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, after stating the theme, Milton begins the first book with Satan and his followers in the depths of hell. Although the poetic structure of Paradise Lost may be approached in various ways, the most common is to divide the epic into three major parts or movements, with four related books in each: 1-4; 5-8; 9-12. Books 1-4 introduce the theme, settings, lines of narrative development, characters (divine, demoniac, human), and motivation. In book 1, Satan and Beëlzebub are found suffering in hell, a place that Milton describes as holding a multitude of torments. They resolve never to submit but to continue their vain attempt against God through guile. Rousing his followers, Satan has them build an enormous palace, Pandemonium, as the site of a council of war. In book 2, after Moloch, Mammon, Belial, and Beëlzebub have proposed plans of action to the council, the plan of Satan, as presented by Beëlzebub, is accepted—that they attempt to thwart God’s plan by subverting another world and its beings, a mission that Satan volunteers to perform. He sets out to travel through chaos to earth, while his followers divert themselves with epic games.
In book 3 the setting is changed to Heaven, where another council takes place. God the Father, presiding over the assembled angels, informs them of Satan’s mission, predicts its success, explains the necessity for a redeemer, and accepts Christ’s voluntary sacrifice to save humankind. The council in Heaven (book 3, vv. 80-415) provides the essential theological basis for the poem, clarifying the redemptive theology of Christianity as Milton understood it. This done, Milton returns to Satan, who deceives the angels stationed by God for man’s protection and travels to the peak of Mount Niphates overlooking the Garden of Eden. The fourth book introduces the human characters, Adam and Eve, whom Milton describes as ideal human types, living in an idyllic setting. Even Satan finds the creation of God beautiful, though the beauty does not deter him from his destructive plan. Instead, he approaches Eve in the form of a toad and creates in her mind a troubling dream, until the angels appointed to watch over the Garden discover him and drive him out.
Books 5-8, the middle books of Paradise Lost, contribute to the narrative in at least three important ways: They enable Milton to show God’s concern for man by sending the angel Raphael to instruct Adam of the danger represented by Satan, the function that George Williamson has described as “the education of Adam.” They permit him to provide exposition through an account of the war in Heaven and of the creation. Finally, they enable him to prepare the reader to accept as credible the fall of perfect beings whose only duty was to obey a plain and direct command of God. Book 5 opens with Eve narrating her dream to Adam, the dream created by Satan, in which an angel tempts her to disobey God’s command and eat of the forbidden tree. The dream follows closely the actual temptation sequence in book 9 and so foreshadows the more complex temptation that follows. Adam reassures her that dreams imply no guilt, and the angel Raphael arrives to begin his explanation of the revolt of Satan. In book 6, the angel narrates the three-day war in Heaven. James H. Hanford has shown that in the narrative Milton describes the types of combat then known—single warriors battling for victory, classic battle formations, artillery, and, finally, an elemental kind of strife like that of the Titans, in which the angels rend up hills to hurl them at their opposition. On the third day, Christ appears to drive Satan and his host out of Heaven.
The seventh book provides an account of the creation of the universe and all living things by Christ, who forms the whole from chaos, bringing order and harmony. To Milton, the creation is consciously and intentionally harmonious and hierarchical. In book 8, Adam explains what he can recall about his own creation and asks Raphael questions about astronomy. When he acknowledges to the angel that he sometimes inclines to Eve’s view because her wisdom seems superior, Raphael warns him not to abandon his responsibility as her guide, emphasizing the importance of hierarchy.
The final group of books includes an account of man’s fall (9), its immediate aftermath 10), and the long-term consequences (11-12), the final two books representing the education of fallen Adam. In book 9, Satan returns to the Garden under cover of darkness and enters the body of the serpent. The serpent approaches Eve, who has persuaded Adam to let her work apart, and tempts her to disobey God through promises of greater power. When she returns to Adam, he understands what has happened, and at her invitation eats the forbidden fruit, not because he has been deceived but because he wishes to share Eve’s fate. The immediate results include inordinate and ungovernable passions in both and disorder in nature. In book 10, Christ appears in the Garden to pass sentence on man, but his words hold out hope of triumph over Satan. As he is returning to hell, Satan meets the allegorical figures Sin and Death, who are paving a broad way to link hell and the earth. His triumph before his followers in hell is eclipsed when they are transformed into serpents that greedily approach apple trees growing outside the great hall, only to discover the fruit to be bitter ashes. Meanwhile, Adam and Eve have understood that God’s will must prevail and have begun to take some hope in the promise given them by the Savior.
