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From 1642, when he entered actively into the national struggle for liberty, until 1658, when the duties of his Latin secretaryship ceased, Milton wrote no English verse except in the way of some rather wooden translations from the Scriptures, and scattered sonnets, — seventeen sonnets in seventeen years. The translations may be dismissed without comment, but the sonnets are of manifold interest. They are the fugitive outcroppings of “that one talent which is death to hide,” and constitute the only relief which he allowed himself from his resolution to efface the singer in the fighter so long as his country's fate hung in the balance. Even in them, he does not throw off the weight of that resolution; for such of them as are not actual political manifestoes still cling closely to matter of fact. They are, in a word, occasional poetry; but they are lifted into permanence by the presence in them of the whole of a great personality, capable of giving to the most ordinary words an unaccountable resonance and distinction.
The sonnets written after 1642 divide themselves into three groups, – those addressed to personal friends, both men and women, those dealing with some aspect of public affairs, especially as represented by the great inen of the time, and those of a purely autobiographic nature.
Of the first group, the sonnets “ To a Virtuous Young Lady,” “To the Lady Margaret Ley,” and “ To Mistress Catherine Thomson," are of particular interest, as showing the poet's growth away from the mere schoolboy amorousness of the Latin elegies and the gentle troubadour gallantry of the Italian Sonnets toward
a high Puritan ideal of womanhood. Of these, the sonnet “ To the Lady Margaret” is pitched in the lowest key. It was written shortly after Mary Powell's desertion. Phillips says of Milton's relations with the Lady Margaret, that “ being now as it were a single man again, he made it his chief diversion now and then of an evening to visit” ber, and that she, “ being a woman of great wit and ingenuity, had a particular honor for him, and took much delight in his company, as likewise Captain Hobson, her husband, a very accomplished gentleman.” The tone of the sonnet may have been determined by Milton's rumination upon the springs of his own domestic misfortunes. Eight of the fourteen lines are devoted to a eulogy of the lady's father, James Ley, Earl of Marlborough, Lord President of the Council under Charles and one time Lord High Treasurer, whose death was believed to have been hastened by the sudden breaking up of Charles's third Parliament, as that of Isocrates was caused by news of the battle of Chæronea. Milton deems it a sufficient encomium upon the daughter to say that she reflects the honor of the father. In other words, what attracted him in her was probably the dignity with which she bore a great and good name, a dignity thrown into relief by what must have seemed to him the lowbred and selfish impulsiveness of his own wife, the daughter of a shifting cavalier squire. It is, one may say, the civic ideal of womanhood to which this sonnet gives a celebration quite Roman in its pith and measure.
The sonnet “On the Religious Memory of Mrs. Catherine Thomson” is perhaps
the least successful of the whole series. The personification of the lady's good deeds, azure - winged and purple-clad, guided by Faith and Love to Heaven, there to intercede for the soul of their mistress, is marked by the conceitfulness which was the bane of Milton's early manner. It is the only one of the sonnets which lacks the accent of simple conviction. Some interest attaches to it, however, in that it presents another aspect of the Puritan conception of woman, as she reveals herself in a life of active charity.
A more sincere eulogy of Christian womanhood appears in the sonnet “To a Virtuous Young Lady.” It has been plausibly conjectured that the person addressed was that Miss Davis whom Milton appears to have had some intention of marrying in practical exemplification of the free doctrines proclaimed in his divorce tracts. Whether this be true or not, the sonnet is very tender and exalted. The closing picture of the wise virgin, waiting, her odorous lamp filled with “deeds of light,” to find entrance ... " when the Bridegroom with his feastful
friends Passes to bliss at the mid-hour of night,” seems breathed upon by the very breath of passion; but whether passion for the woman or for the thing she typifies it is hard to say. In his youth, all the warm and gorgeous imagery which clusters about the Hebraic idea of paradisaic love had had a strong attraction for Milton, a stronger attraction than it has had for any other English poet except Crashaw. In Lycidas and in the Epitaphium Damonis he had appropriated the idea with startling completeness. This sonnet is the latest expression of this mystical strain in his nature; for in Paradise Lost the idea, though put forward with emphasis, has become somewhat intellectualized and pallid. In losing it, he lost one of those vital conceptions, at once sensuous and spiritual, which take hold of all the fibres of a poet's nature, –
which may, indeed, be called the poet's peculiar dower.
The other sonnets addressed to intimate friends are three in number. Two of them, the sonnet to Mr. Lawrence and the first to Cyriack Skinner, seem to be nothing more nor less than “ poetical invitations to dinner," in the manner suggested by Horace's “Quid bellicosus Cantaber.” Both Lawrence and Skinner were frequent visitors at Milton's house in Petty France. Lawrence was the son of the President of Cromwell's Council, and about twenty years old at the earliest date, 1656, which can be assigned to the sonnet. Skinner, grandson of the famous jurist Sir Edward Coke, was a young barrister, a member of the famous republican debating club called the “ Rota,” which held its meetings at the Turk’s Head in Palace Yard. The sonnets mark that bright spot in the poet's adult life which followed upon his second marriage. They offer an unusual combination of gravity and grace in the treatment of a trivial subject. Pattison says of them, “In these two sonnets he has shown that he could lay his hand gently on the strings, and take it off again. Milton's, indeed, is not the delicate touch of Desaugiers or Béranger, those masters of la chose légère ;' but what is wanted in suppleness is made up by dignity and religious resignedness of which the libertine song writer is incapable.'
The last sonnet of this group, that to Henry Lawes, has a higher interest, extrinsic and intrinsic. Milton's friendship with Lawes, beginning possibly in the poet's boyhood, at the house in Bread Street, strengthened by his growing taste for music and by their collaboration in the Arcades and Comus, must have been one of the most genial influences in the poet's life. The sonnet in question, though it first appeared in print prefixed to a collection of Choice Psalms, published by Lawes and his brother in 1648, had been written two years before, probably in the period of