While John Milton’s reputation rests primarily upon his long works, PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED, and SAMSON AGONISTES, his lyric poetry, written for the most part before he reached the age of forty, shows the same genius at work and reveals the wide range of his interests and abilities. He worked with many different verse forms and traditions adapted from his study of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian; many of his youthful lyrics are either translations from one of these languages or original poems in them. He did a fine English version of the famous Horation ode “To Pyrrha,” translated many of the Psalms from Hebrew into English verse, and at seventeen composed an elegy for the vice-chancellor of Cambridge and a long poem commemorating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. He mastered the style and spirit of classical literature, as well as its verse forms and vocabulary. The influence of the Greeks and the Romans is pervasive in both his pastoral poem, “Lycidas” and his great epic.
Milton’s twenty-one sonnets, composed at intervals over a thirty-year period, illustrate remarkably well the variety of tones at his command. Five of the first six were written in Italian, and all six show his temporary immersion in the Petrarchan tradition. He proclaims himself the servant of the Muse and Love and sings the praises of his anonymous lady in terms that belie the traditional concept of Milton as the stern Puritan moralist.
More characteristic of Milton’s work is the better-known “How Soon Hath Time,” a poem in which he muses on the fact that he has reached his twenty-third birthday and still has little notion of where life will take him. He is, however, prepared to follow the will of God:
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,It shall be still in strictest measureev’nTo that same lot, however mean orhigh,Toward which Time leads me, and thewill of Heav’n;All is, if I have grace to use it so,As ever in my great task-Master’s eye.
Some ten years after the composition of this poem Milton returned to the sonnet form to write a witty piece addressed to whatever “Captain or Colonel or Knight in Arms” who might come to his house during the Civil Wars. He asks, tongue in cheek, that his home be spared, as that of the great poet Pindar was when Alexander the Great conquered his homeland. This poem is especially interesting as one of the very few pieces showing Milton in a mildly humorous frame of mind.
The same period sees Milton using the sonnet to pay graceful tribute to virtuous ladies and to a friend, the composer Henry Lawes, to praise leaders of the Parliamentary cause—Fairfax, Cromwell, and Vane—and to issue harsh-sounding tirades against critics of his treatises:
I did but prompt the age to quit theirclogsBy the known rules of ancient liberty,When straight a barbarous noise environsmeOf Owls and Cuckoos, Asses, Apesand Dogs.
The massacre of a group of Waldensians in the Piedmont occasioned one of his finest poems, which rises above his protest about a specific incident as a defense of all seekers after religious truth. Milton seldom surpassed the power of the opening lines: “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold.”
Milton’s mastery of the sonnet form is shown most clearly in “On his Blindness,” where he grapples with the question of how, sightless, he can exercise his God-given poetic talents:
When I consider how my light is spent,Ere half my days, in this dark worldand wide,And that one Talent which is deathto hide,Lodg’d with me useless, though mySoul more bentTo serve therewith my Maker, andpresentMy true account, lest he returningchide;“Doth God exact day-labor, lightdenied,”I fondly ask; But patience to preventThat murmur, soon replies, “God dothnot needEither man’s work or his own gifts;who bestBear his mild yoke, they serve himbest; his StateIs Kingly. Thousands at his biddingspeedAnd post o’er Land and Ocean without
(The entire section is 2,272 words.)