It is something like a paradox -that Milton, imbued throughly with the spirit of the Greek and Roman classics of antiquity as he was, should give a strong autobiographical flavour to his poetic work. One of the important tips that every schoolboy is given about poetry is that romantic poetry is subjective and classical poetry is objective in both content and execution. The romantic writer reveals his personality in his work, but the classical writer, writing about general truths, keeps his personality veiled.
Thus whereas Wordsworth in The Prelude gives an autobiography of the development of his mind and Lamb unveils all the facets of his warm and attractive personality in his essays, Pope deals with general themes in an objective manner in his works like the Essay on Man and the Essay on Criticism. But this differentiation is misleading if pressed too rigorously and unthinkingly. Both the romantic and the classical writers reveal their personality in their work, though in different ways. There is as much of Pope in The Rape of the Lock as of Shelley in the Ode to the West Wind, but each has his own modus operandi. Behind every book there is its writer, and the book is an expression of his personality. However, there are certain genres which lend themselves more easily to the process of self-revelation by the author. They are the essay, the lyric, the elegy, and so forth. But some other genres, such as the drama and the novel, are of a different character. For understanding the personality of a dramatist or a novelist there is no obvious cut-and-dried method. The reader has to find directions from indirections.
Milton is, broadly speaking, a classical poet. Even then, he puts too much of himself into his literary works. We are not here referring to his prose works-most of which are in the form of pamphets. In his prose works Milton obviously gives his own thoughts and feelings, and thereby reveals himself. But even in his poetic work we see both directly and indirectly his monumental personality revealed in all its facets-glittering as well as none-too-beautiful. Even into his only play; Samson Agonistes, he manages to put something of himself. Thereby he strikes a note of contrast with Shakespeare-to track down whose -elusive-personality in his plays has been the despair even of the most industrious critic. Shakespeare is like Ariel of The Tempest who is here, there, and everywhere-ever laughing at the toils of the erudite critics who perspire to shut up his Puckish spirit in their critical bottles. But the reconstruction of Milton’s personality from his poetry presents very few difficulties, as it is chock-full of the autobiographic element. Coleridge contrasts Shakespeare and Milton in these words: “Shakespeare’s poetry is characterless; that is, it does not reflect .the individual Shakespeare, but John Milton himself is in every line of the Paradise Lost. In the Paradise Lost-mdeed in every one of his poems–it is Milton himself whom you see: his Satan, his Adam, his Raphael, almost his Eve-are all John Milton; and it is a sense of this intense egotism that gives me the greatest pleasure in reading Milton’s works.”
The autobiographic element in Milton’s poetry does not mean much of the revelation of his outer life; it rather abides in his expression of his intellectual and spiritual character. Let us now examine the important poetic works of Milton with regard to their autobiographic importance.
The sonnet is only one of the more disciplined forms of the lyric and, like the lyric, therefore, is normally employed by a poet as a vehicle for the conveyance of his own personal emotions. The sonnet first appeared around the twelfth or thirteenth century in Italy where its first notable practitioner was Dante. The next illustrious Italian sonneteer was Petrarch who served as a model for the numerous French sonneteers. Wyatt brought the sonnet to England in the sixteenth century in the last years of which the vogue of the sonnet grew to its peak and hundreds of “sonnet sequences” came to be written. In the next century the most notable sonneteer was Milton. His sonnets, like the sonnets before him, are all personal in spirit and complexion. But there is one major difference. Almost all the sonneteers before him Italian and French as well as English-had love for their theme. An overwhelming majority of their sonnets was addressed to their mistresses, real or imaginary. But Milton does not write of love. Nevertheless, he is quite personal in his sonnets which throw light on the various facets of his personality. Thus, for instance, the sonnet “How soon hath time, the subtle thief of youth” written by him on his twenty-third birthday expresses a melancholy feeling that his genius has not ripened with years:
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
“When I consider how my light is spent” is Milton’s best-known sonnet. Therein he tells us how his sadness at his early blindness “ere half my days”) and the prospect of his not being able to do his duty towards his “Maker” on account of his blindness, is dispelled by the spirit of Patience who points out:
“God doth not need
His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve him best. His
Is state kingly : thousands at His bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait. “
“L’Allegro” and “II Penseroso”:
Milton’s earliest important poems L”‘Allegro and IIPenseroso are not autobiographical in the narrow sense of the term in so far as they fail to convey to the reader information about any important event in the life of the poet. Even then they reveal the composite nature of Milton’s intellectual set-up. His love of nature, his disposition to be melancholy, his interest in classical mythology, his intellectual pursuits-all of them come in for expression in these companion poems.
