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Praying in Paradise: Recasting Milton’s Iconoclasm in Paradise Lost

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 161-180 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0008

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Milton Iconoclastes

During his wide-ranging career as both polemicist and poet, Milton proved himself adept at recasting his opponents’ ideologies by framing familiar practices in startling new light. Milton undertakes precisely this act of recasting in Eikonoklastes, the longest of his polemical works. The tract provides a sustained and devastating response to Eikon Basilike, The Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings, which circulated immediately following the execution of Charles I in January 1649 and which generated widespread sympathy for his plight. Published as the official parliamentary response to the king’s tract in October of that same year, Eikonoklastes demolishes Eikon Basilike’s image of Charles as a martyred king—an image that emerges not only through the simple prayers and prose of the royalist tract, but even more strikingly in its frontispiece portrait of the kneeling monarch. In the image, Charles gazes toward the heavens as he raises a token crown of thorns—reminiscent of the one worn by Christ at Gethsemane. According to Milton, the sole purpose of this frontispiece image, with its implicit parallel between Charles and Christ, is “to catch fools and silly gazers.” In undertaking the monumental task of demolishing the Eikon Basilike’s literal and ideological icons, Milton establishes a precedent for his own polemics by positioning them within an extensive tradition of early Christian iconoclasm: “For which reason this answer also is intitl’d Iconoclastes, the famous Surname of many Greek Emperors, who, in thir zeal to the command of God, after a long tradition of Idolatry in the Church, took courage, and broke all superstitious Images to peeces” (YP 3:343). In response to Charles’s fictions and pretensions, Milton appropriately counters with an act of role-playing of his own. In the figurative act of appending “Iconoclastes” to his own name, Milton sets himself up as the last in a long line of image-breaking emperors, and creates a genealogical tradition for his own visual, political, and textual iconoclasms.

But if Milton crafts a genealogy for himself as the most recent of the Christian iconoclasts, he is equally invested in crafting one for the executed king as well. Milton Iconoclastes wants to demolish not only the singular and historically specific icon of Charles I, but also the larger tradition of monarchical tyranny that Milton argues the executed king represents. Pointing to the violence of the English civil war, Milton contextualizes what he views as Charles’s acts of tyranny by juxtaposing them against the historical persecution of early Christians. In his criticism of Charles’s military leadership, Milton writes “that there hath bin more Christian blood shed by the Commission, approbation, and connivance of King Charles, and his Father James in the latter end of their raigne, then in the Ten Roman Persecutions” (YP 3:439). With respect to “those many whippings, Pillories, and other corporal inflictions” that marked Charles’s reign in both war and peace, the monarch was comparable to that early persecutor of Christians, the “tyrant Nero,” who allegedly had a penchant for lighting the imperial premises by setting Christians ablaze (YP 3:439). If Charles’s tyranny rivaled that of the Romans, Milton also made sure to emphasize that the monarch’s ineffectualness as a ruler had ancient precedents as well. David Loewenstein points to the abundance of historical analogies comparing Charles to ancient, biblical, and Near Eastern despots, all of which is conducive to what he sees as a vision of historical recurrence: “Charles, is, in a sense, just one more figure in a long and crowded history of oppression and tyranny.” Indeed, in his preface to Eikonoklastes, Milton compares the deceptions of Eikon Basilike to the posthumous recitation of Caesar’s will before the people, an act that, by detailing “what bounteous Legacies hee had bequeath’d them, wrought more in that Vulgar audience to the avenging of his death, then all the art he could ever use, to win their favor in his life-time” (YP 3:342). As the text’s reconstructed genealogy of tyranny makes clear, demolition is not Milton’s preferred mode of iconoclasm; rather than razing the image of the king, Milton elects instead the...

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