National Reckonings

National Reckonings

The Last Judgment and Literature in Milton’s England

During the tumultuous years of the English Revolution and Restoration, national crises like civil wars and the execution of the king convinced Englishmen that the end of the world was not only inevitable but imminent. National Reckonings shows how this widespread eschatological expectation shaped nationalist thinking in the seventeenth century. Imagining what Christ's return would mean for England's body politic, a wide range of poets, philosophers, and other writers—including Milton, Hobbes, Winstanley, and Thomas and Henry Vaughan,—used anticipation of the Last Judgment to both disrupt existing ideas of the nation and generate new ones.

Ryan Hackenbracht contends that nationalism, consequently, was not merely a horizontal relationship between citizens and their sovereign but a vertical one that pitted the nation against the shortly expected kingdom of God. The Last Judgment was the site at which these two imagined communities, England and ecclesia (the universal church), would collide. Harnessing the imaginative space afforded by literature, writers measured the shortcomings of an imperfect and finite nation against the divine standard of a perfect and universal community. In writing the nation into end-times prophecies, such works as Paradise Lost and Leviathan offered contemporary readers an opportunity to participate in the cosmic drama of the world's end and experience reckoning while there was still time to alter its outcome.

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