« ZurückWeiter »
than ever, and the flocks were perishing for lack of care or by the ravages of the stealthy wolf? It is to the singularly bold and stern passage of denunciation here put into St. Peter's mouth (lines 113-131), and especially to the last lines of the passage, prophesying speedy vengeance and reform, that Milton referred, when, in the title prefixed to the poem on its republication in 1645, he intimated that it contained a description of the state of England at the time when it was written, and foretold the ruin of the corrupted English clergy then in their height. In 1638 it had been bold enough to let the passage stand in the poem, as published in the Cambridge memorial volume, without calling attention to it in the title. But, indeed, this passage too had transcended the ordinary limits of the quiet pastoral. The poet is aware of this. Accordingly, when "the dread voice is past" that had so pealed over the landscape and caused it to shudder, he calls on Alpheus and the Sicilian Muse, as the patrons of the pastoral proper, to return, and be with him through the pensive remainder. Beautifully pensive it is, and yet with a tendency to soar. First, in strange and evidently studied contrast with the stern speech of St. Peter which has just preceded, is the exquisitely worded passage which follows (lines 143-151). For musical sweetness, and dainty richness of floral colour, it beats perhaps anything else in all Milton. It is the call upon all valleys of the landscape, and the banks of all the secret streamlets, to yield up their choicest flowers, and those dearest to shepherds, that they may be strewn over the dead body of Lycidas. Ah! it is but a fond fancy, a momentary forgetfulness. For where, meanwhile, is that dead body? Not anywhere on land at all, to be strewed with flowers and receive a funeral, but whelmed amid the sounding seas, either sunk deep down near the spot of the shipwreck, or drifted thence northwards perhaps to the Hebrides, or perhaps southwards to Cornwall and St. Michael's Mount. But let the surviving shepherds cease their mourning. Though that body is never again to be seen on earth, Lycidas is not lost. A higher world has received him already; and there, amid other groves and other streams, laving his oozy locks with the nectar of heaven, and listening to the nuptial song, he has joined the society of the Saints, and can look down on the world and the friends he has left, and act as a power promoted for
their good.- -Here the Monody or Pastoral ends. The last eight lines of the poem do not belong to the Monody. They are not a part of the song sung by Milton in his imaginary character as the shepherd who is bewailing the death of Lycidas, but are distinctly a stanza of Epilogue, in which Milton speaks directly, criticises what he has just written in his imaginary character, and intimates that he has stepped out of that character, and is about to turn to other occupations:
"Thus sang the uncouth swain to the oaks and rills,
SONNETS AND KINDRED PIECES.
In one well-known sonnet Wordsworth has given the very essence of the history of the Sonnet down to Milton's time :
"Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Milton, however, is notable in the succession of chief Sonnet-writers, not only on account of the intrinsic power of the few Sonnets he did write, but also because he helped, by means of them, to establish or re-establish in England that stricter mechanism of the Sonnet which had been in favour with the Italians.
The Sonnet may be defined, generally, as a little poem o fourteen lines, complete in itself, and containing a condensed expression of some one thought or feeling. The Italian poets, however, who had first practised the Sonnet, and from whom the Spaniards, the French, and the English had taken it, had practised it in one particular form, or rather in a certain variety of forms. Not only were the fourteen lines rhyming lines, of the norm of five Iambi each, but the rhymes interlaced each other in a peculiar manner. On the whole, the legitimate Italian Sonnet may be said to have contained either four rhymes or five rhymes altogether, of which two governed the first eight lines, and the remaining two or three the last six, the linking of the rhymes within this general provision admitting of variety, though some arrangements were preferred to others. The least common arrangement in the last six lines was that which ended the Sonnet in a rhyming couplet, so as to round it off with a kind of epigrammatic effect.
