He is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that considered to be one of the greatest works in the English language. He wrote in several different languages, including Greek and Latin, and was celebrated during his lifetime for his innovative writing. His influence is felt on other poets such as William Blake and Thomas Hardy.
Structure of a Miltonic Sonnet
The Miltonic sonnet is similar to both the Petrarchan, or Italian, and Shakespearean, or English, sonnet forms. Milton chose to write, as did Shakespeare, on a single major theme per sonnet. In his verse, the sonnets were less focused on love, dedication, and emotional experiences as they were on themes of politics, intellectual pursuits, and spirituality. One famous example is sonnet number seven, ‘On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-Three’ which Milton wrote on his thirty-third birthday and discusses the implications of aging.
Milton chose to structure his poems with the same rhyme scheme as the Petrarchan sonnet. They followed the pattern of ABBAABBACDECDE, but they did not have a defined separation between the first eight lines, or octet, and the following six, or sestet. That being said, Milton often added in a problem at the beginning of the poem that was resolved or addressed by the end. This is a feature that is common to all sonnets.
Although Milton generally followed this rhyme scheme, the rhyme could vary, as could the meter. Most often, sonnets conform to the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
Examples of Miltonic Sonnets
Example #1 Sonnet 19: On His Blindness by John Milton
‘Sonnet 19’ is one of, if not the, most famous sonnet that Milton penned. It is also known as ‘When I consider how my light is spent’, for the first line of the poem. The sonnet believed to have been written before 1664, after the poet, John Milton, had gone completely blind. The lines follow the Petrarchan rhyme scheme an also make use of iambic pentameter. The sonnet is an exploration of a dilemma faced by John Milton as he was forced to come to terms with his blindness. Milton has to deal with the impossibility of continuing his works. He is unable to continue as he had been, and he asks and receives an answer from God to his inner query. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
These are the first four lines of the text, making up the first quatrain. The poem begins with the speaker’s consideration of how he has spent the years of his life, represented as his “light.” This light, as well as being a metaphor for life, is also a literal representation of the days of Milton’s life in which he could see. The second line expands on that, explaining that before even half of the speaker’s life had passed, he is forced to live in a world that is “dark… and wide.”
The Petrarchan rhyme scheme is evident in these first four lines and it is continued its the end rhymes “present” and “prevent” and “chide” and “denied” in the next four lines. After the octet, the speaker brings in a reply from God. This is a very obvious example of the question and answer, or problem and solution format common to sonnets.
Example #2 Sonnet 23: Methought I Saw my Late Espoused Saint by John Milton
This poem is based around the death of Milton’s second wife, Katherine Woodcock who died in 1657. She was his second wife to die and also the second to die in childbirth. The poem describes a vision the poet thought he had in which he saw his recently deceased wife. She appeared from beyond the grave as a vision that reminds him of several different mythological and religious images. Here are the first four lines of the poem:
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
Milton uses the standard rhyme scheme that he used in his sonnets, ABBAABBA in the first octet of the poem. In the sestet, the lines follow the pattern of CDCDCD, another very common conclusion to Petrarchan sonnets.