Women, Children, and the Rhetoric of Milton’s Divorce Tracts

Sara van den Berg
Saint Louis University

van den Berg, Sara. "Women, Children, and the Rhetoric of Milton’s Divorce Tracts". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004): 4.1-13<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-1/bergmilt.htm>.

  1. Milton’s divorce tracts—the two versions of Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon, and Colasterion—make the claim that marriage between unsuited or spiritually incompatible people is no marriage at all, and that in such cases both historical tradition and Biblical precept sanction divorce, “especially if there be no children, and that there be mutuall consent” (YP 2.242). The laws prohibiting divorce in all but a few cases were, he wrote, oppressive: “For no effect of tyranny can sit more heavy on the Common-wealth, then this household unhappiness on the family” (YP 2.229). Milton’s arguments were rejected by his contemporaries, and he has often accused of arguing for marital reform only because of his own unhappy marriage and separation from Mary Powell. Many commentators, most recently Annabel Patterson and Stephen Fallon, have remarked on Milton’s thinly-veiled autobiographical vignettes in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (Patterson, 1990; Fallon, 2000). Few readers, however, have commented on Milton’s use of metaphors, especially those of motherhood and childhood. It is only in Colasterion that he adopts vituperative rhetoric, using the negative metaphor of “childishness” and grotesque images of the body to mock his anonymous critic. In this essay, I want to propose that vignette, metaphor, and vituperation are three related rhetorical strategies in Milton’s divorce tracts, and that together these strategies augment his rational argument with indirect and direct passionate feeling about women and children at a time when, separated from Mary Powell, he had to contemplate remaining childless. Although Milton’s overt argument emphasizes that companionship, peace and solace are the goals of marriage, with “generation . . . but a secondary end in dignity, though not in necessitie” (YP 2.235), he returns to the question of children throughout his tracts, both in pragmatic terms and in metaphors.

  2. There are several well-known vignettes of unhappy marriage in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.  Near the beginning of his tract, Milton summarizes marital unhappiness this way:
    If any two be but once handed in the Church, and have tasted in any sort the nuptial bed, let them find themselves never so mistak’n in their dispositions through any error, concealment, or misadventure, that through their different tempers, thoughts, and constitutions, they can neither be to one another a remedy against loneliness, nor live in any union or contentment all their dayes, yet they shall…be made, spite of antipathy to fadge together, and combine as they may to their unspeakable wearisomnes and despaire.  (YP 2:235-6)
    As so often in this tract, which was written “for the good of both sexes,” Milton focuses on mutual unhappiness and mutual failure, rather than merely blaming women.  In a later vignette, more closely linked to his own relationship to Mary Powell, Milton invites sympathy more for the husband than for the wife:
    The sobrest and best govern’d men are least practiz’d in these affaires; and who knows not that the bashful muteness of a virgin may oft-times hide all the unlivelines and naturall sloth which is really unfit for conversation…[M]any whohave spent their youth chastly, are in some things not so quick-sighted, while they hast too eagerly to light the nuptiall torch. (YP 2:249)
    Two chapters later, Milton is even more hostile toward wives in describing the bitter disappointment of a man who “spent his youth unblamably, and layd up his chiefest earthly comforts in the enjoyment of a contented mariage,” only to “find himself bound fast to an uncomplying discord of nature, or, as it oft happens, to an image of earth and fleam [phlegm]” (YP 2.254).  Such a man, however virtuous, may join “the lump of men” and women who are driven to “that melancholy despair which we see in many wedded persons, though they understand it not, or pretend other causes, because they know no remedy” (YP 2.254).

