The Poem

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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 bind our souls with secular chains.”

Cromwell was already well established as a proponent of wide religious freedoms. When the proposals were under discussion in Parliament, Cromwell is reported to have said that he had “rather Mahometanism [Islam] were permitted among us than that one of God’s children should be persecuted.” Still, Cromwell was a realist and Milton may have feared that the politician might not go as far in the protection of free conscience as the poet’s idealism would wish. Sonnet XVI repeats Milton’s warnings to the Puritans contained in his prose masterpiece Areopagitica (1644) that the purported champions of liberty were soon to be guilty of imposing precisely the same bondage they had previously overthrown or, as Milton stated so succinctly in a previous sonnet, that “new Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.”

The poem lends support to a head of state already engaged in a cause for which the poet cared deeply. Although Cromwell may well have been the most powerful person in England when Sonnet XVI was composed, the poem goes far beyond simple hagiography. It does not merely flatter or exalt a powerful man but rather urges his and Milton’s agenda in a contentious political struggle—pushing the sonnet, a poetic form utilized primarily for praising some romantic ideal, into the realm of polemic. Furthermore, while Cromwell’s achievements are indeed nobly versified in Sonnet XVI, it is too much to assume that the poem contains Milton’s final estimation of the Lord Protector. The relationship between them was not as close, nor was Milton’s adherence to the party line as total, as is sometimes assumed. His position as secretary for foreign tongues did not give him any real influence in the government or its councils. He was a secretary whose job was to translate state documents into Latin for publication on the Continent. So, while the poem may appear at first glance to be an attempt to curry favor and exalt the rich and famous, such was not its intention. It functions less as praise for Cromwell than a rallying cry for free-thinking Englishmen.

Forms and Devices

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Sonnet XVI is modeled after the heroic sonnets of Torquato Tasso, one...

(This entire section contains 359 words.)

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of Milton’s favorite poets. It is arguably an apostrophe, the form of address that speaks to an absent or dead person, a thing, or an abstract idea as if it were present. While it is possible that Milton, a minor (though celebrated) functionary in Cromwell’s Commonwealth government, had the opportunity to deliver the poem directly to the man he is addressing, no record of Cromwell’s reception of or reaction to the sonnet is known to exist. Another legitimate way of reading the poem is to let the particulars give way to the general and to see Cromwell as the poetic ideal of people of good conscience who live in all places at all times. Thus the apostrophe’s address would be not just to “the chief of men” but also to the best of what is human. The poem’s subtitle, “On the proposals of certain ministers at the Committee for Propagation of the Gospel,” clearly distances it from the Spenserian and Shakespearean tradition of reserving the sonnet for celebrating love and tender feelings.

Sonnet XVI employs the classic Italian octave-sestet division written in nearly uniform iambic pentameter. Throughout all his sonnets, Milton consistently utilized a rigorous Petrarchan rhyme scheme of abba abba for the octave, and Sonnet XVI is no exception. However, its concluding sestet of a cddcee scheme is unique for Milton and is his only sonnet to end in a couplet. This couplet is further isolated from Milton’s usual pattern by the jarring fourteenth line, which introduces it. Line 14 contains twelve syllables, destroying the pentameter, and its word order is impossible to read with any regular scansion, destroying the iambic. The octave is devoted to praise and the sestet to admonition. Also unique to Sonnet XVI is the joining of the octave and the sestet by enjambment, a sentence or clause that carries its sense of meaning from one line to another: “yet much remains/ To conquer still.” In this case, the enjambment not only unites two lines but also serves to bridge what are usually strictly separated poetic units.