Other literary forms
Although John Milton’s poetry represents only about one-fifth of his total literary production, the prose works are more obscure, largely because he wrote in genres that no longer appeal to a large audience. Milton’s prose is usually valued mostly for what it reveals about his biography and his thought. His most prominent theme was liberty—religious, domestic, and civil. The following examples are notable: five antiprelatical tracts (1641-1642); four tracts justifying divorce (1643-1645); and five pamphlets defending the English Puritan cause against the monarchists (1649-1654). The tract Of Education (1644) and the classical oration upholding freedom of the press, Areopagitica (1644), are the most familiar titles among the prose works. The remaining titles consist largely of academic exercises, letters, additional pamphlets, works of history, and treatises. Milton left in manuscript at his death a Latin treatise on religion, De doctrina Christiana libri duo Posthumi (1825), a work that provides valuable clarification of his religious beliefs.
By common agreement, literary historians have ranked John Milton second among English poets. He wrote during the English Renaissance, when authors were attempting to develop a national literature in the vernacular. In this endeavor, they had exceedingly rich sources on which to draw: the classics, many recently translated, which provided both genres and themes; the Judeo-Christian tradition, an area of broad interest and intensive study following the Reformation; and national sources—historical, folk, mythical; and literature from the Continent, particularly Italy and France. By the time Milton began writing, William Shakespeare and his contemporaries had created a national drama that surpassed that of other nations, and Ben Jonson had adapted such classical lyric genres as the ode and the epigram to English verse. As yet no poet had succeeded in creating an epic poem based on a classical model, a task that the age considered the highest achievement of the creative mind.
It remained for Milton to undertake this formidable task, one for which he was well prepared. Among English poets of the first rank, he was the most deeply and broadly learned—in classical languages and literature and in works of the Judeo-Christian tradition. From early life, he considered poetry to be a true vocation, and his development as a poet suggests that he emulated Vergil and Edmund Spenser, beginning with lyric genres and progressing by degrees to the epic. Milton’s strongest inclination as a poet was to produce a synthesis of classical and Christian elements, a blend that critics have labeled his Christian humanism.
Milton contributed poems of lasting value and interest to English literature in both major and minor genres. He stressed the importance of the individual will by making his most common theme that of the soul in ethical conflict—the wayfaring, warfaring Christian. He developed a style peculiarly “Miltonic.” In the verses that Milton would have seen as fitting his ideal of“simple, sensuous, passionate,”Matthew Arnold discovered“touchstones,” or examples of the sublime in poetry. Finally, he adopted the blank verse of English drama as a vehicle for the long poem on a serious theme.
Investigate the relationship between Milton’s Areopagitica and the American Bill of Rights.
Is it possible to detect whether Milton favors the mood of “L’Allegro” or “Il Penseroso”?
Given the history of sonnets written in English before his time, which topics in Milton’s sonnets seem most unusual?
Explain whether Milton’s depiction of God is more or less convincing than Dante’s in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine...
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