John Milton (Born December 9, 1608 – died November 8, 1674) was an English poet of the late Renaissance period. He is most noted for his epic poem on the fall of Satan and Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden, Paradise Lost, which he composed after having gone blind. He studied at Cambridge University and was proficient in Latin, Greek, and Italian.  His Puritan faith and opposition to the Church of England led to his involvement in the English Civil War. After the ascension of the Puritan general and parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell over the Commonwealth of England, Milton was given a high position, making him essentially head propagandist.


10 Greatest Poems Written by John Milton

by Peter G. Epps

So, a Milton top ten, eh? This is made the more challenging because Milton’s most famous works are very long, and because outside of those major works he didn’t widely publish his poems. We could dig back into his schoolboy days, or find lots of macaronic verse in several languages at once, and a better Latinist than I am might want to propose some of his Latin verse (or his Italian verse), but I’m going to stick to the English. I have chosen some very long excerpts from the long works, below, but am still counting Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes as just one poem each for the top ten. As a result, we get quite a range of works here. I am willing to admit that there could be a lot of argument about the bottom six, but in the top four I think the only argument is about which order—not a few people would place “Methought I saw my late-espoused saint” at number one, and perhaps even many of those who have read both would rank Paradise Lost above Samson Agonistes. I’ll defend my ranking, though, as we read through them.

If you want to study these more, the gold standard is still Roy Flannagan’s edition The Riverside Milton. A public version of his complete poetical works can be found here. Dartmouth University also offers a good Milton resource here.

 

Number 10: “Song on May Morning” (1632–33)

NOW the bright morning-star, Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
Woods and groves are of thy dressing;
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.

 

Our first poem is a pretty simple poem from a very young Milton (as the next two will be, as well). Think of this as establishing a baseline for Milton. We see here several of the habits Milton will carry with him: strong caesuras, heavily periodic sentences, a very rhetorical mode, and strong use of both consonant and vowel sounds to reinforce a rhythm. Milton generally sounds best when read with attention to the open-mouth vowels of English, and in a full voice; compare the “loud” syllables of Milton with the “smooth” sound that Keats (a Cockney!) will write much later, or with Tennyson.

 

Number 9: “Il Penseroso” (1633)

William Blake’s illustration for “Il’Penseroso”

HENCE, vain deluding Joys,
___The brood of Folly without father bred!
How little you bested,
___Or fill the fixèd mind with all your toys!
Dwell in some idle brain,
___And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
___As the gay motes that people the sunbeams,
Or likest hovering dreams,
___The fickle pensioners of Morpheus’ train.

But hail! thou Goddess sage and holy!
Hail, divinest Melancholy!
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight,
And therefore to our weaker view
O’erlaid with black, staid Wisdom’s hue;
Black, but such as in esteem
Prince Memnon’s sister might beseem,
Or that starred Ethiop Queen that strove
To set her beauty’s praise above
The Sea-Nymphs, and their powers offended.
Yet thou art higher far descended:
Thee bright-haired Vesta long of yore
To solitary Saturn bore;
His daughter she; in Saturn’s reign
Such mixture was not held a stain.
Oft in glimmering bowers and glades
He met her, and in secret shades
Of woody Ida’s inmost grove,
Whilst yet there was no fear of Jove.
Come, pensive Nun, devout and pure,
Sober, steadfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestic train,
And sable stole of cypress lawn
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
Come; but keep thy wonted state,
With even step, and musing gait,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes:
There, held in holy passion still,
Forget thyself to marble, till
With a sad leaden downward cast
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.
And join with thee calm Peace and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring
Aye round about Jove’s altar sing;
And add to these retirèd Leisure,
That in trim gardens takes his pleasure;
But, first and chieftest, with thee bring
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheelèd throne,
The Cherub Contemplation;
And the mute Silence hist along,
’Less Philomel will deign a song,
In her sweetest saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of Night,
While Cynthia checks her dragon yoke
Gently o’er the accustomed oak.
Sweet bird, that shunn’st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!
Thee, Chauntress, oft the woods among
I woo, to hear they even-song;
And, missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven green,
To behold the wandering Moon,
Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
Through the heaven’s wide pathless way,
And oft, as if her head she bowed,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
Oft, on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off curfew sound,
Over some wide-watered shore,
Swinging slow with sullen roar;
Or, if the air will not permit,
Some still removèd place will fit,
Where glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom,
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth,
Or the Bellman’s drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm.
Or let my lamp, at midnight hour,
Be seen in some high lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
With thrice-great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato, to unfold
What worlds or what vast regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook;
And of those Dæmons that are found
In fire, air, flood, or underground,
Whose power hath a true consent
With planet or with element.
Sometime let gorgeous Tragedy
In sceptred pall come sweeping by,
Presenting Thebs, or Pelops’ line,
Or the tale of Troy divine,
Or what (though rare) or later age
Ennobled hath the buskined stage.
But, O sad Virgin! that thy power
Might raise Musæus from his bower;
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as, warbled to the string,
Drew iron tears down Pluto’s cheek,
And made Hell grant what Love did seek;
Or call up him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold,
Of Camball, and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to wife,
That owned the virtuous ring and glass,
And of the wondrous horse of brass
On which the Tartar King did ride;
And if aught else great Bards beside
In sage and solemn tunes have sung,
Of turneys, and of trophies hung,
Of forests, and inchantments drear,
Where more is meant than meets the ear.
Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career,
Till civil-suited Morn appear,
Not tricked and frounced, as she wont
With the Attic boy to hunt,
But kerchieft in a comely cloud,
While rocking winds are piping loud,
Or ushered with a shower still,
When the gust hath blown his fill,
Ending on the rustling leaves,
With minute drops from off the eaves.
And, when the sun begins to fling
His flaring beams, me, Goddess, bring
To archèd walks of twilight groves,
And shadows brown, that Sylvan loves,
Of pine, or monumental oak,
Where the rude axe with heaved stroke
Was never heard the Nymphs to daunt,
Or fright them from their hallowed haunt.
There, in close covert, by some brook,
Where no profaner eye may look,
Hide me from Day’s garish eye,
While the bee with honeyed thigh,
That at her flowery work doth sing,
And the waters murmuring,
With such consort as they keep,
Entice the dewy-feathered Sleep.
And let some strange mysterious dream,
Wave at his wings in airy stream,
Of lively portraiture displayed,
Softly on my eyelids laid.
And as I wake, sweet music breathe
Above, about, or underneath,
Sent by some Spirit to mortals good,
Or the unseen Genius of the wood.
But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloister’s pale,
And love the high embowèd roof,
With antick pillars massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full voiced Quire below,
In service high and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heaven before mine eyes.
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 Heaven doth shew,
And every hearb 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.

