John Milton: Poet, Priest and Prophet
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 Milton's decision to become a poet is frequently assumed to have been connected with his resolve to abandon a career in the church. According to H.F. Fletcher, it was sometime in 1627-8 when "Milton decided not to become the priest that his parents and friends had intended him to become by going to Cambridge, but to turn toward letters, polite letters, as a definite career". A.S.P. Woodhouse puts the moment of choice in 1632 on the threshold of Milton's retirement to Hammersmith and locates the central statement of his resolve in Sonnet 7; and John T. Shawcross believes the decision between the pulpit and poetry to have been deferred until the autumn of 1637.1 Despite their differences, each of these readers would agree that the determination to serve God through poetry either involved or was fixed by his decision to relinquish holy orders. According to this view, Milton is seen as standing at a fork in the vocational road where the choice of one career implies the rejection of the other. However, although evidence is meagre, there are compelling reasons for thinking that there is no significant connection between Milton's decision to become a poet and his decision to abandon a career in the church. Indeed, once the notion of vocational tension and its corollary of an enforced choice is discarded, a revaluation of the evidence leads to important conclusions about Milton's early development.
It was to the service of the English church, Milton declared in 1642, that "by the intentions of my parents and friends I was destin'd of a child, and in mine own resolutions" (YP, I, p. 822). There can be no doubt that he went up to Cambridge in 1625 expressly for the purpose of preparing himself for orders in the Church of England; but there is no necessary reason to suppose (as Haller does )2 that he intended to join the spiritual brotherhood of Puritan divines working for further reform within the ecclesiastical establishment. It is equally clear from At a Vacation Exercise (1628), however, that at about this same time or shortly thereafter he began to harbour serious poetic aspirations. There is, of course,  no conflict here. Numerous contemporary clerics wrote poetry and gained reputations in both employments: Giles and Phineas Fletcher, John Donne and George Herbert, to mention only four of the more prominent figures. Moreover, although an allegiance to Ovid and the classical elegists influenced much of his early verse, Milton knew that literature could serve as an extension of the ministerial office; as he was to put it later, poetic ability is "of power beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of vertu, and publick cavility" (YP, I, p. 816). The decision to become a poet, like that to become a minister of the Word, was taken early; and the vocational streams issuing from these twin resolves run parallel and are of equal strength until at least 1637 when he composed Lycidas. I shall reserve discussion of Milton's sense of poetic vocation for the following chapter and turn now to a closer examination of his proposed career in the church.
Normal procedure for intending ordinands in the Jacobean and Caroline church, and the necessary qualifications for church careers, were established in Articles 34 and 35 of the 1604 canons. Article 34 reads, in part: "No bishop shall henceforth admit any person into sacred orders, which is not of his own diocese, except he be . . . of one of the universities of this realm . . . ; and desiring to be a deacon is three and twenty years old, and to be a priest four and twenty years complete; and hath taken some degree of school in either of the said universities . . . ."3 Oxford and Cambridge in the early seventeenth century functioned pre-eminently as seminaries of the Church of England; indeed, F. W. B. Bullock notes that between 1617 and 1637 "the average annual number of those proceeding to the B.A. degree at Cambridge was 266 and the average number of Cambridge graduates ordained about 207 per annum, so that roughly 78 per cent were ordained".4 Destined for the priesthood, then, Milton went up to the university to obtain those formal qualifications which would constitute an essential part of his preparation for holy orders. Admitted to Christ's College, Cambridge, in February 1625 (barely two months after his sixteenth birthday) and matriculating on 9 April, he faced seven years of study before he could be admitted to the diaconate and eight before he could become a priest. Under Article 34 he was ineligible for the priesthood until he had reached his twenty-fourth birthday on 9 December 1632. Both Milton and his family no doubt planned, therefore, that he should take the four-year programme of studies leading to the B.A. degree, and  then, since he would still be too young in 1629 for the priesthood, that he should undertake a further three years of study culminating in the M.A. degree. Since he could expect to proceed to the M.A. in mid-1632, he would have only a few months after graduation to wait until he was old enough, in December, to enter the priesthood. But he might also, either with or without ordination, elect to remain at the university after graduation and read for the Bachelor of Divinity or one of the higher degrees.5
Neither in 1632 nor later, however, did Milton enter holy orders. And, while there is unanimous agreement among later commentators that Milton's initial plan was to become a minister, there is no consensus as to when or why this plan was abandoned. Milton himself, it must be said, is far from helpful in providing a solution. Apart from a letter of 1633 (the meaning and intention of which are widely disputed) and some brief remarks in the preface to Book Two of The Reason of Church-Government, he has nothing to say in a direct and personal way about his plans for a career in the church. The passage in The Reason of Church-Government is certainly the most important piece of evidence we possess on this question, for it is the only place in his writings where Milton states directly his reasons for rejecting a clerical vocation. For this reason, it will be well to have the passage (YP, I, pp. 822-3) before us from the beginning:
But were it the meanest under-service, if God by his Secretary conscience injoin it, it were sad for me if I should draw back, for me especially, now when all men offer their aid to help ease and lighten the difficult labours of the Church, to whose service by the intentions of my parents and friends I was destin'd of a child, and in mine own resolutions, till coming to some maturity of yeers and perceaving what tyranny had invaded the Church, that he who would take Orders must subscribe slave, and take an oath withall, which unlesse he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either strait perjure, or split his faith, I thought it better to preferre a blamelesse silence before the sacred office of speaking bought, and begun with servitude and forswearing. Howsoever thus Church-outed by the Prelats, hence may appear the right I have to meddle in these matters, as before, the necessity and constraint appear'd.