Comus is a masque–genre which generally precludes; the expression of any personal feelings. But Comus has a very strong personal flavour. The moral conveyed by it is that steadfast virtue manages quite easily to vanquish the evil designs of clever and hypocritical vice. This moral is conveyed through the career of Alice—a personification of virtue-and her attempted seduction by the lustful magician Comus after she has been led astray in a wood. Of course, Comus does not succeed and Alice remains unscathed. Alice can easily be supposed to be Milton himself, whawas also tempted as a young man by the brilliant exterior of vice. Legouis observes in this connexion: “His heroine is himself; Comus tempts as he has been tempted; she resists as he did; he speaks every word in the poem; Comus merely expresses the appeal to the senses which young Milton has felt. The moral of the masque is Milton’s moral—high, disdainful, and solitary. The final impression is one of virtue remote from mankind and above it, sure and haughty virtue, ignoring the multitude. For the Milton of Comus, as for the Calvinists, the number of the elect is few.”
Milton’s next important poem is the pastoral elegy Lycidas written at the death of his friend Edward King. The poem is as autobiographical as similar poems by Shelley and Matthew Arnold— Adonais and Thyrsis respectively. The immediate purpose of an elegy is to celebrate the good qualities of the deceased and to express the depth of sorrow at the sad departure of a noble spirit and, very often, a good companion. Milton does it quite effectively:
But O the heavy change, now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
Thee Shepherd, thee, the woods, and desert caves, With wild thyme and the gadding vine overgrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
Quie obviously Milton does think of his departed friend. However, there is more of Milton than of his friend in this poem. Legouis avers in this context: “It is not King but Milton who should be sought in them [the fines of the poem]. The death of his friend who was so young, and whose future promised so much, led Milton to reflect on his own life.” There is an obvious conflict in the poet’s mind-whether to give his days and nights to poetry or to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh:
Alas! what boots it with iricessant care,
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly mediate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaerd’s hair?
However, Milton’s choice is made, for he has for his aim not worldly fame, but he must “in heaven expect his meed.” Incidentally, Milton—a Puritan as he is—takes an opportunity to lash the Pope and the corrupt clergy through the words of St. Peter–“The Pilot of the Gallilean lake:” Such satiric flings are essentially alien to the spirit of an elegy.
Paradise Lost reveals, in Legouis’ words, a Milton “whose personality is intense and self-centred.” His puritanism, his misogyny, his austere nature, and his anti-royalism peep through this great poem. Milton was married twice, but was not very happy. In Adam’s outburst against the first woman we can hear the voice of Milton:
Oh! why did God,
Creator wise, that peopled highest
Heaven With Spirits masculine, create at last
This novelty on Earth, this fair defect
Of Nature Man has to suffer innumerable
Disturbances on Earth through female snares
And straight conjunction with this sex.
Milton lashes the corrupt Cavaliers of his age by representing them as “sons of Belial” who indulge in drunken riots in the streets after they are ‘flown with insolence and wine.” Further, he takes opportunities here and there to express his anti-royalist feeling. He was a supporter of the Commonwealth and a champion of personal liberties which were often denied or suppressed by the king. In the rebellion of Satan against the Almighty we can see a resemblance, however remote, with Milton’s rebellion against Charles II who had assumed the throne of England in 1660. His republican feelings led Milton to a kind of sympathy with the Arch Rebel-Milton was according to William Blake, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” It is debatable, no doubt, if Blake knew more about Milton than Milton about himself. However, though between Satan and Milton there.may not be a bond of sympathy, yet there is between them a parallelism of situation. Satan is an embodiment of vice in all its ramifications. Milton knows it and gives it not only an adequate but a enement expression. Disobedience towards God is a sin, but disobedience towards a corrupt ruler despiseful of the liberties and welfare of his subjects is a different matter. However, here and there in Paradise Lost Milton comes dangerously close to Satan. A critic observes: “It is in the passages where Satan speaks of the joy of independence, and of the hatred which he bears to the tyranny of Heaven’s Ruler, that he reaches the most commanding heights of noble eloquence. The reason for this is obvious, for Milton was the great champion of popular’liberty in his own day and gave.up the best years of his life, as well as his eyesight, to the cause of England’s fight against oppression. Hence Milton cannot help imparting to Satan some of his own sentiments and putting him in the position of the champion of liberty against autocratic rule.”
Paradise Regained was a sequel to Paradise Lost. Milton revealed himself in this work as a strict Puritan. In the very beginning of the poem we learn how even as a child Milton studied the Bible:
…above my years,
The Law of God I read, and found it sweet,
Made it my whole delight, and in it grew
To such perfection.
Samson Agonistes is a tragedy after the Greek classical examples. Samson is the Biblical character who figures in the Judges. His blindness and captivity in the hands of the Philistines bear an obvious resemblance to Milton’s own blindness and suppression in the age of Charles II. In the end Samson brings death to himself and destruction to his captors by pulling down the pillars supporting their palace. In Samson’s agonised cry we can hear the complaint of Milton himself:
But, chief of all,
Of loss of sight ofthee I must complain!
Blind among enemies’. O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day.
In Samson’s indictment of his false wife, Dalila, we hear the misogynistic Milton:,
Out, out, hyaena! These are thy -wonted arts,
And arts of every woman false like thee–
To break all faith, all vows, deceive, betray.
Milton’s unswerving faith in God is echoed in
Samson s words:
Just are the ways of God,
And justifiable to men,
Unless there be who think not God at all.