 

We’ll save the commentary until you’ve had a chance to read Number 8, “L’Allegro,” as well.

 

Number 8: “L’Allegro” (1633)

William Blake’s illustration for “L’Allegro”

HENCE, loathèd Melancholy,
___Of Cerberus and blackest Midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn
___’Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy,
Find out some uncouth cell,
___Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
___There under ebon shades, and low-browed rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,

In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
But come, thou Goddess fair and free,
In heaven yclep’d Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To ivy-crownèd Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as some sager sing)
The frolic Wind that breathes the spring,
Zephyr with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a-Maying,
There on beds of violets blue,
And fresh-blown roses washed in dew,
Filled her with thee, a daughter fair,
So buxom, blithe and debonair.
Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and wreathèd Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as ye go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty;
And, if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreprovèd pleasures free;
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-tower in the skies,
Till the dappled Dawn doth rise;
Then to come, in spite of sorrow,
And at my window bid good-morrow,
Through the sweet-briar or the vine,
Or the twisted eglantine;
While the cock with lively din
Scatters the rear of Darkness thin;
And to the stack, or the barn-door,
Stoutly struts his dames before:
Oft listening how the hounds and horn
Cheerily rouse the slumbering Morn,
From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill:
Sometime walking, not unseen,
By hedgerow elms, on hillocks green,
Right against the eastern gate,
Where the great Sun begins his state,
Robed in flames and amber light,
The clouds in thousand liveries dight;
While the ploughman, near at hand,
Whistles o’er the furrowed land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures,
Whilst the lantskip round it measures:
Russet lawns, and fallows gray,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray;
Mountains on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest;
Meadows trim with daisies pied;
Shallow brooks, and rivers wide.
Towers and battlements it sees
Bosomed high in tufted trees,
Where perhaps some Beauty lies,
The Cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
Hard by, a cottage chimney smokes
From betwixt two aged oaks,
Where Corydon and Thyrsis met
Are at their savoury dinner set
Of hearbs and other country messes,
Which the neat-handed Phillis dresses;
And then in haste her bower she leaves,
With Thestylis to bind the sheaves;
Or, if the earlier season lead,
To the tanned haycock in the mead.
Sometimes with secure delight
The upland hamlets will invite,
When the merry bells ring round,
And the jocond rebecks sound
To many a youth and many a maid
Dancing in the chequered shade;
And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holyday,
Till the livelong daylight fail:
Then to the spicy nut-brown ale,
With stories told of many a feat,
How fairy Mab the junkets eat:
She was pinched and pulled, she said;
And he, by Friar’s lanthorn led,
Tells how the drudging Goblin sweat
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath threshed the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And, stretched out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength,
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.
Thus done the tales, to bed they creep,
By whispering winds soon lulled asleep.
Towered cities please us then,
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
Of win her grace whom all commend.
There let Hymen oft appear
In saffron robe, with taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask and antique pageantry;
Such sights as youthful Poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream.
Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Johnson’s learned sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild.
And ever, against eating cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian airs,
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce,
In notes with many a winding bout
Of linkèd sweetness long drawn out
With wanton heed and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony;
That Orpheus’ self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heaped Elysian flowers, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto to have quite set free
His half-regained Eurydice.
These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee I mean to live.

 

We are still witnessing a pretty young Milton, here (all of the bottom four are from his early twenties, as Number 7 will make quite clear). He is not yet party to the regicide, not yet the tragic figure of his late career, after being Cromwell’s Latin Secretary. He revels in Renaissance context and allusions to classical literature; we are in the world of Botticelli, of Shakespeare cribbing from Boccaccio, as we read this phase of Milton’s work. Be sure not to make the mistake I almost make every time I read “L’Allegro” of thinking Samuel Johnson when you read “If Johnson’s learned sock be on”—we are, of course, talking about Ben Jonson, here. Note the lovely self-illustrating line “native wood-notes wild,” possibly more famous to many of us from Shaw’s Pygmalion or the its musical adapation My Fair Lady. Milton considers Jonson’s work to be studied and erudite, Shakespeare’s to be full of “giddy cunning,” so apparently he subscribes to the popular myth that Shakespeare (who Jonson said knew “small Latin and less Greek”) was a one-draft wonder writer. This poem gives us wonderful insight into Milton’s character, and paired with “Il Penseroso” we can clearly see Milton’s sense of play and his sense of purpose competing, like Jonson and the “upstart crow” Shakespeare, for mastery.