From a vocational viewpoint this passage is of paramount importance for two reasons. First, it provides a clear and  straightforward explanation of Milton's decision to forgo holy orders. He did not leave the church willingly; indeed, he asserts with some acerbity that he was "Church-outed". The decision was forced upon him by prelatical tyranny, and especially by an oath in which that tyranny manifested itself most oppressively. There is no hint of vocational tension between poetry and the pulpit, nothing to suggest that his decision to renounce a career in the church was in any way prompted by or connected with a preference for poetry. It is true that the passage raises important questions and that its terms are less precise than one might wish. What is the oath to which Milton refers? What does the phrase "till coming to some maturity of yeers" mean? I shall return to these questions later; for the moment, it is enough to notice that Milton states categorically that he was forced to abandon a church career as a result of ecclesiastical tyranny and an unspecified oath.
Second, the evidence of this passage lays claim to special consideration because it is unique. Nowhere else, in verse or in prose, did Milton think it necessary either to retract or qualify the vocational statement in The Reason of Church-Government. It seems clear, then, that we should take him at his word. There is no alternative but to accept the explanation given in The Reason of Church-Government for his decision to reject a career in the church. But this has not been the case. On the contrary, later readers have largely ignored the passage or attempted to explain it away; and they have usually done so because its vocational statement does not accord with the critical preconception (which can be supported only circumstantially) that Milton gave up a church career because he wished to devote himself to poetry.
H. F. Fletcher, for example, who assumes a choice between poetry and the pulpit to have been made in 1627-8, argues that "after this junior year at Cambridge with its large amount of much admired verse, shown to Diodati, colleagues, parents, friends, and probably many others, it would scarcely have been possible for Milton to think seriously any longer of entering the Anglican priesthood".6 The only internal authorities to which Fletcher appeals are Prolusion 7 and a passage in Elegy 6 (lines 55 ff ) which, if taken together, "supplement each other in pointing to a decision made about 1627 or 1628".7 The argument is not convincing. The careers of men like Donne, Herbert and Herrick make it clear that there is no necessary vocational tension between poetry and the priesthood, and there is no evidence to show that Milton ever  considered them to be incompatible; indeed both Prolusion 7 and Elegy 6 indicate that the highest sorts of poetry function ideally as adjuncts to the ministerial office. Moreover, because Prolusion 7 and Elegy 6 treat literature as a vehicle of continuing revelation and do so without reference to any plans for a church career can provide no basis for arguing (as Fletcher does) that Milton has abandoned the priesthood in favour of poetry. The simple truth is that these two works are concerned with literature, not with the ministry; and that a prospective clergyman should decide to consecrate his creative talents to God's service is surely an action so straightforward as to preclude the necessity of ingenious explanation. Furthermore, while Fletcher rests his case on the supposedly enthusiastic reception of Milton's early verse by parents and friends, there is no record whatsoever of the accolades which he imagines; and Milton himself disparaged his early poetry, dismissing the verses composed in the years 1628-9 as "some trifles" (YP, I, p. 809) and describing the early poems in general as tenues sonos, "trivial songs" (Ad Patrem, 4). Finally, Fletcher points out that in 1627-8 there were no "vital differences between Milton's ecclesiastical position and what he found in the Anglican Church. Such differences did not bother him much before the middle 1630s and even later".8 But Milton explicitly declares in The Reason of Church-Government that he was "Church-outed", that the decision to abandon orders was occasioned by a serious rift between his views and those of the hierarchy of the established church.
While I firmly endorse Fletcher's view of Milton's Anglican orthodoxy in the years before 1630, not all recent commentators are willing to do so. Some readers--notably E. M. W. Tillyard--believe that Milton's Puritan sympathies were militant enough to force a rupture with the established church before he left Cambridge, for on 2 July 1628 Milton wrote to his friend Alexander Gill in these terms (YP, I, p. 314):
There is really hardly anyone among us, as far as I know, who, almost completely unskilled and unlearned in Philology and Philosophy alike, does not flutter off to Theology unfledged, quite content to touch that also most lightly, learning barely enough for sticking together a short harangue by any method whatever and patching it with worn-out pieces from various sources--a practice carried far enough to make one fear that  the priestly Ignorance of a former age may gradually attack our Clergy.
On the basis of these remarks Tillyard thinks it probable that "Milton had already abandoned the idea of taking Orders".9 But surely there is nothing in the passage itself to indicate that he has given up a church career or even that he has contemplated it. That the letter voices disillusionment is beyond dispute; but precisely what is the source of discontent? Not the church--unless Milton is being disingenuous, and there is no reason to suppose that he is. His dissatisfaction is with the university and, as in Prolusion 3, he is deploring the sterile scholastic methodology on which the educational system at Cambridge was grounded. If there were to remain any truth in the phrase stupor mundi clerus Anglicanus, then intending priests would have to be more thoroughly and conscientiously prepared for their sacred calling.
William Haller favours 1632 as the year in which Milton renounced his plan to enter the church. As support for this date Haller appeals to the well-known passage (YP, I, p. 884) in the Apology for Smectymnuus where Milton, speaking of his departure from Cambridge, takes the occasion
to acknowledge publickly with all gratefull minde, that more than ordinary favour and respect which I found above any of my equals at the hands of those curteous and learned men, the Fellowes of that Colledge wherein I spent some yeares: who at my parting, after I had taken two degrees, as the manner is, signifi'd many wayes, how much better it would content them that I would stay; as by many Letters full of kindnesse and loving respect both before that time, and long after I was assur'd of their singular good affection towards me.