In book 11, the archangel Michael is sent by God to explain to Adam the effects of sin on his descendants, so that Adam can understand and accept God’s plan for humankind. Adam sees the effects of sin, understanding the cause of disease, death, and erroneous choices among men. He witnesses the flood that destroys the world and acknowledges it as just. In book 12, Michael narrates the bringing of the law through Moses, the birth of Christ, the establishment of the Church, and the history of Christianity until Judgment Day. Having understood the entire scope of human history, Adam gratefully accepts God’s plan for the restoration of humanity, and he and Eve depart from the Garden, having lost the original paradise but having gained the ability to attain a “paradise within.”
For the exalted theme of Paradise Lost, Milton achieves an appropriately elevated style that appeals primarily to the ear, creating the “organ tones” for which it is celebrated. He chose blank verse because he believed it to be the closest equivalent in English meter to the epic verse of the classics; yet the stylistic unit is not the line but rather the sentence, and, at times, the verse paragraph. The more prominent stylistic qualities include the following: Latinate diction and syntax (“the vast profundity obscure”), frequent inversions, words either archaic or used in unfamiliar senses, collocations of proper names, epic similes, compound epithets, compression, and, most prominently, the schemes of repetition—the most frequent being polyptoton, antimetabole, and chiasmus.
The style reveals a weaving of related images and a richly allusive texture that can be grasped only after repeated readings. Christopher Ricks has shown, for example, that references to the “hands” of Adam and Eve recur in poignantly significant contexts, creating a cumulative effect with one image. When Milton uses a biblical name, as Ricks notes, he often “transliterates,” that is, provides the literal equivalent in English. Thus, when Satan is named, “adversary” may appear immediately thereafter; “pleasant” occurs in passages that mention Eden—as if to remind readers that names embody meanings of which they are unaware. Further, reading mythology as allegory, Milton freely associates mythical characters with biblical counterparts—Proserpine with Eve, Deucalion with Noah, Ceres with Christ. Finally, the reader learns to interpret biblical characters typologically, as Milton did, where characters in the Old Testament anticipate the New—Adam, Noah, and Moses, for example, all being types of Christ. Through these poetic techniques, Milton achieves a style so complex that its interest and appeal can never be exhausted.
Milton’s brief epic Paradise Regained, written in blank verse and published with Samson Agonistes in 1671, represents a sequel to Paradise Lost, its hero Christ being a second Adam who overcomes temptation that is much more extensive than that experienced by Adam. Milton makes several assumptions about the temptation of Christ in his source, Luke 4:1-14, an account of events that occurred before the beginning of Christ’s ministry: First, Christ does not fully understand either his mission or the role of the Messiah; second, he can be genuinely tempted; third, his withstanding temptation assures his success in the role of redeemer. To Milton, the Book of Job represented the ideal model for the brief epic; it appears that no other poem in English or in the classics influenced the form significantly.
The temptations of Christ, narrated in the four books of the poem, offer easy access to those things that Satan supposes a hero of his kind would want. At the beginning of the narrative, Christ has been fasting in the desert for forty days following his baptism, an event that had attracted Satan’s interest. Satan had heard God’s recognition of Christ following the ceremony and had supposed that Christ might be the offspring of Adam destined to bruise his head. Resolving to subject Christ to temptations, Satan approaches him in disguise and invites him to turn stones into bread to allay his hunger. After Christ’s refusal, Satan next offers a banquet, also refused because Christ recognizes the giver as evil. When Satan realizes that Christ cannot be tempted by ordinary means, he concludes that he is indeed someone extraordinary and appeals to Christ’s supposed ambition by offering first wealth, then the Parthian kingdom, then Rome, and, later, all kingdoms of the world in return to fealty to Satan. In rejecting these offers, Christ reveals that his kingdom is not of the world. Undeterred, Satan offers all the learning—philosophy, poetry, history—of Athens, declined by Christ as unnecessary to him and inferior to that of the Hebrews.
Satan raises a storm in the desert in the hope of terrifying Christ and transports him through the air to the pinnacle of the Temple, where he urges Christ to cast himself down and be rescued from death by God. When Christ replies, “Tempt not the Lord thy God,” Satan recognizes his divine nature and falls himself, leaving Christ in the protection of angels who minister to him.
