The Medieval Review 13.06.31

Hampton, Bryan Adams. Fleshly Tabernacles: Milton and the Incarnational Poetics of Revolutionary England. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. Pp. 384. . . $40.00. ISBN: 978-0-268-03096-4.

Reviewed by:

John Mulryan
St. Bonaventure University
jmulryan@sbu.edu

Before discussing the contents of this book, it is well to caution the reader that this is definitely not a user-friendly text. Like many recent studies of Milton, it is crammed with jargon that must be mastered or the reader cannot possibly discern whatever points the author is attempting to make. Most of the words are of Greek origin and are more appropriate to a philosophical or theological than a literary study of Milton. It would have benefited the reader if the words had been listed in a glossary; instead, a very brief paraphrase of most of these terms follows the first citation. I present them here in alphabetical order: adoptionist theology, the idea that God the Father adopted the Son, either at birth, or at the resurrection; apodictic, demonstrated through argument; aporetics, examples of indeterminate meaning; chthonic, pertaining to the underworld, doxological, praise expressed through hymns; episteme, a way of knowing; eschaton, one's fate after death; fifth monarchists, anticipating the imminent return of Christ; Fürstenspiegel, a neologism or portmanteau word for advice to the rich and powerful; gnosis, an obscure knowledge of spiritual things; kenosis, an emptying of one's being; kerygma, preaching or proclamation; methexis, participation; ontic, real or ultimate existence; parousia, being, substance, the second coming; phronesis, judgment, practical wisdom; preloma, fullness or excess (cf. kenosis); pneumatology, the study of the spirit world; redargutive, obsolete (OED), use of a doctrine to refute heresy; sarx, flesh; telos, fulfillment or execution.

The basic thesis of the book is that all of Milton's work, both poetry and prose, is defined by the Incarnation, as opposed to the suffering and martyrdom of Christ (34), which Milton found repellent. "For Milton, the Incarnation structures figurative language itself and occupies the very heart of poetic expression" (115).

The Incarnation, the merging of Christ's flesh and God's spirit, was literally felt by many Protestants of Milton's era, who experienced vicariously (so they thought) Christ's Incarnation in their own imbedded flesh. They saw themselves "as fleshly tabernacles iridescent with the divine" (2). Hampton divides the work into three parts: preaching, reading, and politics.

The first category is problematic. Hampton refers to Milton as a "poet-preacher" (15), using sermonic techniques in his writing ("the pen and the pulpit," 13), even though there is no record of Milton having ever attended a church or heard a sermon. He certainly never preached. Hampton also compares the performative aspects of sermons (delivered from the pulpit) to the powerful rhetoric of the playhouse (66), another popular venue eschewed (as far as we know) by Milton.

Hampton even claims that the devils in Milton's hell, in creating a plan of attack against God, are actually preaching sermons. First of all, they have no preacher's audience, speakers rising among them but not addressing a distinct group. Second, since a sermon is supposed to be a gloss on a scriptural text, their devilish compositions simply cannot qualify. Thirdly, there are no scriptural texts to comment on, since the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, had yet to be written. In my view, the complex rhetoric of the fallen angels owes more to Cicero than to the sermons Milton (probably) never attended. Milton does refer to Areopagitica as a Homily (179), but he is obviously using the term in the secondary meaning of a moralistic speech, since his focus is on freedom of the press, not biblical concerns. Milton also refers contemptuously to the "Wordless clergy" of the Church of England (22), even though he would have had no direct knowledge of their words; he really means a beneficed clergy, an issue which has no obvious bearing on the Incarnation.

The second category is equally problematic. Hampton first examines the various theories of Christ as God, Man, or God-Man expressed in writing and reading, but then conflates theological and aesthetic interpretation, speaking of a "poetics" (114) of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), where the issue of the God-man (the hypostatic union) was thrashed out. One can extract a metaphor or two from the deliberations of the Council, but the participants were theologians, not wordsmiths. Note that when Hampton compares the incarnational poetics allegedly expressed in the Council to Milton's treatment of the theme in the De Doctrina Christiana, the term is always placed in quotation marks: "I want to consider the orthodox 'poetics' of the hypostatic union decided at Chalcedon in 451, in order to examine the implications of the heterodox 'poetics' of the Incarnation in Milton's De Doctrina Christiana" (114). It should also be mentioned that Milton's rigid program of reading and writing removes the illiterate entirely from the path of salvation! In fact most churchgoers were listeners, not readers, recipients of interpretation, rather than interpreters themselves. Hampton's readerly bias is borne out by his approving citation of Paul Ricoeur, who effectively denies the illiterate any way of understanding themselves or the world they live in: "'It must be said,' he writes, 'that we understand ourselves only by the long detour of the signs of humanity deposited in cultural works. What would we know of love and hate, of moral feelings and, in general, of all that we call the self, if these had not been brought to language and articulated by literature'?" (213).

To conclude our discussion of the writer-reader section of the text, Hampton's exegesis of the passage describing the "night foundered-skiff" (Paradise Lost, 1.204) as a "parable of misreading" (Chapter 3, 133–166) is, in my view, an example of extreme over-reading. Milton, who is obviously focusing on the immensity of Satan's physical body and its analogy to the huge bulk of Leviathan, tells the story of an inept sailor, a pilot, who mistakes the Leviathan's (read Satan's) body for an island, and pitches camp on his back! The ignorant sailor's mistake is transformed by Hampton into a parable of misreading; the pilot becomes an inept architect of church and state, and a reader who misreads the signs of trouble in seventeenth-century England.

To begin with, the story is not a parable, since, as opposed to Christian or pagan parables, the narrator provides no gloss on the incident; Hampton fudges on this issue by referring to it as a "compressed" parable (160). One might also quibble about how a (presumably) illiterate pilot can be turned into a misreader of texts, the Leviathan's back becoming a text that pilot fails to understand. Even the broad back of the Leviathan is not sturdy enough to support such an assumption! Space does not permit a discussion of Hampton's analyses of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, which are both incisive and interesting.

In the third section of the book, which explores the politics of incarnation, Hampton explores, in contrast to Milton's assumed "heterodox theology," how John Everard and Gerrard Winstanley "revive an allegorical understanding of scripture that is grounded in an international epistemology" (228). Against the Reformers, Everard creates a "spiritual and incarnational hermeneutics of reading, derived from a Catholic medieval tradition that emphasizes the exegete's dialogical encounter with scripture" (231). Winstanely emphasizes the physicality of Jesus, and the importance of Acts over the Word. The faithful "become living embodiments of the scriptures themselves…not just proclaiming the gospel, but embodying and incarnating the kerygma [preaching]…." (261). Finally, James Nayler goes to the extreme of creating his own Theodrama, experiencing the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem at first hand and incarnating himself as a replica of the Savior. As noted earlier, many Protestants viewed themselves as "fleshly tabernacles iridescent with the divine" (2). His reward for his literalist identification with the savior was to be "pilloried, a hole bored through his tongue with a hot iron, and branded on the forehead with a 'B' for blasphemer" (291).

Although I take issue with many of Hampton's arguments, he has certainly demonstrated that Christ's Incarnation is central to both Milton's poetry and his theology. Fleshly Tabernacles is a difficult but rewarding book, both informative and controversial.