The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

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