The Poem

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John Milton’s Sonnet XVIII—sometimes known as “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”—was written against a background of religious dissent and persecution. While serving in Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State as its secretary of foreign tongues, Milton received preliminary news of trouble between the French Catholic Duke of Savoy and a small, isolated sect of Protestants who lived in the French Alps. These Protestants were known as the Waldensians or Vaudois and were thought to have preserved a simple scriptural faith from earlier times.

The Waldensians were founded in the 1100’s by a Lyonnais theologian and reformer named Peter Waldo. The Roman Catholic Church was disturbed by Waldo’s lack of theological training and his translation of the Latin Bible into French. Waldensian views were based on a simplified reading of the Bible that emphasized moral rigor. They confessed, celebrated Communion, fasted, and preached poverty, but did not pray for the dead or venerate saints. The movement spread rapidly to Spain, northern France, Flanders, Germany, and southern Italy and into Poland and Hungary. Rome’s responses ranged from excommunication to active persecution and execution. By the end of the thirteenth century persecution had virtually eliminated the sect in most of Europe, and by the end of the fifteenth century the members were confined by treaty to the French and Italian valleys of the Cottian Alps.

By Milton’s time, the Waldensians had begun to intrude into the more fertile plains of Piedmont, Italy. Ordered by the Duke of Savoy to retreat, they had been pursued into the mountains and were massacred there by the Piedmontese soldiers on April 24, 1655. It is estimated that 1,712 men, women, and children were set upon and slaughtered with every kind of barbarity. A few fugitives escaped over the snow-covered Alps to carry word of the massacre to Paris and beg protection of the larger Protestant community.

In May of the same year, Milton, acting for Cromwell, wrote letters to various heads of state including Louis XIV of France, the kings of Denmark and Sweden, and the Dutch Republic and the Swiss Protestant cantons that strongly protested against the abrupt termination of freedom of worship for the Waldensians and its violent enforcement. Although these letters were necessarily couched in diplomatic language and were not the proper outlet for Milton’s full expression of personal outrage, they nevertheless fully communicated his and England’s ire and are adequate prose counterparts to the poem. Later in the year, after Sir Samuel Morland, Cromwell’s special envoy to the Duke of Savoy, returned with his full report and the full degree of bloodshed was known, Milton was able to give free rein to his emotions and wrote this, his most impassioned sonnet. It was first published in 1673.

Forms and Devices

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Sonnet XVIII is an apostrophe, a figure of speech that directly addresses either someone not present or an abstract quality. Apostrophes include prayers or other addresses to God and are associated with deep emotional expression. The apostrophe form is ideally suited to Sonnet XVIII, which not only is addressed to God but also is so passionate that one can almost hear it uttered between clenched teeth.

The poem breaks with conventional British sonnet technique in two basic ways: Its rhyme pattern is not the usual abab cdcd efef gg used by Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and other earlier English poets. Instead it uses the enclosed abba abba cdc dcd of the first Italian sonneteers. Second, Milton’s frequent use of enjambment marks a drastic departure with the British notion of the proper sonnet.

In a typical English sonnet, the statement of...

(This entire section contains 483 words.)

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ideas coincides with the poem’s division into quatrains, tercets, and couplets. Major themes finish and new ones begin in harmony with the divisions. Additionally, the verbal pauses required by normal speech patterns occur with almost perfect regularity at the ends of lines, and a complete sentence break anywhere inside the line of poetry is avoided. Yet the four major pauses of Sonnet XVIII all occur within the lines, and the octave is connected to the sestet by one of the poem’s ten enjambments. By so doing, Milton was not so much breaking from tradition as returning to the patterns established by the original Italian sonneteers, primarily Giovanni della Casa, whose poetry treated the sonnet more as a whole unit, drawing the quatrains and tercets more closely together into a seamless fabric.

Whether deliberate or not, Milton’s preference for earlier Italianate conventions over the later British modifications forms a rather elaborate conceit that pervades Sonnet XVIII. If the reader accepts a rough parallel between religious and literary orthodoxy, then Milton was doing the same thing in his poetry as the Waldensians in their faith. The sect believed it was living according to the original Christian edicts, breaking with the more recent innovations of the Roman Church, just as Milton was writing according to the original Italian masters, contrary to later British conventions.

Again, Milton may not have intended this particular twist of reasoning, but he had a particular genius for using the forms and conventions of poetry which would precisely mirror his themes. One could further conjecture that Sonnet XVIII’s line-broken ideas and pause-broken lines litter the poem like bodies litter a field after a massacre. The jaggedness of Milton’s composition mirrors for the reader the fractured limbs and shattered lives of the Piedmontese Protestants. Its phonetics were also chosen to conjure up associations of violence and grief: the repetition of the long o and n sounds in “stones,” “moans,” “groans,” and “Babylonian woe” re-create in some small sense the plaintive cries of victims falling before the sword.