John Milton 1608-1674
The age of young Milton was a period described by Green as when “England became the people of the book, and that book was the bible.” It was not an overnight occurrence but one that had been festering for fifty years with intellectual and spiritual development traveling on separate tracks but headed to an unavoidable collision. Demands for not only civil but religious freedom were spreading throughout the country. First there was James I “obstinate, yet vacillating, irascible, yet feeble, pugnacious, yet cowardly, a sorry mixture of conceit, cunning, arrogance, and the right divine of kings to govern wrong.” Succeeded by Charles I, whose scorn for the demands of the people spawned turbulence, persecution, and finally, civil war. By 1640, Charles was overthrown and a Protectorate established.
In childhood Milton was a serious man in a child’s body destined for scholarship. In his own words in Devensio Seconda pro Popula Anglicano Milton wrote “My father destined me, while yet a little boy, for the study of humane letters, for which my appetite was so voracious, that, from the twelfth year of my age, I scarcely ever went from my lesson to bed before midnight; which, indeed was the primary cause of injury to my eyes, to whose natural weakness there were also added frequent headaches.”
When Humphrey Moseley sought to publish the first book of poems by John Milton his introduction read:
“I know not thy palate, how it relishes such dainties, nor how harmonious thy soul is: perhaps more trivial airs may please thee better...Let the event guide itself which way it will, I shall deserve of the age by bringing into the light as true a birth as the Muses have brought forth since our famous Spenser wrote; whose poems in English ones are as rarely imitated as sweetly excelled. Reader, if thou art eagle-eyed to censure their worth, I am not fearful to expose them to they exactest perusal.”
There are four distinct periods in the poetic life of John Milton. The first is from 1608-1632.
Milton was privately tutored in his early school life while living in London. He writes “My father had me instructed daily in the grammar school, and by other masters at home.” On the twelfth of Februrary 1624 he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge where he was already committed to becoming a poet. He remained there for seven years while completing his Master’s. We read that he was “a laborious recluse, who cared little for the society of other students, preferring to pursue in proud, if not contemptuous isolation, an independent course of study.” “A haughty, imperious, irreproachable scholar, visibly conscious of his own superior gifts...” Ambrose Phillips “he was loved and admired by the whole university, particularly by the fellows and most ingenious persons of his house.”
At one point his father became a bit impatient with Milton’s slow progress and leisured approach to becoming a poet. To this Milton replied with this poem in Latin:
At one time one could call upon a student to volunteer to give a quick summary of what was written, this is no longer true. Here it is in short translation:
“Though you pretend to dislike the delicate Muses, I do not think you really do so. For you did not, father, order me to go where the way lies open, where opportunities for gain are easier and the golden hope of accumulating money shines steadily. Nor did you force me to study law and the ill-guarded principles of the nation; and you do not condemn my ears to meaningless clamour. But you are eager to enrich still further my cultivated mind, and so you have taken me far away from the noise of the city into these high retreats of delightful leisure by the banks of the Aeolian stream and you let me walk there by Phoebus’ side, his happy comrade.”
Quite the reverse for life today: one, a “humanist education” does not augur lucrative employment; two, parents nudge their progeny toward the goal of employment; and three, as students move toward “the golden hope of accumulating money” they either abandon or decrease the time spent on a “humanist education”.
Milton was, as we refer to it in modern times, “focused.” Every step of his learning was to lead to knowledge acquisition where he set forth his goal as “the end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know god aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him...”
Milton wrote in his pamphlet Apology for Smectymnos “that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not pursuing to himself the experience and the practice of what which is praiseworthy.” About this statement is explained by Irene Samuel in Plato and Milton 1965 “Renaissance faith in virtue and learning as the foundation of poetic character.” An interesting take on this statement comes from an article written by Ann Keplinger “The apprehension of man as an imaginative, truly creative work, himself, in turn creating poetry...out of a simple, sane, and poetic life is doctrinally based on the revelation of Ephesians ‘of him we are a product.’” (Smectymnus was the nom de plume of a group of Puritan clergymen active in England in 1641 who spoke against the Church of England. The name is an acronym derived from the initials of the five members: Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcomen, and William Spurstow).
Besides the Humanist movement’s basic objective, to recover all that was best in the thought an expression of the classics, there was also the importance of using all forms of rhetoric in the persuasion of man of the need for “wisdom and vertue.” in other words knowledge is not enough to deem a “Renaissance Man”. We are reminded of these words of Bacon “For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit” Thus when he set to reconcile classical humanism with Protestant Christianity he produced Paradise Lost, where even after he applied all of the tricks of debate covered by rhetoric and logic to support to defeat Satan. Later he came to realize that the two “isms” were unreconcilable and in Paradise Regained he reverses: Christ adopts a quiet, simple rhetoric and Satan becomes the seducer.
