John Milton

The age of young Milton ( 1608 – 1674) 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:

Tu tamen ut simules teneras adisse camoenas,
Non odisse reor, neque enim, pater, ire iubebas
Qua via lata patet, qua pronior area lucri,
Certaque condendi fulget spes aurea nummi;
Nec rapis ad leges, male custoditaque gentis
Iura, nec insulsis damnas clamoribus aures,
Sed magis excultam cupiens ditescere mentem,
Me procul ubano strepitu, secessibut altis
Abdustum Aoniae iucunda per otia ripae,
Phobaco lateri comitem sinis ire beatum,
Officium chari taceo communie parentis,
Me proscunt malora, tuo, pater optime, sumptu
Cum mihi Rouleae patuit facundia linguae,
Et Latii veneres, et quae Iovis ora decebant
Grandia magniloquis elata vocabula Graiis,
Addere suasisti quos lactat Ballia flores,
Et quam degeneri novus Italus ore loquelam
Fundit, Barbaricos testatus voce tumultus
Queque Palestinus loquitur mysteria vates.

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.

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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.

“Oh, might I paint him in Miltonian verse
But with the meaner Tribe I’m forc’d to chime,
And wanting strength to rise, descend to Rhyme.“

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

“Ring out ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the base of Heaven’s deep organ blow.
And with you nine fold harmony
Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.” On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

“Soft Lydian airs
Married to immortal verse” L’allegro

“Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heaven’s joy,
Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse.” Solemn Music

“And what avails, at last, tune without voice,
Devoid of Matter? Such may suit perhaps
The rural dance, but such was n’er the song
Of Orpheus, whom the streams stood still to hear,
And the oaks followed. Not by chords alone
Well-touched, but be resistless accents, more
To sympathetic tears the ghosts themselves
He moved; these praises to his verse he owes.” Ad Patrem

“To hear the lute well touched, or artful voice
Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air.” Sonnet XX To Mr. Lawrence

“Their song was partial, but the harmony
(What could it less when Spirits immortal sing?)
Suspended Hell, and took with ravishment
The thronging audience.” PL Book II

“Anon they move
In perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood
Of flutes and soft recorders-such as raised
To height of noblest temper heroes old
Arming to battle, and instead of rage
Deliberate valor breathed, firm and unmoved
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat;
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches troubled thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds. Thus they,
breathing united force with fixed thought,
Moved on in silence to soft pipes that charmed
Their painful steps o’er the burnt soil.” Milton Paradise Lost

Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.

“Most musical of mourners, weep again!
Lament anew, Urania! He died,
Who was the Sire of an immortal strain,
Blind, old, and lonely, when his country’s pride
The priest, the slave, and the liberticide,
Trampled and mock’d with many a loathed rite
Of lust and blood. He went unterrified
Into the gulf of death; but his clear sprite
Yet reigns o’er earth, the third among the Sons of Light.” Shelley on Milton

“Strains that might create a soul
Under the ribs of Death” Milton Comus

“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:

“And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every Star that Heav’n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live.”

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.

“The star that bids the shepherd fold,
Now the top of heaven doth hold;
And the guided ear of day
His glowing axle doth allay
In the steep Atlantic stream,
And the slope sun his upward beam,
Shoots against the dusky pole,
Pacing toward the other goal
Of his chamber in the east.
Meanwhile, welcome joy and feast,
Midnight shout and revelry,
Tipsy dance and jolity,
Braid your locks with rosy twine,
Dropping odours, dropping wine,
Rigour now is gone to bed,
And advice, with scrupulous head,
Strickt age, and sour severity,
With their grave saws, In slumber lie.” Comus, Scene one.

