Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Gold Rose John Milton

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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



John Larson
[Written while the author was a freshman at
The University of Oregon, and should be read
with understanding of the same. —JL]


Milton's World

     Arguably the most prolific and celebrated poet in the English language, John Milton carries in his poetry and prose a complex and highly learned tone. In this tone can be distinguished several patterns and motifs carried through in many of Milton's works. His view of the world focused a great deal on women, religion, and the fate decreed by God, all with a strong backdrop in the antiquity and learning passed on from generations before.

     Because this antiquity underlies nearly all of the poems by Milton, examining it first will be perhaps most useful in understanding a large part of his world-view. In nearly all of his poetry, there are numerous intertextual references to Greek and Roman legends, as well as many pieces of then-obsolete astronomy. There are so many of these references in his works that pointing out all or even a great part of them in any given poem would be tedious and virtually unprofitable, except to express the degree to which he makes use of allusion to add depth to his poetry. Instead, minor clips from particular poems will be at first chosen as representative of his larger style.

     Examples of this intertextuality can be seen even in early works of his such as "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." In the poem, when Christ is born, all of the pagan gods trudge from reality to their new home in hell. This provides an opportunity for Milton to exhibit his knowledge, as he lists the Genius; Greek oracles; nymphs; Greek, Canaanite, Phoenician, and Egyptian gods (minor and major) as they each make their exit with a brief visual linked to their background (ll. 173-218). The breadth of this reference to then-unworshipped gods displays both Milton's depth of learning and the difficulty inherent in attempting to fully comprehend his verse.

     Similar antiquitic allusions are found in the following passage from L'Allegro:

But come thou goddess fair and free,
In heaven yclept Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To ivy-crownèd Bacchus bore; (ll. 11-16)

All of the proper names mentioned were gods or goddesses in Roman mythology– Euphrosyne was a goddess of beauty, Venus a greater goddess of the same, and Bacchus a god of wine and debauchery. In this context, they serve to bring forth the light beauty of the buoyant poem, and to here drive home the prevalence in Milton's poetry of antiquitic intertextuality.

     Milton also makes use of some unusual allusions to astronomical theories which were outdated by the 17th century. His reference to Ptolemaic astronomy is common to many of his poems, which could possibly be explained by their prevalence in the literature which he studied. At that point, the outdated astronomy had become a sort of myth unto itself, the use of which is comparable to his use of the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. His poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" holds an example in lines 125-132, as he references the "crystal spheres" which are to ring out in "ninefold harmony." Though by that point theories of the Ptolemaic universe had been widely overruled, the image of the nine planets singing out in harmony as they circled the earth (the scholars of the Middle Ages believed that they did) was apparently too picturesque for him to pass up. Thus Milton's allusions extend to historical astronomy as well as past mythology.

     Another opinion which is expressed in fewer of Milton's works, but is important to his view of the world, is his understanding of women. He repeats the idea that all women are deceptive and that when a man falls, it is usually the fault of a woman. "Samson Agonistes" most concisely (and it seems, in many cases, most bitterly) portrays the view he carried on from generations of gender-role debates past. His work frequently indicates that he believed the woman to be the weaker sex, morally as well as physically. In lines 210-211, the chorus sings to Samson that "Wisest men / Have erred, and by bad women been deceived." Reading this, one would almost get the impression that no man has ever fostered deceit, but only women against unsuspecting men.

     Later, Samson, having been enslaved and blinded, bewails his condition and the circumstances which brought him to it– marriage to Dalilah.

The base degree to which I now am fallen,
These rags, this grinding, is not yet so base
As was my former servitude, ignoble,
Unmanly, ignominious, infamous,
True slavery; and that blindness worse than this,
That saw not how degenerately I served. (ll. 414-419)

The word "woman" rings silently at the end of that final line (419). There is nothing subtle or hidden in Milton's verse; he makes it plain in speeches such as the above that the "servitude" to woman which Samson underwent in his love for Dalilah was a more terrible thing than both slavery and torture.

     Perhaps the most startling examples of this view of women comes when Dalilah actually enters the play, and herself proclaims her lesser value compared to Samson (and all men). Lines 903-904 have her saying, "In argument with men a woman ever / Goes by the worse, whatever be her cause." ("Goes by the worse" is glossed as "Comes off second best.") Women, Milton appears to be saying, have inferior rhetorical skills (and by extension intelligence) than men.

     When Dalilah attempts to push the blame for her actions on to Samson, these misogynist beliefs swing into a subtle overdrive. "Nor should'st thou have trusted that to woman's frailty," she says in explanation. In one line and thought, she has expressed that the fault of the action was Samson's for trusting in the moral weakness of woman. She gave up any cunning or pride she might have had in her trickery, prostrating herself before him as a victim of circumstance. That final power she held– her seductive craftiness– is lamented and denied. She makes Samson a god to beg forgiveness from. There was nothing self-respecting left of her character. When his single female character falls this low, Milton's Puritanic gender values come forth clearly in this biblical drama.

     Such Puritan tenets were a large part of other verse of Milton's. He dealt a great deal with the will of God in his poetry, particularly his sonnets. He understood the Christian ideal behind the phrase "the Lord works in mysterious ways," and repeatedly explicated it. The sonnet "How Soon Hath Time" features such a theme as Milton considers how quickly age has overtaken him and how little he feels as though he's done. In the first eight lines it seems a melancholic poem about the passing of time, then the final six lines explain Milton's faith in Divine providence to guide his path. "All is, if I have grace to use it so, / As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye." (ll. 13-14) Here he comes to the conclusion that, though time passes and he fails to understand the use of it, God always watches him and is certain to form and use him as his merit demands.

     This faith in his deity is taken further in "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent," an intensely personal sonnet about Milton's loss of sight and his desperation as he attempts to react and cope. Alluding to a parable in Matthew, Milton reconciles his own desire to surrender hope with his faith in God's will and hand on his life. This parallel is dramatically played out in "Samson Agonistes" as Samson, eyes gouged out and strength lost, considers his possible destinies and the reasons that God would bring him to such an end. After much consideration, he succumbs to his fate, deciding that God must have brought him to the Philistine dungeon for some reason beyond his comprehension. Because of this, he is responsible for the freedom of Israel and the death of his enemies as he collapses the roof over their heads. Faith constituted the main part of both the play and the sonnet's drama– both come to the same conclusion. His literature indicates Milton believed that God's guidance follows close every action of those who follow and believe in him.

     From his own religion to the religions of dead civilizations to a rigid view of women, Milton's poetry is rich with common themes and poetic devices, not all of which seem to work together in a positive light. Eventually, Milton can be characterized as a highly educated, highly religious misogynist, which would be quite a frowned-on position in our era. But then, even in his own time, Milton was never wildly popular in politics; maybe he would feel quite at home with critics with different faces and of different issues– as comfortable in our modern age as he was in his own.

Text copyright ©1999-2012 John Larson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on February 10, 2003. Last updated April 16, 2012.


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