  3. Milton’s marital experience underlies his reinterpretation of at least two Biblical passages, which in his telling become additional vignettes.  Early in the tract, Milton cites the story of Jephthah, who “could not but oblige his conscience to be the sacrificer, or if not, the jailor of his innocent and only daughter” (YP 2.235).  Jephthah, misunderstanding the worship of God, kills (or by some Puritan readings confines) his beloved daughter.  Milton identifies with Jephthah, not with the daughter, in privileging conscience.  Yet by arguing that Jephthah misread the Law, or rather that he mistook his own vow as the Law, Milton treats this episode as a situation in which a daughter was needlessly harmed.  The second Biblical citation, late in the tract, offers another instance of Milton’s reinterpretation of Hebrew and Covenant Law.  This instance seems more closely linked to his own marital situation, and can even be read as a kind of defense of Mary Powell.  In arguing that “fornication” can mean something other than physical infidelity, Milton cites an incident that calls to mind Mary Powell’s return to her father’s house.  The passage is taken from the Book of Judges, “where the Levites wife is said to have plaid the whoor against him; which Josephus and the Septuagint, with the Chaldean, interpret onely of stubbornesse and rebellion against her husband…And this I shall contribute, that had it been whoordom, she would have chosen any other place to run to, then to her fathers house, it being so infamous for an Hebrew woman to play the harlot, and so opprobrious to the parents” (YP 2.337).  Milton goes on to cite John 8:3-11, in which “our Saviour chose to use the word fornication, which word is found to signify other matrimonial transgressions. . .besides actual adultery” (YP 2.337).  By interpreting the word “fornication” in the largest sense, Milton tries to argue that the grounds of divorce should be expanded to include more than physical infidelity.  In personal terms, Milton’s expanded definition of fornication would seem to set up desertion as grounds for divorce.  He is not so much defending Mary Powell, then, but rather finding a way to label her behavior.

  4. Milton’s personal circumstances may color these vignettes and Biblical interpretations, but are subordinate to his rational argument about general circumstances and the Law.  I want to suggest that the metaphoric register of the text conveys a deeper sense of his pain and disappointment.  The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce is saturated with metaphorical references to women’s behavior, be it motherhood or prostitution.  These references, I submit, set up a negative and positive grid designed as an emotional substratum of Milton’s argument.  We read of “the teeming womb of Truth”, on the one hand, and Error as a Spenserian monstrous mother on the other  (YP 2.224).  Custom, like Error, is a bad mother, nursing society (her young) with the bad milk of cultural junk food, “easie. . .to take and swallow down at pleasure; which proving but of bad nourishment in the concoction, as it was heedlesse in the devouring, puffs up unhealthily, a certain big face of pretended learning” (YP 2.222-3).  Such men are “the brood of Belial, the draffe of men,” who will learn to their sorrow, he thunders, “that honest liberty is the greatest foe to dishonest license” (YP 2.225).

  5. Against Custom and Error Milton sets Truth and her teeming womb of ideas, but he gives her a problematic history:
    Though this ill hap wait on her nativity, that shee never comes into the world, but like a Bastard, to the ignominy of him that brought her forth: till Time the Midwife rather then the mother of Truth, have washt and salted the Infant, declar’d her legitimat, and Churcht the father of his young Minerva, from the needlesse causes of his purgation. (YP 2.225)
    Truth is the child of a single speaker, and can therefore be called “bastard.”  Later in the tract, Milton returns to this image of Truth as a bastard:
    [M]any truths now of reverend esteem and credit, had their birth and beginning once from singular and private thoughts. . . yet Truth in some age or other will find her witness, and shall be justify’d at last by her own children” (YP 2.241).
    Milton seems to admit that his argument originated in his own circumstances, but that Time will wash and salt his Truth, purifying it of contaminating self-interest. Milton, like Zeus to Minerva, serves as mother/father of Truth—a mixing of gender that Stephen Fallon finds so common in Milton as to be a kind of marker of his thought (Fallon, 224). Milton sets the metaphor of Truth in the context of England, figured as good mother “teaching nations how to live” (YP 2.232), and the English language, figured as child of Truth. He will end his tract, however, with a metaphor of his world as a fallen woman, isolating himself like a prophet who condemns “the prostitute loosenes of the times” (YP 2.355). Most important is the chain of parents and children that Milton sets up in his metaphorical narrative of Truth. Although one goal of his tract is to argue that the purpose of marriage is not procreation but mutual companionship, the fantasy of being “justify’d at last” by one’s children suggests that Milton understood at least one of the common motives for wanting children.  