Biographer Barbara Lewalski has pointed out that the temptations in Paradise Regained are designed to reveal Christ’s roles as priest, prophet, and king. The prophet in the wilderness denies himself, the king acknowledges no kingdom of this world, and the priest rejects the false and unnecessary learning for the true.
For his only tragedy, Samson Agonistes, Milton adapts a Greek model of the genre to a biblical episode, the story of Samson, as found in Judges 13-16. The title signifies Samson the wrestler or athlete; Milton’s hero represents a type of Christ from the Old Testament, though Samson, unlike Christ, falls from favor and undergoes a series of temptations before being restored. Since Milton wrote the tragedy in verse (1,758 lines in blank verse) and since he clearly states that he did not intend the work for the stage, it is usually studied as a dramatic poem.
Samson Agonistes, said to be the English tragedy that most closely follows the Greek model, employs numerous Greek conventions. It takes place on the final day of the hero’s life and follows the unities of time, place, and action. Milton divides the major episodes of the play not by acts but by the choral odes, as in Greek drama. The chorus performs its usual functions—providing exposition, advising the hero, announcing arrivals, and interpreting for the audience.
The tragedy opens with a despairing Samson, blind and enslaved to work in a Philistine mill, being visited on a holiday by a group of his countrymen, who form the chorus. Samson blames himself for the loss of God’s favor because he revealed the secret of his strength to his wife, Dalila, who betrayed him to the Philistines. The men of Dan announce the arrival of Samson’s father Manoa, who is negotiating with the Philistines for his son’s release, a prospect that brings Samson little comfort, because he believes that idleness will only increase his sense of guilt. Manoa’s effort, however, invites Samson to choose a life of ease and rest much unlike the life he has known, and this he rejects. Dalila arrives and informs Samson that she now wishes that he would return to her and renew their marriage. Her suggestion only arouses his anger, and she leaves, satisfied that she will enjoy fame among her own people. The next visitor is the Philistine champion Harapha, a giant who has come to challenge Samson to prove his strength once again through physical combat, but Harapha discreetly leaves after Samson defies him. This meeting renews Samson’s understanding that his strength derives from God, yet it suggests to him that single combat is no longer his role.
A Philistine officer arrives to command Samson to attend the celebration in Dagon’s temple to divert the audience with feats of strength. At first, Samson scornfully refuses the command as impious and idolatrous, but, after an inward prompting, changes his mind and accompanies the officer to the temple. As the Chorus and Manoa await Samson’s return, they hear a fearful noise, and a messenger arrives to announce that Samson has destroyed the temple and has perished in the destruction, along with thousands of Philistines. The chorus recognizes that Samson has been restored to God’s favor and has acted in accordance with divine will.
As in his other major works, Milton in Samson Agonistes expands and modifies his source while remaining faithful to its original meaning and spirit. The effort of Manoa to obtain Samson’s release, the appearance of Dalila during his imprisonment, and the character of Harapha are all Milton’s additions. They enable him to interpret the character of Samson as more complex than the biblical character and to show him undergoing a series of temptations. Although the poetic voice is less intrusive in Samson Agonistes than in the epics, Milton, as Hanford has pointed out, identifies rather closely with the blind hero of the tragedy.
There can be little doubt that religion, as Milton understood it, stands as the major theme of his poetry. The protagonists of his four greatest poetic works—the Lady in Comus, Adam in Paradise Lost, Christ in Paradise Regained, and Samson in Samson Agonistes—undergo an elaborate temptation (or a series of temptations) and either triumph or come to terms with failure. Critics recognize that Milton does not excel in characterization, one reason being that his characters are subordinate to his narrative and thematic purposes. Nor does Milton possess a gift for humor or comedy; his infrequent efforts in those directions usually appear heavy-handed.
Milton’s religious perspective is Protestant, with greater emphasis on the will than was common for his time. His view of salvation would have been called Arminian during the seventeenth century—that is, Christ provided for the salvation of all who willingly accepted him. To Milton, this assumption takes on classical overtones derived perhaps from Aristotle and Ovid, among others. In kind of Aristotelian teleology, he assumes that one right choice makes a second easier, and thus humankind through the proper exercise of will moves toward the perfection of human nature. Conversely, a wrong choice makes subsequent right choices more difficult and may lead to the degradation of human nature.
In his poetry, Milton seeks to celebrate right choices and to guide readers in their own choices. His poetry of the will and of ethical conflict is expressed in literary genres of lasting interest and in a style so sublime and so rich in poetic meaning that people discover new beauties with each successive reading.