« ZurückWeiter »
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 (1562-1619). 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
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with viler worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
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.
SONNET II.: ON HIS HAVING ARRIVED AT THE AGE OF TWENTY-THREE.
Milton wrote this Sonnet at or about the moment when Time had "stolen on his wing" the "three-and-twentieth year" of his life; and that was on the 9th of December 1631. He was then at Cambridge, a B.A. of three years' standing, and was looking forward to his degree of M.A., and the close of his Cambridge career, in a few months. But the occurrence of the draft of the Sonnet among the Cambridge MSS. adds other illustrative particulars. It occurs there as an insertion into the first of two drafts, in Milton's hand, of a prose letter of some length, which he sent from Horton, or meant to send, to a friend. This friend, whose name we do not know, had remonstrated with Milton on the aimless course of merely studious life he was then leading, and on the impropriety of his continuing it instead of dedicating his talents to the Church or some other active profession. Milton's reply is a courteous acknowledgment of the interest shown by the friend in his behalf, with a defence of his conduct, and a statement of his reasons for being in no hurry to enter the Church. Though all ordinary motives conspired to urge him into that or some other profession, yet a "sacred reverence and religious advisement," a principle of "not taking thought of being late, so it gave advantage to be more fit," had hitherto held him back. "That you may see," he adds, "that I am something suspicious of myself, and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me, I am the bolder to send you some of my nightward thoughts some little while ago, because they come in not altogether unfitly, made up in a Petrarchian stanza, which I told you of." Here, accordingly, follows the
– VII.; FIVE ITALIAN SONNETS, WITH AN ACCOMPANYING CANZONE.
These Italian pieces, which precede Sonnet II. in Milton's own editions, form a little group by themselves. They relate the story of Milton's love for some Italian lady, beautiful, black-eyed, dark-haired, accomplished, and fascinating by
her grace and her powers of singing. Altogether there is an Italian air about the Sonnets; they breathe of Italy. They have been referred, therefore, by common consent, to the time of Milton's Italian journey (1638-9). Some time and somewhere during that journey, it is supposed, he met the foreign beauty who captivated him. Warton imagines that she may have been the celebrated singer Leonora, whom Milton heard at Rome, and to whom he addressed three pieces of complimentary Latin verse. There is no real ground for the fancy. The lady, whoever she was, is described in the first Sonnet as a native of the Vale of the Reno, in the north of the Papal States between Bologna and Ferrara. Now Milton visited this part of Italy in 1639, or towards the end of his tour, when, after having returned from Naples, and paid second visits, of two months each, to Rome and Florence, he passed through Bologna and Ferrara on his way to Venice and homewards. But the lady, though
a Bolognese, may have been met in Venice, or perhaps even in Florence or Rome, before Milton had passed through Bologna. Nay, after all, may not the Italian Sonnets and Canzone have been written in England before the Italian journey, and even a good while before it? May not Milton, some time after he had left Cambridge, have met, in English society, the Bolognese beauty who charmed him? May not his attempts in Italian have been a tribute to her foreign loveliness, and to the sweetness of the language as heard from her lips? In the second of the Sonnets and in the Canzone there are expressions which might be construed in favour of this hypothesis. On the whole, however, it is not Either way, it has to be added, Italian critics do not find the Italian idiom of the pieces quite perfect.
so likely as the former.
SONNET VIII.: "WHEN THE ASSAULT WAS INTENDED
TO THE CITY."
This Sonnet, the first of those which refer to English public affairs, was written in November 1642, and probably on Saturday the 12th of that month. The Civil War had then begun; and Milton, already known as a vehement AntiEpiscopal pamphleteer and Parliamentarian, was living, with two young nephews whom he was educating, in his house in
Aldersgate Street, a suburban thoroughfare just beyond one of the city gates of London. After some of the first actions of the war, including the indecisive Battle of Edgehill (Oct. 23), the King's army, advancing out of the Midlands, with the King and Prince Rupert present in it, had come as near to London as Hounslow and Brentford, and was threatening a farther march to crush the Londoners and the Parliament at once. They were at their nearest on Saturday the 12th of November; and all that day and the next there was immense excitement in London in expectation of an assault,―chains put up across streets, houses barred, etc. It was not till the evening of the 13th that the citizens were reassured by the retreat of the King's army, which had been checked from a closer advance by a rapid march-out of the London Trained Bands under Essex and Skippon. Milton, we are to fancy, had shared the common alarm. His was one of the houses which, if the Cavaliers had been let loose, it would have given them particular pleasure to sack. Knowing this, the only precaution he takes is, half in jest and yet perhaps with some anxiety, to write a Sonnet addressed to the imaginary Royalist Captain, Colonel, or Knight, who may command the Aldersgate Street sackingparty. "On his dore when ye citty expected an assault" is the original heading of the Sonnet in the copy of it, by an amanuensis, among the Cambridge MSS., as if the Sonnet had actually been pasted or nailed upon the outside of Milton's door. This title was afterwards deleted by Milton himself, and the other title substituted in his own hand; but the Sonnet appeared without any title at all in the editions of 1645 and 1673.
SONNET IX. : TO A LADY.
This Sonnet was left untitled by Milton: the title has been supplied by the editors. The date, almost certainly, was 1644; but it is unknown who the lady was.
SONNET X.: "TO THE LADY MARGARET LEY."
This Sonnet must have been written in 1644 or 1645. The lady addressed was Lady Margaret Ley, one of the daughters of James Ley, first Earl of Marlborough, a noble