Haller concludes: "Milton's abandonment of the career in the church for which he had been so carefully educated was definitely signified by his declining the invitation which, he says, was offered him by the fellows to remain at Christ's."10 Four brief points may be made in reply. First, Milton says nothing in the Apology about abandoning a career in the church; indeed, in the passage in question he says nothing about the church at all. Second, there is no connection, either necessary or implied, between the decision to leave the university and that to leave the church. As a Master of  Arts Milton was more than adequately qualified as a candidate for orders. Moreover, it was only in exceptional circumstances--as, for example, when a fellowship was vacant--that a student would remain at the university after taking the M.A. degree. Third, Haller's word "invitation" is misleading: there is no suggestion in the Apology that Milton was formally invited to stay on at Christ's; rather, he was "encouraged" to continue his studies (doubtless at his own expense), and his tutors expressed understandable regret at losing the company of so able a student and friend.11 Fourth, if by the word "invitation" Haller is implying that Milton may have been offered a fellowship, that possibility is erased both by the college statutes and by the fact that in 1632 there were no vacant fellowships at Christ's.12
A more convincing argument for assigning to 1632 Milton's decision to abandon holy orders is advanced by A.S.P. Woodhouse:
Exactly when Milton's resolve was taken to forgo holy orders and devote himself to poetry alone, we cannot with certainty determine. But three convincing factors, it is reasonable to suppose, entered into it--his sense that in the circumstances service in the church was ineligible, the realization that his talents warranted his devoting of himself to poetry, and a religious experience whose ultimate result was to transfer to the chosen medium all the sense of "calling" that had attached to the ministry, and more. Nor are we without strong indication of the probable date. His quitting Cambridge, in the summer of 1632, would precipitate a decision. This was followed by five months given, it would seem, to silent self-examination, whose outcome was the sonnet, How soon hath Time (December 1632) . . . .13
In December 1629, some eight months after the composition of the delightfully "pagan" Elegy 5, Milton brought the first stage of his literary apprenticeship to an end and, for the first time, he imposed a firm sense of direction on his poetic career. Henceforth, he asserted in Elegy 6, he would dedicate his poetic talent to the service of God, and he offered the Nativity Ode as the first pledge of that resolve. As Woodhouse has demonstrated, however, Milton more than once relapsed in 1630-1 into the secular and erotic veins that he had determined in December of 1629 to eschew.14 And therefore, "vastly important as is the experience recorded in  the Nativity, it is not final" but "requires for its completion another experience".15 Woodhouse locates the record of that completing experience in Sonnet 7:
On the threshold of the [Hammersmith] period Milton's act of self-dedication required to be renewed, as it was in Sonnet 7. From the determination there taken, to live and write hereafter "As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye", there is no retreat: it leaves its mark on the whole of Milton's subsequent career . . . . [Thus,] if the December of 1629 sees a first decision and resolve, that of 1632 sees its final and irrevocable confirmation.16
From the evidence of Sonnet 7 and Milton's "Letter to a Friend" (1633), Woodhouse draws two conclusions: (i) shortly after his arrival at Hammersmith in late 1632 Milton rededicated his poetic talents to God's service and resolved to become a religious poet, and (2) his decision to become a poet implied his abandonment of a clerical vocation. Compelling as this argument is at first sight, it can, I believe, on closer examination be shown to be mistaken, for neither the sonnet nor the letter will bear the weight of Woodhouse's assertions.
Sonnet 7, which antedates the letter by some months, may be quoted in full (Honigmann's text):
- How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth,
- Stoln on his wing my three and twentith yeer!
- My hasting dayes flie on with full career,
- But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th.
- Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth,
- That I to manhood am arriv'd so near,
- And inward ripenes doth much less appear,
- That som more timely-happy spirits indu'th.
- Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
- It shall be still in strictest measure eev'n,
- To that same lot, however, mean, or high,
- Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n;
- All is, if I have grace to use it so,
- As ever in my great task-Masters eye.
That these lines enshrine an act of conscious self-dedication to God's service is clear enough. But to what service does the  dedication apply? Milton does not say. He merely laments that, unlike many young men of comparable age, he has not yet attained "inward ripenes" that is, the intellectual and spiritual maturity necessary for the career he proposes to follow. (Notice the pun on "career" in line 3.) However, the uncertainty and insecurity of the octave give way in the sestet to assurance and security: he is in God's hand. But the poem provides no indication of where the divine hand is directing him; indeed, there is no clear vocational statement in the lines at all. Rather, Milton senses himself led toward an unspecified "lot" which, "however mean, or high" (again inconclusive and vague), has been determined for him by Providence. If God will grant him grace to conform to his destiny, then (he recognises) he will eventually be confirmed in this unnamed vocation by Time--the "suttle theef of youth" is now the precondition of vocational preparedness.