 

Number 7: “On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three” (1631)

HOW soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stolen 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 Task-master’s eye

 

I freely admit that I have a prejudice for sonnets, even though Samuel Johnson lamentably said the form “is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton.” Whatever the merits of Johnson’s definition, it is true that Milton was the last major practitioner in the line of sonnetteers that led from Wyatt and Surrey, through Sidney and Donne and Spenser and Shakespeare, to Milton. Milton’s sonnets, based on the Petrarchan model that Wyatt and Surrey freely adapted into English, often have only two rhymes in the sestet, and so are more difficult than Shakespeare’s version of the English sonnet (though Spenser’s rhyme scheme is more difficult yet). Like most English practitioners of the sonnet, Milton also likes to have an epigrammatic couplet at the end, though in Milton this couplet is typically marked by syntactic closure, not by rhyme. Notice the delayed predicate in the sestet (look in earlier lines to discover what “is”), and the way Milton uses some very difficult syntax to create a tension about meaning, purpose, and direction that is resolved in the closing couplet.

 

Number 6: “To Cyriack Skinner” (1656)

CYRIACK, whose grandsire on the royal bench
Of British Themis, with no mean applause,
Pronounced, and in his volumes taught, our laws,
Which others at their bar so often wrench,
To-day deep thoughts resolve with me to drench
In mirth that after no repenting draws;
Let Euclid rest, and Archimedes pause,
And what the Swede intend, and what the French.
To measure life learn thou betimes, and know
Toward solid good what leads the nearest way;
For other things mild Heaven a time ordains,
And disapproves that care, though wise in show,
That with superfluous burden loads the day,
And, when God sends a cheerful hour, refrains.

 

Leaping ahead much later in his career. This solid, friendly sonnet is full of historical and contemporary references, has wonderful aural play in the rhymes (“wrench” and “drench” and “French”!), and reflects in one sonnet all the themes we’ve seen so far. And in anticipation of the use of “wait” in “On His Blindness,” note the use of “refrains” here: used here as in “holds back” from unnecessarily burdensome work, embracing leisure, of course; but also appearing in the last line, the position of a “refrain” in sung music. This is not an accident, we may be sure, because “measure” and “time” are already at work in the sestet. When we choose well what “solid good” of leisure we will enjoy by agreeing to “drench / in mirth” the unnecessary burdens of the day, with good friends, we have Milton’s full support. I hope Cyriack Skinner dropped by for a beer after receiving this note!

 

Number 5: “On Shakespeare” (1630)

WHAT needs my Shakespeare, for his honoured bones,
The labour of an age in pilèd stones?
Or that his hollowed relics should be hid
Under a stary-pointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of Fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou, in our wonder and astonishment,
Hast built thyself a livelong monument.
For whilst, to the shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath, from the leaves of thy unvalued book,
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took;
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble, with too much conceiving;
And, so sepulchred, in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

 

Back to youth, and still very much living in the tension between Milton’s own impatient aspirations to be both deeply learned and intuitively artistic—Milton’s uptake of the Renaissance virtuoso—acted out in the history of Jonson’s “slow-endeavouring art” that paid Shakespeare the doubtful tribute of treating him as a Wunderkind rather than a craftsman. The closing couplet is direct homage to the frequent preoccupation with literary immortality found in Shakespeare’s own sonnets. Shakespeare’s actual grave is, of course, quite humble and the source of many little literary mysteries.

 

Number 4: Paradise Lost (1667)

Illustration of Adam and Eve talking to Gabriel, by Gustave Dore

I won’t drench these in commentary; the great epic speaks for itself. Instead, I’ll quickly mention where each passage falls in the story, and then let you read for yourself.

We must begin, of course, with the invocation—and do not fail to notice how much conscious craftsmanship is packed in here. Start with the very first sentence, in which we are already primed to expect a narrative of “the fruit” of humanity’s subjection to the rule of Dis, the fictional City of Hell:

 

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the highth of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

 

And although after Blake many a reader has, through an education which promotes the Promethean at the expense of other humane concerns, or through sheer laziness, stopped after the raging Satanic debate of the first two books, I think much of the best of Paradise Lost is in Book Four. It opens with the Mount Niphates soliloquy, as the evil one creeps into the world and is so struck with the majesty of human creatures that he almost reconsiders his plan—and then breaks logic and syntax to shreds in order to assert his deformed will against his Creator:

 

Satan, now first inflamed with rage, came down,
The tempter, ere the accuser, of mankind,
To wreak on innocent frail Man his loss
Of that first battle, and his flight to Hell.
Yet not rejoicing in his speed, though bold
Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,
Begins his dire attempt; which, nigh the birth
Now rowling, boils in his tumultuous breast,
And like a devilish engine back recoils
Upon himself. Horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The hell within him; for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step, no more than from Himself, can fly
By change of place. Now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue!
Sometimes towards Eden, which now in his view
Lay pleasant, his grieved look he fixes sad;
Sometimes towards Heaven and the full-blazing Sun,
Which now sat high in his meridian tower:
Then, much revolving, thus in sighs began:—
“O thou that, with surpassing glory crowned,
Look’st from thy sole dominion like the god
Of this new World—at whose sight all the stars
Hide their diminished heads—to thee I call,
But with no friendly voice, and add thy name,
O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams,
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere,
Till pride and worse ambition threw me down,
Warring in Heaven against Heaven’s matchless King!
Ah, wherefore? He deserved no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less than to afford him praise,
The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks,
How due? Yet all his good proved ill in me,
And wrought but malice. Lifted up so high,
I ’sdained subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome, still paying, still to owe;
Forgetful what from him I still received;
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharged—what burden then?
Oh, had his powerful destiny ordained
Me some inferior Angel, I had stood
Then happy; no unbounded hope had raised
Ambition. Yet why not? Some other Power
As great might have aspired, and me, though mean,
Drawn to his part. But other Powers as great
Fell not, but stand unshaken, from within
Or from without to all temptations armed!
Hadst thou the same free will and power to stand?
Thou hadst. Whom has thou then, or what, to accuse,
But Heaven’s free love dealt equally to all?
Be then his love accursed, since, love or hate,
To me alike it deals eternal woe.
Nay, cursed be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrauth and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.
O, then, at last relent! Is there no place
Left for repentence, none for pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduced
With other promises and other vaunts
Than to submit, boasting I could subdue
The Omnipotent. Aye me! they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vain,
Under what torments inwardly I groan.
While they adore me on the throne of Hell,
With diadem and sceptre high advanced,
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery: such joy ambition finds!
But say I could repent, and could obtain,
By act of grace, my former state; how soon
Would highth recal high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feigned submission swore! Ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void
(For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep)
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall: so should I purchase dear
Short intermission, bought with double smart.
This knows my Punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging, peace.
All hope excluded thus, behold, instead
Of us, outcast, exiled, his new delight,
Mankind, created, and for him this World!
So farewell hope, and, with hope, farewell fear,
Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my Good: by thee at least
Divided empire with Heaven’s King I hold,
By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign;
As Man ere long, and this new World, shall know.”

