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NOTES ON THE ENGLISH POEMS
ON THE MORNING OF CHRIST'S NATIVITY
This is the poem alluded to by Milton at the close of the Sixth Latin Elegy (see p. 3). It was composed in the last day of December, 1629, and is the first great utterance of Milton's Muse. Written, like his other early work, under the influence of the prevailing poetic manner and exhibiting traces of the conceited style of the school of Donne which Milton afterwards abandoned, the poem is, however, Miltonic in its elevation of mood, in its profusion of learned allusions, and in its occasional touches of lofty eloquence. The conception of Christ and his significance to men is deeply characteristic of Milton's religious feeling. He is, in the poet's devotion, a supreme moral and intellectual force, an embodiment of purity and truth, rather than a personal savior requiring the self-abandonment of love.
Line 5. the holy sages: 1.e., the Old Testament prophets.
6. deadly forfeit: i.e., the forfeiture of man to death through
Adam's sin. 46 24. prevent: anticipate.
39. guilty front: guilty forehead. Nature is thought of as corrupted by the fall. The stanza is an extreme example of the per
versely ingenious conceits of seventeenth-century poetry. 47 48. the turning sphere: i.e., the revolving sphere of the visible
heavens. See the explanation of the Ptolemaic system adopted by Milton throughout his poetry (p. 300).
53 ff. The allusion is to the historical fact that there was peace throughout the Roman world at the time of Christ's birth.
59. awful: full of awe.
68. birds of calm: i.e., the halcyons, who were said to breed during calm weather.
71. Bending one way their precious influence. The allusion is to the supposed influence of the planets on the destinies of men. At the birth of Christ their tendencies are all beneficent.
74. Lucifer: the morning planet. 48 89. mighty Pan: Christ, spoken of in the characteristic fashion
of Renaissance poetry under the image of the pagan deity of universal nature.
92. silly: simple, innocent.
100. close: harmony.
114. displayed: spread out.
125. Ring out, ye crystal spheres, etc. Let the music made by the turning of the nine celestial spheres become for once audible
to human ears. 50 133 ff. Milton combines the Christian conception of the millen
nium with the classical idea of a return of the golden age, in which Astrea, Goddess of Justice, will come down again to dwell with men.
PAGE 50 156. The wakeful trump of doom: 1.e., the awakening trumpet of
the Day of Judgment. The line has the ring of the later Miltonic
style. 51 168. The Old Dragon: Satan.
173 ff. In this and the following stanzas Milton alludes to the idea that at the time of the birth of Christ the oracles of the pagans ceased to give responses and to the story that a voice was heard by certain sailors crying from the shore, “Pan is dead." Milton surveys in order the false deities of Greece, Rome, Palestine, and Egypt, representative of the multiformity of heathen superstition yielding before the purity of truth. The idea that these deities were in reality demons, the fallen angels who had got themselves worshiped among men, derives from the Church fathers and constitutes the basis of the demonology of Paradise
Lost. 52 199. that twice-battered god: Dagon, whose image twice fell
from its pedestal in the presence of the ark. 53 215. Trampling the unshowered grass. Milton blends Osiris,
who was set afloat in a chest in the Nile, with Apis, who was worshiped in the form of a bull; unshowered, because of the absence of rain in Egypt.
227-8. Milton is thinking of the story of Hercules, who strangled two serpents in his cradle. 64 240. youngest-teemed star: youngest born star; i.e., the star
ON HIS BEING ARRIVED TO THE AGE OF TWENTY-THREE
It is significant that this sonnet was written just as Milton was leaving the university in 1631. At this turning point in bis life, the question of his present and future purposes and responsibilities was occupying him deeply, as it continued to do in the early years at Horton. See Letter to a Friend, p. 5, in which this sonnet (previously written) was enclosed. "I am somewhat suspicious of myself," he writes in introducing the poem, “and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me." Of belatedness in intellectual ability or in literary skill Milton had no reason to complain, and, as a matter of fact, did not complain. His immaturity was relative to his own high and serious purposes. His sense of it is perhaps best explained by his unwillingness to complete a poem on The Passion begun about 1630 and by his silence during
a large part of the Horton period. 64 8. timely-happy: fortunate in the seasonableness of their de
L'ALLEGRO This poem, with its companion piece, Il Penseroso, was first published in the 1645 edition of Milton's poems. They do not occur in the Cambridge manuscript and the date of their composition is not known. They are generally ascribed to the early years of Milton's retirement at Horton, but they may belong to some vacation interval in his university life. In the two lyrics Milton has elaborately and exquisitely wrought the various objects in which he took delight into contrasting pictures of poetic moods. It is to interpret falsely to say that they represent two opposed ideals of life or that one is more essentially Milton than the other. They embody the same ideal, the æsthetic, and they are equally the record of Milton's enthusiasms in the realm of beauty.