His poetic achievements during the first period were Hymn of the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, 1629, Lines on Shakespeare, 1630, and Sonnet on Arriving at the Age of 23, 1631. Always the champion of “divine poetry,” he declares as a Christian humanist that a poet’s abilities “are of power beside the office of a pulpit, to inbreed and cherish in a great people, the seeds of vertu, and publick civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune.” But before he was Renaissance humanist he was a Reformation nationalist using the mandatory stress on the tenth syllable the standard feature of English renaissance verse.
The second period the early time was spent with his retired father at Horton, a little village west of London. Well-spent, critics say, as it produced in 1631 L’Allegro or The Cheerful Man, Il Penseroso or The Thoughtful Man, both in rhymed couplets, the masque Comus in mixed rhymed and the monody or elegy Lycidas (1637). Of these six years Milton writes in Defensio Secunda “On my father’s estate where he had determined to pass the remainder of his days, I enjoyed an interval of uninterrupted leisure, which I entirely devoted to the perusal of the Greek and Latin classics; though I occasionally visited the metropolis (London), either for the sake of purchasing books, or of learning something new in mathematics or in music, in which I, at that time found a source of pleasure and amusement.” Milton planned his final phase of “self-preparation” to become a poet which he hinted at in Lycidas as “pastures new”.
His return to London after more than a year in Italy marked the beginning of his third period, roughly from 1639 to 1660. It began very calmly with the opening of a small school where he undertook the tutoring of young lads age eight to sixteen. Up until this time, Milton was somewhat aloof for politics and the social turmoil occurring round him although he was extremely vocal and in Areopagitica, after meeting with Galileo, he warned the church against censorship and other anti-Catholic practices. Now back in England he found his voice as “the patriotic utopianist of the English Puritan reformer.” There was no poetry now, only prose. He became an anti-prelatical pamphleteer, the official pamphleteer for Cromwell, now the Lord Protector, his government, and the Reformation in Defensio Secunda. Unfortunately for Milton, the event was short-lived. The cancellation of all forms of entertainment, bible as “the book”, dedication to the “Divine Principle”, heresy defined as interpretation left to a man’s own conscience, public education became public indoctrination. Finally the Restoration in 1660, pardoned by Charles II. Milton, now fifty-two, retreated to complete his epic Paradise Lost. By 1644 Milton was losing the sight in his left eye and by 1652 he was totally blind. “Old, blind, and fallen on evil days, yet with his Titanic proportions and independent loneliness, the most impressive figure in English literature.” His enemies saw “God’s judgment” in his blindness but Milton compared himself “to those wise and ancient bards whose misfortunes the gods are said to have compensated by superior endowments.” Defensio Secunda while in Paradise Lost the blind Samson becomes a tragic hero.
Just as the “Spenser stanza” brought lasting recognition to Edmund Spenser, so likewise did “blank verse” serve John Milton. Before Paradise Lost no poet thought of using “blank verse” in unrhymed poetry. Isaac Watts wrote in Miscellaneous Thoughts 1810 “Mr. Milton is esteemed the parent and author of blank verse among us” and from Specimens of the Classic Poets, Vol. I page xiii wrote “Milton introduced a new species of verse into the English language which is called blank verse.” In these lines by Edmund Smith from Poem on the Death of John Phillips, 1708 “Miltonian verse” means simply blank verse.
So what are the characteristics of Milton’s poetry that bestowed such praise that resulted in a period of “English verse gone Milton mad”?
First characteristic: harmonious verse
“The God gifted voice of England” Tennyson Alcaics
Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.
“The interim of unsweating themselves regularly, and convenient rest before meat, may both with profit and delight be taken up in recreating and composing their travailed spirits with the solemn and divine harmonies of music heard or learnt; either while the skillful organist plies his grave and fancied descant in lofty fugues, or the whole symphony with artful and unimaginable touches adorn and grace the well-studied chords of some choice composer...to assist and cherish nature in her first concoction, and send their minds back to study in good tune and satisfaction.” John Aubrey Of Education: Collections for the Life of John Milton
“Like which piece in the peculiar disposition of this story, the sweetness of the numbers, the justness of the expression, and the moral it teaches, there is nothing extant in any language.” Elijah Fenton about Milton’s shorter poems.
“Stressing the musical talent and interest Milton acquired from his father...the poet’s desire to achieve in the rhythmic texture of Paradise Lost, a verbal analogue of contrapuntal music...”
Witness how one can represent the rhythm of the phrase “a little learning” as three separate eighth notes followed by a two syllable cadence.
