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Nay, if you read this line, remember not
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 "soul-animating 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 intermitted trumpetblasts 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 some time in 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, 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 Sonnet.
SONNETS III.-VII.: FIVE ITALIAN SONNETS, WITH AN ACCOMPANYING
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 some where 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 (see them among the Latin Poems, and the Introduction to them). 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 so likely as the former. Either way, it has to be added, Italian critics do not find the Italian idiom of the pieces quite perfect.
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 Anti-Episcopal 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, &c. 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 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 sacking-party. 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 up on 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 who the lady was that is addressed is unknown.
SONNET X.: "TO THE LADY MARGARET LEY."
This Sonnet must have been written in 1644 or 1645; and the lady addressed was Lady Margaret Ley, one of the daughters of James Ley, first Earl of Marl
borough, a nobleman of whom there still remained a respectful recollection in England. Born in 1552, he had been eminent as a lawyer before Queen Elizabeth's death; and, after a long career as Knight, Baronet, and Judge, he had been raised by James to the great office of Lord High Treasurer of England in 1624, and, at the same time, to a peerage as Baron Ley of Ley in Devonshire. The higher dignity of the Earldom of Marlborough was conferred on him by Charles in 1626-7, when he was seventy-four years of age. In 1628 he had been removed from the High Treasurership to the less laborious office of President of the Council, ostensibly on account of his old age, but really, it was thought, because he was not sufficiently compliant with the policy of Charles and Buckingham. He died in March 1628-9, immediately after the dissolution of Charles's Third Parliament; and, as the Sonnet hints, his death was believed to have been hastened by political anxiety at that crisis. He left three sons; the eldest of whom, Henry, succeeded him in the Earldom, but, dying in 1638, transmitted it to his son, James Ley, third Earl of Marlborough, who attained to unusual distinction by his services to the King in the Civil War, and by his various abilities. Among the surviving aunts of this young nobleman, and herself probably somewhat past her youth, was the Lady Margaret of the Sonnet. She had married a Captain Hobson, from the Isle of Wight; and both she and her husband seem to have taken the Parliamentarian side. They resided in London, and Milton had become acquainted with them. His nephew and biographer Phillips expressly says that, after his desertion by his first wife in 1643, Milton "made it his chief diversion now and then of an evening to visit the Lady Margaret Ley," adding, "This lady, being a woman of great wit "and ingenuity, had a particular honour for him, and took much delight in his
company, as likewise Captain Hobson, her husband, a very accomplished "gentleman." Milton's compliment to her in the Sonnet is that she was a true daughter of her liberal father. Her political and religious opinions probably agreed with Milton's. This is the latest of the Sonnets printed in the edition of 1645, and it is there printed without a heading. The heading is from the Cambridge draft.
SONNETS XI. AND XII.: "ON THE DETRACTION WHICH FOLLOWED UPON MY WRITING CERTAIN TREATISES," AND "ON THE SAME."
The Treatises in'question were Milton's four Treatises on the subject of Divorce, written between his desertion by his first wife in 1643 and her return to him and reconciliation with him in the autumn of 1645 viz. his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, which came first and passed through two editions, and his Judgment of Martin Bucer, his Tetrachordon, and his Colasterion, which followed, at intervals, in defence of the original publication. As the opinion broached by Milton in these pamphlets was a new and daring one, it shocked people greatly, and especially the Presbyterians, who were then in the ascendant in Parliament, and all-powerful in the Westminster Assembly. Milton's strange doctrine of Divorce was the subject of talk in society; it was attacked through the press; it even brought him into danger with the public authorities. Milton's two Sonnets are his comments, one half jocose, the other contemptuous and indignant, on this execration with which he found himself surrounded. They were written late in 1645 or early in 1646, when the return of his wife and his reconciliation with her had abated his practical and personal interest in the success of his doctrine. The Scotch names ridiculed in Sonnet XI. are those of the Gordons,
then much heard of as among the followers of the Marquis of Montrose in his Royalist enterprise in Scotland, and of a certain Highland warrior, who was Montrose's Lieutenant-General, and called in Gaelic Alexander Macdonnel, Mac-Colkittoch, Mac-Gillespie, i.e., Alexander Macdonnel, son of Colkittoch (the left handed), son of Gillespie. He was Colkitto, Macdonnel, and Galasp, all in one.
"ON THE NEW FORCERS OF CONSCIENCE UNDER THE LONG
This is, in reality, a continuation or extension of the vein of the two Divorce Sonnets, and must have been written about the same time, or hardly later than 1647. Partly on account of the outcry against Milton's Divorce Pamphlets among the Presbyterians, partly on more general grounds, he had parted company with them, and had attached himself rather to the party, or combination of parties, of which Cromwell was becoming the recognised head, and who were called by the general name of The Independents. It was the leading principle of this party, or combination of parties, to oppose the too rigorous establishment of that system of Presbyterian Church Government and Discipline, after the Scottish model, which had been decreed in England by the Long Parliament, and in part carried into effect, after the abolition of Episcopacy. It was their effort, at all events, to secure that, if this system were permanently established by the majority as the national English system, there should be room under it for freedom of conscience and worship for the dissenting minority. Gradually the notion of a Toleration of Independents and other Sects within certain limits under the established Presbyterianism was gaining ground in Parliament, chiefly in consequence of the power of the Parliamentarian Army, which was composed largely of Independents, Baptists, and more extreme Sectaries; but the rigid Presbyterians, and especially the Presbyterian Divines of the Westminster Assembly, and most especially the small group of Scottish Divines who sat in that Assembly as assessors to their English brethren, were loud in their denunciations of the arch-heresy of Toleration, as they called it, and their calls for a suppression of all Sects and the enforcement of an absolute Presbyterian uniformity by the civil power. It is against these claims of strict Presbyterian supremacy that Milton speaks out in the present piece of verse. He intended it to be what may be called an Anti-Presbyterian and Pro-Toleration Sonnet; but by going beyond fourteen lines converted it into what the Italians called a "Sonnet with a tail."-Classic Hierarchy means Presbyterian Hierarchy, the English name for the Church-Court called "a Presbytery " in Scotland being "a Classis." A.S. stands for a Scottish pamphleteer, named Adam Steuart, who wrote with his initials; Rutherford is the Scottish divine, Samuel Rutherford, who was of the Westminster Assembly; Shallow Edwards is an English Presbyterian preacher, Thomas Edwards, who had written a book of virulent personalities against Independents and Heretics, Milton included; Scotch what d'ye call is probably the Rev. Robert Baillie, the historian, then one of the Westminster Assembly, who had also attacked Milton in print.
SONNET XIII.: "To MR. H. LAWES, ON HIS AIRS."
One of the Cambridge drafts of this Sonnet fixes its date as Feb. 9, 1645-6. That draft is headed "To my Friend, Mr. Henry Lawes: Feb. 9, 1645,"