Since the sonnet itself specifies no particular career, any interpretation of it which sees the inward promptings as directing Milton exclusively towards a poetical vocation must be seen to have imposed that meaning on the lines. And might not "the will of Heav'n" sanction both poetry and preaching? Since Milton had long planned to be both a poet and a priest, this is surely the logical inference; and it is also a conclusion supported by Milton's conviction, articulated as early as Elegy 6 and Prolusion 7, that the ethical and spiritual functions and aims of the two offices overlap. Moreover, there is nothing in Sonnet 7 to suggest that Milton has decided against a church career. Unlike Elegy 6, with its determination to eschew "light elegy", Sonnet 7 rejects nothing; the only decision made in the sonnet is the positive one to follow the promptings of God's will, wherever they may lead him. Although the vocational frame of reference in Sonnet 7 could encompass both the priesthood and poetry, there is one consideration which strongly suggests that the main subject of the poem is the calling to the ministry. Milton's spiritual stock-taking and the rededication of himself to God's service in Sonnet 7 were occasioned by a particular circumstance, for the. poem commemorates his twenty-fourth birthday, which fell on 9 December 1632.17 No doubt it was composed within a few days of this date. Poetically, this event would seem to have no significance whatever; but in terms of the church career for which his university education has been a long and expensive preparation, this birthday was of great importance. Under the provisions of Article 34 in  the 1604 canons, Milton was finally eligible to enter the priesthood. But he did not proceed to orders. Instead, he wrote a sonnet explaining to himself and perhaps to his parents as well his reason for postponing ordination. Despite his physical maturity, he asserted, there was still wanting the full spiritual and intellectual maturity that must precede the commitment of one's life to the formal service of God. Time and Providence direct him still toward "that same lot" (namely, the ministry) to which his talents have been consecrated from childhood; and, until such time as "inward ripenes" is fully and finally achieved, he prays for the sustaining grace to live and work "As ever in my great task-Masters eye".
How, then, should we interpret the experience recorded in Sonnet 7? There are, I think, two separate answers. Poetically, Milton is dedicating himself and his creative gifts to God's service as he had done in 1629; here, however, on the threshold of his retirement at Hammersmith, he vows that there will be no backsliding (as there had been after the resolve of 1629) into purely secular and amatory verse. Vocationally, the poem enshrines an act of submission and obedience rather than an act of rejection; as such, it argues the postponement but not the abandonment of the plan to take holy orders. Time--now more a source of hope than of apprehension--promises increases of knowledge and spiritual accomplishments; and so with the assurance of divine guidance Milton settled in at Hammersmith to prepare himself, both intellectually and spiritually, to serve God from the pulpit and through poetry.
This reading of Sonnet 7 is supported by the "Letter to a Friend",18 which Milton composed in 1633 for an unknown correspondent, in order to give an account "of this my tardie moving; according to the praecept of my conscience, wch I firmely trust is not wthout god" (YP, I, p. 319). As in Sonnet 7, he justifies his study-retirement to Hammersmith and his decision to delay ordination on the grounds that he is not yet prepared, either in learning or spiritual accomplishments, to take this final step:
it is more probable therefore that not the endlesse delight of speculation but this very consideration of that great comandment* does not presse forward as soone as may be to  underg[o] but keeps off wth a sacred reverence & religious advisement how best to undergoe[,] not taking thought of beeing late so it give advantage to be more fit, for those that were latest lost nothing when the maister of the vinyard came to give each one his hire. (YP, I, p. 320)
[* The "great comandment" is that "set out by the terrible
seasing of him that hid the talent" in Matthew 25: 24-30.]
In the next sentence he excuses the length of this justification of his "tardie moving" with the witty observation, "heere I am come to a streame head copious enough to disburden it selfe like Nilus at seven mouthes into an ocean, but then I should also run into a reciprocall contradiction of ebbing & flowing at once & doe that wch I excuse myselfe for not doing[,] preach & not preach." And then at the conclusion of the letter he makes the quality of this "preaching" to his friend a further reason for his retirement to Hammersmith for continued study and preparation:
this therfore alone may be a sufficient reason for me to keepe me as I am[,] least having thus tired you singly, I should deale worse wth a whole congregation, & spoyle all the patience of a Parish. for I my selfe doe not only see my owne tediousnesse but now grow offended wth it that has hinderd [me] thus long from coming to the last & best period of my letter . . . . (YP, I, pp. 320-1)
On the strength of this letter a number of scholars,19 have argued that Milton had, by 1633, determined against a church career and instead decided to devote his talents to poetry. The letter itself, however, makes no reference to a poetic career, and this fact has led Woodhouse to claim that it is "a somewhat disingenuous document".20 But what possible reason is there to assume that Milton is being insincere? Deceit is not a Miltonic trait and, in any case, the vocational statement in the letter is clear and straightforward, "the plain implication of the language being", as J.H. Hanford has observed, "that he intends, when he is ready, to labour in the vineyard as a minister".21 The circumstances surrounding the letter's composition are not difficult to reconstruct: a friend (perhaps Thomas Young) has inquired why, being now fully qualified for the ministry, Milton is delaying ordination, and Milton replies with complete candour that the postponement of holy orders has been occasioned by his need of further study and spiritual preparation, "not taking thought of beeing late so it  give advantage to be more fit". As Parker rightly points out, the letter "implies throughout that the writer will eventually become a clergyman"--it "is not an apology for giving up the ministry; it is an apology for what has seemed to a good friend procrastination" (MB, I, p. 122).
