chapter  19
22 Pages

Incensed over Incense: Incense and Community in Seventeenth-Century Literature

In Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Milton mentions incense seven times (PL, VII. l. 599; IX. l. 194; XI. ll. 18, 25, 439; XII. l. 363; PR, I. l. 251).1 This seems somewhat strange. Why was Milton, in the second half of the seventeenth century, and in the later years of his life when his religious beliefs and practices had settled into a rather aloof independent position, including clear references to the ritual use of incense in worship? It is interesting in the light of the recent work on Shakespeare’s possible Catholic sympathies that incense is mentioned only four times in the whole of Shakespeare’s works (Lear [1623 Folio], 5. 3. 21; Lucrece, l. 194; K. John, 4. 3. 67; Titus, 1. 1. 145).2 Of course this in itself is not significant, but it might be an indication that by the mid-seventeenth century the use of incense was a contentious issue, and that whereas Shakespeare could pay little attention to it because it was probably no longer part of normal religious life and experience within the Church of England, Milton may have wished to take part in an ongoing debate within English society. If this might be the case, then how might mentions of incense be read in other seventeenth-century writers? I do not think I have definitive answers, but these are the kinds of questions this chapter will at least begin to answer. In the first part, I will briefly trace the use of incense in the JudeoChristian tradition of worship. Then I will present and explore some of the debate over incense which sprang up in the middle of the seventeenth century. Finally, I will examine some of the ways writers use and make reference to incense from the late sixteenth century to the 1670s and suggest that incense can be read as a marker or indicator of a community. Like any such marker, however, the precise community it seems intended to refer to, and perhaps to create, varies over time, and depends on the politics of the writer.