Monday, August 12, 2013

David V. Urban: “Milton & Same-Sex Marriage”

David V. Urban

Milton’s Doctrine and Discipline of DivorceAn Answer to a Book, and Same-Sex Marriage

1> A new edition of previously published but generally inaccessible older material offers scholars the opportunity to investigate and discuss writings perhaps heretofore hidden from or unknown to them. In a recent article, Thomas Kranidas affirms the value of Sara van den Berg and Scott Howard’s decision, in The Divorce Tracts of John Milton: Texts and Contexts, to publish both the first and second editions of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce as separate works (117, 133). From Kranidas’s perspective, van den Berg and Howard’s volume opens the way for scholars to recognize the second edition of DDD as fundamentally a distinct text, not merely an extension of the first edition. The sense that these editions are two distinct texts, Kranidas observes, was obscured by the decision by the editors of the Yale Complete Prose Works of John Milton to merge the two editions together (117). Kranidas’s article, which argues that the second edition of DDD is notable for its more developed and powerful rhetorical posture, suggests that The Divorce Tracts of John Milton will open new avenues in the continued discussion of Milton’s use of rhetorical force.

2> My own reading of The Divorce Tracts of John Milton has been memorable for a different reason: Its publication of the anonymous An Answer to a Book, intituled, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1644). This tract, a lengthy response to the first edition of DDD, offers a statement germane to perhaps the most contentious social and legal issue of our present day: same-sex marriage. In recent years, DDD has occasionally been mentioned regarding this issue with the suggestion that Milton’s argument for companionate marriage in DDD can be applied to arguments in favor of same-sex marriage.In the words of Richard Strier, “Milton’s conception of marriage as essentially a matter of happy and nourishing conversation [. . .] (and of the necessary availability of divorce when this is lacking) [. . . ] is perfectly compatible with same-sex marriage and divorce” (Shoulson and Strier). But no commentator has noted that the heretofore essentially forgotten and unread An Answer to a Book actually anticipates this application of Milton’s argument to same-sex marriage.

3> The anonymous author writes as if he were directly addressing Milton himself:

Your first proofe [in favor of divorce] is the institution of marriage Gen. 2 to make woman a meet help for man, because it was not good that man should be alone: whence you collect that a happy conversation by preventing lonelinesse, was the chiefest and noblest end of marriage; and in case this end cannot be found in marriage, there may be reliefe by parting.

We answer and tell you againe, that it is a happie or a pleasant conversation, made up by creating them male and female, and not simply as Eve was a fit conversing soule for Adam, as you afterward expresse it, for then would it have been more pleasant and beneficiall to Adam to have another man created, then [than] a woman. (416)2

4> Toward the end of this passage, the anonymous author explicitly asserts that Milton’s argument is actually more applicable to male-male relations than to male-female relations. Although the author clearly believes that such an application demonstrates the illogicality of Milton’s argument, and although it seems anachronistic to suggest that Milton himself would have supported same-sex marriage, it remains to be seen if the author’s assertion, which may become increasingly recognized with An Answer to a Book’s recent republication, propels Milton’s larger argument regarding companionate marriage to a more prominent position in future discussions of same-sex marriage. And it remains to be seen if the above passage—something brought to light only by virtue of van den Berg and Howard’s edition—elicits a new avenue of scholarly discussion regarding Milton and sexuality.


I wish to thank Calvin College, whose Calvin Research Fellowship enabled me to write this piece. Thanks also to Paul Klemp, who read and commented on an earlier version of this note.

1. Examples of this application of Milton’s divorce tract to discussions of same-sex marriage include Nussbaum, 138, 143; Nardo, 133; and Shoulson and Strier.

2. Italics in the first paragraph appear in the original text. Italics in second paragraph are mine.


An Answer to a Book, intituled, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce in The Divorce Tracts of John Milton: Texts and Contexts, ed. Sara J. van den Berg and W. Scott Howard (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2010). 401-47.

Kranidas, Thomas. “Milton Rewrites The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.” Studies in English Literature 53.1 (Winter 2013): 117-35.

Nardo, Anna. Rev. of The Divorce Tracts of John Milton: Texts and Contexts, ed. Sara J. van den Berg and W. Scott Howard, Seventeenth Century News 69 (2011): 131-34.

Nussbaum, Martha C. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation & Constitutional Law (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010).

Shoulson, Jeffrey and Richard Strier. “The Doctrine and Discipline of Gay Divorce.” Discussion on Milton-L listserv. 21 July 2011,

David V. Urban is associate professor of English at Calvin College. He completed John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography, 1989-1999 and is the co-editor of Visionary Milton. His most recent articles on Milton appear in Appositions, ConnotationsMilton Studies, and Milton Quarterly. He has also recently published essays on Fugard and Tolstoy and Pauline Rhetoric. He is completing a book on Milton and Jesus’ parables.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Six (2013): Editions & Editing

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