PAGE 54 4. horrid: used in the Latin sense of terrifying. 55 11 ff. come, thou Goddess, etc. The three Graces, Aglaia,
Thalia, and Euphrosyne, were commonly made the daughters of Zeus and Hera. Milton's account of their parentage suggests that the sources of joyous poetry are love and wine, or, more purely,
nature in the freshness of morning and the spring. 56 45, 46. Then to come, etc.: parallel in construction with "to live"
in line 39, and referring to the poet himself, rising at dawn and bidding good morrow to the world.
67. tells his tale: takes tally of his sheep. 57 103, 104. She, he: this or that member of the rustic gathering.
104. Friar's lantern: Friar Rush's light, the will o' the wisp,
supposed to lead belated travelers astray. 58 117 ff. Towered cities. The quick transition to the city shows
that Milton, whose own youth was spent between London and his father's country house at Horton, is describing not an actual but an ideal day. It is to be understood that the poet really witnesses the public and social pageants of the time and the acted drama, not merely reads of them.
132. If Jonson's learned sock, etc. The distinction between the scholarly and classical Jonson and the native and spontaneous genius of Shakespeare was the standard judgment of the age. The sock is the attribute of comedy.
IL PENSEROSO 12. Hail, divinest Melancholy. The term “melancholy” was used in Milton's time in a wide and varied sense, how varied one can best understand by glancing at Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a celebrated medical work which Milton knew. As employed in this poem it designates a pensive and contemplative mood favorable to reverie and to the more inward kind of poetic feeling. The “melancholy" that is banished in L'Allegro is not the melancholy that is praised in Il Penseroso; and, conversely, the "deluding joys" of the opening lines of the latter poem are not exactly identical with the pleasures of L'Allegro.
18, 19. Memnon's sister. Memnon appears in Homer as a prince of the Ethiopians. The Ethiop Queen is Cassiopeia, who challenged the Nereids to a contest of beauty.
23, 24. Vesta, the Roman Goddess of the Hearth, had as her priestesses the Vestal virgins. Saturn was associated astrologically with contemplation and the melancholy temperament. Milton implies that solitary thought and purity are the sources of the mood and quality he is describing.
33. grain: color.
black linen crepe.
97 ff. The reading of classical tragedy is contrasted with the seeing of modern comedy in L'Allegro. Milton singles out as representative three of the great divisions of ancient tragic story.
109. him that left half-told: Chaucer, whose Knight's Tale was left unfinished.
119, 120. Of forests, etc. The lines are especially applicable to Spenser, in whose Faërie Queene the materials of romance are made the vehicles of moral allegory.
124. the Attic boy: Cephalus, lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn. 63 155 ff. Observe that Milton speaks here of the purely sensuous
aspect of religion. The passage is evidence of the gulf which separated Milton at this time from the narrower Puritan attitude, with its fierce hostility to the outward forms of worship.
COMUS This masque was written to be performed in connection with the festivities held at Ludlow Castle in 1634, on the occasion of the inauguration of Sir John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, as Lord President of Wales. The musician, Henry Lawes, a lifelong friend of Milton's, then employed as tutor in the Earl's family, directed the performance, supplied the incidental music, and acted the part of Thyrsis. The parts of the Lady and the Brothers were taken by the daughter and two sons of the Earl of Bridgewater. It is not known whether or not Milton himself was present. The piece was published anonymously with an introductory letter by Lawes in 1637 and again in the 1645 edition of Milton's poems.