 

And then, of course, we also have the gratuitous, luxuriant description of the garden prepared for Adam and Eve, and their love-play in the bower, culminating in what one of my first graduate
school professors called “the most erotically astute line ever penned”:

 

In this pleasant soil
His far more pleasant garden God ordained.
Out of the fertile ground he caused to grow
All trees of noblest kind for sight, smell, taste;
And all amid them stood the Tree of Life,
High eminent, blooming ambrosial fruit
Of vegetable gold; and next to life,
Our death, the Tree of Knowledge, grew fast by—
Knowledge of good, bought dear by knowing ill.
Southward through Eden went a river large,
Nor changed his course, but through the shaggy hill
Passed underneath ingulfed; for God had thrown
That mountain, as his garden-mould, high raised
Upon the rapid current, which, through veins
Of porous earth with kindly thirst updrawn,
Rose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill
Watered the garden; thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears,
And now, divided into four main streams,
Runs diverse, wandering many a famous realm
And country whereof here needs no account;
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell
How, from that sapphire fount the crisped brooks,
Rowling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise, which not nice Art
In beds and curious knots, but Nature boon
Poured forth profuse on hill, and dale, and plain,
Both where the morning sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierced shade
Imbrowned the noontide bowers. Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view:
Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm,
Others whose fruit, burnished with golden rind,
Hung amiable—Hesperian fables true,
If true, here only—and of delicious taste.
Betwixt them lawns, or level downs, and flocks
Grazing the tender herb, were interposed,
Or palmy hillock; or the flowery lap
Of some irriguous valley spread her store,
Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose.
Another side, umbrageous grots and caves
Of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine
Lays forth her purple grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant; meanwhile murmuring waters fall
Down the slope hills dispersed, or in a lake,
That to the fringèd bank with myrtle crowned
Her crystal mirror holds, unite their streams.
The birds their quire apply; airs, vernal airs,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune
The trembling leaves, while universal Pan,
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance,
Led on the eternal Spring. Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered—which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world—nor that sweet grove
Of Daphne, by Orontes and the inspired
Castalian spring, might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive; nor that Nyseian isle,
Girt with the river Triton, where old Cham,
Whom Gentiles Ammon call and Libyan Jove,
Hid Amalthea, and her florid son,
Young Bacchus, from his stepdame Rhea’s eye;
Nor, where Abassin kings their issue guard,
Mount Amara (though this by some supposed
True Paradise) under the Ethiop line
By Nilus’ head, enclosed with shining rock,
A whole day’s journey high, but wide remote
From this Assyrian garden, where the Fiend
Saw undelighted all delight, all kind
Of living creatures, new to sight and strange.
Two of far nobler shape, erect and tall,
God—like erect, with native honour clad
In naked majesty, seemed lords of all,
And worthy seemed; for in their looks divine
The image of their glorious Maker shon,
Truth, wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure—
Severe, but in true filial freedom placed,
Whence true authority in men: though both
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace;
He for God only, she for God in him.
His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule; and Hyacinthin locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clustering, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
She, as a veil down to the slender waist,
Her unadornèd golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils—which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received—
Yielded, with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay.

 

We can all debate whether the account of the War in Heaven and Raphael’s long speech about world history and redemption history are scintillating reading—Edgar Allan Poe, in his typically outspoken style, denied it was poetry—but it is a mistake to give up on Paradise Lost before the end. We open with Adam’s speech of resignation after his last exchange with Raphael, which I think we should understand to also be Milton’s admission of defeat in the hubristic aim of the invocation (which may, in its way, be the only answer possible to Milton’s problem, and Adam’s). Having gained “the sum / Of wisdom” the sad way, Adam and Eve are positioned in the middle all humanity has lived in since their day: between vast failures and vast possibilities, between remembered reasons for sorrow and tangible reasons for hope.

 