In iambic trimeter and tetrameter of the Milton’s two poems: L’Allegro opens with the song of the lark, the rising sun, music from a “rebeck”. The merriment and joy fills the young man’s heart with pleasant tales by the evening fire. Its opposite is Il Penseroso, opening at night with melancholic organ music portending the solitude of tragedy and drama. He depicts both sides of a personality, the light and the serious. He announces his preference in lines 168-176:
This metaphor attributed to Robert Lovett was used to describe the music of the poems of the Milton’s Horton period: “like the melody of the singing voice beside the manifold harmonies of an orchestra, of the rolling chant of a cathedral organ.”
“Thus far I have digressed, Readers, from my former subject: but into such a path as I doubt not ye will agree with me to be much fairer and more delightful than the roadway I was in. And how to break off suddenly into those jarring notes which this confuter hath set me, I must be wary, unless I can provide against offending the ear, as some musicians are wont skillfully to fall out of one key into another without breach of harmony.” An Apology Against a Pamphlet
Second characteristic is sublimity of expression.
Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.
“The word ‘sublimity,’ has, in the case of Paradise Lost, real fitness. It was a quality to which Milton attained only after much stern experience. Without those silent years when his imagination was held back by his will, gaining momentum like the dammed-up waters of a stream, he would possibly never have attained that peculiar mightiness of imagery and phrase which causes Paradise Lost to deserve, as does perhaps no other work of literature, the epithet ‘sublime.’ William Moody
“From one end of Paradise Lost to the other, Milton is in his diction and rhythm, constantly a great artist in the great style...in our race are thousands of readers, presently there will be millions, who know not a word of Greek or Latin, and will never learn those languages. If this host of readers are ever to gain any sense of the power and charm of the great poets of antiquity, their way to gain it is not through the translation of the ancients but through the original poetry of Milton, who has the like power and charm because he has the like grand style.” Mathew Arnold
“The poetry of Milton is the every essence of poetry. There is something indescribably heroical and magnificent which overflows from Milton, even when he is engaged in the most miserable discussions...The eloquence is now sad, tender, and again wild and tempestuous as the hurricane in heaven.” Edmond Scherer
“The majesty and the beauty of Paradise Lost are beyond praise...Throughout the grandeur of the picture increases with the grandeur of the...Nothing can be nobler in thought and verse than Adam’s great hymn of praise.” Stopford Brooke
“His name is almost identified with sublimity. He is in truth, the sublimest of men. He rises...by a native tendency and a cod-like instinct, to the contemplation of objects of grandeur and awfulness. The grandeur of Milton’s mind has thrown some shade over his milder beauties.” W. E. Channing.
“In these and other ways Milton made for himself a sublime verse-instrument to match his sublime imagery and theme.”
“Among Milton’s many great attributes, his mastery of the sublime is the one which has probably received the most frequent laudation.” W. M. Rossetti
There is something sublime in this part of Paradise Lost where the author describes the great period of time filled with so many glorious circunstances.” Addison
“Let us consider the lines of Milton were he describes the travels of the fallen angels through their dismal habitation:
...O’er many a dark and dreary vale
In his biography (H. S. Beeching in1900) Bishop Francis Atterbury writes that Milton remained to the end of his life his favourite poet. “I protest to you, this last perusal of Milton has given me such new degrees, I will not say of pleasure, but of admiration and astonishment, that I look upon the sublimity of Homer, and the majesty of Virgil, with somewhat less reverence that I used to do. I challenge you, with all your partiality, to show me in the first of these any thing equal to the Allegory of Sin and Death, either as to the greatness and justness of the invention or the height and beauty of the colouring.”
The third characteristic is virtue and moral character.
Milton believed his blindness allowed him to recognize and see moral truth more clearly.
“But either the inbred vanity of some, in that respect unworthily called historians, or the fond zeal of praising their nations above truth, hath so transported them, that where they find nothing faithfully to relate, they fall confidently to invent what they think may either best set off their history or magnify their country.” Milton History of Britain
Comments from colleagues, critics, and himself.
“Certain high moral dispositions Milton had from nature; he sedulously trained and developed them until they became habits of great power...Milton’s power of style has for its great character elevation, which clearly comes in the main from a moral quality in him - his pureness. How high, clear, and splendid is his pureness; and how intimately does its might enter into the voice of his poetry! Matthew Arnold
“Miltons every line breathes sanctity of thought and pureness of manners, except when the train of narration requires the introduction of the rebellious spirits, and even then they are compelled to acknowledge the subjugation of God in such a manner as excites reverence and confirms piety.” Samuel Johnson
“He reverenced moral purity and elevation...as the inspirer of the intellect and especially of the highest efforts of poetry. His moral character was as strongly marked as hiw intellectual, and it may be expressed in one word, magnanimity.” W. E. Channing
Thomas Carlyle calls Milton “the moral king of English literature.”
