Milton in May: Thoughts on Some Early Milton Poems

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I picked up a short biography of Milton because as I mentioned the other day, as I began Paradise Lost, I was so struck by how opposite Milton’s writing was to Shakespeare’s. I listened to a biography of Shakespeare last year (Will in the World), and I want to know a little more about Milton’s life and times.

John Milton: A Biography by Neil Forsyth is really good so far. In the introduction, he explains that his task was

“to write a biography of Milton that would excite readers who might be merely curious, and who would like to know why Milton is so widely loved and admired, and even, sometimes detested.”

That’s exactly my purpose in picking it up. It’s about 240 pages, which is a great length, so I won’t have any trouble reading it this month along with my Milton reads. From the introduction, I already have an interesting perspective on Milton’s treatment of women, and since I remember rolling my eyes on my first read of Paradise Lost, I imagine this reread will be similar. More on that issue another time, as I read more of the biography.

As I read Forsyth’s commentary on some of Milton’s collegiate poems, I thought I’d consult my Milton’s Complete Poetry and Major Prose (edited by Hughes) and read some of it too.

Note: All poem titles below link to the Dartmouth College Milton Reading Room, which has very well annotated e-texts and is a great resource.

I’m continually impressed with Milton’s education and his abilities. Many of his first poems were in Latin. I assume for the time it wasn’t impressive, but that goes to show how easily I’m impressed. Maybe I’m all the more impressed simply because I compare him to Shakespeare and from the biography I read of the Bard, he hadn’t had such a thorough classical education.

One of the first poems I came across (in English) is one I should have opened Monday’s post with, as introduction to this poet. This spring, I’ve been simply relishing the warm sunshine, green lawns, and brightly colored flowers, and I love Milton’s song about the season:

Song On May Morning

Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowry 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 welcom thee, and wish thee long.

Milton wrote this in 1629 or 1630, when he was about 20 years old. I think it’s fair to say that’s an auspicious beginning to his literary career.

About the same time, he also wrote “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, which also seems an appropriate beginning for the to-be poet of Paradise Lost. It’s written as a tribute, he says, much as the gifts from the “Star-led Wizards” (i.e., the wisemen).

O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;

The poem it refers to all the traditional (pagan) deities and shows how they are being cast out because the Christ child was born. I am not well read in the traditional Western canon, I’m sorry to say, so I can’t really comment further, other than it reminded me strongly of Paradise Lost in tone and classical allusion, except not on an epic scale, of course. It’s only a few pages long.

And then, because I found myself comparing Milton to Shakespeare himself, I found it interesting to come upon 21-year-old John Milton’s own tribute to the Bard, which was included as a preface to the Second Folio, published 14 years after the Bard’s death. Milton’s tribute really interested me because though Shakespeare hadn’t written with the same level of classical education that Milton wrote with and Shakespeare wrote “popular” and not scholarly writing, he was already (just 14 years after his death) properly recognized as a monumental figure in shaping the English language. I really need to study Shakespeare next!

On Shakespeare

What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones
To labor of an age in piled stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing 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 sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

I love this tribute. I’ve always been a fan of Shakespeare, although I haven’t read nearly enough. This is a great reminder that his writing is his tribute already, and nothing 21-year-old Milton could say could add to it. I suspect such a concept was also a comfort to the aged Milton writing his epic.

At any rate, I am really enjoying my immersion in Milton. Have you any comments on these poems? Which of Milton’s poems have you discovered and enjoyed?

Off to read some more Paradise Lost!

Reviewed on May 5, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Reading the first three books of Paradise Lost, I was struck by how – can I say sculpted? – how sculpted the poem feels, whereas Shakespeare’s plays tend to feel more like his head was full of magnificent words and people and plots and the plays just spilled over the top. (In a good way.) It’s nice to see that Milton loved Shakespeare too, I was hoping that he did.

    (Wonder what Shakespeare would have made of Milton.)
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Aw hell, I forgot all these books =-.

    • Jenny, I think Shakespeare probably would have found Milton a bit too stuffy for his tastes! I suspect, and this is coming from someone who’s only read about a half dozen of the plays and one biography, but I suspect that Shakespeare did not have lots of respect for people he didn’t want to respect. But that he could certainly pretend he did if it was beneficial to him!

      I found it so interesting that just 14 years after Shakespeare died, he was already recognized as the Bard. He was already deeply respected and having monuments dedicated to him. I only wish we knew more about Shakespeare’s life…

      I completely see what you’re saying about Milton’s writing being carefully crafted. Everything I’ve read by Milton so far has felt that way.

      I haven’t yet gotten to the chapters in the biography about when Milton wrote Paradise Lost, but I suspect even he was writing in a “words spilling over” kind of way. He was blind and he was dictating. He must have known what to say and which direction to go when he could not go back and edit it himself!

  • One thing that I found very interesting in the intro of my edition by David Fawkes was that even though Shakespeare and Milton are very different, they were both sons of moneylenders, which was a very controversial profession at the time. The idea of earning interest was considered unnatural, making money more of a “sign” than it’s actual existence. I don’t know how this comes out in Shakespeare’s writing, but Paradise Lost is filled with showing the evil of things falsely representing other things. I know I haven’t explained this well, but Fawkes goes over this again and again in the footnotes–all about “signs.” I was wondering if other editions are stressing this as well.
    I think also in the introduction I read that Milton was creating Paradise Lost throughout his life, and, as you noted, it comes out in his earlier poems. I was pretty amazed that he spent five or six years completely devoted to study. It shows with all of his allusions to the classics. I also read that as early as age 10, he was giving up sleep in order to study. Definitely a genius!
    .-= Shelley´s last post on blog ..Leviathan =-.

    • Shelley, ooo that is so interesting. I hadn’t made that connection yet about the moneylenders. I admit, I have not been reading the notes very faithfully on this read. I’m just reading! But there is a lot of disguise, particularly Satan.

      Yes, precocious genius, for sure! But I’m sure glad because I’m enjoying PL!

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