He ended; and thus Adam last replied:—
“How soon hath thy prediction, Seer blest,
Measured this transient World, the race of Time,
Till Time stand fixed! Beyond is all abyss—
Eternity, whose end no eye can reach.
Greatly instructed I shall hence depart,
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this vessel can contain;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learn that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things—by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly-strong, and worldly-wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And to the faithful death the gate of life—
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.”
To whom thus also the Angel last replied:—
“This having learned, thou hast attained the sum
Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the stars
Thou knew’st by name, and all the ethereal powers,
All secrets of the Deep, all Nature’s works,
Or works of God in heaven, air, earth, or sea,
And all the riches of this world enjoy’dst,
And all the rule, one empire. Only add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable; add faith;
Add virtue, patience, temperance; add love,
By name to come called Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.
Let us descend now, therefore, from this top
Of speculation; for the hour precise
Exacts our parting hence; and, see! the guards,
By me encamped on yonder hill, expect
Their motion, at whose front a flaming sword,
In signal of remove, waves fiercely round.
We may no longer stay. Go, waken Eve;
Her also I with gentle dreams have calmed,
Portending good, and all her spirits composed
To meek submission: thou, at season fit,
Let her with thee partake what thou hast heard—
Chiefly what may concern her faith to know,
The great deliverance by her seed to come
(For by the Woman’s Seed) on all mankind—
That ye may live, which will be many days,
Both in one faith unanimous; though sad
With cause for evils past, yet much more cheered
With meditation on the happy end.”
He ended, and they both descend the hill.
Descended, Adam to the bower where Eve
Lay sleeping ran before, but found her waked;
And thus with words not sad she him received:—
“Whence thou return’st and whither went’st I know;
For God is also in sleep, and dreams advise,
Which he hath sent propitious, some great good
Presaging, since, with sorrow and heart’s distress
Wearied, I fell asleep. But now lead on;
In me is no delay; with thee to go
Is to stay here; without thee here to stay
Is to go hence unwilling; thou to me
Art all things under Heaven, all places thou,
Who for my wilful crime art banished hence.
This further consolation yet secure
I carry hence: though all by me is lost,
Such favour I unworthy am voutsafed,
By me the Promised Seed shall all restore.”
So spake our mother Eve; and Adam heard
Well pleased, by answered not; for now too nigh
The Archangel stood, and from the other hill
To their fixed station, all in bright array,
The Cherubim descended, on the ground
Gliding meteorous, as evening mist
Risen from a river o’er the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the labourer’s heel
Homeward returning. High in front advanced,
The brandished sword of God before them blazed,
Fierce as a comet; which with torrid heat,
And vapour at the Libyan air adust,
Began to parch that temperate clime; whereat
In either hand the hastening Angel caught
Our lingering Parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain—then disappeared.
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

 

If there is a case to be made that Paradise Lost is truly Milton’s greatest work, I think it must begin with those last lines. Here, let me repeat them for you:

 

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

 

Number 3: “On his Deceased Wife” (1658)

METHOUGHT I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from Death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washed from spot of childbed taint
Purification in the Old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But, oh! as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

 

This refers to Milton’s second wife, who was by all accounts his great love match; she died in childbirth after a very short marriage. The suddenness of the closing line steals the breath away, and makes me want to go hug my wife. I will not tarnish this poem with long commentary.

 

Number 2: Samson Agonistes (1671)

In this genre-bending poem which is neither quite a closet drama nor quite a long verse narrative, Milton deploys all the structural tropes of Greek tragedy but—true to his Hebrew historical theme—eschews his usual classical allusions. Samson Agonistes is thus unique in Milton’s corpus for being almost entirely shorn of explicit play with external themes. If in other works Milton has used his vast learning to set a sort of picturesque background of Renaissance classical allusion, here the characters are stripped and vulnerable—Samson is blinded and pushing a grinding wheel, doing an ox’s work, as the poem opens. And if Adam’s plight in Paradise Lost is also Milton’s after the failure of Cromwell’s revolution, then even more in this poem are we hearing Milton’s situation very thinly veiled by Samson’s. After all, had not Milton felt so betrayed by his first wife (the marriage was arguably null, and she abandoned him after very brief acquaintance) that he had become an advocate for legal divorce on grounds of irreconcilable differences? And here is Delilah. And had Milton not, as the great champion of the regicide of Charles I by Cromwell’s forces, been defeated, placed under house arrest, and left with a career that was going nowhere but in circles? Was he not blind? Milton clearly found in Samson a powerful exponent of his own perspective, and not a few of Samson’s speeches should probably be read as Milton’s own apologia.

We begin with an early moment, in which Samson is trying to restore his composure and take stock of his situation. Readers of “On His Blindness” will note the evidence that Milton was far from complacent about the matter:

 

But peace! I must not quarrel with the will
Of highest dispensation, which herein
Haply had ends above my reach to know.
Suffices that to me strength is my bane,
And proves the source of all my miseries—
So many, and so huge, that each apart
Would ask a life to wail. But, chief of all,
O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
Blind among enemies! O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
Inferior to the vilest now become
Of man or worm, the vilest here excel me:
They creep, yet see; I, dark in light, exposed
To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong,
Within doors, or without, still as a fool,
In power of others, never in my own—
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half.
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverábly dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first-created Beam, and thou great Word,
“Let there be light, and light was over all,”
Why am I thus bereaved thy prime decree?
The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon,
When she deserts the night,
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Since light so necessary is to life,
And almost life itself, if it be true
That light is in the soul,
She all in every part, why was the sight
To such a tender ball as the eye confined,
So obvious and so easy to be quenched,
And not, as feeling, through all parts diffused,
That she might look at will through every pore?
Then had I not been thus exiled from light,
As in the land of darkness, yet in light,
To live a life half dead, a living death,
And buried; but, O yet more miserable!
Myself my sepulchre, a moving grave;
Buried, yet not exempt,
By privilege of death and burial,
From worst of other evils, pains, and wrongs;
But made hereby obnoxious more
To all the miseries of life,
Life in captivity
Among inhuman foes.

