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William Perkins's Art of Prophesying and Milton's "Two-Handed Engine": The Protestant Allegory of "Lycidas" 113-31
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Milton Quarterly 33.3 (1999) 66-71

In every age the prophets and godly teachers have had a difficult struggle with the ungodly, who in their stubbornness can never submit to the yoke of being taught by human word and ministry. . . More detestable than this attitude is that of the apostates who have a passion for splitting churches, in effect driving the sheep from their fold and casting them into the jaws of wolves. We must hold to what we have quoted from Paul -- that the church is built up solely by outward preaching . . . .

--Jean Calvin, Institutes 1018-19

In Milton's "Lycidas," St. Peter, the "mitred" and "stern" (112) "pilot of the Galilean lake" (109)--here last of the procession of mourners -- speaks the following invective against the contemporary English clergy, a passage famous for its dark allusions and final crux:

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.


After more than a century of careful historical research and the identification of scores of possible sources and analogues, it seems safe to say that no one source, whether scriptural, polemical, or poetic, is likely to account fully and definitively for St. Peter's speech, its famous last lines especially. Though the "engine" has been glossed variously as St. Peter's "massy" keys ("Lycidas" 110), the gospel's "two-edged" sword, a hammer, and (more rarely) an axe (Woodhouse and Bush 2:2.686-706), the truly important point is that Puritan theology appropriated all such images to express the vital necessity of preaching in the Reformed Church. In other words, it is not at all necessary to identify this "engine" singularly and specifically with an axe, a hammer, a sword, or keys, though all such scripturally-sanctioned images are, within Protestant tradition, analogous to the spiritual functioning of Milton's "engine"--which, following William Perkins and other English Reformers, is no more (nor less) than the preaching of the Word of God (Whiting 49). The real crux of St. Peter's speech, finally, is not what one makes of the specific image (or material "sign," as Augustine would term it), but rather what one makes of the underlying theology, to which such signs refer. St. Peter's "engine" accommodates all the above-mentioned glosses, since the keys, axe, hammer, and sword participate within one singular, consistent, coherent, unified symbolic system (Whiting 35-40). St. Peter's speech is most profitably read as an instance of pastoral allegory, very much in the manner of Milton's poetic precursor, the "sage and serious poet Spenser" (Areopagitica 728). Awareness of genre, then, and of the underlying theology provides the reader's best "keys" to this passage (and not just to this passage, but to the voluminous criticism now grown around it).

Though readers have occasionally acknowledged Spenser's influence on Milton's early poetry (Hunter 8.35-36) as well as the allegorical nature of St. Peter's speech (Poggioli 94-95, Haller 317-18), students of Milton remain generally mistrustful of allegorical interpretation. As H. R. MacCallum describes the party line, Milton "seldom emphasizes the prefigurative function of objects, avoids external or allegorical analogies, and evokes typical relations by indirect means, by the allusive use of imagery, or by nuances of language" (159). But such sentiment, when applied...

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