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...
(The entire section is 4,433 words.)