In Book IV of Paradise Regained, having been offered by Satan literature ‘not couched in Moses Law’, the Son responds by privileging Hebrew poetry over Greek: Remove their swelling Epithetes thick laid As varnish on a Harlots cheek, the rest, Thin sown with aught of profit or delight, Will far be found unworthy to compare With Sion’s songs, to all true tasts excelling, Where God is prais’d aright, and Godlike men, The Holiest of Holies, and his Saints; Such are from God inspir’d, not such from thee; Unless where moral vertue is express’t By light of Nature, not in all quite lost.1 Many biblical poems praise God, Godlike men, and saints, but what about the Holiest of Holies? A portion of the sanctum of heightened sanctity entered yearly by the High Priest, the Holy of Holies (qōdeš ha-qodašim) is an oddly specific architectural feature, which appears in the Bible only in ritual contexts and never in poetry.2 Nor does anyone claim that Milton’s famed Hebraism extended to an enthusiasm for the sacrificial cult. Milton is alluding to the Song of Songs. The association originates in a dictum of Rabbi Aqiba’s recorded in the foundational rabbinic law-code, the Mishnah: ‘All the world is not worth the day when Songs of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Hagiographa are holy, but Songs of Songs is the Holy of Holies (qōdeš ha-qodašim)’.3 The name plays upon the shared grammatical form (‘the use of a substantive in the construct state before the plural of the same word’ as a superlative).4 Milton need not have encountered Rabbi Aqiba directly, since the association was broadly available in England at the time. For instance, in the preface to Puritan exegete Thomas Brightman’s 1644 commentary on the Song, he writes, ‘the Jewes call it … the Sanctum Sanctorum’.5 The Song fits the context well. It is frequently mentioned in catalogues of Hebrew poetry, as by Sydney in a passage from The Defence cited frequently by editors here: ‘the chiefe [poets] … were they that did imitate the unconceivable excellencies of God. Such were David in his Psalmes, Salomon in his song of songs, in his Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs. Moses and Debora in their Hymnes, and the wryter of Jobe’.6 The Son’s argument closely parallels Milton’s own claims in his early prose tract The Reason of Church Government, where the Song is mentioned among the great works of biblical literature.7 If one were to pick one work to represent biblical poetry, the title of the Song of Songs makes it the appropriate choice. Finally, if the Song figures chaste agape,8 it sharply contrasts with Greek poetry, which the Savior has just called a ‘Harlot’. Footnotes 1 William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon, The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (New York, 2007), 688: 4.343–52. 2 See e.g. Exod 26:33, Num 4:4 and 19, Num 18:9–10, 1 Kgs 8:6, and Ezek 44:4. 3 mYadayim 3:5 in Ed. Chanokh Albeck, Seder Taharot (Jerusalem, 1959), 481. 4 Gesenius, Hebrew Grammar, trans. A. E. Crowley (Oxford, 1910), 133i. 5 Thomas Brightman, A commentary on the Canticles or the Song of Salomon (London, 1644), iii. 6 Quoted in Walter MacKellar, A Variorum Commentary on The Poems of John Milton vol. 4 Paradise Regained (New York, 1975), 222. 7 The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, ed. Don M. Wolfe et al., 8 vols (New Haven, CT, 1953–82), 1:812–14. 8 In Paradise Lost, Milton does insist that Solomon’s garden was “not mystic” (9.439–44), but he means there to deny not the poem’s figurative meaning, but just the Origenian orthodoxy according to which the Song has no literal sense. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 2, 2018
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