  6. In The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, he turns from metaphor to direct reference when he concludes that divorce should be a private act, requiring only that a husband avow that continuing the marriage would not serve “the good of husband, wife, or childern” (YP 2.353).  In Chapter XIX, he argues that a discreet divorce is preferable to a public proceeding for an honorable woman, so long as she is “not illiberally dealt with” (YP 2.348).  He then offers this summary of her interests: “[F]or if she consent, wherin has the law to right her?  or consent not, then is it either just and so deserv’d, or if unjust, such in all likelihood was the divorcer, and to part from an unjust man is a happiness, & no injury to be lamented” (YP 2.349).  Because Milton was arguing for divorce with the right to remarry, he looks forward as well, arguing for the rights and status of subsequent children:
    [A]nd why should we not think them more holy then the offspring of a former ill-twisted wedlock, begott’n only out of a bestiall necessitie without any true love or contentment, or joy to their parents, so that in some sense we may call them the Childern of Wrath and anguish, which will as little conduce to the sanctifying as if they had been bastards (YP 2.259-60)
    As the offspring of marriage, children should properly be the sign of its Truth.  The children of an unhappy marriage are the sign rather of its falsity.

  7. In Tetrachordon, Milton is not concerned with metaphors and signs but solely with the real circumstances of people who are governed by Biblical precept.  He abandons metaphor in order to gloss the Biblical texts that were foundational to Jewish and Christian marital law.  He glosses Genesis 1.28 early in Tetrachordon, arguing that “the desire of children is honest and pious . . . which desire perhaps was a cause why the Jews hardly could endure a barren wedlock” (YP 2.593).  Indeed, he sympathizes with the plight of childless men of affairs:
    But to dismisse a wife only for barrenness, is hard: and yet in som the desire of children is so great, and so just, yea somtime so necessary, that to condemn such a one to a childless age, the fault apparently not being in him, might seem perhaps more strict then needed (YP 2.594)
    Milton took care for the children of a first marriage.  Indeed, in Tetrachordon, and even in The Judgment of Martin Bucer, he tries to defend their interests.  When there are children, he argues, an unhappy marriage does special harm.  The evil of an unhappy marriage “unavoidably will redound upon the children”: “It degenerates and disorders the best spirits, leaves them to unsettl’d imaginations, and degraded hopes, careless of themselves” (YP 2.632).  Glossing Deuteronomy 24.1-2, the Hebrew law of divorce, Milton asks “what love can ther bee to the unfortunat issue” of a “house of wrath”:
    God therefore knowing how unhappy it would bee for children to bee born in such a family, gives this Law either as a prevention, that being an unhappy pair, they should not adde to bee unhappy parents, or els as a remedy that if ther be children, while they are fewest, they may follow either parent, as shall bee agreed, or judg’d, from the house of hatred and discord, to a place of more holy and peaceable education” (YP 2.631).
    Later, glossing 1 Corinthian 7 and the Pauline prohibition of divorce, Milton takes up the issue of mixed marriages, when only one partner is Christian.  In such cases, Milton contends that the Bible commands divorce to prevent “an irreligious seducement, fear’d both in respect of the beleever himselfe, and of his children in danger to bee perverted by the misbelieving parent” (YP 2.681).

  8. If the children themselves pose a threat to the Christian husband, Milton argues, citing Luke 14, they must be hated and forsaken (YP 2.682).  He admits that Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians holds a contrary view—“The unbelieving husband is sanctifi’d by the wife, and the unbelieving wife, is sanctifi’d by the husband, else were your children uncleane; but now they are holy”—but notes that even Paul offers an out: “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace” (YP 2.687-88).  God intends peace, not wrath, in or out of marriage.  Finally, Milton cites the early Christian policies of Theodosius and Valentinian, who held that “a divorce mutually consented, might bee suffer’d by the law, especially if there were no children, or if there were, carefull provision was made” (YP 2.700).

