You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

John Milton Muddles Through

Some people call this a critical, as opposed to a creative, age. I doubt whether it is either. Certainly so many thousands of professed poets write and publish that a great need has arisen for critics to assess their worth; but the criticism racket, to judge from the advanced literary journals that people send me, is about as bankrupt as the poetry racket.

Poetry ceases to be happily creative, because most poets are seldom thinking of the poem itself, but worrying how to provide interesting material for critical discussion. And it also seems to me that because critics are seldom thinking of the poems there are supposed to assess, but only of the art with which they will write their criticism—they, rather than the poets, have become the happy creators.

Poetry (need I say?) is more than musically arranged. It is sense; good sense; penetrating often heartrending sense. Children who enjoy verse-jingles are not reliable critics of poetry, and though a few nursery-rhymes happen to be poems, most have nothing but their engaging rhythms to recommend them. Yet how few readers ever get beyond the jingle-loving, or, at best, the music-loving, stage of poetic appreciation! How few give any thought to the sense of a poem, though it often had layer after layer of meaning concealed in it!

I don’t enjoy generalizing, unless I can support my argument by practical examples. I assume that almost everyone has read Milton’s L’Allegro, but I, for one, hadn’t read it carefully until the other day, when my thirteen-year-old daughter, Lucia, finding herself obliged to learn it by heart (as I had done at the same age) asked me: “Isn’t this rather a muddle, Father?”

How could I deceive an innocent and intelligent girl? I admitted, adter a closer scrutiny of the text, that L’Allegro was indeed a dreadful muddle, and that most of it could be “appreciated” only in the Burkian sense, as one appreciates deformed gorgons and hydras.

Lucia’s anthology version began straight away with:

Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee

Jest, and youthful Jollity.

(There was something awkward about ‘youthful Jollity,’ I felt at once—it must have been put there for some dishonest reason.) Then the same Nymph was asked to bring along two other allegorical figures:

…Sport that wrinkled Care derides, And Laughter holding both his sides.

Jest, Jollity, Sport, Laughter—four figures not easily distinguished, as one distinguishes the plaster saints in a Catholic repository by the emblems they bear; Peter’s keys, Isidore’s spade, Lawrence’s gridiron, and so on. I found this conjunction rather fuzzy.

One way of appreciating a poem is first to write it out in longhand; then to imagine oneself composing the lines, and so creep inside the poet’s skin. The process of getting a rough verse draft into a presentable form will be familiar to most of you. And with practice one can often deduce, from some slight awkwardness surviving in the final version, what the grosser faults of the original were.

Well, when I tried the longhand test, my little finger told me (and I never argue with my little finger) that Milton had written:

Hasten, Mirth, and bring with thee

Jest and Youth and Jollity,

Aport that wrinkled Care derides

And Laughter holding both his sides…

Afterwards he had wondered whether the difference between Mirth and Jollity could be justified or, alternatively, the diference between Mirth and Luaghter. He shook his head, changed “Mirth” to “Nymph,” and kept her anonymous. Then, disliking the two n’s of “Hasten Nymph,” he changed this to “Haste thee, Nymph”—not noticing another “thee” at the end of the line—and went on:

And in the right hand lead with thee

The mountain nymph sweet Liberty…

But it was clear that some lines were needed to separate this couplet from the first one, in which he had not only used the same rhyme—with thee and Jollity—but also the word Nymph. So between the figures of Mirth, Jest, Youth, Jollity, and their companions, Sport, Care, and Laughter, he introduced a crowd of impersonalized nouns:

Quips and Cranks and Wanton Wiles,

Nods and Becks and gleeful Smiles…

And to prove that he was a Cambridge graduate, Milton added a mythological reference to Hebe, Goddess of Youth. Having decided on Hebe, he prudently removed the figure of Youth form the second line by changing Youth and Jollity to youthful Jollity. I suspect that that the first draft ran:

Wreathed about sweet Hebe’s cheek

Which is dimpled, fair and sleek...

