The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 483 words.)