- Milton and the Rhetoric of Zeal
The English "Wars of Truth" were intoxicated with language. The exhilaration of print, with its capacities for a larger and more varied audience; the opportunities it offered for anonymity, for sustained display, for self-aggrandizement; the sharp edges of the contrasting positions it admitted to its colloquy; the almost infinite possibilities of intermediation; and, most powerfully, the sheer importance of the debates it made possible: all these contributed to a rhetoric of astounding variety, and often of raging intensity. . . . Some of it is dreadful; some of it is historically fascinating; a little of it is noble. In evaluating that discourse—specifically, in confronting John [End Page 194] Milton's polemical prose—one can no longer assume the standards of a Western tradition long committed to clarity, perspicuity, and decorum—the last term still an unstable one.(Thomas Kranidas, Milton and the Rhetoric of Zeal 1-2)
A mere forty years after publication of his influential and still serviceable Fierce Equation: A Study of Milton's Decorum (1965), Thomas Kranidas has returned to Milton's prose—specifically, Milton's antiprelatical tracts—completing his previous study of decorum by means of its theological mirror-opposite, the so-called "rhetoric of zeal."
The antiprelatical tracts—which include Of Reformation (1641), Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641), Animadversions (1641), and The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty (1641-42)—attack the residually-Catholic ceremonialism and episcopal hierarchy of the Stuart church under Archbishop Laud. They deserve scholarly attention: "Often shrill, often redundant, sometimes coarse," these pamphlets are, as Kranidas asserts, "major proclamations of the English Reformation. They are complex, inventive, witty, and often beautiful pieces by a major writer of English prose" (Milton 48). Yet their occasional beauty remains, for many readers, marred by scurrility and name-calling. William Riley Parker, a pioneering scholar of the prose, has noted Milton's "genuine talent (God-given, he sincerely believed) for the vigorous, vituperative give-and-take of controversy":
His bad manners in debate were, of course, not unique; they were his heritage as a child of his age; but he took his heritage, unsheathed it, sharpened it, and wielded it so enthusiastically that his own contemporaries found his language unusual, and today his more squeamish admirers avert their eyes from the unpleasant spectacle.(Parker 1940, 61)
Indeed, "like the language of his fellow activists, Milton's language defies moderation and praises surrender to anger under the aegis of zeal" (Kranidas, 2005, 2). Before turning to Kranidas's latest work, though, we might detour briefly through the Reformation controversy and Kranidas's earlier publication, as both offer necessary contexts for his Milton and the Rhetoric of Zeal.
Whereas Anglican moderates proffered the Pauline injunction, "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14: 40) in defence of church ritual and episcopal governance, their Puritan opponents countered with Revelation 3: 16, "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth," among other passages (Matthew 12: 30, Luke 11: 23) arguing for zeal and against "lukewarmness" in such matters. As noted in Fierce Equation, "Decency is a conception of elegant moderation to Bishop Hall, of nauseating lukewarmness to Milton. Zeal is the foundation of religious attitude and language for Milton, for Archbishop Laud it is the enemy of church-government" (Kranidas 1965a, 64-65). [End Page 195] Milton's contemporaries, thus, found themselves caught between two theological-rhetorical styles, both radically opposed yet sanctioned by Scripture: the one anchored in modesty and moderation, tradition and formal ceremony, the other fueled by "righteous" anger and indignation, scornful of tradition and formally iconoclastic. Hence "decency," the Elizabethan English term for the Greek prepon, or Latin decorum, takes its stand against the onslaughts of its own warring twin, the form-shattering zelos or "zeal."
And here is the rub: decorum lying (with mimesis) at the aesthetic foundation of neoclassical literature, Milton's zealous-scurrilous prose seems to open cracks in the very architecture of his epic style, violating and...