But Milton realized that “Wreathed about sweet hebe’s cheek” was far too heavy for a tripping measure, and that wreathed made an ugly assonance with sweet and cheek. So he substituted wreathed smiles for gleeful smiles and let the next line read:

Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek…

Clearly smiles don’t hang on cheeks, and wreathes don’t either, and Milton knew it; but the revised line was much more musical, with its alliteration of hang and Hebe; and in these minor poems Milton always put music before sense, if he ever got stuck. Besides all nouns were capitalized in his day (whether common or proper); so Quips, Cranks, Wiles, Nods, Becks and Smiles could be read as allegorical imps of animalcules. Smiles, for example, might be tinsy, whimsical little atomies, wearing wreathes around their heads, and hanging merrily from Hebe’ cheeks. He hoped to get by with that.

On rereading:

which is dimpled, fair and sleek…

But the double alliteration—love, live; skin; sleek—was excessive; so he decided to retain the dimples and let the tinsy whimsical little Smiles keep house in them. He wrote:

And love to live in dimple sleek

Cheek, not cheeks for the sake of the rhyme; and dimple, not dimples—because of dimples sleek. Though it wasonly natural to suppose that Hebe had two cheeks, there’s a hoary Latin verse-convention that allows the use of singular for plural; and Milton took advantage of it. And he knew, of course, that simples aren’t sleek; however, another hoary Latin verse-convention called “transference of epithet” allowed him to call the dimple “sleek,” instead of the cheek. But this is not the honest English.

That it is was a “tripping measure” suggested the next line:

Come and trip it as you go

The rhyme would be toe meaning toes. So he used another transferred epithet, making fantastic govern toe. But this is not honest English either. In English, toes are not “fantastic,” unless one is a Charles Addams monster, or has been forced to wear tight shoes as a child.

So Milton was now back at:

And in the right hand lead with thee

The Mountain Nymph, sweet


And rattled on:

I’ll live with her, and live with thee

In unrestrained pleasures free…

He then thought of his Puritanical father, who was paying him a modest allowance to write poems in a cottage at Chaifont St. Giles, rather than enter the family scrivener’s office. What would Father say about “unrestrained”? He changed it to “unreproved,” which made the line sound less orgiastic. Yet condonation of wanton wiles, including a derision of serious, careworn men, still seemed a bit dangerous, so he dissociated himself from the poem by making it describe the ideal, mirthful man and not himself, John Milton.

The next trouble was that he had carelessly repeated the with thee-ee rhyme. He corrected this my inserting two more lines of padding:

And if I give thee honour due,

Nymph, admit me of thy crew

‘Nymph,’ again! Very well, he’d call her by her real name and risk it:

Mirth, admit me of thy crew,

To live with her, and live with thee, etc, etc.  

Then the poem got underway at last:

To hear the lark begin his flight

And singing startle the dull night

Milton now asks Mirth’s permission (unnecessarily, I think) to hear the lark begin his flight and sing, etc. until the dappled dawn doth rise; and then to come and bid her good-morrow at his window, peering out through the sweet brier, vine, or twisted eglantine, at the cock in the barnyard crowing and stoutly strutting before his dames. So far, not so bad. But while distractedly bidding good-morrow, at the window, to Mirth, with once ear cocked for the hounds and horn, he sometimes, we are told, goes “walking, not unseen, by hedgerow elms, on hillocks green.” Either Milton had forgotten that he was still supposedly standing naked at the open window—(the Jacobeans always slept raw)—or else the subject of “walking” is the cock who escapes from the barnyard, deserts his dames, ceases to strut and, anxiously aware of the distant hunt, trudges far afield among ploughmen and shepherds in the dale. But why should Milton give twenty lines to the adventures of the neighbour’s wandering cock? And why “Walking, not unseen”? Not unseen by whom?

