John Milton, Shorter Poems: "On
Shakespeare," "To the Lord General Cromwell," and "When I Consider How
My Light is Spent"
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.
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
"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.
- "On Shakespeare,"
because it was attached to the Second Folio publication of Shakespeare's plays (1630),
ought to be compared with Jonson's "To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr.
William Shakespeare..." (1241), which was the preface of the First Folio of
Shakespeare's plays (1623). Note that Jonson feels the need to place Shakespeare
within the whole spectrum of the competing playwrights of their age, whereas by Milton's
time Shakespeare had achieved clearly canonical status. Note, too, that Milton makes
use of the motif of the poem as memorial, which we saw in the sonnets and in Donne's
"The Relic," but which here argues against a burial in Poet's Corner of
Westminster Abbey, or some grander place.
- "To the Lord General
Cromwell" resembles Marvell's "Horatian Ode" (1430) only in its
subject--Milton is a whole-hearted supporter of Cromwell's imperialist warfare against the
Scots, and hopes the returning conqueror will have a similarly direct approach to handling
the proposed law to license preachers (1652) which would offend against Milton's radical
defense of free speech. See "Areopagitica" (1461-70) for the roots of our
own Constitution's provision for "freedom of the press," which derives directly
from Miltonic thinking.
- "When I Consider How My
Light Is Spent" meditates on blindness as a removal of God's gift which leaves a poet
diminished in capacity to serve God. The poem's dramatic turn on the definition of
"serve" draws upon the old courtly notion of service, as well as harking back to
the notion of "steadfastness" which was the battle cry of the troops at Maldon.
Issues and Research Sources:
- 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
- What might Raphael Hythloday say about Milton's work in the political
sphere, and what might be Milton's response?
- 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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