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On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three

by John Milton

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

Seventeenth Century
The years between 1576 and 1642 are often described as the golden age of English poetry, drama, and theatre, although the period was not golden for those who lived through it. For one hundred years, farmers had been displaced by enclosure acts that fenced off agricultural land for pastures, resulting in inflation and unemployment in the countryside. Crop failures, the threat of war abroad, and the sometimes brutal religious strife that enveloped the country, had shaken English society by the time Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1558. The Elizabethan regimen produced relative stability, but the queen’s failure to name a successor brought discontent and the threat of civil war even before her death. Initially, James I’s rule was greeted with enthusiasm, but religious, class, and political divisions intensified with time. Rural unemployment drove many people to London, making it the largest city in Europe. Civil problems led to widespread disorder, while the establishment of a capitalistic economy took the place of the feudal agrarian social order. Disorder and conflict led writers to grapple with new ideas about science, philosophy, religion, and politics. There was a new emphasis on individual thought, action, and responsibility. In spite of this turmoil, or perhaps because of it, the most important drama in Western history was produced.

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A Period of Change
The period in which John Milton was writing is one marked by enormous changes. After nearly fifty years as queen, Elizabeth I died in 1603. James IV of Scotland became the new English king, James I. While Elizabeth had encouraged a degree of individualism, James believed in absolute monarchy based on the divine right of kings. Although Elizabeth had reinstated the Protestant church, with herself as the official head of the Church of England, she was also more tolerant of religious choice than her predecessor Mary I had been. While the people still mistrusted and barely tolerated the Roman Catholic Church, which was associated with papal corruption and intolerance, Elizabeth managed to keep these religious issues subdued. With Elizabeth’s death, the movement toward religious tolerance changed, and religion became a problem for public debate once again.

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One issue was the marriage of James’s son Charles, the new heir, to the French princess, a Roman Catholic. The debates about religion, however, involved more than just the opposition of Protestant and Catholic. The Anglicans, who argued for free will governing men’s actions, opposed the Calvinists, who argued for predestination. There were debates about the use of prayer books and the designation of church officials. This controversy and debate heavily influenced the poetry of this period. Consider, for example, Milton’s sonnet, “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three,” which creates tension in the opposition between predestination and free will.

Puritan Intolerance
Another religious group whose actions would have lasting impact were the Puritans. Both James and Charles encouraged Sunday festivals and sporting contests. The Puritans thought these activities were the work of the devil or, at the very least, an embracing of the pagan past. James and Charles were also big patrons of the theatre. Charles, in particular, supported huge theatrical productions called masques. These were often very elaborate and very expensive, a cost born by the public in the form of additional taxes. The Puritans opposed the burgeoning theatre and thought actors were sinful and displayed substandard morals. In part this view of the theatre was based on the social environment of the playhouse, which was libertine. Puritan opposition to theatre was based on a philosophical ar- gument: acting is lying, role-playing. Plays also brought large numbers of people together, thus increasing crime and disease, and they enticed people away from their jobs and so affected trade. As a result, city officials often sided with Puritans in wanting theatres closed or moved outside town. Eventually Puritan opposition led to revolution and the beheading of King Charles I. Milton later allied himself with the rebellion and Oliver Cromwell, and so religion emerged as an important focal point of Milton’s life and of this period.

Literary Style

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In its form, “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three” is an Italian sonnet (also known as a Petrarchan sonnet), written, like most sonnets, in iambic pentameter. Its thematic organization closely follows the structure of the form, with two well-developed movements corresponding to the eight-line octave and the six-line sestet. The octave follows the conventional Petrarchan rhyme scheme of abbaabba, while the sestet rhymes cdcdee, one of several conventional patterns. The octave breaks conventionally into two shorter movements, each consisting of a quatrain rhyming abba. The beginning of the sestet, where the rhyme scheme changes, is known as the turn of the sonnet because at this point an Italian sonnet’s theme or tone usually shifts. In the case of “On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-Three” the transitional “But” signals a change from the impatient arrogance of the octave into the humbler prayer of the sestet.

Compare and Contrast

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1630s: An epidemic of the plague killed more than 40,000 people in London only a few years earlier, and it continues to kill thousands more in the years that follow. As a result, government and much of London social life is suspended during the peak months of plague each summer. The wealthy move to summer houses, while the poor, with no place to go, remain in London to battle the plague on their own. This escape of the wealthy from the plague further establishes the privileges of the wealthy and helps lead to revolution.