Please, do not think that I am joking when I suggest that a chunk of the poem formed the sixth page of Milton’s manuscript and got accidentally misplaced as the third page. (Always number your pages, girls!) Milton laid the poem aside for a few days, perhaps, while he visited London to see whether Johnson’s learned socks were on and, when he returned, did not notice the mistake. 

Well, when Milton had finished Il Penseroso, he took L’Allegro up again and found it had far too countrified. In Il Penseroso he had sown Clasical allusions with the sack; but apart from Hebe’s cheek and referenvce at the end to Orpheus and Eurydice, L’Allegro might have been written by any poetic bumpkin (Shakespeare, poor fellow, for example—“father lost his money in the meat trade and couldn’t send young Will to college.”) So, Milton tacked on that ponderous “Hence, loathed Melancholy” piece to “Haste thee, Nymph,” and there introduced yhr Nymph in due Classical form as Euphrosyne; giving her, for good measure, two variant mmythical parentages.

He also, I believe, inserted that most un-English passage about Corydon’s meeting with his boy-friend Thyrsis at the cpttage between the oaks. Phillis prepares their luncheon and scurries discreetly off in pretended haste, saying that she has to bind the August sheaves, or perhaps cart the June hay, she isn’t sure which. Milton, incidentally, not having access to an Apollodorus in Chalfont St. Giles, misreported Euphrosyne’s birth. Her mother was neither Venus nor Aurora, but the Moon-goddess Eurynome; her father neighter Zephyr nor ivy-crowned Bacchus, but jolly old father Zeus himself, with a thunderbolt in his fist and a grog-blossom on his nose.

If you think that I’m exaggerating Milton’s pride in his Cambridge education, you will have to account for these lines:

Thou goddess fair and free

In Heav’n ycleped Euphrosyne,

And by men heart-easing Mirth  

—which made Milton an immortal and mortalized all the undeduated Chalfont clods who could talk only English, who called Thyrsis “Maister jack Melton” and who called Corydon “that young furriner, Maister Charley Deodati, or somesuch.”

The legitimacy of this sort of chiseling “appreciation” is tested when one applies it to other, similar songs of mirthful invocation such as Shakespeare’s”

Come unto these yellow sands,

And then take hands… 

or the nursery-rhyme:

Girls and boys, come out to play

The moon doth shine as bright

As day… 

There the probing cold-chisel of criticism rings against the true rock of poetry. With L’Allegro, the plaster flakes away and the rubble tumbles out.

I grant that L’Allegro is cunning verbal music—“linked sweetness long drawn out” as he called it—and that Milton is a cunning musician who can cheat you of your inheritance of common sense as easily as he once cheated his Royalist mother-in-law, Mrs. Powel, of her “widow’s third.” Shakespeare, on the other hand, was an English poet. And always played fair, except sometimes when he knocked off verses too hurriedly for patching up some old play. He burlesqued the “University wits” who wrote English as if it were Latin, and never did so himself, though his grammar school education seems to have been a sound one.

The genius of the English language, whether transplanted to Wales, Scotland, Ireland or America, remains literal, logical, and anti-hypothetical. No sensitive poet or critic can accept without a blush Milton’s pastoral affectations:

Ye daffodillies fill your cups with tears

And stre them on the hearse where Lycid lies…

in what is supposed to be an elegy for his dead college friend. Especially after Shakespeare had written in The Winter’s Tale the wholly unpastoral lines:

Yellow daffodils

That came before the swallow dares,

And take

The winds of March with beauty…

which no true poet who has lived through an English winter can read without a catch at the heart.

A poem is legitimately judged by the standards of craftsmanship implied in the form used. One expects little from a fo’scle ballad where even false rhymes do not matter so long as the tune is brisk. But Milton was not writing a fo’scle ballad. Why pretend that English poetry is held in a Latin straitjacket, from which one has to wriggle out with the artful aid of grammatical and syntactical license?