Without some solid evidence (which neither Sonnet 7 nor the "Letter to a Friend" will provide) there is no basis from which to argue that Milton had rejected a clerical vocation before 1633. Indeed, all of the evidence we possess and all of the logical inferences which the problem would seem to admit point clearly to the conclusion that the decision was not finally taken until much later. In the first place, although it was customary for a young man to enter the church as soon as he was qualified by age and education to do so, it was not unusual for some to delay ordination, often for a number of years. George Herbert, for example, was in his mid-thirties when he formally committed his life to the church; similarly, Edward King delayed holy orders, presumably in order to prepare himself for a more effective ministry (MB, I, p. 156). Moreover, while many of his contemporaries were driven by financial considerations to embark on their careers as soon as possible, Milton was not bound by such constraints; his father, a well-to-do scrivener, was both able and willing to subsidise the further period of preparation that Milton believed necessary. In the second place, the intensive programme of reading undertaken at Hammersmith and Horton from 1632 to early 1638 argues that Milton was training himself more thoroughly for the priesthood. With the aid of the Commonplace Book (begun in 1634-5),22 it is possible to establish with some accuracy the nature and scope of these private studies; and perhaps the lost "Index Theologicus",23 if it were begun about this time, would have allowed us to supplement the outline further. From the evidence we do possess, however, one important fact about Milton's private studies emerges clearly: the reading programme, whatever its implications for a poetic preparation, was admirably suited to someone preparing himself for the ministry. Although he read Dante and Ariosto, Milton devoted most of his energies during these years to historical and patristic works.24 In a 1554 edition of Ecclesiasticae Historiae Autores he worked his way systematically through the prolix church histories of Eusebius, Socrates Scholasticus, Theodoret, and many others; at the same time he was immersed in the works of the Greek and Latin Fathers  and, in 1636, he purchased a copy of John Chrysostom's Orationes. The obvious pertinence of such a programme to one preparing for the ministry, coupled with the diligence and singlemindedness with which the studies were pursued, makes it seem certain that Milton was still planning a career in the church. In the third place, until the mid-1630s there is not the slightest indication of any dissatisfaction on Milton's part with the established church. The fact that he later became strident in dissent provides no basis for arguing, a posteriori, that his Puritanism was always uncompromising and militant; indeed, there is not even any solid evidence to confirm the usual assumption that he was a Puritan before 1637. Certainly, prior to William Laud's translation to Canterbury in 1633, there was little in the English church and nothing in Milton's writings to account for the declaration in The Reason of Church-Government that he was "Church-outed" by prelatical tyranny. The ecclesiastical climate of 1632-3 is well summarised by Parker (MB, 1, pp. 151-2):
. . . it was still possible to enter the Church of England without being a Laudian. A person of vaguely Calvinistic sentiments like [Milton] could easily have obtained a living and contrived, somehow, to avoid compliance with many of the required forms and ceremonies. He had observed his own former tutor, Thomas Young, doing just that in his ministry at Stowmarket . . . . Better still, he might have become a "lecturer", confining himself to religious teaching and performing no church rites at all. This device had been originated by Puritans, and was a congenial solution for a young man educated for the ministry but unwilling to conform to episcopal discipline.
Although Parker believes Milton's Puritan convictions in 1632 to be more deeply rooted than I would concede, we agree that "Milton left Cambridge quite amenable to the old idea of becoming a minister" (MB, I, p. 153). Whether orthodox Anglican or moderate Puritan, he settled in his father's house at Hammersmith to prepare himself for a more effective ministry, without any hint of the future rupture between his views and those of the prelatical hierarchy.
The earliest record of Milton's disapproval of the national church comes in 1637 in the passionate indictment of clerical corruption in lines 108-31 of Lycidas:
-  Last came, and last did go,
- The pilot of the Galilean lake,
- Two massy keys he bore of metals twain,
- (The golden opes, the iron shuts amain)
- He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake,
- How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
- Enow of such as for their bellies' sake,
- Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
- Of other care they little reckoning make,
- Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast,
- And shove away the worthy bidden guest;
- Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
- A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
- That to the faithful herdman's art belongs!
- What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
- And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
- Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
- The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
- But swoll'n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
- Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
- Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
- Daily devours apace, and nothing said.
- But that two-handed engine at the door,
- Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
That Milton was seriously dissatisfied with the clergy when he wrote these lines cannot be disputed. There is no more biting and heartfelt arraignment of them in English literature. But do the lines imply a dissillusionment so complete, a resentment so deep-rooted, that he determined to abandon the vocation to which he had been dedicated from childhood? Did the unsettling political and ecclesiastical events of 163725 result in so forceful an alienation from the church that further thought of the ministry was inconceivable? It is possible that they did; and John T. Shawcross argues persuasively that "sometime during the summer of 1637 Milton decided against a church career and, by the beginning of autumn, in favour of a poetic one".26 There are compelling reasons, however, for believing that such was not the case and that, on the contrary, Lycidas contains a positive statement of ministerial calling.
The assumptions that Milton had rejected the ministry by the end  of 1637 and that his Puritanism was as militant in 1637 as it was in 1642 have led, I believe, to a general misinterpretation of the lines denouncing clerical corruption in Lycidas. It is significant that the poem as a whole is concerned with both poetry and the priesthood, for Milton (like Edward King) planned to be a poet as well as a priest. Arthur Barker has argued convincingly that the structure of Lycidas is tripartite, composed of three movements which are "practically equal in length and precisely parallel in pattern". The first movement (lines 15-84), concerned with Lycidas as poet-shepherd, examines the problem of "the possible frustration of disciplined poetic ambition by early death"; the second (lines 85-131), treating his role as priest-shepherd, examines the problem of "the frustration of a sincere shepherd in a corrupt church"; and the third (lines 132-85) is an apotheosis which resolves these problems and "unites the themes of the preceding movements in the ultimate reward of the true poet-priest".27 There is no indication in the poem that Milton has decided to substitute poetry for the priesthood; indeed, the apotheosis of lines 132-85 transforms both poet and priest: Lycidas fulfills his poetic hopes by joining the celestial diapason and he fulfills his pastoral vocation by becoming a protective deity, a "genius of the shore" to guard all those "that wander in that perilous flood" (183-5). The logical inference is that Milton still plans to be both priest and poet--and that the poem's structure and thematic emphases reflect this dual ambition.
