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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Elysha Massatt
Home-schooled Senior in High School


Milton’s Upon the Circumcision : Meter and Meaning

        In his religious poem, “Upon the Circumcision,” Milton creates the specific scene before us, passionately urging on us the poignant pathos and grief of the moment, and draws us into the religious questions, escaping any imputation of dogmatic canting.  He doesn’t explain religious beliefs – he presents their origins so that we cannot ignore them, but must struggle with such essential issues as heaven and earth, sorrow and sin, and love and justice.
        The structure of the poem is arranged in two stanzas of fourteen lines each, that is, two sonnets juxtaposed.  The rhyme scheme, which is the same for both sonnets, is divided up in an unusual a b c b a c c d d c e f f e arrangement, which, combined with the sonnet form, allows a strong sense of order without any accompanying sense of intrusion, predictability or singsong.
        The first sonnet, without giving any details of the circumcision or even mentioning it specifically, evokes all the questioning emotion and provides all the background needed to examine the event as it affects everyone. The section before the first sonnet’s concluding triplet is addressed to the angels, “flaming powers and winged warriors of the sky,” which gives us a divine reference frame full of fiery beings, an image that helps us understand Milton’s reference to heaven later on.   Five lines into the sonnet the tone changes, moving chronologically from a short while ago when all was hushed, awed joy, to now, when we mourn and “He now bleeds to give us ease.” With this deep contrast and sorrow present before us, he wraps the sonnet up with three concluding lines: “Alas, how soon our sin sore doth begin His Infancy to seize!”  In these lines, Milton addresses people instead of angels, and introduces the concept of sin to the already intriguing combination of earthly sorrowful waiting and angelic joy.  This conclusion not only adds depth to the sonnet already created, but also brings up a number of unanswered questions, striking an unresolved chord.  The poem might have ended easily after the first sonnet if its ending triplet didn’t require Milton to delve into its origins and meanings.
        By involving us in the pain we have inflicted on the innocent by our sin, Milton leads us from the immediate scene we are pondering into the great question of whether love or justice is greater:  “O more exceeding love or law more just?”  The event is clearly so sad and so intolerable that justice or love both seem inconceivable.  This question of love and justice has been considered ponderously and impersonally by the philosophers of the ages. The question is immediately followed by Milton’s answer:  “Just law indeed, but more exceeding love!” In this case, love worked within the law, triumphing over it as this sonnet triumphs over its meter. How can this be?

For we by rightful doom remediless
Were lost in death, till he that dwelt above
High-throned in secret bliss, for us frail dust
Emptied his glory, even to nakedness;

Although beautifully worded, this passage could, by itself, easily be labeled didactic and dogmatic.  As it is, though, every Christian reference made in this stanza has a parallel emotion or event presented in the previous part so that it holds much more meaning for the readers.  Our “rightful doom remediless,” reminds us of the “Seas wept from our deep sorrow.”  We understand God, “High-throned in secret bliss,” by remembering the angels’ fiery essence that might be so far distant from us as to be unable to weep.  The image of how Christ “Emptied his glory, even to nakedness” directly parallels Jesus’ entry into the world and his nakedness at the circumcision.  The passage shows the great love demonstrated through what appeared on the surface to be most unjust and unkind.
        If the first four lines after the question and answer demonstrate God’s love as it was manifested in the original scene, the second quatrain demonstrates how justice was satisfied and fulfilled through the great and perfect love of God. God took on both sides of his Covenant, satisfying its demands and bearing the mete of Justice, and the circumcision was the painful seal of obedience to all this. The real conclusion appears in Milton’s prediction of a greater pain yet to come.  No longer do we regard pain as unjust and unloving, although we will weep anyway.  This focuses us back on the initial subject, the circumcision, and gives the larger consequence in the light of what we have already learned.
        Although the poem is about a topic painful and sad, the overall message is brilliant with hope and light, the words are eloquent and thought-provoking, and the presentation compels readers to struggle with questions they may have previously disregarded as unimportant.

Text copyright ©2001 Elysha Massatt. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on September 19, 2001. Last updated April 16, 2012.


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