- Milton's Cambridge Latin: Performing in the Genres 1625-1632
Cambridge does not appear to have been a happy or stimulating place for the young Milton. The conservative university must have seemed shockingly stultifying. In his new study, John K. Hale argues, however, that the writings of this period played a significant role in the development of the poet's public voice. University exercises helped Milton refine methods of rhetorical combat that would serve him well later on, especially in the First Defence. Moreover, while speeches on topics such as the superiority of day over night are hardly the master key to Milton's later works, Milton thought these assignments worthy of keeping and, later, publication. As Hale reminds us, speaking on trivial topics allowed students to exercise their powers of logic and rhetoric with the freedom that comes from detachment. Yet as set exercises they also impose limits. They thus show Milton working within restrictions, when he is, as he so often protests, compelled by "Bitter constraint" to speak against his own free will. In later life, Milton will exchange his Cambridge masters for the even more strenuous personal trainers of God and the Muse. But in these early works one can see Milton figuring out how to work within established boundaries and move beyond them. [End Page 1327]
Hale argues persuasively for the need to consider these works together and in their original context. He carefully differentiates the various kinds of exercises students routinely performed: disputations (debates), Act Verses (verse reduction of disputation theses), declamations (set speeches), and "Voluntaries" (verses for solemn occasions). He also examines forms in which Milton did not perform, noting especially his striking absence from contemporary verse anthologies. Hale, who has written extensively on Milton's writings in Latin and other languages, is excellent as always on the development of Milton's Latin style, and on his experiments with different verse forms. He is fine also at describing the role that such performances played in university life. They served both as pedagogical exercises and as social rituals, through which Milton entered into the Cambridge community.
Looked at as performance rituals, these exercises give us a fascinating glimpse of Milton's interaction with the university world. Hale suggests that Milton, while first an outsider, gradually gained acceptance on the basis of his ability to perform. Following his difficult first year in 1625, Milton clearly made a concerted effort to gain a reputation through his writings in 1626. By 1629, he had achieved some degree of acceptance through his renown as a Latinist, which led to his leading role in the graduation ceremonies preceding the summer vacation of 1629. In many ways, however, Milton remained an outsider, a position which Hale argues gave him an almost anthropological detachment that enabled him to explore the significance of university occasions as rites of passage.
Hale astutely highlights places where Milton's concerns emerge through the conventions to transform their social meaning. He argues that the group of Gunpowder Plot poems of 1626 was central in "Milton's political awakening" (168). That Milton wrote several poems on this subject suggests that it interested him greatly. Unlike other poets of the time, Milton downplays the figure of the monarch, shaping the events into a story of the deliverance of the nation rather than of the king, and into an aition explaining the origins of a public holiday. The echoes Hale notes of Ovid's treatment of Roman ritual, the Fasti, are suggestive: as Ovid slyly eased Augustus out of the calendar which the princeps had recently revised, so Milton ejects the king from the social ritual that binds community. This seems a trial run for the displacement of authority in Comus.
Hale ends with a discussion and lively new translation of Milton's speech for the graduation ceremonies of 1629. This highly ritualized moment of licensed misrule involved a "salting" speech (punning on sales, "salts" and...