Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > Sonnets
  Lycidas Paradise Lost  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 14. Sonnets.

The few, but extremely interesting, Sonnets derive their interest from various sources. Except the earliest two, and the batch of Italian pieces which follows, they bridge the interval between Milton’s first poetical period and his last—dotting the twenty dark years with spots of light. It is true that the evil spirit of the prose pamphlets retains some influence here, that his footing is seen in the Tetrachordon sonnets, in the tail-sonnet (twenty lines, the fifteenth and eighteenth of six syllables only) On the new forcers of Conscience and, to some, though less, extent, in the political sonnets to Fairfax, Cromwell and Vane. It is true, also, that one (xiv) On the Religious Memory of Mrs. Catherine Thomson is the most commonplace thing that-Milton ever wrote. But, even were the best and the most of them less good, they would be interesting as resuming (with little following for more than another century) the Elizabethan practice of this great form, and as bringing it nearer to the commoner Italian model. Individually and intrinsically, they do not need any allowance. Wordsworth’s hackneyed praise is not very specially applicable to most of them; and Johnson’s contempt of the form itself, no doubt slightly accentuated by dislike of the author. Taken dispassionately, Milton’s sonnets are examples, curiously various considering their small number, at once of the adaptability of the kind to “occasional” purposes, and of the absence of any necessity that this adaptability should be abused, as Wordsworth himself certainly abused it, and as lesser men have abused it still more. Nowhere, moreover, and this is natural, is the poet’s tendency to be autobiographical shown in a more interesting way. The pretty overture to the nightingale not only shows the true Miltonic style very early, but gives us a Miltonic person who might have developed very differently. The other side—the side which did develop—appears in the “three and twentieth year” (vii), and at once foretells the compensations for the loss of the less austere personage. And all the better later examples give that compensation, with lighter touches here and there in the sonnets to Lawes, Lawrence and Cyriack Skinner. The grace of these; the splendour of On the late Massacher in Piemont and the sonnet on his blindness; the dignity, even in partisanship, of the three political addresses; the idealised tenderness of the finale on his dead wife—give us not merely great poetry, but invaluable comment on the other great poetry which was to follow them.   40
  The year 1645, however, saw a more important event in Milton’s literary biography and in the history of English literature than the move to Barbican, or the reconciliation with his wife, or even the downfall of the royal cause. Hitherto—in this respect following a considerable and respectable, though inconvenient and dangerous, Elizabethan tradition—he had been very shy of printing his poems. The Shakespeare lines were merely a trimming to the edition of Shakespeare in which they appeared, and we do not know exactly how they came there. Lycidas had formed part of a collection containing other men’s work; Lawes’s edition of Comus was anonymous. But now, at a time when his mind was occupied with things very different from the composition of poetry, Milton consented to the publication of his earlier poetical work (by, and at the instance of, the bookseller Humphrey Moseley) as Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin, Compos’d at several times … 1645. It has been supposed that this publication, with its accompanying commendatory poems, was intended as a sort of self-vindication, or countersally, in respect of his polemical, and, in parts, highly unpopular, prose pamphlets. This seems very doubtful; for anything like excuse, or plea in mitigation, was absolutely alien from Milton’s undoubting self-confidence and his positive contumacy of spirit. Nor does the motto
Baccare frontem
Cingite, ne vati noceat mala lingua futuro
necessarily involve any such intention. “Good luck and escape from the evil eye and the evil tongue to the poems” is all it invokes. Probably, there was nothing more behind the matter than the fact that, since Milton returned from Italy, he had had other things to think about; and that Moseley’s direct solicitation (a fact recorded in the preface) was the main, if not the sole, occasional cause of the appearance. The book had a bad portrait, with a Greek inscription, by Milton himself, stigmatising the badness. For twenty years and more after this he did not publish any poetry.

  Lycidas Paradise Lost  

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