 

Here Samson’s father, Manoah, laments the state to which Samson is fallen. Considering Milton’s lifelong anxiety to amount to something, a frequent theme of his poems, it is fascinating to see a father-figure here expressing that expectation:

 

Man. O miserable change! Is this the man,
That invincible Samson, far renowned,
The dread of Israel’s foes, who with a strength
Equivalent to Angels’ walked their streets,
None offering fight; who, single combatant,
Duelled their armies ranked in proud array,
Himself an Army—now unequal match
To save himself against a coward armed
At one spear’s length? O ever-failing trust
In mortal strength! and, oh, what not in man
Deceivable and vain? Nay, what thing good
Prayed for, but often proves our woe, our bane?
I prayed for children, and thought barrenness
In wedlock a reproach; I gained a son,
And such a son as all men hailed me happy:
Who would be now a father in my stead?
Oh, wherefore did God grant me my request,
And as a blessing with such pomp adorned?
Why are his gifts desirable, to tempt
Our earnest prayers, then, given with solemn hand
As graces, draw a scorpion’s tail behind?
For this did the Angel twice descend? for this
Ordained thy nurture holy, as of a plant
Select and sacred? glorious for a while,
The miracle of men; then in an hour
Ensnared, assaulted, overcome, led bound,
Thy foes’ derision, captive, poor and blind,
Into a dungeon thrust, to work with slaves!
Alas! methinks whom God hath chosen once
To worthiest deeds, if he through frailty err,
He should not so o’erwhelm, and as a thrall
Subject him to so foul indignities,
Be it but for honour’s sake of former deeds.

 

Samson’s speech here approaches the soaring rhetorical heights of Satan’s speech on Mount Niphates, here, but note how frank is his account of his fall and betrayal by Delilah:

 

Sams. His pardon I implore; but, as for life,
To what end should I seek it? When in strength
All mortals I excelled, and great in hopes,
With youthful courage, and magnanimous thoughts
Of birth from Heaven foretold and high exploits,
Full of divine instinct, after some proof
Of acts indeed heroic, far beyond
The sons of Anak, famous now and blazed,
Fearless of danger, like a petty god
I walked about, admired of all, and dreaded
On hostile ground, none daring my affront—
Then, swollen with pride, into the snare I fell
Of fair fallacious looks, venereal trains,
Softened with pleasure and voluptuous life
At length to lay my head and hallowed pledge
Of all my strength in the lascivious lap
Of a deceitful Concubine, who shore me,
Like a tame wether, all my precious fleece,
Then turned me out ridiculous, despoiled,
Shaven, and disarmed among my enemies.

 

And the Milton of the Divorce Tracts is on full display when Samson bitterly reproaches Delilah:

 

Sams. How cunningly the Sorceress displays
Her own transgressions, to upbraid me mine!
That malice, not repentance, brought thee hither
By this appears. I gave, thou say’st, the example,
I led the way—bitter reproach, but true;
I to myself was false ere thou to me.
Such pardon, therefore, as I give my folly
Take to thy wicked deed; which when thou seest
Impartial, self-severe, inexorable,
Thou wilt renounce thy seeking, and much rather
Confess it feigned. Weakness is thy excuse,
And I believe it—weakness to resist
Philistian gold. If weakness may excuse,
What murtherer, what traitor, parricide,
Incestuous, sacrilegious, but may plead it?
All wickedness is weakness; that plea, therefore,
With God or Man will gain thee no remission.
But love constrained thee! Call it furious rage
To satisfy thy lust. Love seeks to have love;
My love how could’st thou hope, who took’st the way
To raise in me inexpiable hate,
Knowing, as needs I must, by thee betrayed?
In vain thou striv’st to cover shame with shame,
Or by evasions thy crime uncover’st more.

Dal. I was a fool, too rash, and quite mistaken
In what I thought would have succeeded best.
Let me obtain forgiveness, of thee Samson;
Afford me place to shew what recompense
Towards thee I intend for what I have misdone,
Misguided. Only what remains past cure
Bear not too sensibly, nor still insist
To afflict thyself in vain. Though sight be lost,
Life yet hath many solaces, enjoyed
Where other senses want not their delights—
At home, in leisure and domestic ease,
Exempt from many a care and chance to which
Eyesight exposes, daily, men abroad.
I to the Lords will intercede, not doubting
Their favourable ear, that I may fetch thee
From forth this loathsome prison-house, to abide
With me, where my redoubled love and care,
With nursing diligence, to me glad office,
May ever tend about thee to old age,
With all things grateful cheered, and so supplied
That what by me thou hast lost thou least shalt miss.

Sams. No, no; of my condition take no care;
It fits not; thou and I long since are twain;
Nor think me so unwary or accursed
To bring my feet again into the snare
Where once I have been caught. I know thy trains,
Though dearly to my cost, thy gins, and toils.
Thy fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms,
No more on me have power; their force is nulled;
So much of adder’s wisdom I have learned,
To fence my ear against thy sorceries.
If in my flower of youth and strength, when all men
Loved, honoured, feared me, thou alone could hate me,
Thy husband, slight me, sell me, and forgo me,
How would’st thou use me now, blind, and thereby
Deceivable, in most things as a child
Helpless, thence easily contemned and scorned,
And last neglected! How would’st thou insult,
When I must live uxorious to thy will
In perfect thraldom! how again betray me,
Bearing my words and doings to the lords
To gloss upon, and, censuring, frown or smile!
This gaol I count the house of Liberty
To thine, whose doors my feet shall never enter.

Dal. Let me approach at least, and touch thy hand.

Sams. Not for thy life, lest fierce
remembrance wake
My sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint.
At distance I forgive thee; go with that;
Bewail thy falsehood, and the pious works
It hath brought forth to make thee memorable
Among illustrious women, faithful wives;
Cherish thy hastened widowhood with the gold
Of matrimonial treason: so farewell.

Sams. Love-quarrels oft in pleasing concord end;
Not wedlock-treachery endangering life.

 

That last couplet (spoken in an exchange with the Chorus) has the sort of solid finality that Milton excels at—a break from his usual long, periodic sentences.

Samson’s effort to provoke a deadly battle with the giant summoned by the Philistines is evocative of a whole line of Old English verse, and of course of Virgil:

 

Sams. Boast not of what thou would’st have done, but do
What then thou would’st; thou seest it in thy hand.

Har. To combat with a blind man I disdain,
And thou hast need much washing to be touched.

