Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, Holy Land, Prayer


Something about publicized supplication embarrasses critical readers, especially of the Enlighenment, who, since Samuel Johnson, have been trained to doubt if not the sincerity at least the efficacy of rhetoricized prayer. Milton was "nothing satisfied" with the preliminary eight stanzas of his unfinished lyric "The Passion;' for example, and printing it anyway has been cause enough for his critics to remain so. For one, the closest Milton gets to the scene of

the crucifixion is Jesus's tomb after the resurrection; he finds the "sad Sepulchral rock / That was the Casket of Heav'ns richest store" ( 43-44; emphasis added). More at issue is his use of metaphysical conceit. In the last stanza, the poet imagines he might from a mountaintop hear so many echoes of his infectious weeping that he'll think "(for grief is easily beguild)" he had impregnated a cloud with a race of mourners (54). Thomas Corns has shown the congruity of such imagery with contemporary Laudian commemoration poetry, but for Barbara Lewalski such "extravagant" images fail because Milton's "Protestant imagination was not stirred by the Passion:' Similarly, Roy Flanagan conjectures that the verse seems forced because "Milton's heart is not in this poem;' the death of Christ being "a distasteful subject to Protestants of Milton's era, who would have associated the Crucifixion with Roman Catholic iconography:' Aptly describing this take on the Protestant imagination as an oversimplification, Noam Reisner counters that the Passion "clearly did stir Milton's Protestant imagination, otherwise he would not have attempted this poem to begin with:' Rather than assume it limited by an overly generalized Protestant episteme, Reisner treats the poem as a failure of Milton's own making, identifying in its rhetoric a reluctance in Milton to stifle his prophetic ambition and let himself be moved to a loss of emotional and verbal control. Unlike in the "Nativity Ode;' where the poet succeeds by positioning himself in an intermediary role between angels and humans, in "The Passion'' Milton's insistence on self-reference makes him "unable to create the sacramental space necessary" for the meditation to work.