In the light of these general comments on Lycidas we can return now to St Peter's speech in lines 113-31. Three points may be made about this section. First, the passage is not (as is sometimes argued)28 a frontal attack on the prelate-ridden hierarchy of a church that has forced Milton out of holy orders. The arraignment is not particularised; it is directed at clerical depravity in general and not that of the bishops especially. In fact, the Anglican hierarchy is never mentioned in the poem, although that of Rome does not escape so easily.29 The lines quite simply show that Milton, an intending ordinand, is revolted by the rampant abuse and self-interest at all levels in the church in which he proposes to serve. They are the sentiments of a young ethical idealist deploring depravation and corruption in his chosen profession. Second, the imminence of purgation, of divine retribution in the form of a "two-handed engine" (whatever that may be), makes it clear that Milton expected the church shortly to become  a reformed and regenerate institution. Certainly, this image has more of hope than of despair in it, more to suggest a reason for embracing than for abandoning the church. Third, the fact that Milton put the speech denouncing the clergy into the mouth of St Peter, himself the first bishop and the traditional paradigm of episcopal perfection, argues strongly that in 1637 he had not yet come to that fundamental opposition to prelature that characterises the anti-prelatical tracts of 1641-2.
There is no reason to doubt that Milton was well informed concerning the religious and political divisions among his countrymen; doubtless, he was also aware of the emotional contagion bred by those issues which was sweeping London at the time.30 Except in Lycidas, however, he never mentions them; and his silence is not difficult to explain. Diligently pursuing his private studies at Horton, Milton ventured forth only on rare occasions to London or Oxford, and on those few occasions when he was lured away from the "obscurity and cramped quarters" (YP, I, p. 327) of his father's country house he was motivated only by the desire "either to purchase books or to become acquainted with some new discovery in mathematics or music" (YP, IV, i, p. 614). The Horton years (1635-8) are marked by relentless study. Apart from the revision of Comus and the composition of Lycidas, he apparently wrote no poetry; and in two letters of 1637 to Diodati he speaks only of his studies, from which he permits "scarcely anything to distract me" (YP, I, p. 323). Horton was sufficiently isolated and Milton sufficiently occupied with studies and his own plans that he remained relatively untouched, in a way that residence in the heart of London would hardly have allowed, by events that few could have foreseen would erupt in the convulsions later to rend church and state. While by no means ignorant of contemporary affairs, Milton was not sufficiently aroused by the events of 1637 to commit himself to the Puritan cause by any decisive personal action. There is no indication in Lycidas or any other of his works in this period that he felt the tension between Puritan and Anglican in so deep and personal a way that he was forced to abandon his plan for holy orders; indeed, there is nothing in his writings or biography before 1639, when news of the first Bishops' War cut short his Italian trip, to suggest that his Puritanism was militant enough to cause him to become actively involved in political or ecclesiastical controversy, and even then he waited a further two years before he finally decided (or was induced) to raise his left hand against the bishops.
If what we know or can infer about Milton's religious convictions in 1637 argues that he had not yet decided against a church career, it may be added that the same conclusion is confirmed by all that we know of his character. It seems certain that the rejection of life-long plan to take holy orders was not a step which Milton took either lightly or hastily; the decision, when it was finally and irrevocably made, was the climax of a long process of self-examination. Milton was never one to abandon any of his plans or hopes easily. Through all the vicissitudes of civil war and the Interregnum, right up to the eve of the Restoration when all hope was lost, he was to give most of his energy and all of his eyesight to the cause of liberty and the establishment of the English New Jerusalem. It is inconceivable that such a man would relinquish his plans to enter the priesthood until he were certain that there remained no possibility, from a position within the church itself, of redressing prelatical evils and effecting ecclesiastical reformation. Milton was not, by nature, a Satanic rebel seeking to overthrow a cause from without by proclaiming his non serviam and resorting to subversion and insurrection to achieve his ends. Rather, he sought always, as long as it remained possible to do so, to work for change and reformation within the framework of constituted authority. On more than one occasion over the course of his career, he had just cause to view himself in the role of an Abdiel, that faithful seraph whose steadfastness in the face of rebellion the blind poet was to have the Almighty praise in the words:
- Servant of God, well done, well hast thou fought
- The better fight, who single hast maintained
- Against revolted multitudes the cause
- Of truth, in word mightier than they in arms;
- And for the testimony of truth hast borne
- Universal reproach, far worse to bear
- Than violence: for this was all thy care
- To stand approved in sight of God, though worlds
- Judged thee perverse. (PL, VI, 29-37)
Given Milton's firmness of character, his immersion in his studies, and even Lycidas itself, there is no evidence to suggest that he had abandoned a calling within the church in 1637.
 The significance of the condemnation of the church in Lycidas is that for the first time Milton aligns himself with the Puritan faction. It is often thought that such an allegiance has been implicit from the beginning of Milton's career--as, for example, in his choice of "Puritan" Cambridge over "Anglican" Oxford--but claims like this will not bear examination.31 He may have had Puritan leanings for some years, but these required time to mature. Nevertheless, Lycidas is the first statement, public or private, of Puritan sympathies; and this declaration of religious allegiance would not have precluded a plan to work for reform, as many moderate Puritans were still doing in 1637, from a position within the Church of England. The anticlerical passage in Lycidas, then, should be regarded more as a "position paper" than a religious manifesto whose claims were intended to issue in immediate action. Like the experience which led, in 1629, to an act of poetic self-dedication in Elegy 6 and the Nativity Ode, the dedication to the Puritan cause needed time to develop. And, as the decision of 1629 was reaffirmed three years later in Sonnet 7 and the original resolve made firm and final, so also the determination of 1637 (toward which he may have been moving for some time but did not articulate until Lycidas) was not completed until it was reconfirmed in the early 1640s, when a pledge to the Presbyterian cause achieved fruition in the antiprelatical tracts of 1641-2.