Sams. Such usage as your honourable Lords
Afford me, assassinated and betrayed;
Who durst not with their whole united powers
In fight withstand me single and unarmed,
Nor in the house with chamber-ambushes
Close-banded durst attack me, no, not sleeping,
Till they had hired a woman with their gold,
Breaking her marriage-faith, to circumvent me.
Therefore, without feign’d shifts, let be assigned
Some narrow place enclosed, where sight may give thee,
Or rather flight, nor great advantage on me;
Then put on all thy gorgeous arms, thy helmet
And brigandine of brass, thy broad habergeon,
Vant-brass and greaves and gauntlet; add thy spear,
A weaver’s beam, and seven-times-folded shield:
I only with an oaken staff will meet thee,
And raise such outcries on thy clattered iron,
Which long shall not withhold me from thy head,
That in a little time, while breath remains thee,
Thou oft shalt wish thyself at Gath, to boast
Again in safety what thou would’st have done
To Samson, but shalt never see Gath more.

 

In this “moment of last suspense” where, like Hamlet before the fencing bout, Samson contemplates the decision whether to appear before the Philistine lords, and what to do if he does, we definitely see echoes of Shakespeare and Paradise Lost mixed together in Milton’s phrasing:

 

Sams. Shall I abuse this consecrated gift
Of strength, again returning with my hair
After my great transgression—so requite
Favour renewed, and add a greater sin
By prostituting holy things to idols,
A Nazarite, in place abominable,
Vaunting my strength in honour to their Dagon?
Besides how vile, contemptible, ridiculous,
What act more execrably unclean, profane?

Chor. Yet with this strength thou
serv’st the Philistines,
Idolatrous, uncircumcised, unclean.

Sams. Not in their idol-worship, but by labour
Honest and lawful to deserve my food
Of those who have me in their civil power.

Chor. Where the heart joins not, outward
acts defile not.

Sams. Where outward force constrains,
the sentence holds:
But who constrains me to the temple of Dagon,
Not dragging? The Philistian Lords command:
Commands are no constraints. If I obey them,
I do it freely, venturing to displease
God for the fear of Man, and Man prefer,
Set God behind; which, in his jealousy,
Shall never, unrepented, find forgiveness.
Yet that he may dispense with me, or thee,
Present in temples at idolatrous rites
For some important cause, thou need’st not doubt.

Chor. How thou wilt here come off
surmounts my reach.

Sams. Be of good courage; I begin to feel
Some rousing motions in me, which dispose
To something extraordinary in my thoughts.
I with this messenger will go along—
Nothing to do, be sure, that may dishonour
Our Law, or stain my vow of Nazarite.
If there be aught of presage in the mind,
This day will be remarkable in my life
By some great act, or of my days the last.

Chor. In time thou hast resolved: the man returns.

 

“The man returns”—the messenger? Yes, but more importantly the man, Samson. He has once again realized his human dignity, become capable of asserting his moral worth and responsibility to set things right. His actions are recounted in a messenger’s report to Manoah and the Chorus:

 

The feast and noon grew high, and sacrifice
Had filled their hearts with mirth, high cheer, and wine,
When to their sports they turned. Immediately
Was Samson as a public servant brought,
In their state livery clad: before him pipes
And timbrels; on each side went armed guards;
Both horse and foot before him and behind,
Archers and slingers, cataphracts, and spears.
At sight of him the people with a shout
Rifted the air, clamouring their god with praise,
Who had made their dreadful enemy, their thrall.
He patient, but undaunted, where they led him,
Came to the place; and what was set before him,
Which without help of eye might be assayed,
To heave, pull, draw, or break, he still performed
All with incredible, stupendious force,
None daring to appear antagonist.
At length, for intermission sake, they led him
Between the pillars; he his guide requested
(For so from such as nearer stood we heard),
As over-tired, to let him lean a while
With both his arms on those two massy pillars,
That to the arched roof gave main support.
He unsuspicious led him; which when Samson
Felt in his arms, with head a while enclined,
And eyes fast fixed, he stood, as one who prayed,
Or some great matter in his mind revolved:
At last, with head erect, thus cried aloud:—
“Hitherto, Lords, what your commands imposed
I have performed, as reason was, obeying,
Not without wonder or delight beheld;
Now, of my own accord, such other trial
I mean to shew you of my strength yet greater
As with amaze shall strike all who behold.”
This uttered, straining all his nerves, he bowed;
As with the force of winds and waters pent
When mountains tremble, those two massy pillars
With horrible convulsion to and fro
He tugged, he shook, till down they came, and drew
The whole roof after them with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath,
Lords, ladies, captains, counsellors, or priests,
Their choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this, but each Philistian city round,
Met from all parts to solemnize this feast.
Samson, with these immixed, inevitably
Pulled down the same destruction on himself;
The vulgar only scaped, who stood without.

 

Samson’s father, Manoah, gets one beautiful and resigned speech after Samson’s death—his “good-night, sweet prince!”—and yet ends his speech, as Milton’s career ends, in profound anticlimax:

 

Man. Come, come; no time for lamentation now,
Nor much more cause. Samson hath quit himself
Like Samson, and heroicly hath finished
A life heroic, on his enemies
Fully revenged—hath left them years of mourning,
And lamentation to the sons of Caphtor
Through all Philistian bounds; to Israel
Honour hath left and freedom, let but them
Find courage to lay hold on this occasion;
To himself and father’s house eternal fame;
And, which is best and happiest yet, all this
With God not parted from him, as was feared,
But favouring and assisting to the end.
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast; no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise, or blame; nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.
Let us go find the body where it lies
Soaked in his enemies’ blood, and from the stream
With lavers pure, and cleansing herbs, wash off
The clotted gore. I, with what speed the while
(Gaza is not in plight to say us nay),
Will send for all my kindred, all my friends,
To fetch him hence, and solemnly attend,
With silent obsequy and funeral train,
Home to his father’s house. There will I build him
A monument, and plant it round with shade
Of laurel ever green and branching palm,
With all his trophies hung, and acts enrolled
In copious legend, or sweet lyric song.
Thither shall all the valiant youth resort,
And from his memory inflame their breasts
To matchless valour and adventures high;
The virgins also shall, on feastful days,
Visit his tomb with flowers, only bewailing
His lot unfortunate in nuptial choice,
From whence captivity and loss of eyes.