“I again take God to witness in all these places, where so many things are considered lawful, I lived sound and untouched from all profligacy and vice, having this thought perpetually before me, that though I might escapre the eyes of men, I certainly could not the eyes of God” Milton
“Milton was sensuous, as he declared all poetry should be, but he was never sensual.” Hippolyte Taine History of English Literature
“These abilities, wheresoever they be found, are the inspired gift of God, rarely bestowed, but yet to some (though most abuse) in every nation; and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit, to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue, and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind and set the affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness and what he works" Milton in Glorification of Gifts
“As a man moving among other men, he possessed, in that moral seriousness and stoic scorn of temptation which characterized him, a spring of ever present pride, dignifying his whole bearing among his fellows, and at times arousing him to a kingly intolerance. He was one of those servants to whom God had entrusted the stewardship of the ten talents.” David Masson English Poets
“To demonstrate that God is not the “author” of sin Milton attempts to prove that the blame lies with the sinner himself, through the abuse of free will in the following lines:
Speaking of the use of onomatopoeia: “Milton...seems only to have regarded this species of embellishment so far as not to reject it when it came unsought...He had a greater and a nobler work to perform, a single sentiment of moral or religious truth, a single image of life or nature, would have been cheaply lost for a thousand echoes of the cadence to the sense.” Samuel Johnson The Rambler, No 94
“In my mind, the highest of all poetry is ethical poetry, as the highest of all earthly objects must be moral truth. Religion...is something beyond human powers, and has failed in human hads except Milton’s and Dante’s.” Lord Byron Letter to John Murray, 1821
The fourth characteristic is sound and sense in language.
In language Milton’s fortes were inverted word order, parenthesis, and adjectives for adverbs.
In these words Milton announces his colleague students that he abandons Latin for English.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself
On “poetic diction”: Since Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets it has been customary to regard this as the pecuiar invention of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. If it be traced to its origins, it will be found that most of it originated with that poet who may fairly be called “the founder of the English classical school of poetry - to Milton. Examples may be taken from any of the descriptive portions of the Paradise Lost such as:
“damasked with flowers,” “flowery vale,” “umbragious grots,”
The practice of giving to adjectives adverbial endings such: “warbling flow,” “snowy grace,” “glossy kind,” “forest-rustling” “bloomy mead,” which spawned imitations from Cowper, Coleridge, and George Crabbe years later.
“Homer himself is a minute describer of works of art; and Milton is full of imagery derived from it.” T. Campbell Essay on English Poetry, 1819
“Rhyme, Milton says, and says truly, is no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; graced indeed since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom... This neglect then of rhyme so little is to be taken fro a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.”
In some ways the rhymed verse serves as a much needed attention-getter for readers of less capability; that is, those who seem to lose the thought when encountering advanced expressive language.
“Blank is a term of diminution; what we mean by “blank verse” is verse unfallen, uncursed; verse reclaimed re-enthroned in the true language of the gods, who never thundered, nor suffered their Homer to thunder, in rhyme; and therefore, I beg you...to crown it with some nobler term; nor let the greatness of the thing lie under the defamation of such a name.” Edward Young Conjectures on Original Composition
A fifth characteristics is wisdom and learned thought.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“Dryden remarks , that Milton has some flats among his elevations, this is only to say, that all the parts are not equal...In a great work there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the world a succession of day and night. Milton, when he has expatiated in the sky, may be allowed sometimes to revisit earth; for what other author ever soared so high, or sustained his flight so long?” Samuel Johnson Lives of Poets - Milton
“Milton in particular ought to be read and studied by all our young gentlemen as an Oracle. He was a great and noble genius, perhaps the greatest that ever appeared among men...His works are full of wisdom, a treasure of knowledge.” Richard Baron in Preface to Eikonoklastes
“in reading Paradise Lost we read a book of universal knowledge...
“The author unfolds the treasures of his learning, heaping up the testimony of Scripture, passages from the fathers, and quotations from the poets, laying sacred and profane antiquity alike under contribution, and subtly discussing the sense of this and that Greek or Hebrew term.” Edmond Scherer - French Theologian Études critiques de littérature
“He was a profound scholar, a man of vast compass of thought, imbued thoroughly with all ancient and modern learning, to master, to mold, to impregnate with his intellectual power, his great and various acquisitions...The very splendor of his poetic fame has tended to obscure or conceal the extent of his mind...Milton has that universality which marks the highest order of intellect.” Wm. Ellery Channing - Unitarian preacher and Transcendentalist