“With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he, with his horrid crew,
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,
Confounded, though immortal. But his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him: round he throws his baleful eyes,
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.” Paradise Lost

“Towered cities please us them,
And the busy hum of men,
Where throngs of knights and barons bold
In weeds of peace high triumphs hold,
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit or arms, while both contend
To win her grace whom all commend,
There let Hymen oft appear
In saffron robe, with taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With masque and antique pageantry:
Such sights as youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream” L’Allegro

“Look homeward Angel! now, and melt with
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high Lycidas

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

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“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

“But Milton next, with high and haughty stalks,
Unletter’d in majestic numbers walks;
No vulgar hero can his muse engage;
Nor eatth’s wide scene confine his hallw’d rage,
See I see, he upward springs, and towering high
Spurns the dull province of morality,
Shakes heaven’s eternal throne with dire alarms,
And sets the almighty thundered in arms.
Whate’er his pen describes I more than see,
Whilst every verse, array’d in majstey,
Bold and sublime, my whole attention draws,
And seems above the critic’s nicer laws.
How are you struck with terror and delight,
When angel with archangel copes in fight!
When great Messiah’s outspread banner shines,
How does the chariot rattle in his lines!
What sounds of brazen wheels, what thunder, scare,
And stun the reader with the din of war!
What tongue, what words of rapture can express
A vision so profuse of pleasantness!
O, had the poet ne’er profaned his pen,
To varnish o’er the guilt of faithless men,
His other works might have deserved applause!
But not the language can’t support the cause;
While the clean current, though serene and bright,
Betrays a bottom odious to the sight.” Addison An Account of the Greatest English Poets

“If, fallen in evil days on evil tongues,
Milton appeal’d to the Avenger, Time,
If time, the Avenger, execrates his wrongs,
And makes the word “Miltonic” mean sublime.”
He deign’d not to belie his soul in songs,
Nor turn his very talent to a crime;
He did not loath the Sire to laud the Sone,
But closed the tyrant-hater he begun. Byron on Milton

“So sang, in Roman tone and style,
The youthful bard, ere long
Ordani’d to grace his native isle
With her sublimest song.”
Who then but must conceive disdain,
Hearing the deed unblest
Of wretches who have dared profane
His dread sepulchral rest?

Ill fare the hands that heaved the stones
Where Milton’s ases lay,
That trembled not to grasp his bones
And steal his dust away!

O ill-re-requited bard! Neglect
Thy living worth repaid,
And much affronts thee dead” William Cowper Stanzas on Milton

“If fallen in evil days on evil tongues,
Milton appeal’d to the Avenger, Time,
If Time, the Avenger execrates his wrongs,
And makes the word Miltonic mean ‘sublime’ Lord Byron

“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.

“Weaponless himself,
Made arms ridiculous, useless forgery
Of brazen shield and spear…
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strained from theat fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.” Samson Angonistes

“Wholesome matter and good desires rightly conceived in the heart,
wholesome words will follow of themselves.” Eikonoclastes

“By winning words to conquer willing hearts,
and make persuasion do the work of fear;
At least to try, and teach the erring Soul
Not wilfully mis-doing, but unaware
Misled” PL Book I

“To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account…His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land andocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.” When I Consider How My Light is Spent

Milton believed his blindness allowed him to recognize and see moral truth more clearly.

“Thy soul was like a star; and dwelt apart;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself did lay.” Wordsworth

“So dear to heaven is saintly chastity
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt;
And in clear dream and solemn vision,
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear
Till oft converse with heavenly habitants
Begins to cast a beam on th’ outward shape,
The unpolluted temple of the mind,
And turn it by degrees to the soul’d essence,
Til all be made immortal.” Comus

“Servant of God, well Done! Well hast thou fought
The better fight, who single hast maintained
Against revolted multitudes the cause
Of Truth, in word mightier than they in arms,
And for the testimony of truth hast borne
Universal reproach far worse to bear
Than violence; for this was all thy care
To stand approved in sight of God, though worlds
Judged thee perverse.” Paradise Lost

“What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he.” PL Book I

Virtue could see to do what Virtue would
By her own radiant light, though sun and moon
Were in the flat sea sunk. And Wisdom’s self
Oft seeks to sweet retired Solitude,
Where with her best nurse Contemplation
She plumes her feathers, and lets grow her wings.” Comus

“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:

“Authors to themselves in all
Both what they nudge and what they choose…
The fault is their own, for they were created free,
nor can they justly accuse
Their maker, or their making, or their Fate…” PL Book III

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.

