Themes and Meanings

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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 Waldensians or to the army that cut them down?

Lines 10-13 employ another of Milton’s signature devices of conflating classical and biblical allusions into a single poetic image. In the poem, the blood and ashes of martyrs are sown over fields, held by the “triple Tyrant,” to reproduce one hundredfold. The reader is expected to associate the myth of Cadmus, who sowed dragon’s teeth to create an army of warriors (as Cromwell is calling on the combined forces of Protestant Europe to battle the Papacy), with the parable of the sower found in Matthew 13 (the seed that fell on good ground brought forth as much as one hundredfold) and theologian Tertullian’s famous phrase, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The triple Tyrant is generally assumed to refer to the pope’s mitre with three crowns.

Again, Milton seems to deliberately undercut his own arguments, as though he were divided about what he ought to feel, what stance he ought to take. In the Cadmus tale, the brother warriors fell among themselves in a bloody civil war. In Matthew, the parable of the sower is followed immediately by the parable of the thorns that sprang up among the good seed and had to be cast into the fire. In addition, Tertullian, like all Montanists, held that Christians should welcome persecution, not flee from it. His dogmatic tendencies ultimately led him into heresy. One may see that each of Milton’s allusions attach destructive consequences to Cromwell’s call for retribution and to the disunity among the Protestant factions. Although Milton was dismayed and angry about the massacre of the saints at Piedmont, and his initial reaction was to lash out with violent and furious language, the reader may also believe that Milton included in his poem hints that Cromwell’s call for a holy war against Rome was not the Christian way to reform.

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