In April or May 1638, some six months after composing Lycidas, Milton set off on a trip to the Continent. The experience of fifteen months abroad, months spent almost entirely in Catholic Italy, was to prove crucial, for it deepened Milton's Puritanism and, in proportion, doubtless increased any uneasiness he may have had about a career in the English church. Although he had determined while in Italy not to "begin a conversation about religion, but if questioned about my faith [to] hide nothing, whatever the consequences" (YP, IV, i. p. 619), he did not hesitate to express his beliefs freely--so freely, in fact, that he seems to have been somewhat of an embarrassment to his Italian hosts. At Naples, for example, the affable Giovanni Battista Manso "gravely apologized" that, "even though he had especially wished to show me many more attractions, he could not do so in that city, since I was unwilling to be more circumspect in relation to religion" (YP, IV, i, p. 618); and Manso presented his outspoken English friend with a complimentary, but pointed, Latin distich:
-  Ut mens, forma, decor, mos, si pietas sic,
- Non Anglus, verum herculè Angelus ipse fores.32
Milton's unwelcome harangues earned him a certain notoriety among the Italians, and his reputation followed him down the peninsula. While still at Naples he learned from merchants "of plots laid against me by the English Jesuits, should I return to Rome" (YP, IV, i, p. 619). But the rumours did not prevent his going back--nor did they silence him once he had arrived, for he later wrote of his return trip to the Eternal City: "For almost two more months, in the very stronghold of the Pope, if anyone attacked the orthodox religion, I openly, as before, defended it." (YP, IV, i, p. 619) Such head-on confrontations over theology no doubt taught Milton much about himself and his faith, giving his Puritan sentiments ample opportunity for pointed development and entrenchment. In Italy he would quickly have been made aware, in a way scarcely possible from the books at Horton, of the ideological gulf between Protestant and Catholic, and he must at the same time have come to appreciate, both doctrinally and emotionally, the charge that Laud was moving the English church toward Papism. Any doubts he may have entertained about a career in the Laudian church can only have been heightened by his contact with Catholicism in Italy.
It was probably the first Bishops' War (March 1639) which caused Milton to cancel a visit to Sicily and Greece, and to return to England: ". . . the sad tidings of civil war from England summoned me back. For I thought it base that I should travel abroad at my ease for the cultivation of my mind, while my fellow-citizens at home were fighting for their liberty." (YP, IV, i, p. 619) But he did not hurry home. Returning to England by land through Switzerland, he stopped to visit Giovanni Diodati, the eminent professor of theology at Geneva and the uncle of Milton's friend Charles Diodati,33 and did not finally reach London until August or September 1639. Although he has more than once been criticised for the leisurely pace at which he answered the summons of his countrymen fighting for their liberty, his account in the Defensio Secunda needs little justification. The statement quoted above occurs in a passage where Milton is defending his personal integrity against trumped-up charges; and this fact, combined with the fifteen years of polemical warfare in defence of  Christian liberty which separate the events themselves from their description in the Defensio Secunda, have doubtless led him to overstate the cause as it then affected him. The Bishops' Wars were the unhappy result of Laud's effort to impose episcopacy and a Prayer Book discipline on Presbyterian Scotland. The conflict must have seemed remote to Milton, who up to that time had shown little interest in politics; moreover, although Italy intensified his Puritanism, there is no evidence to indicate that he was a committed Presbyterian in 1639. Probably feeling that he had little to contribute, and perhaps himself undecided between the rival claims of Anglican and Presbyterian, he nonetheless thought it best to return home, in case he could be of help.
Once back in England he took quarters in St Bride's Churchyard near Fleet Street, "and there, blissfully enough, devoted myself to my interrupted studies, willingly leaving the outcome of these events [the second Bishops' War of August-September 1640], first of all to God, and then to those whom the people had entrusted with this office" (YP, IV, i, p. 621). In other words, he kept out of the political arena and resumed the programme of studies begun at Hammersmith in 1632; he also, although he does not mention it in the Defensio Secunda, undertook at this time the education of his nephews John and Edward Phillips. There is nothing inexplicable or surprising in this behaviour--unless one clings to the assumption that Milton had been a firmly committed Puritan from 1637 or even earlier.
When Milton returned from his continental tour in the late summer of 1639, many things had changed. He had left England as a moderate Puritan, perhaps with some doubts about his proposed church career; he returned with both his Puritan sympathies and his vocational doubts intensified by experience abroad. At home, meanwhile, the political and ecclesiastical climate had altered dramatically during his fifteen months' absence. Tensions between Puritan and Anglican, serious enough in 1637-8, were nearing the breaking-point by the end of 1639. But it was to be the year 1640 that was decisive--the year in which the fates of Laud, Strafford, and ultimately Charles himself were sealed. In April 1640 Charles was constrained to call Parliament in order to raise money to subdue the rebellious Scots. The Short Parliament, assembled with the Convocation of Canterbury, met on 13 April, but in the hope of obtaining a peace with Scotland refused to vote the king taxes and so was promptly dissolved on 5 May.  Under Laud's supervision, however, Convocation continued in session after the dissolution. As well as voting Charles the taxes he wanted, Convocation took the opportunity provided by this illegal session to pass the Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiasticall, an elaborate defence of the doctrine and discipline of the Laudian church. While the Canons contained much that was controversial, nothing aroused Puritan ire so much as the notorious "Et Cetera" oath in Article VI--an oath to be imposed on the entire English clergy whereby each priest would swear never to consent to the alteration of "the Government of this Church, by Arch-bishops, Bishops, Deanes, and Arch-deacons, &c. as it stands now established, and as by right it ought to stand".34
After the promulgation of Laud's Canons in June 1640, events moved forward swiftly. In September the second Bishops' War ended in defeat and the humiliating Treaty of Ripon by which Charles was obliged to pay the Scots in excess of 20,000 pounds a month until their claims were settled by further negotiation. The successes in arms of their Scottish co-religionists, coupled with the passion aroused by the Laudian Canons, made English Presbyterians more hopeful and more vocal. The king's chronic insolvency forced him to recall parliament later that autumn, and the members of the Long Parliament that assembled on 3 November lost no time in discomfiting Charles by attacking his counsellors and bishops. Strafford was impeached and high treason proceedings against him, initiated by Pym in the Commons on 11 November, passed to the Lords on 24 November. On 11 December the celebrated London Petition demanding the abolition of episcopal government "with all its dependences, rootes and branches" was delivered to the Commons on behalf of the 13,000 Londoners who had signed it. Four days later Laud's Canons were declared void and on 18 December Laud himself was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower. For Charles and his ministers the beginning of the end had passed swiftly.
