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NOTES ON MILTON'S EARLY DEVELOPMENT A. s. P. WOODHOUSE ANY study of the pattern of Milton's early development must almost inevitably be a set of footnotes to P rofessor J. H. Hanford's great essay "The Youth of Milton,"1 and to later treatments of the subject, which register agreement, disagreement or r-·. -i partial agreement with it. Hanford's central contention is that an important key to the pattern can be found in the Apologyfor Smectymnuus (1642), where Milton traces the progress of his early thinking, not on poetry directly, but on beauty, love and chastity, through his reading in the Latin elegists, the poets of the Petrarchian tradition, the Renaissance romances, "the shady spaces of philosophy, ... Plato and his equal Xenophon," and last ("not in time but as perfection is last") the teachings, practical and mystic, of the Christian religion.2 Placing this formulation beside the early poems, Hanford discovered that, in so far as they bore on kindred themes, they kept pace with it. He was accordingly led to regard Elegy 6 (December 1629), in which Milton recounts the composition of the Natioity Ode, and repudiates the elegiac response to life and love, as a decisive turning point in his early development, and to associa~e it with some sort of religious experience, whose outcome and record was the Nativity Ode. Henceforth, he felt, Milton was done with the poetry of erotic emotion, whether in the elegiac or Petrarchian vein, regarded himself as a dedicated spirit, and had his feet firmly planted on the path that led to Paradise Lost. The decision did not, he admitted, preclude the writing of a good ideal of secular verse in t he remaining years at Cambridge. But his view necessitated the placing of Sonnets 1 - 6 (though strangely enough, not the Song on May Morning) before December 1629. Sir Herbert Grierson3 demurred to this early date for the sonnets; and instead of Hanford's reading of the youth of Milton he presented a view of the period that left the poet without any 1 Studi~s in Shakespeare, Milton and Donne. By M~mbers of the English Department of the Uniotrsity of Michigan (1925), 87-164. 2Milton, Works, Columbia Univ~rsity Press (h~ reafter called Columbia Millon), 3. .302-6. aMilton, Poems 111 CJ,ronological Order, ed. H. J. C. Grierson {1925), 1. xvii-xviii, =i. . 66 NOTES ON MILTON'S EARLY DEVELOPMENT 67 clear sense of direction whatsoever till Ad Patrem, which he placed after the performance, and perhaps the publication, of Comus (1634-7).4 Mr. T illyard,6 on the contrary, accepted Hanford's interpretation but argued, correctly I think, against the early dating of the sonnets. I agree with Hanford and T illyard as against Grierson. That Hanford has seized upon one of the main lines of Milton's early development is put beyond question by its patent culmination in Comus. But I think that the decision which Milton finally reached in respect of his poetry, and the religious experience from which the decision sprang, turned on a larger axis than the rejection of the elegiac and the erotic. This becomes clear if Sonnet 7, How soon hath Time (which the critics have either virtually ignored or miSinterpreted ) ·is given its proper place as the record of an experience· just as definite and far more decisive than that of the Nativity Ode and Elegy 6. For it is impossible to escape the conclusion that there is some fading of the experience recorded in the latter poems and some relapse from the position which they attain-it is not a question of Sonnets 1 - 6 only, but of the other secular verse as well. On the threshold of the Horton period Milton's act of self-dedication required to be renewed, as it was in Sonnet 7. From the determination there taken, to live and wr·ite hereafter "As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye," there is no retreat: it leaves its mark on the whole of Milton's subsequent career. And this time the decision subsumes in silence the rejection of erotic in favour of religious themes. Moreover~ the recognition that if the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 66-101
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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