reading of the 1671 volume must diminish the reader's sympathy for Samson's acute anguish, which Milton dramatizes so graphically. I want to examine instead how Milton's political and religious radicalism after the Restoration should be left open ended: it need not be aligned with one prophetic poem and its heroic vision more closely than with the other. Simply put, in one poem, he envisioned what it might be like to repudiate all temporal kings and powers and establish the inward kingdom of Jesus through humble actions, the power of the Spirit, and "winning words"; in the other poem, he envisioned what it might be like, in a spectacular act of holy violence, to destroy the idols and theater of Dagon.