But after these poems came the period of his prose, the work which he supposed was the abiding work of his life. George William Curtis told a friend that our civil war changed his own literary style: "That roused me to see that I had no right to spend my life in literary leisure. I felt that I must throw myself into the struggle for freedom and the Union. I began to lecture and to write. The style took care of itself. But I fancy it is more solid than it was thirty years ago." That is what happened to Milton when the protectorate came. 6 It made his style more solid. He did not mean to live as a poet. He felt that his best energies were being put into his essays in defense of liberty, on the freedom of the press and on the justice of the beheading of Charles, in which service he sacrificed his sight. All of it is shot through with Scripture quotations and arguments, and some of it, at least, is in the very spirit of Scripture. The plea for larger freedom of divorce issued plainly from his own bitter experience; but his main argument roots in a few Bible texts taken out of their connection and urged with no shadow of question of their authority. Indeed, when he comes to his more religious essays, his heavy argument is that there should be no religion permitted in England which is not drawn directly from the Bible; which, therefore, he urges must be common property for all the people. There is a curious bit of evidence that the men of his own time did not realize his power as a poet. In Pierre Bayle's critical survey of the literature of the time, he calls Milton "the famous apologist for the execution of Charles I.," who "meddled in poetry and several of whose poems saw the light during his life or after his death!" For all that, Milton was only working on toward his real power, and his power was to be shown in his service to religion. His three great poems, in the order of their value, are, of course, "Paradise Lost," "Samson Agonistes," and "Paradise Regained." Whoever knows anything of Milton knows these three and knows they are Scriptural from first to last in phrase, in allusion, and, in part at least, in idea. There is not time for extended illustration. One instance may stand for all, which shall illustrate how Milton's mind was like a garden where the seeds of Scripture came to flower and fruit. He will take one phrase from the Bible and let it grow to a page in "Paradise Lost." Here is an illustration which comes readily to hand. In the Genesis it is said that "the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters." The verb suggests the idea of brooding. There is only one other possible reference (Psalm xxiv: 9.) which is included in this statement which Milton makes out of that brief word in the Genesis:
One of the places we see this most clearly is in the way that Luke tells theparable of the . It's a very familiar story. And it's a storyabout repentance. The younger of two brothers who runs away, squanders hisinheritance living a vile life and only after he goes into the depths ofdepression because he has no money and doesn't know where he's going to live,he decides to go home and be just a slave in his father's house. But when hereturns, his father welcomes him with open arms and says, "Let's have a greatbanquet to welcome you back." Now the older brother who had stayed at home allthis time becomes jealous because he had been faithful to his father's wishesand desires. He had been doing what his father wanted all along. It's theyounger brother who had squandered everything and gone against his father'swishes. This story is really about Luke's perception of the relation betweengentiles and Jews in the household of God. It is Luke's description of thechurch as being willing to accept both the older brother, the faithful brother,the Jews, alongside of the prodigal son, the gentiles, who had lived a terriblelife away from the father for so long but now in the church are being welcomedback with open arms. Luke's vision is of a unified humanity in the church thatbrings all of God's children back together.
But English literature has found more of its material in the Bible than anything else. It has looked there for its characters, its illustrations, its subject-matter. We shall see, as we consider individual writers, how many of their titles and complete works are suggested by the Bible. It is interesting to see how one idea of the Scripture will appear and reappear among many writers. Take one illustration. The Faust story is an effort to make concrete one verse of Scripture: "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Professor Moulton reminds us that the Faust legend appeared first in the Middle Ages. In early English, Marlowe has it, Calderon put it into Spanish, the most familiar form of it is Goethe's, while Philip Bailey has called his account of it Festus. In each of those forms the same idea occurs. A man sells his soul to the devil for the gaining of what is to him the world. That is one of a good many ideas which the Bible has given to literature. The prodigal son has been another prolific source of literary writing. The guiding star is another. Others will readily come to mind.
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What comes to mind here is the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables, namely, the story of the Prodigal Son. Using a term that also carried a monetary sense in ancient times, the younger son says, “Father give me my share of the ousia (substance or wealth) that is coming to me. Notice how in one sentence, he manages to mention himself three times! The father gives away his ousia, for that is all he knows how to do, but the foolish son squanders the money in short order. The spiritual lesson is the same: the divine ousia is a gift and it can be “had” only inasmuch as it becomes a gift for others. When we try to cling to it as a possession, it disappears.