Out of His Furrow

William Poole

  • Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity by Gordon Teskey
    Harvard, 214 pp, £21.95, March 2006, ISBN 0 674 01069 8

All good Protestants are supposed to believe that when they read the Bible properly, the Holy Ghost assists them. So what happens when a good Protestant writes with the same assistance? Is the resulting text something like scripture? The orthodox answer would be no: the canon of scripture is closed, and the days of revelation are over. But from the middle of the 17th century onwards, people began to have problems with the idea of a closed, eternally synchronous Bible. In England, extreme radicals wrote pamphlets in which no real distinction was made between biblical quotation and biblical ventriloquism. Sprinklings of pseudo-Hebrew here and there added to the mystique. When the former army chaplain Robert Bacon visited the ‘Shakers’ God’, John Robins, in London in around 1650, he found Robins sitting on a bed before his disciples speaking in tongues: ‘But the words he spake I did not understand, only they seemed to me to be a mixture of Latin, and some other tongues (they said Hebrew) and all other Languages.’ The Quaker apologist and scholar Robert Barclay argued:

That which cannot be proved by scripture is no article of faith;

The precise canon of the Bible is not listed in the scriptures;

Therefore the received canon is no article of faith.

Such problems were not the exclusive preserve of radicals. The aristocratic evangelist and natural philosopher Robert Boyle tried to defend the scriptures by paradoxically confessing their historicity: ‘All the Parts of Scripture are useful in Some Ages, and some in All.’ Slightly later, John Locke pointed out that the letters of St Paul represent only one side of a mutilated correspondence, which would presumably make more sense had the other side survived. Some Catholic scholars, too, were querying the monolithic status of holy writ, in response to what they saw as Protestant fundamentalism. As the French Oratorian scholar Richard Simon remarked early on in a book that became a subversive classic among Catholics and Protestants alike, ‘the Books of the Bible that are come into our hands are but abridgments of the ancient Records, which were more full and copious, before the last abridgment was made for the public use of the people.’

The Bible was bursting at both ends: radicals and self-appointed prophets were adding to scripture; scholars were eroding it. These unco-ordinated interventions had immediate literary repercussions, and Milton’s Paradise Lost is the crucial text in any discussion of the relation between divine and human powers of creativity in the mid-17th century. When Milton sat down (or slept, as he claimed) to compose Paradise Lost, was he not continuing, rather than simply commenting on, the creative powers of the first author, of God himself? Was he not appropriating or even breaking free from those powers? He began his poem, after all, by calling for the help of the same Holy Ghost that daily assisted his diligent reading of the Bible in its original languages, a Holy Ghost that nevertheless turned female later in the poem:

If answerable style I can obtain
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deigns
Her nightly visitation unimplored,
And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated Verse.

This crisis in the relation between divine and human powers of creativity is the subject of Gordon Teskey’s book, which is itself occasionally hieratic. But Teskey would not phrase this crisis as I have. He prefers to voice this (nonetheless historical) moment in aesthetic terms: before Milton, poetic creativity is hallucination; Milton ushers in the age of delirium. What Teskey means by this opposition is best explained by recourse to the etymology of delirium. Delirus (‘crazy’) is a ploughing metaphor: a lira in Latin is the edge of earth thrown up by the plough that shows where to plough the next furrow; to be delirious is to depart from that guide. Hallucination, in contrast, concerns the mere creation of images and is ‘the domain of mimesis’. Hallucination therefore is ‘imaginatively stable’ whereas delirium ‘works by a kind of oscillation, a flickering on and off of hallucinatory moments in rapid succession’. The delirious writer can be said both to contain and to transcend hallucinatory poetics. Thus Milton’s and Teskey’s crises of creativity coincide because Milton, according to Teskey, is forced to ‘oscillate between two incompatible perspectives, at once affirming and denying the presence of spirit in what he creates’.

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