John Milton, Shorter Poems: "On Shakespeare," "To the Lord General Cromwell," and "When I Consider How My Light is Spent"

Genre: "On Shakespeare" is a dedicatory poem for the Second Folio of Shakespeare's plays; "Cromwell" and "Light" are both sonnets, but directed to political and philosophical purposes rather than the usual love-pleas.

Form: "On Shakespeare" is 16 lines of iambic pentameter couplets, and the two sonnets are in a form of the Italian model (octave/8-lines + sestet/6-lines), rhyming abbaabba/cddcee ("Cromwell") and abbaabba/cdecde ("Light").

Characters: "Shakespeare" and "Cromwell" are the nominal subjects of their poems, but both poems are mainly arguments about the difference between common fame and the truly lasting accomplishments of a great mind.  "Light," like Herbert's poems, imagines a dialogue with God regarding the poet's blindness.


Issues and Research Sources:

  1. Milton is most famous now as author of Paradise Lost, but his work as Latin Secretary to Cromwell and his career as a writer of polemical essays had far more impact on his contemporary culture than that great poem.  Nevertheless, it is possible to see Milton's career as occuring in three great periods: first the poetry of "Lycidas" and "To Shakespeare" that occured in the Mannerist era before the Civil War; then, his political period in which he turned more often to prose and matters of the current era; and finally, his Baroque period when he developed the enormous project of Paradise Lost while in the profound political isolation after the Restoration and the equally profound psychic isolation of his blindness.
    • What might Raphael Hythloday say about Milton's work in the political sphere, and what might be Milton's response?

  2. To what degree was Milton influenced by earlier seventeenth-century poets in his lyrics on religious themes (e.g., "When I Consider," "Methought I saw My Late Espoused Saint," etc.)?   Poets you might examine might be Donne, Herbert, Herrick, and even Marvell, to the degree to which the younger poet's work might have been known to Milton.   It might be said, however, that Latin was more nearly Milton's first language than English, and that Roman poets were his earliest and greatest models.
    • How might a reading of the shorter poems of Virgil or Horace affect one's reading of Milton?

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