Today: Society is not as clearly divided between the rich and poor as was the case during the seventeenth century, and the plague no longer decimates the population every year. However, in spite of some advances in equality now evident in England, English society is still somewhat stratified, with divisions based on social rank and income.

1630s: The new interest in science is very important to Englishmen. One of the newest discoveries is a published account by William Harvey, who posits that the heart is a muscle and it pushes blood throughout the body. Harvey cannot explain the creation of blood. While many of the new scientists endorse Harvey’s viewpoints, others dispute this claim, believing instead that the liver is the organ of circulation. New scientific discoveries influence the poets of the period, who incorporate tension produced by scientific disovery into their poetry.

Today: Harvey’s hypothesis has long since been proven true, and today, both heart transplants and artificial hearts are common. One thing has not changed, however, and that is the skepticism that often greets new ideas in medicine. New ideas about medicine often undergo laborious tests to prove their validity. It is predominantly journalists and not poets, however, who discuss new scientific ideas.

1630s: Puritan William Prynne attacks the London theatre as lewd and as a haven for prostitutes. Because the wife of King Charles I has participated in performances at court, Prynne’s attack is viewed as a slander on the queen, and he is thrown into prison after being branded and having his ears cut off. By 1642, the Puritans succeed in having all the theatres in London closed.

Today: While film is often condemned for excessive violence and sexual content, theatres are rarely the object of protest.

1630s: Galileo is tried in Rome for endorsing an earlier scientific theory that the sun is the center of the universe and the earth only a rotating planet. Galileo’s ideas violate Church teachings that God created mankind, and so the earth, on which man resides, must be more important than all other planets and it must be the center of the universe. Because he is threatened with torture, Galileo eventually retracts his proposition and is confined to his villa for the rest of his life.

Today: Galileo was eventually proven correct, and while it took the Church in Rome nearly 400 years to admit Galileo was right, eventually the Church cleared Galileo of heresy and retracted his excommunication.

1630s: Religion continues to divide the English. When the House of Commons petitions King James I to prevent a Catholic marriage for his son Charles, James I rebukes the Commons for meddling in foreign affairs. The Commons responds that the marriage, religion, and birthright of a king is a suitable subject for the Commons to debate. Eventually, Charles is deposed and beheaded, and Milton serves as Secretary of Letters for Cromwell’s government.

Today: Rules governing marriage of the royal family are still an important topic in England. In the twentieth century, Edward VIII abdicated when he was not allowed to marry a divorced American woman, and heirs to the English throne are still not permitted to marry Roman Catholics. Because of a tumultuous past, with vicious attacks against both Catholics and Protestants, the English continue to govern the religious choices of the royal family.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

Dorian, D. C., in the Explicator, Vol. 8, Item 10, 1949–1950

Hall, R. F., “Milton’s Sonnets and His Contemporaries,” in The Cambridge Companion to Milton, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Honigmann, E. A. J., Milton’s Sonnets, St. Martin’s Press, 1966.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington, Lord, “Milton,” in Critical, Historical, and Miscellaneous Essays, Vol. I, Sheldon and Company, 1860, pp. 202–66.

Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet, in The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 166.

Svendsen, K., in the Explicator, Vol. 7, Item 53, 1948–1949.

Woodhouse, A. S. P., and Douglas Bush, A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton, Columbia University Press, 1972, II.2.372–73.

Further Reading
Bradford, Richard, The Complete Critical Guide to John Milton, Routledge, 2001. Bradford’s work is a guide to Milton’s work that provides a discussion of his life and the period in which he was writing, while making connections to the texts that Milton wrote. This book provides a context for the study of Milton’s work.

Danielson, Dennis, The Cambridge Companion to Milton, Cambridge University Press, 1999. This book includes information on Milton’s works and the period in which they were written, while also summarizing the critical approaches to Milton studies.

Fish, Stanley, How Milton Works, Harvard University Press, 2001. Offering a comprehensive look at Milton’s texts, Fish focuses on Milton’s use of language and a close reading of the text, ignoring the more common cultural and historically based readings of the poet’s work.

Lake, Peter, and Michael C. Questier, The Anti-Christ’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post- Reformation England, Yale University Press, 2002. This book looks at the production of pamphlets in early sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and how the competing religious communities used those pamphlets to further their agendas.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer, The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography, Blackwell Publishers, 2001. Lewalski provides a thorough examination of Milton’s life. The author uses Milton’s works and a meticulous study of the period to create a comprehensive guide to Milton’s life and works.

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