That is right, I chose this stuff, and it may end up being my undoing. So I have decided that in order to keep this post at a readable length, instead of going through the usual categories of genre, theme, and history, and then doing a small blurb on each separate poem, instead I will just go through each poem (or essay) separately in chronological order and cover everything that way.
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
Genre: Nativity ode connecting the Incarnation (when Mary was informed by the angel that she would bear the Messiah), and the Crucifixion.
Themes: Christ’s nativity and his crucifixion. Christ becomes human and then later redeems humanity in his crucifixion. Also, the poem deals with Christ’s overthrow of earthly and pagan powers.
History: Written in 1629 and published in 1645. Not his first work but often put first in collections and anthologies.
Genre: Pastoral poem - the author places the complex life into a simple one.
Theme: The poem is of course paired with the contrasting poem Il Penseroso. L’Allegro is Italian for “the happy man,” Il Penseroso is Italian for “the melancholy man.” This poem is playful and set in a pastoral scene where the character connects with folk stories and fairy tales as well as comedic plays. There is an emphasis on the active and cheerful life. Mirth, one of the graces, is invoked and is connected to poetry within Renaissance literature.
History: Scholars really aren’t sure when this was written, but it was published in 1645 in the first collection.
Genre: A vision of poetic melancholy and a companion poem to L’Allegro.
Themes: Instead of wandering through a pastoral scene, the main character is wanders through an urban environment while the poem emphasizes a solitary and scholarly lifestyle. The main character focuses his studies on philosophy, allegory, tragedy, Classical hymns, and Christian hymns. Melancholy is invoked and there is an emphasis on experience and the understanding of nature. It seems to be hinted that because the main character in this poem is allowed to see more than the one in L’Allegro, he isn’t as blindly happy.
History: Just like with L’Allegro, scholars are not sure when this poem was written, but it was published in 1645.
A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle [Comus]
Genre: Masque – festive courtly entertainment. A masque usually involved music, dancing, singing, and acting, all with an elaborate stage design.
Themes: Milton wrote this masque in honor of chastity. Basically there is this poor girl kidnapped by a debauched Comus who tries to get her to drink some liquid that would overpower her (get her drunk) and allow him to ravish her, but she argues for temperance and chastity. She holds up her argument while her brother eventually find someone who can help her, chase off and Comus, and free her from his house. In this, Milton uses the Lady to assert his belief in the individual free will, while Comus attempts to argue that the base appetites and desires of humans are natural. The Lady continually argues that only rational self-control is enlightened and virtuous.
History: The masque was first presented on Michaelmas in 1634, and was published in 1645. It was written to celebrate the appointment of Lord Bridgewater to the post of Lord President of Wales. Bridgewater’s own children were the principal actors in the masque.
Genre: A speech or prose polemical tract – an argument made against one opinion, doctrine, or person. Here, Milton is arguing against pre-publication censorship and arguing for freedom of speech.
Themes: Free speech, individual rights, freedom to read and decide for yourself what is right and good for you…no one should be deciding that for you. Now, it is important to note that Milton was all about this freedom for white educated Protestant males. Also, he was not making the argument for any Atheist or Catholic publications. So really, branding this an argument against censorship is a bit short-sighted in the grand scheme of things. Also, many biblical references abound. As many as they are, they actually did help me see his point more clearly. But this is a long essay…definitely the longest work listed on this page.
History: Written in 1644 at the height of the English Civil War.
Genre: Pastoral elegy – a mournful and melancholy poem. Also be a funeral song or lament for the dead.
Themes: The poem was written in memory of Milton’s friend, Edward King, who died when his ship sank in the Irish Sea off the coast of Wales in August of 1637. The poem starts off in a pastoral scene, but even the scene cannot stop the poet from lamenting his friend, Lycidas. The poet then begins to recall his adventures with Lycidas and attempts to juxtapose remembering his life with the awful even of his death.
History: Lycidas is one of the poems in the 1645 collection that was actually written in English as opposed to Greek and Latin.
How Soon Hath Time
Genre: Sonnet – “little song” or “little sound.” Sonnets usually contain 14 lines (and this one does as well), and most sonnets stick to a certain rhyme, but then there are many variations. For instance, Shakespeare, Donne, and Spenser all do their own thing with their sonnets.
Themes: All three sonnets that I will be covering seem to have a general sense of regret in them. With this one, either his 23rd year has snuck up on him, or it has already passed and gone. Either way, he is a bit shocked and not quite sure what to do. And while he feels he should do something, he doesn’t think he is quite ready “And inward ripeness doth much less appear.”
History: It was published in 1645 with the rest of the above but I cannot for the life of me figure out when it was written.
When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
Themes: Written after Milton has lost his sight. In the poem he seems to come to terms with the idea that while he can no longer write, due to his loss of sight, he can still serve his maker (God) and glorify Him as God does not need “man’s work or his own gifts.” Milton finally asserts that “They also serve who only stand and wait.” There is heavy use of the word “light,” and more than one mention of waiting and patience.
History: It has been dated as having been written in 1655 and was published in 1673. As I mentioned, this was written after Milton lost his eye sight, essentially for his work. And now he realizes that in the end, works aren’t important.
Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint
Themes: Written after the death of his second wife, and also after he has lost his sight, so the idea of him seeing his second wife makes for an interesting image. Once again, more references to vision (or a lack thereof), and the last line actually makes me extremely sad. When people wake up it is usually to daylight, but because of Milton’s blindness, he was able to see clear as day in his dreams and then wakes up only to darkness.
History: Milton’s second wife, Katherine, dies after giving birth to their daughter, and soon afterwards, the baby dies as well. It was written around 1656.
Genre: Tragic Closet Drama – written as a play but not meant to ever be performed live before an audience. Many people die.
Themes: At the beginning of the play, Samson is blind and in prison. The whole mess with his hair being cut and Delilah being awful to him is done and gone. At this point he has come to terms with his fate and realizes he has brought them all upon himself. As his hair grows back, he is summoned to come before the Philistines where he redeems himself by making the ultimate sacrifice – killing him while also killing the Philistines by taking down the pillars in the building. There is more reiteration of Milton’s belief in individual free choice, therefore causing Samson to blame no one but himself, with the occasional remarks made about Delilah.
History: This was actually my favorite work of Milton’s that I have read and I can see the links between this story and Milton’s own life. When this was written, Milton had also gone blind and would actually also be imprisoned for a short-time, but most likely took place after he wrote this, but before it was published. From this story, it would seem that Milton also felt that he lost his sight due to his own doing and mistakes and was resigned to his fate, but also looking for a chance to redeem himself. And while Samson committed his greatest act after his downfall, Milton wrote what have been argues as his best works after he lost his sight and the Revolution he supported had failed. It was most likely written in the 1640s or 1650s. Milton temporarily gave up his poetic career to work for Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth government. He continued this despite his failing eyesight and there are no questions that he knew his eyesight was failing him. Short version: He supported the execution of Charles I, praised Oliver Cromwell as the Protectorate was set up, but later had reservations as Cromwell proved to not be as committed as Milton had hoped, the Revolution fails, and Milton is silenced politically when Charles II takes the throne. Oh yeah, and this is the cause he gave his sight for. Yeah…
And it is done! I can’t believe I just did that! And I assure you I will never do it again! Such relief! Such…okay I’ll stop now. I think I’ll try this same format with Wordsworth with maybe a little more history put on at the end. These English poets are tough, but, this is the fate of the English major I guess.