  9. In Tetrachordon, as Stephen Fallon remarks, Milton veers away from his evenhanded concern for both parties and more frequently asserts the interest of the wronged and faultless husband (Fallon, 230).  I would note, in addition, that Milton casts off metaphor in favor of ever more direct comments about families.  His argument is no longer legal but Biblical, and rests on a reinterpretation of the foundational texts of Judaeo-Christian marital law.  He repeatedly insists that wrath is the hallmark of an unhappy marriage, but his own rhetoric is temperate and dispassionate, sympathetic to the plight of husbands and wives.

  10. Milton’s own wrath explodes in Colasterion, a tract directed not at women but at the anonymous author who dared attack The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce by appealing to “Ladies and Gentlewomen, and all other Maried Women” in An Answer to a book entituled the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Replying to the male author, Milton lets loose in self-righteous rage, defending himself against the charge that he wrote against wives and for husbands. However, in this tract he is more critical of women than in his earlier work on divorce. I want to suggest that he displaces onto his anonymous antagonist the wrath he felt toward the failure of his own marriage and toward Mary Powell. It is only in Colasterion that Milton insists on the responsibility of a woman to be “a wife in som reasonable measure, willing, and sufficient to perform the chief duties of her Covnant” (YP 2.734). He further insists on the reasonableness of his expectations, mocking the accusation that he would have men abandon pregnant women and leave them portionless (YP 2.734). For the first time, he indulges in vituperation, but his cascade of hostile adjectives and name-calling is always directed toward his antagonist, a man stupid, ignorant, willful, and—in a loaded term—“childish” (YP 2.730).

  11. A bad argument is like a bad marriage, marked by rage, perturbation, bewilderment, and stubbornness.  Colasterion is such a bad argument: Milton indulges in ad hominem attacks, answers ridicule with ridicule, condescends to his opponent, and mocks his argumentation as “silly conjectures” (YP 2.751) and his language as barbarous, “jabberment,” and “the noysom stench of his rude slot” (YP 2.751).  Throughout The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Milton argued that good doctrine subordinates the body to the mind; he rejected Church regulation of marriage because it was grounded in the needs and regulations of bodily desire, rather than in spiritual mutuality.  In Colasterion, a grotesque rhetoric of the body erupts in metaphors of vituperation.  A bad argument, like a bad marriage, gives grotesque prominence to the body.

  12. Earlier in the divorce tracts, Milton argued that men needed men for intellectual companionship, but women for another kind of companionship, an intimacy free from constant competition and challenge.  When Milton rejects the author of Colasterion as a “mongrel” combination of Servingman and Solicitor, he enacts a kind of rhetorical divorce.  At the end of the tract, he wants to find a better antagonist, just as in arguing for divorce he wanted to be free to find a better wife.  A better antagonist, like a better wife, will find Milton a better man:

    [I]f any man equal to the matter shall think it appertains him to take in hand this controversy…let him not, I entreate him, guess by the handling, which meritoriously hath bin bestowd on this object of contempt and laughter, that I account it any displeasure don mee to bee contradicted in Print: but as it leads to the attainment of any thing more true, shall esteem it a benefit; and shall know how to return his civility and faire Argument in such a sort, as hee shall confess that to doe so is my choise, and to have don thus was my chance (YP 2.758).

  13. The mutual “civility” Milton preferred in argument he also sought in marriage. The rhetorical strategies of vignette, metaphor and vituperation in his divorce tracts express the hope and desire that motivate a marriage, and the shock, sorrow, and rage that mark its failure. Without these augmentations, Milton would have left us with no sense of why his rational argument for marital reform really matters to him, and to all parents and children.

This essay forms part of the introduction to Milton's Divorce Tracts: Texts and Contexts, ed. Sara van den Berg and W. Scott Howard (forthcoming, Duquesne University Press).


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).