John Milton Poetry: British Analysis
The greater part of John Milton’s lyric poetry was written during his residences at Cambridge (1625-1632) and at Horton-Hammersmith (1632-1638). The work of the Cambridge period includes numerous occasional poems in English and conventionally allusive Latin epigrams and elegies. These early lyrics may owe something to Milton’s “Prolusions,” which are academic exercises on a set theme with predictable lines of argument, ornamented with numerous classical allusions. Such prose assignments may well have contributed to Milton’s rich style and his firm sense of genre.
The poems cover a wide variety of topics: the death of bishops, of an infant, of the university carrier; the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot; and religious topics. In “At a Vacation Exercise,” written before he was twenty, Milton intimates that he will use his native language for “some graver subject” than the one that the hundred-line lyric develops. His lyric “On Shakespeare,” included with the commendatory poems in the second folio (1632), had a theme of special interest to the young Milton, the fame that comes to a poet. In this lyric, as in others, the style and diction indicate a debt to Edmund Spenser.
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”
Among the poems written during the Cambridge period, the ode “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629) remains the most significant, perhaps the best nativity hymn in English poetry. The verses depict Christ as a triumphant redeemer—sovereign over nature, baneful to demons, and warmly human. In a rime royal proem (four stanzas), Milton establishes the occasion and setting, and then celebrates the Nativity in thirty-seven stanzas, each being of eight verses, varying in length and rhyming aabccbdd. The hymn has three structural divisions: Stanzas 1-7 portray the peace of nature and the civilized world at the time of Christ’s birth; stanzas 8-15 celebrate the promise of Christ for the future, with images of music and harmony; stanzas 16-37 foretell the results of Christ’s birth for the near future, the cessation of oracles and the collapse of pagan religions. Milton associates Christ with Pan and Hercules, freely drawing on classical mythology and reading it as Christian allegory; at the same time, he follows a different Christian tradition by equating the pagan gods with devils. The ode is remarkable for its exuberant metrical movement and its rich imagery of light and harmony.
“Il Penseroso” and “L’Allegro”
Two of Milton’s best-known lyrics, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” cannot be dated with certainty, though they are usually assigned to the period 1629-1632. “L’Allegro” celebrates the pleasures of the mirthful man, while “Il Penseroso” celebrates those of the contemplative man, whose joyous mood may be tinged with melancholy. These companion poems, both written in iambic tetrameter, employ a similar structure. “L’Allegro” begins in early morning and concludes in the evening; its companion begins in the evening and ends with morning. The speaker in each poem moves through a series of settings, and both poems express the delight and pleasure to be derived from nature and art, their chief appeal being to the senses of sight and sound.
The poems of the Horton-Hammersmith period demonstrate the growth of Milton’s poetic power and give promise of further development, in Comus (1634; pb. as A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1637) and “Lycidas” (1637) being the most notable. A masque is a brief dramatic entertainment, characterized by a simple plot and conflict, usually presented by amateurs and employing elaborate costumes, fanciful situations, song, dance, and highly poetic passages. The poem represents Milton’s first important use of blank verse and his first significant work on the theme of temptation. The mythical Comus inhabits a wood and entices travelers there to taste his liquor, which transforms them into monstrous shapes and makes them his followers. Milton’s heroine, the Lady, becomes separated from her brothers in this wood and is tempted by Comus but refuses. Although he can force her to sit immobile in a chair, he can attain no power over her mind or will. The brothers, assisted by the guardian spirit Thyrsis, arrive on the scene, drive Comus away, and secure her release through the aid of the water nymph Sabrina. Thereupon the two brothers and the Lady are presented to their parents. The theme of temptation enables Milton to celebrate the power of the human will to resist evil, a central theme of his major poems. In Comus, the temptation occurs in a natural setting, almost a pastoral milieu; in later works the setting and character are altered to present the theme in greater complexity.
The occasion of Milton’s pastoral elegy “Lycidas” was the death of Milton’s fellow student at Cambridge, Edward King, who drowned in the Irish Sea in 1637. At the time of his death, he had a career as a clergyman open before him. Milton follows the conventions of the pastoral elegy, King being treated as a shepherd whose songs have ended and for whom all nature mourns. The invocation of the muse, rhetorical questions, the fixing of blame, the procession of mourners, the catalog of flowers—all these conventional elements find a place. The traditional elegiac pattern of statement of loss, reconciliation, and looking toward the future is also followed in “Lycidas.” Milton uses the convention of allegory in pastoral poetry to meditate on fame and to attack abuses within the Church. The elegy employs a complex rhythm and rhyme pattern that is indebted to the Italian canzone.