On account of the paucity of rhymes in English as compared with Italian, the first English Sonnet-writers had made pretty free with the Italian model. There was some effort indeed to keep more or less close to that model, and especially not to go beyond five rhymes in all in the building of the Sonnet. Instances will be found in Wyatt (1503-1542), and in Surrey (1515-1547). From the first, however, there was a tendency to the convenience of more numerous rhymes than the four or five allowed in Italian, and also, with or without that convenience, to the epigrammatic effect of an ending in a couplet. Hence, at length, a laxness in the English idea of the Sonnet, which permitted any little poem. of fourteen lines, rhymed anyhow, to be called by that name. Perhaps, however, two forms emerged from this confusion as normal or customary forms of the English Sonnet. One of these forms, largely exemplified in Spenser (1553-1599), is a form which finds five rhymes in all still sufficient, but does so by throwing he first twelve lines into three interlinked stanzas of four lines each, and then adding a couplet. The formula, more expressly, is A 1, 3, B 2, 4, 5, 7, C 6, 8, 9, II, D 10, 12, E 13, 14; where the rhymes within the three stanzas, it will be observed, are alternate, but, by the device of making the last rhyme of the first stanza begin the second, and he last of the second again begin the third, four rhymes
clear all the three stanzas and prepare for the fifth of the final couplet. But a still laxer form than this common Spenserian one was one to which even Surrey had helped himself, and of which there are examples in Spenser too, and others in Samuel Daniel (1562-16.19). This form dispensed altogether with the interlinking of the three stanzas by rhymes common to the first and second and the second and third, and was content that the twelve lines should be three loose stanzas of alternate rhymes, connected only by a continuous meaning, and preceding the final couplet. Thus seven rhymes in all were allowed in the Sonnet, the formula being A 1, 3, B 2, 4, C 5, 7, D 6, 8, E 9, 11, F 10, 12, G 13, 14. It was of this free form of the Sonnet that Shakespeare availed himself; and all his famous Sonnets, with scarce an exception, are written in it. For example :—
"No longer mourn for me when I am dead
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
To all time this type of Sonnet, though not the strict Italian, will remain, consecrated by Shakespeare's great usage, a true and sufficient English type. Even while Shakespeare was alive, however, there lingered a knowledge of the stricter Italian type, and a disposition to exhibit it also in English. The Sonnets of Donne (1573 - 1631), specimens though they are rather of metrical intellection than of lyrical effusion, are, most of them, more after the Italian mechanism than Spenser's, and much more than Shakespeare's. They are of five rhymes, of which two, by their interlinking, sustain the first eight lines of the Sonnet, leaving three for the other six lines. On the same principle, and with much more of softness and music in them, are the Sonnets of Drummond
of Hawthornden (1585-1649), a poet imbued with Italian influences and fond of the Sonnet. But both in Donne's Sonnets and in Drummond's, no less than in Spenser's and Shakespeare's, the sounding epigrammatic couplet at the end is still a constant feature. The English ear seems to have grown so accustomed to this ending as to require it, and it was usual to print Sonnets with these two final lines coupled together for the eye by indentation from the rest.
It was reserved mainly for Milton to emancipate the English Sonnet from this peculiarity of the final rhyming couplet, by reasserting the Italian rule that it should be optional and occasional only, while at the same time he reverted to the Italian construction in other respects. An early student of the Italian poets, he had learnt the true music of the Sonnet from Petrarch most of all, so that, when he first ventured on trials of the sonnet-form in English, he thought of it as the "Petrarchian Stanza." These first trials were made while he was still a Cambridge student, long before that " damp" fell round his path of which Wordsworth speaks as being already round it when he seized the Sonnet, and the thing in his hands became a trumpet. The series of his Sonnets, however, though beginning about 1630, extends to 1658; and most of them were those "soulanimating strains " which he blew at intervals from this instrument when other poetry was in forced abeyance from him, and he was engrossed in prose polemics. Milton's last sixteen Sonnets, indeed, with a verse or two besides, are the few occasional strains that connect, as by intermittent trumpet-blasts through twenty years, the rich minor poetry of his youth and early manhood with the greater poetry of his declining age in blindness after the Restoration.
SONNET I. TO THE NIGHTINGALE.
There is no means of dating this Sonnet precisely; but it is placed first by Milton himself, and must be referred either to the close of the Cambridge period, or to the beginning of the Horton period. It is the Sonnet of a youth to whom the return of May brings the thought of his youth passing companionless and a sense of love-longing. There is a recollection of the superstition that he who hears the nightingale before he hears the cuckoo will woo fortunately before the year is over.