The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Much of Sonnet XVI (subtitled To the Lord General Cromwell) is localized in time and place to England’s seventeenth century. The allusions that make up the poem’s primary content are to places and events that would have been immediately recognized by John Milton’s contemporaries but are understood by a modern audience only if put into historical context. In the spring of 1652, the Parliament appointed a committee to consider the question of how much free religious discussion would be tolerated outside the official Puritan Church and its appointed clergy. This Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel was considering a proposal set before it by a group of fifteen Puritan ministers headed by John Owen, General Oliver Cromwell’s personal chaplain. Milton believed that the proposals would place serious restrictions on freedom of conscience and feared that if passed, the new laws would be just the beginning of still greater prohibitions. One of the pamphlets being circulated that detailed the various proposals contained a recommendation that no one should be permitted to speak in public on any religious question without a certificate from two or more “godly and orthodox” ministers. Such a law would have placed unrestricted censorship into the hands of official clergy, who would be the sole arbiters of orthodoxy. Milton’s contempt for these behind-the-scenes machinations is stated in no uncertain terms: “. . . new foes arise/ Threat’ning to...

(The entire section is 588 words.)