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Tuesday, 9 December 2008

On Milton's 400th Birtthday

Milton and the Sonnet

The following piece is heavily indebted to the Introduction to A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic Era Revival by Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson, available in the UK from (hardback, softback) and highly recommended.

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,-
Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?
I fondly ask:-But Patience, to prevent

That murmer, soon replies; God doth not need
Either man's work, or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:-
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Milton wrote only 24 sonnets, but they were the last great contribution to the form before it fell into disrepute and neglect until the second half of the 18th century. Johnson dismissed the sonnet form altogether as being unsuited to the English language, and excepted not even Milton's contributions to the genre. Boswell records "a lively saying of Dr Johnson to Miss Hannah More, who had expressed a wonder that the poet who had written Paradise Lost, should write such poor sonnets: ' Milton, madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones'."

To the 18th century, eager for satire, intellect and clarity, the eroticism of the Petrarchan sonnet as adapted to the English language by Surrey, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare (who developed a new form not until much later known as the Shakespearean sonnet) seemed morbid, its courtly tradition seemed quaint and obscure, its habitual tone of resignation unmanly and unsuited to an age of reason and confidence, its "conceited" imagery wilfully obscure and much too clever by half. Johnson's Dictionary defines "sonneteer" as a contemptuous word for a "small poet" and in his Essay on Criticism Pope writes,

What woeful stuff this madrigal would be
In some starv'd hackney sonneteer, or me

And George Steevens was praised by critics for omitting Shakespeare's sonnets from his 1793 edition of the collected works!

And yet Milton had already modernized the sonnet for the new age. He had moved it away from erotic themes, and beyond the purely devotional (such as Donne's immortal Holy Sonnets). His sonnets are either personal (but nonerotic) such as On His Blindness (see above) or Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint) or political such as On the Late Massacre in Piedmont or To the Lord General Cromwell. He created a model for a sonnet free of the burden of the Italian erotic tradition, suitable for public themes and for private themes other than love. While restoring the Petrarchan rhyme scheme in place of the Shakespearean form (indeed, five of his sonnets are in Italian), he abandoned its rhetorical division and made extensive use of enjambement. This can be seen very well in On His Blindness -- Milton uses enjambement not only between individual lines but between quatrains and between the octet and the sestet. The volta or "turn" begins after the second foot of line 8, rather than the beginning of line 9. These metrical innovations gave the sonnet the same taut, stately feel as his blank verse.

Nevertheless, an "18th century sonnet" failed to develop from Milton's innovations. When the sonnet returned to favour in the second half of the 18th century, it did so not as a vehicle for public or personal themes, but as part of the "Cult of Sensibility" and largely in the hands of female poets.

Ironically, it was Wordsworth, the romantic who broke with most of the traditions of post-Restoration poetry, who proclaimed himself the heir of the Miltonian sonnet. He praised Milton for his reforms, noting that they gave the sonnet "the intense unity...of an orbicular body, a sphere, or a dew drop." That master epigrammist Walter Savage Landor summed up Milton's contribution to the sonnet best in The Last Fruit Off An Old Tree (the first lines refer, of course, to Milton's sonnet to Cromwell):

'TWAS not unseemly in the bravest bard Milton
From Paradise and angels to descend,
And crown his country's saviour with a wreath
Above the regal : few his words, but strong,
And sounding through all ages and all climes.
He caught the sonnet from the dainty hand
Of Love, who cried to lose it ; and he gave
The notes to Glory.

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