In the general conception of Comus, as a fanciful dramatic entertainment combining myth, moral allegory, song, and dance, Miiton follows the Elizabethan and Jacobean tradition of the courtly masque, which had at this time reached a very elaborate development. In style, also, the piece derives from the rich stream of Elizabethan poetry, represented by Spenser, Shakespeare,
Jonson, and Fletcher. A touch of moral energy which is peculiarly Miltonic, differentiates it, however, from earlier compositions of the sort, and Milton has expanded the dialogue portions beyond the ordinary limits of the masque. The union of serious idealism with delicate grace of fancy and an exquisite felicity of expression make the work in a high degree representative
of the temper and genius of the youthful Milton. 64
6. and, with low-thoughted care: i.e., and where they, with low-thoughted care, etc. 7. pestered: shackled, confined.
pinfold: a place where animals are confined. II. enthroned gods on sainted seats. Note the characteristic mingling of pagan and Christian expressions. An equally striking instance is to be found in lines 16-17.
20. Took in, by lot 'twixt high and nether Jove: received by an agreement (arrived at by lot) between Jupiter, ruler of the sky, and Hades, ruler of the under world.
29. He: i.e., Neptune.
31. A noble Peer, etc.: i.e., the Earl of Bridgewater. Milton deftly incorporates a contemporary situation into the body of
classical mythology. 66 60. Celtic and Iberian fields: France and Spain.
67. For most do taste through fond intemperate thirst. This and the following lines furnish the key to the moral allegory, a significance already attached to the Circe story by the later classical mythographers; e.g., Heraclides Ponticus, of whose work Milton owned a copy. The symbolic touch in line 74, “not once perceive their foul disfigurement," is Milton's own, in contradiction to the evidence of Homer and Plutarch regarding Circe's monsters.
PAGE 66 67. fond: foolish. 67 Stage direction: Comus enters. The name, Comus, is from the
Greek noun xwuos, revelry. Milton found precedents in Ben Jonson and elsewhere for the personification. The group of grotesque characters of whom Comus is the leader constitutes the antimasque.
93 ff. The star, etc. The time here indicated in pastoral fashion is dusk, not midnight.
Now the top of Heaven doth hold means simply holds place in the sky, the top of Heaven being the upper half of the celestial sphere. The dusky pole is the pole of the southern heavens. The rest of Comus's invocation suggests deepening darkness.
I10. saws: moral maxims. 68 129. Cotytto. A Thracian goddess, celebrated in secret and
139. nice: overfastidious. 69 151. trains: devices.
161. glozing: flattering, with the idea of falsehood.
168. fairly: softly. 70 189. sad Votarist in palmer's weed: sober religious devotee in
the garb of a pilgrim. 71 231. airy shell: i.e., the surrounding air. 73 287. Imports their loss, etc.: i e., Is their loss of importance
to you aside from your present need of them?
293. swinked: wearied with toil.
301. plighted: folded.
325. where it first was named. The word courtesy is derived
from court. 75 341. star of Arcady, etc. The constellation of the Great Bear,
so named from Calisto, daughter of an Arcadian king; she was transformed to a bear and placed by Jupiter in the skies as a constellation.
342. Tyrian Cynosure is the Lesser Bear, by which the Tyrian sailors steered.
369. single want: mere want. 76 382. i' the centre: i.e., the dark center of the earth.
401. Danger will wink at Opportunity. Danger will ignore or
let slip the occasion. 77 422. like a quivered nymph: 1.e., like Diana the huntress or one
of her chaste attendants.
423. unharboured: having no harbors.
430. unblenched: unflattering. 78 441 ff. Hence had the huntress Dian her dread bow, etc. Fol
lowing the later Greek mythographers Milton moralizes the classical myths of Diana and the Gorgon head o. Minerva's shield, as he had previously done that of Circe. CI. 513 below.
453. So dear to Heaven, etc. The idea of the power of the soul over the body is Platonic. “For soul is form and doth the body make" (Spenser). In describing the corresponding degradation of the soul by vice into a grosser essence, Milton follows very closely a passage in the Phædo. The insistence on chastity, as distinguished from virtue and the spiritual life generally, is a Christian and Miltonic modification of the Platonic conception.
454. sincerely: entirely.