 

The syntax of the very last lines makes their effect almost comical; what hero wants his story to end with the words “From whence captivity and loss of eyes”? As in Paradise Lost, here Milton seems to realize that the story of what has gone wrong may need to predominate over the hubristic ambitions or even the sober heroics that he wants to write about. There seems to be some profound self-knowledge, gained through much sorrow, in Milton’s later works.

 

Number 1: “On His Blindness” (1655)

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-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, 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.”

 

A writer going blind in mid-career. We know the legend that Homer was blind, of course; but Milton’s blindness and Beethoven’s deafness are the twin defining catastrophes of modern European art—catastrophes that did not prevent Beethoven’s writing symphonies, or Milton’s completing Paradise Lost and many other works by means of dictation. This sonnet has beautiful measure, a simple and clear meaning, and manages to talk about the ferment of emotion (as seen above in Samson’s words) with an enforced serenity that Wordsworth would later describe (in defining poetry) as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” But the poem is not, as some take it to be, a mere  pious sentiment. You must carefully consider the meaning of the term “wait” for someone in service. Yes, some are messengers who rush about carrying instructions; others stand ready. To “wait” is not to be idle, as you know if you’ve ever seen a good waiter or waitress. No, to “wait” is to be actively still; to be ready to act at the proper moment, and constantly attentive until then.

To so exactly land so much of the noise, controversy, and trouble of his life on a single polyvalent monosyllable is, I argue, the pinnacle of Milton’s genius. It is the one moment of beautiful stillness in the constantly perturbed atmosphere of his life.

If you don’t get it, what can I say? Wait for it.

 

Peter G. Epps is an English professor by trade, currently working at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

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2 Responses

  1. Bruce Wren

    A truly excellent and scholarly essay, and well-chosen the “top ten”. I would have put “Samson” as #1, but “de gustibus non disputandum”.

    Reply
  2. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Although I must admit to disagreeing with the order and the choices of Mr. Epps in his 10 greatest poems written by John Milton (indeed I’m sure I would disagree with nearly all such orderings), still, that he dared attack such a difficult task speaks volumes about his bravery, his talent and his vigour; and my critique means little without my own ten choices with their explications, which will not be forthcoming.

    Although I do not share Mr. Epps’ enthusiasm for the sonnet (indeed the Neoclassicists showed great restraint in that), I am impressed with Milton’s sonnet craft, and count some of the sonnets listed here as touchstones in my life. “On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three” was an early marker for my own poetic practice, of which I must admit I fell far short. In addition to the octave rhymes in that poem, it is Milton’s idiosyncratic voice that is most astonishing.

    I am thankful for Mr. Epps inclusion of “To Cyriack Skinner,” not because I would place it in any top ten; but it is a poem I have not truly appreciated, but which shows Milton’s brilliant language in fine relief. What I admire about Milton’s practice in this sonnet is his conjoining of the classical and modern, his daring rhymes, his person-to-person expression, and his moral power, which he does with a diction and syntax, that is at once surprisingly simple and simultaneously complex. Milton here in this sonnet, as elsewhere, gets more charge from his verbs than almost any writer in English.

    “On Shakespeare” is a poem I have come to frequently; and though it does not have the great critical power of Ben Jonson’s magnificent “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare,” it too was an important early poem I felt the need to power through.

    Of course, “Paradise Lost” is an important poem on so many levels. If one was choosing one’s own top ten works of English literature, one could even, with reason, list “Paradise Lost” at number one, for its incredible power, its magnificent language, its extraordinary scope, it remarkable vision, its panoramic setting, its colossal audacity, its magnificent voice, its linguistic tapestry, its formidable tone, etc. And here I must stop lest I be accused of Miltonic idolatry; both Samuel Johnson and T. S. Eliot correctly pointing out some of Milton’s literary flaws. But I would stately succinctly: Milton made English great in a way no other English writer has ever done. I appreciate Mr. Epps allowing for the “case to be made that ‘Paradise Lost’ is truly Milton’s greatest work,” but instead of starting with those remarkable last lines he acutely draws our attention to, I would actually begin with the very first word “Of”—and go on from there. I can think ‘of’ no writer in English who gets as much out ‘of’ that little word as Milton does.

    Without a doubt, “On His Deceased Wife” is a notable work, and shows, like “On His Blindness,” Milton’s willingness to break the sonnet’s structure and the metric form, a trait, as well seen in William Shakespeare, particularly in the plays, that I think I was too prone to commit in my early years. Mr. Epp accurately points out Milton’s ability for depth of pun in the latter poem. Can anyone think of a greater use of the word ‘wait’ in English, or elsewhere. I can think of only Alexandre Dumas’ lesser, but still powerful, “Attendre et espérer.”

    I certainly concur with “Samson Agonistes” in his list, and I know my own flawed attempt at an Old Testament drama was a pathetic attempt compared to Milton’s, which linked so powerfully to his own life, as Mr. Epp keenly indicates.

    Some poems I might have also chosen, were I as courageous as Mr. Epp is in this situation, might include “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont,” “Lycidas,” and “Paradise Regained”; but Mr. Epp has done a good deed for the Society of Classsical Poets with his standard-raising submission; and I am grateful for his attempt of the impossible.

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