Tuesday, September 4, 2012

D-I-V-O-R-C-E or, John Milton on Splitsville

by Stephen J. Gertz

In 1643, poet John Milton, who later wrote Paradise Lost, anonymously published The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, the first of four tracts he wrote 1643-1645 in support of divorce against Canon law, which he believed was contrary to the true meaning of Scripture and the Gospel. If a marriage was not working it was to the good of both sexes for it to be dissolved. His argument was that unsuitable unions of couples ‘chained unnaturally together’ should be broken on the grounds of incompatibility, a radical idea in its time. It shocked his contemporaries.

Divorce in 17th century England was against the law. You married for life, a holy bond that only God could break by calling one of the parties home. If the union was contentious it was a marriage to the death.

Milton had a stake in the issue.  In 1642, at age thirty-three, he married  a seventeen year old girl, Mary Powell. She soon deserted him to return to her parents. Divorce was impossible, divorce and remarriage doubly so. You could legally separate but never dissolve the union. The only out was a church annulment but that involved admitting that the marriage was never consummated,  the husband was impotent, or the wife frigid, each a major public embarrassment. He argued that neither ecclesiastic or civil powers held authority in matters of marriage and divorce; it was a a strictly private affair.

John Milton.

But only for the man. Milton had no interest in granting women the power to divorce their husbands. Yet his definition of marriage as something more than a union for procreation (or remedy against fornication) was wholly modern if one-sided: "the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evils of solitary life."

An unhappy couple, "mistak’n in their dispositions through any error, concealment, or misadventure"  was doomed to a "spight of antipathy to fadge together, and combine as they may to their unspeakable wearisomnes and despaire of all sociable delight." This violated  his belief in marriage as mutual companionship.

The 1643 first edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce sold out almost immediately; controversy then and now tends to promote sales. Attempts were made to ban the tract.  A second edition was issued in 1644, greatly enlarged by almost half and including a new Preface "To the Parliament of England with the Assembly." Two more editions appeared in 1645, reprints of the 1644 issue, one with an errata page, the other, possibly unauthorized, without one. The other three of Milton's Divorce tracts are The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon, and Colasterion. John Milton's model for the ideal marriage is manifest in the relationship between Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost (1667).

Gustave Doré, Adam and Eve in the Garden, Paradise Lost (1866).

In 1964, as the first kid on my block to come from what was then still quaintly called a "broken home," I was in the vanguard, a young, lone pioneer on the  frontier when the Greatest Generation decided things weren't so great and made a strategic retreat from the domestic battlefield to a separate peace. It was in the next year, 1965, that the divorce rate in the U.S. began its march toward doubling by 1975; I was an anxious point-man on recon before hostilities broke-out on a large scale.

Holy matrimony, Batman! In those days,  New York State, as so many others, made divorce a legal ordeal as wrenching as its emotional anguish. But there was an exotic, legit alternative. You could visit  pre-drug cartel Juarez in sunny Mexico, hang around for a few hours, have lunch. see the sights, pay a nominal court fee, and be granted a that's-all-there-is-to-it divorcio al vapor - evaporated nuptials. 

My mother was necessarily one such divorce tourist. I'm not sure whether it occurred during Mexico's Dia de los Muertos holiday but afterward my parents' marriage was officially dead and no one was celebrating except me. Consumed with guilt for bearing such a betraying sentiment (and for so much more), I  beat myself up like a human piñata for years afterward. And, in what became a family tradition, my own marriage ended in divorce, as did my sister's. For me, divorce was a rite of passage ceremony, an adult bar mizvah for the damned. When I walked out the door I dropped off a cliff.

Now, everybody's doing it; so what else is new? But forty-eight years ago my sister and I earned purple hearts for injuries incurred in the cross-fire, wounds that, for me, never bled until much later when the  effects of my parents' divorce finally spilled. When the  school psychologist - who I was sent to because I was truant for nearly three months straight - asked how I thought my parents' split affected me, I insouciantly replied, "not at all," the response of a kid who'd battened-down the hatches and hunkered-in until the storm passed but it never did.

As crippling as its aftermath was had my parents not split-up my outcome would have been so much worse before it got so much better. It might not have gotten better at all. I'm thankful to John Milton for his efforts at reformation.

In 1968, country-western diva Tammy Wynette spelled out what was still the broken love that dare not speak its name, below introduced by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, a married couple that only a six-shooter could separate but was never drawn and fired for the sake of their child, Trigger, who they stuffed as a keepsake after his death.

And now, as God said in Paradise Lost when He expelled Adam and Eve from  Eden, "Happy Trails!"*


M[ILTON], J[ohn].  The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce; restor'd to the good of both SEXES, from the bondage of CANON LAW, and other mistakes, to the true meaning of Scripture in the LAW and GOSPEL compar'd: wherein also are set down the bad consequences of abolishing or condemning of Sin, that which the law of God allowes, and Christ abolisht not: now the second time revis'd and much augmented in two books: to the Parliament of England with the Assembly. London: Imprinted in the Year 1645.

Forth edition. Small quarto. [8], 72 pp, with the usual mispagination to pp. 69-78 in sheet G. Lackng errata.

Wing M2110. Coleridge, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Milton Collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library 17. Parker, Milton: A Biography, pp. 890-891.

* Paradise Lost by John Milton. Newly Revised for a Popular Audience by T. Basil Leeves. Frostbite Falls: Wottsamatta U Press, 1989.

Image of 1645 edition courtesy of Bernard Quaritch Ltd, currently offering this title, with our thanks.

Image of 1643 first edition courtesy of Rutgers University, with our appreciation.

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