A History of English Literature

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widely in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and modern languages, and was remarkable for
learning in an age when a reader could know virtually all that was known. His first
poem was a version of Psalm 114, ‘When Israel went out of Egypt’. This becomes
‘When the blest seed of Terah’s faithful son ...’. A ‘fit’ audience would know of God’s
promises to Abraham and his descendants. The few who knew that Abraham was the
son of Terah would see that ‘faithful’ distinguishes the son’s faithfulness from the
father’s idol-worship, and would be saved from folly. Milton’s ‘faithful’ father had left
an idolatrous (i.e. Catholic) home. As one of the ‘blest seed’, Milton would claim that
God ‘spoke first to his Englishmen’, the new chosen people.
Humanist ideals shape the early poems: poetic aspiration in ‘At a Vacation
Exercise’ and ‘What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones’; impatience in
‘How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth / Stol’n on his wing my three and
twentieth year.’ Other early works are in pastoral modes or lighter moods: the rejoic-
ing baroque ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, and the playful debate of
L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Young Milton is already master of medium and form, and
his joy in the exercise of his art is infectious. L’Allegro, the cheerful man, likes
comedy: ‘Then to the well-trod stage anon / If Jonson’s learnéd sock be on, / Or
sweetest Shakespeare, fancy’s child / Warble his native woodnotes wild.’ The
thoughtful Penseroso prefers tragedy; he goes to church alone:

But let my due feet never fail,
To walk the studious cloister’s pale, enclosure
And love the high embowéd roof,
With antic pillars massy proof, antique
And storied windows richly dight, decorated
Casting a dim religious light.
There let the pealing organ blow
To the full-voiced choir below,
In serv ice high, with anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all heaven before mine eyes.

A joyous response to nature and to art enlivens the early work. The ‘dim religious
light’ is Anglican, and the ‘ecstasies’ almost Italian. After Milton left the Church of
England in the mid-1630s he would do with words what the Church did with stained
glass and music. But for years he was part of the high Caroline culture, an artistic
consensus between Church and Court, writing courtly masques. The figuration of
the Nativity Ode is distinctly baroque. Peace, he writes,
crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere
His ready harbinger, [God’s]
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing,
And waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.

The olive crown of Peace is both classical and biblical, for the turtledove brought an
olive branch to the Ark. The appearance of Peace is now likened to the chariot of
Venus,drawn by doves; ‘amorous’ is an epithet transferred from the goddess of love
to the clouds clinging to her. The Love she symbolizes is divine, not pagan. Such a
use of classical symbolism was common form in Europe.


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