During these exciting months of 1640 Milton was living in the heart of London. No longer sequestered with his books in the peaceful house at Horton, he was caught in the tumultuous current sweeping the nation toward civil war. In such circumstances it was impossible to remain neutral for long, and not much time can have passed after he settled in St Bride's Churchyard until he dedicated himself without reservation to the Puritan and  Parliamentary cause. Finally, with the publication of the Laudian Canons in June 1640, he took the decisive step that he had seriously meditated for at least several months: he gave up all thought of a career in the English church.
There seems little reason to doubt that this is essentially what happened. Indeed, it is the account that Milton himself has left us in The Reason of Church-Government: "comming to some maturity of yeers and perceaving what tyranny had invaded the Church, that he who would take Orders must subscribe slave, and take an oath withall, which unlesse he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either strait perjure, or split his faith, I thought it better to preferre a blamelesse silence before the sacred office of speaking bought, and begun with servitude and forswearing." (YP, I, pp. 822-3) There can be no real doubt that the oath here referred to is the "Et Cetera" oath of the 1640 canons. The only other oath to which the passage might be alluding is that in the 1604 canons, and there is no indication that Milton ever held it in any disesteem or ever thought it a symbol of episcopal despotism. On the contrary, he had already twice subscribed to the oath of 1604 without perjuring himself or splitting his faith--first, on proceedng to the B.A. in 1629 and, again, on taking the M.A. in 1632.35 Moreover, when he wrote The Reason of Church-Government Milton thought it unnecessary to specify a particular oath because he assumed that his readers would not mistake his meaning; in 1642 such an assumption could only be true of the hated "Et Cetera" oath which had been a burning issue among English Puritans. The Laudian tyranny which Milton witnessed in the church after his return from Italy in late 1639 turned him finally against the idea of taking holy orders and, in terms of a vocation in the church, the Canons of 1640 was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was clear that he could not be both a Puritan and a priest in the Church of England.
It is not known what prompted Milton to enter the controversy over episcopacy; however, whether on his own initiative or at the invitation of the Smectymnuans (one of whom was Thomas Young), he first exercised his left hand against the bishops in A Postscript, bound as an appendix to the Smectymnuan Answer to a Booke Entituled, An Humble Remonstrance (March 1641). In the five pamphlets against prelacy which Milton published in rapid succession between May 1641 and April 1642, references to the priesthood are relatively frequent. His break with the Anglican establishment is complete. He argues vigorously for a  Presbyterian settlement in the church and, like Puritans throughout the century, he asserts that it is the inward call from God and not the episcopal rite of ordination that marks a man as a chosen vessel of the word.36 Coupled with the fact that, apart from Lycidas, Milton had not spoken of ministerial calling since the "Letter to a Friend" of 1633 and that after 1642 the subject is not mentioned again until the discussion of clerical vocation in De Doctrina Christiana and the attack on the clergy in The Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings (1659), the repeated allusions to ministerial calling in the antiprelatical tracts of 1641-2 argue that the topic was then much in his thoughts and that his decision to reject a church career had been a recent one.
To summarise the chronology I have been suggesting: Milton, who had been dedicated to the ministry from childhood, went up to Cambridge in 1625 to prepare himself for a career in the English church. However, feeling himself neither academically nor spiritually ready for orders when he reached the canonical age of twenty-four in December 1632 (see Sonnet 7), he deferred ordination and retired to his father's country house--first at Hammersmith and later at Horton in Buckinghamshire--in order to devote himself in solitude to a programme of private studies. During the Horton years (1635-8) an uneasiness with the Laudian church and his appreciation of a rift between his religious views and the practice of the Anglican establishment became sufficiently acute for him to deplore priestly corruption and self-interest in the anticlerical passage in Lycidas. But like the choice between divine and secular poetry in 1629 (see Elegy 6), the determination of 1637 was not final and required time to mature; he therefore continued his private studies and in the spring of 1638 left for Italy, perhaps thinking that the issues at home, from which he had been largely isolated at Horton, would resolve themselves in time. His Puritan sympathies and his doubts about a church career, intensified by the experience of Catholic Italy, resulted in a dedication to the Presbyterian cause probably not long after his return to England in the late summer of 1639. Finally, with the promulgation of the Laudian Canons in June 1640, he decided irrevocably against a formal vocation in the church. It was perhaps this long delayed decision against a church career which prompted him to take a larger house in Aldersgate Street and to increase the number of his students. If he were not to be a preacher, then he would become a schoolmaster.
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