Tomorrow it will be exactly 345 years ago that the blind and impoverished John Milton died. It reminds me that we had to write an essay about him when we were students at the university. I gave mine the title: “John Milton: a poetical pamphleteer or a pamphleteering poet?”
Een jaar na mijn essay over Shakespeare’s Eternity through poetry dalen mijn punten met één (twaalf op twintig), al heb ikzelf de indruk dat mijn Engels juist verbéterd is. Maar inhoudelijk was de corrector (deze keer undoubtedly Jo De Vos) het duidelijk niet altijd met mij eens. Nu ja, ik zat toen volop in mijn maoïstische periode en dat stak ik zelfs op zo’n moment niet onder stoelen of banken…
J.S.Smart has called Milton’s sonnets “essays on a small scale, in the magnificent style” and that was a “smart” expression but too wide for an essay (one should have read all Milton’s sonnets). Therefore let us take one of Milton’s favourite subjects, namely the historical events in England at that time, and see in how far the poetical (“style”) and political (essays) aspects meet.
It is obvious that the answer to the question above is that Milton was first of all a poet, but that he wanted to give a deeper dimension to his poetry than just a play with words however brilliant they may be – which saved him from the hypocrisy we blame Tennyson for. (*)
This is no coincidence, because it can be explained on the one hand by some historical facts and on the other hand by the character of Milton himself. In fact the first reason (the facts) is only a necessary condition, wich has made possible and influenced the second. These facts are the Civil Wars, Milton’s secretaryship to Cromwell and his blindness. This is the background that formed Milton’s character.
We all know that he was deeply dedicated to his art, that he considered it as a divine task and so on. The connection with the three facts I have mentioned is clear: like all Puritans, Milton was convinced to have “God on his side” in the Civil Wars. His personal relationship to Cromwell enforced his readiness to defend his ideas through his poems, while his blindness adds the “final touch”, namely the desperate effort to prove himself still worthy of his “mission”. It would be unthinkable taht a man living in those circumstances and having that mindedness should be light-hearted. The impossibility of this statement is proved for instance by his troubles with his first wife, Mary Powell. The deeper “underground” of his sonnets is thus a logical consequence. (**)
The stylistic qualities of Milton’s sonnets are so “overdiscussed” that I am not claiming to resume them nor to bring in anything new; I will just confine myself to some characteristics by which I am personally touched. First of all there is the way in which Milton uses the sonnet. In spite of what most critics say, I think that sonnet-writing is one of the “fittest” genres to “survive”. Especially the greater masses that are not so “poetry-minded” find more delight in a sonnet than in a rhymeless poem withut a metre (compare with the fact that the sonnets of Shakespeare are now set to music by the pop-singer Donovan).
Thus we can see that the poetical and political aspects overlap each other in this case, because it is important for the spreading of ideas that as many people as possible are reached. Besides, Milton has improved the sonnet as a medium, because he has got rid off the hindering shackles Petrarque had forced on it. Further on there is the tone, which reminds us of a speech (stately, pathetic); the biblical diction (very effective in the kind of “Holy War”); the well-chosen images and so on.
To draw my conclusion I would like to make a comparison between Milton and a contemporary minor poet but great politician, namely Mao-tse-toung. The quotation of the Chairman that for literature there are two criteria, the political and the artistic one, but that the political criterion must be regarded as superior to the artistic, will be a great help to us. If we compare now Mao’s poem “The Snow” with “To the Lord General Cromwell” for instance, we see that the victory is Milton’s on both battle-fields, because strangely enough Mao’s poem is not at all very “political” (there is a kind of appendix in which there is some political reference, but this has in fact nothing to do with the rest of the poem) and the poetical values of Milton are of course greater than those of Mao (although “The Snow” is a very good poem with original metaphors). Thus we might say that Mao himself would prefer a poet like Milton to propagandize the communist ideas and perhaps he would sigh as Wordsworth did: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: China hats need of thee…” (***)

Ronny De Schepper

Noten van Jo De Vos:
(*) Tennyson may be blamed for the fact that he was blind for social matters. Not for the fact that his poetry would merely be a play with words.
(**) You have only tried to explain why Milton wrote “political” sonnets, not whether they are “essays”, really political and in how far they are poetry.
(***) This depends on how much pure propaganda and how much real poetry Mao would want.
En nog eentje van mij om het af te leren:
In de les bespraken wij ook een ander sonnet (het 19de) van Milton: “Methought I saw” uit 1658. Most probably written for his second wife, Katherine Woodcock (1620-1658), who died after childbirth (hence the reference to “the old law”, being the Mosaic law that a woman had to be purified by a ritual in church afterwards, the so-called “churching”). W.P.Parker, however, thought it was for his first wife, because Milton can’t possibly have seen Kathy, being blind already in november 1656, when he married her. It is true that there is a reference to his blindness with the words “full sight”, but the opening line “methought I saw” was just conventional in that time. Think of “Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay” by Sir Walter Raleigh or the opening of “Astrophel and Stella” by Philip Sidney. And of course later it remained a classic in the Tweety-cartoon “Methought I saw a pussycat!”

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