Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

From the first word, the reader is able to condense a powerful minimalist sentence that sets the tone for the entire sonnet: “Avenge.” Milton may be addressing God, but not the loving, forgiving shepherd of the New Testament. With this particular prayer, Milton is looking forward and backward to invoke the God of blood and vengeance: backward to the Old Testament deity who pronounced “I will make mine arrows drunk with blood and my sword shall devour your fleshhe will avenge the blood of his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:42-42) and forward to the apocalyptic prophecies found in John’s visions, “O Lordavenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth” (Revelation 6:10).

Lines 3 and 4 credit the massacred Waldensians with following true Christian principles while England was still finding its way, worshiping “Stocks and Stones.” These mysterious and ambiguous stocks and stones evoke several images: material wealth in the form of livestock and precious stones; pagan idolatry with the livestock signifying an animistic deism and the stones signifying graven images (the golden calf being a primary example); or even the harshness of seventeenth century justice, which utilized cruel public stocks to ridicule offenders and stones to press out their confessions. If one puts credence in the latter explanation, then the sonnet’s call for revenge has been undercut. Is a society that employs such barbaric means to preserve its civil order closer to the...

(The entire section is 553 words.)