John Milton (1608-74) is one of the most important poets of the seventeenth century – indeed, one of the most important and influential poets in all of English literature. He’s rightly celebrated for writing the definitive English epic in his long narrative poem Paradise Lost, but John Milton wrote a great deal more besides. Below, we pick, and introduce, ten of Milton’s greatest poems.
1. Paradise Lost.
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos…
Probably the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost (1667) was not Milton’s first attempt at an epic: as a teenager, Milton began writing an epic poem in Latin about the Gunpowder Plot; but in quintum novembris remained unfinished. Instead, his defining work would be this 12-book poem in blank verse about the Fall of Man, taking in Satan’s fall from Heaven, his founding of Pandemonium (the capital of Hell), and his subsequent temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due…
When Milton’s friend, the promising young poet Edward King, was drowned in 1637 when his ship sank in the Irish Sea off the coast of Wales, Milton penned this formal elegy for the poet, a university friend of his from Cambridge, whom he rebranded ‘Lycidas’ to create an idealised pastoral persona for King. Numerous novels have taken their titles from Milton’s poem, including Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and John Brunner’s ecological disaster novel The Sheep Look Up.
Hence loathed Melancholy,
Of Cerberus, and blackest Midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn,
‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy;
Find out some uncouth cell,
Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
There under ebon shades, and low-brow’d rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell…
The next two poems on this list, this one and the next one, form a contrasting pair: ‘L’Allegro’ means ‘the happy man’, and sees Milton experimenting with pastoral poetry, as with ‘Lycidas’ above. However, this is a jolly, upbeat poem, summing mirth and merriment rather than sounding an elegiac note. This also puts ‘L’Allegro’ into stark contrast with…
4. ‘Il Penseroso’.
This is very different from ‘L’Allegro’ (‘the happy man’). ‘Il Penseroso’ (‘the melancholy man’: from the idea that thinking too much made one sad) is a reflective ode which sees joy as a delusion:
Hence vain deluding Joys,
The brood of folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
Dwell in som idle brain
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train.
Sometimes known by the title ‘On His Blindness’, this sonnet is about Milton’s loss of sight in the early 1650s. Worried about how he can best serve God if he loses his sight, Milton advises himself to be patient, concluding with a line, and sentiment, that has since become famous outside of the poem:
‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.’
This ode, written in December 1629 when Milton was still in his early twenties, is about – well, the title says it all, really. This is a poem about Christmas Day itself, celebrating the arrival of Christ. Click on the link above to read the full poem, but here are the opening stanzas:
This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring…
One of the most beautiful poems about the loss of a wife, although not everyone is a fan (Samuel Johnson was famously sniffy over this sonnet). The subject is thought to have been Milton’s second wife, Katherine Woodcock, who died in 1658 after giving birth to their daughter (who also sadly died).
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…
In April 1655, troops led by Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy slaughtered the Waldensians (an ascetic Christian sect) in Piedmont. Milton wrote the following sonnet about this horrific event. Milton’s reference to the ‘triple tyrant’ is an allusion to the Pope.
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones…
9. ‘How Soon Hath Time’.
A (slightly) lighter poem now, although one shot through with an awareness of mortality and the passing of time. Milton wrote this sonnet when he was just 23 years old (or possibly 24 – the evidence is sketchy), but already feeling old. He had already made his name at Cambridge University, but was now feeling left behind by his contemporaries as he embarked on the long journey of preparing himself for a life of greatness.
The poem shows how precocious the young John Milton was – and although it’s not his greatest achievement or his best-known poem, it earns its place on this list for demonstrating the early promise Milton showed.
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th…
10. ‘On Shakespeare’.
Another early poem here, and the first of Milton’s to see publication, in 1630 – when he was even younger than he was when he wrote ‘How Soon Hath Time’! As this poem sees Milton eulogising an earlier poet, it seems a fitting poem to end this pick of Milton’s best poems – especially as Milton’s notes on Shakespeare’s work have recently come to light.
What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a live-long monument…