“Then passing through the spheres of watchful fire,
And misty regions of wide air next under,
And hill of snow and lofts of piled thunder,
May tell at length how green-eyed Neptune raves,
In Heaven’s defiance mustering all his waves;
Then sing of secret things that came to pass
When beldam Nature in her cradle was;
And last of kings and queens and heroes old,…
But fie my wandering Muse how thou dost stray!
Expectance calls thee now another way;
Thou kno’st it must be now thy only bent
To keep in compass of they predicament:
Then quick about thy purposed business come
That to the next I may resign my room.” At a Vacation Exercise 1673

In these words Milton announces his colleague students that he abandons Latin for English.

“How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three and twentieth year
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
That I to manhood am arrived so near,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
That some more timely-happy spirits indu’th.
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot however mean or high
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven”
All is if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great Taskmaster’s eye.” Sonnet VII (Petrarchan)

To waste and havoc yonder World, which I
So fair and good created, and had still
Kept in that state, had not the folly of Man
Let in these wasteful Furies, who impute
Folly to me (so doe the Prince of Hell
And his adherents), that with so much ease
I suffer them to enter and possess
A place so heavenly, and conniving, seem
To gratify my scornful enemies,
That laugh, as if, transported with some fit
Of passion, I to them have quitted all,
At random yielded up to their misrule;
And know not that I called and drew them thither,
My Hell-hounds, to lick up the draff and filth
Which Man’s polluting sin with taint hath shed’
On what was pure; till, crammed and gorged, nigh burst
With sucked and glutted offal, at one sling
Of thy victorious arm, well-pleasing Son,
Both Sin and Death, and yawning grave, at last
Through chaos hurled, obstruct the mouth of Hell.
For ever, and seal up his ravenous jaws,
Then Heaven and Earth, renewed, shall be made pure.
To sanctity that shall receive no stain:
Till then the Curse pronounced on both precedes.” Paradise Lost Book X

“The fig-tree, not that kind for fruit renown’d,
But such as at this day, to Indians known
In Malabar or deccan spreads her arms
Branching so brocad and long, that in the ground
The bended twigs take root, and daughters grow
About the mother tree a pillar’d shade
High over-arch’d, and echoing waks between;
There oft the Indian Herdsman, shunning hear,
Shelters in cool, and tends his pasturing herds
At loop-holes cut through thickest shade.” PL Book IX

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself

“The noble hater of degenerate rime,
Shook off the chains, and built his verse sublime,
A monument too high for coupled sound to climb.” Isaac Watts The Adventurous Muse

“Read Phillips much, consider Milton more
But from the dross extract the purer ore:
To coin new words or to restore the old
In southern lands is dangerous and bold;
But rarely, very rarely, will succeed
When minted on the other side of Tweed.” Sommerville Poetical Epistle to Mr. Thomson

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

“Milton’s strong pinion now not Heaven can bound,
Now, serpent-like, in prose he sweeps the ground;
In quibbles, angel and archangel join,
And God the Father turns a school-divine.” Alexander Pope Imitations of Horace Book II

“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.

“Give me the Muse whose generous Force
Impatient of the reins
Pursues an unattempted Course,
Breaks all the Criticks Iron chains,
And bears to Paradise the raptur’d Mind.
There Milton dwells; the Mortal sung
Themes not presum’d by mortal Tongue;
New Terrors and new Glories cshine
In every Page, and flying Scenes Divine
Surprise the wond’ring Sense,
And draw our Souls along.” Isaac Watts Adventurous Muse

“Of good or bad so great, of bad the sooner;
For evil news rides post, while good news baits.” Samson Agonistes

“…apt the mind or fancy is to rove
Unchecked, and of her roving is no end;
Till warned, or by experience taught, she learn,
That not to know at large of things remote
From use, obscure and subtle, but to know
That which before us lies in daily life
Is the prime wisdom , what is more, is fume,
Or emptiness, or fond impertinence,
And renders us in things that most concern
Unpracticed, unprepared, and still to seek.” Milton Paradise Lost

“…However many books
Wise men have said are wearisome; who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep versed in books and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge.” Milton Paradise Regained

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…

“Who reads Lost Paradise the fall
of wretched man, what reads he less than all?
All nature’s works; from whence they rose:
Their fates and ends: these lofty lines disclose.” Samuel Johnson Lives of Poets

“Milton in might and majesty surpast
The triple world, and far his shade was cast,
On earth he sang amid angelic host,
And Paradise to him was never lost.” Landor Milton and Shakespeare

“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

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