John Milton

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John Milton World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Milton is not “easy reading” for the modern student of literature. Extremely well-schooled in the Bible, the Greek and Latin classics, and the learning of his own time, Milton frequently alludes to materials that were common knowledge for his educated seventeenth century audience but that are usually simply arcane footnotes for today’s readers. The modern reader also confronts vocabulary no longer in use, highly figurative language, and a convoluted syntax influenced by Milton’s lifelong study of Latin. Yet the effort is always worth the trouble; the modern reader who becomes more comfortable with Milton’s style discovers a majesty and delicacy of expression in both verse and prose that can be found in few other authors. In act 2, scene 2, of William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623), Antony’s friend, Enobarbus, says of Cleopatra, “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” The same can be said of Milton and his literary achievements.

Like Shakespeare, Milton remains a literary giant hundreds of years after his death because he completely mastered the wide variety of literary forms that he attempted. On one hand, Milton perfected the fourteen-line Italian sonnet, which demanded poetic significance in a brief form. On the other hand, he was the last poet in English to rise to the level of Homer, Vergil, and Dante in the epic poem, his massive and flawlessly sustained blank verse of Paradise Lost covering twelve books and more than ten thousand lines. Between these two extremes, Milton wrote “Lycidas,” which the critic Marjorie Hope Nicholson calls “the most perfect long short poem in the English language”; Samson Agonistes, which might be the last great classical (and Christian) verse tragedy; and the “brief epic” sequel to Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained.

In some cases, even Milton’s minor verse has survived the passage of time. For example, in 1631, Milton joined many of his fellow Cambridge students in commemorating the death of Thomas Hobson, the eccentric university “carrier,” who drove a coach carrying students and mail between Cambridge and London for sixty-seven years until his death in 1630. In two poems titled “On the University Carrier,” Milton adopts a witty style very different from the “grand style” associated with his major works, yet he manages a poetic depth and genuine pathos astounding for so slight an occasion.

The “infinite variety” of Milton’s work refers as well to the evocative power of the single line, even the single phrase or word. The poetic force of the emotionally charged and intellectually rich details in all of his poems is sometimes hard for beginning students to see, given the difficult context of Milton’s poetry; however, focusing on some of the more familiar examples of this quality can lead the patient and industrious student to many other examples. For example, at the end of “Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint,” the blind Milton wakes from the dream in which he “sees” her: “But O, as to embrace me she inclined,/ I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.” The rich, evocative quality in the words “day” and “night” suggests both his grief for Katherine and the crushing burden of his blindness. In his dream, Milton imagines actually seeing Katherine for the first time, since he had married her after the onset of his blindness; but as the literal day returns, he experiences both a literal and a figurative night, on one hand unable again to see, and on the other tormented by his sense of loss and loneliness. “Night” can also suggest the political difficulties that Milton was experiencing in a declining Puritan government. Throughout Milton’s works, the student will find such rich details that reward continued study and revisitation.

Finally, the ageless appeal of Milton’s works comes from his effective treatment of some of the most significant themes that literature can...

(The entire section is 3,797 words.)