Over a period of approximately thirty years, Milton wrote twenty-three sonnets, among them some of the most memorable lyrics in English. As with other genres, he made contributions to the form, in this instance both thematic and stylistic. Although the first six sonnets, five of them in Italian, are conventional in style, the English sonnets that follow mark new directions that influenced the history of the sonnet form. The first sonnets were love poems, and most early English sonnets were written in the tradition of Francis Petrarch’s sequence to Laura. Shakespeare and John Donne had left influential poems on the themes of friendship and religion. To Milton, the sonnet became a poem written not in sequence but on an occasion of personal or public significance—on his twenty-third birthday, on his blindness, on the death of his wife, on the massacre in Piedmont, on the public reception of his divorce tracts. Although many of the sonnets reflect Milton’s strong religious and moral convictions, they are not, strictly speaking, religious poems.
From the standpoint of style, he broke the traditional quatrain division and introduced an inverted Latinate syntax that allowed freedom in the placement of modifiers. The result was numerous enjambments and an alteration of the pauses within the lines of the sonnet. As in his longer poems, Milton juxtaposes Latinate diction and syntax with simple English diction and meter, creating a powerful tension. These stylistic innovations and the rich allusive texture that Milton brings to the sonnet combine to make the sonnets seem more restricted and concentrated than those of the Elizabethan period. When, a century after Milton, the pre-Romantics revived the sonnet as a lyric form, the predecessor whose work they emulated was Milton.
Although he had been planning to write an epic poem for nearly forty years before Paradise Lost was published in 1667, Milton did not seriously begin the composition before 1655-1657, when he was approaching fifty years of age. He had thought of an epic based on either British history or a biblical theme; when the time came, he chose the biblical theme and developed it on the grandest scale possible. From a Christian perspective, he set out to narrate all important events in the temporal and spiritual history of humankind, to answer all important questions, to tell what one poet called “the story of all things.” Not content to narrate the Fall of Man from grace, Milton included in his statement of the theme, as announced in the prologue to book 1, humankind’s restoration and the ability of humans to gain immortality. The theology of Paradise Lost is essentially orthodox Protestant, although a few unusual theological views were discovered after students of Milton closely examined the epic in the light of his treatise on theology, De doctrina Christiana libri duo Posthumi.
Milton adheres to numerous epic conventions established by Homer and Vergil, his classical predecessors in the form: action set in various realms, divine and human characters, a stated theme, invocation of the muse, epic games, epic similes, warfare, speeches, dreams, catalogs, roll calls, elevated style, and twelve books (or multiples of twelve). A remarkable departure from the practice of earlier epic poets, as T. J. B. Spencer has pointed out, is that numerous minor epic conventions, particularly those concerning warfare and conflict, are more often associated with the demoniac than with the human or the divine. Milton specifically rejects warfare as a subject unworthy of the epic, preferring to celebrate the suffering hero who endures adversity for the sake of conscience and right. In a mythical perspective, Christ represents the hero of Milton’s epic, for he is the character who acts, who creates and restores. Yet, Adam receives more attention in the poem and undergoes a change of fortune; for humankind, Milton’s readers, he becomes the hero.
As Northrop Frye pointed out, it is instructive to examine Paradise Lost as a myth, even though Milton believed that he was narrating events that actually took place—some poetic license and elaboration being permitted. The mythical structure of the epic is cyclic, involving actions primarily of the Deity (constructive) and Satan (destructive). The earliest point in the narrative is the occasion for Satan’s revolt, the recognition of Christ as Son of God before the assembled angels in Heaven. Following a three-day war in Heaven, Satan and millions of followers are cast out; and God creates the universe and the human order to restore spiritual beings to vacant places in Heaven. This purpose is challenged by Satan, who journeys to earth to tempt man and bring about his fall. Although Satan achieves his objective, God repairs the loss by giving man the law and redeeming him, enabling man to regain the opportunity of entering Heaven after Judgment Day.
Since Milton follows the epic convention of beginning in medias res, the narrative is not presented chronologically. Instead,...
(The entire section is 4433 words.)
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