John Milton (1608—1674)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

John Milton (1608—1674)

Despite occasional attacks—notably by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century and by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in the twentieth—Milton is securely in place as the second-greatest poet in English, surpassed only by Shakespeare. The son of a prosperous scrivener, Milton was born in London and educated at Cambridge. After spending several years in seclusion, studying and preparing himself for great things, he traveled on the Continent and met, among many other notables, Galileo. Such meetings affected his concept of the solar system and enlarged the scope of his references and metaphors. For about the middle twenty years of his life, Milton took on some bureaucratic chores as Latin Secretary to Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State, and it was not until the Restoration in 1660 that he was free to return to poetry. His sight was failing during his state service, and by the middle of the 1650s he was totally blind. His greatest work, Paradise Lost, was published in 1667, and Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes followed four years later. He was a master of the epic style but could also write tender personal sonnets. Around 1800 his influence reasserted itself, and he become an important force in the work of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. It was at this time that Robert Bridges wrote a brilliant study of Milton’s prosody. Milton served as an exemplar in more ways than one: he was a poet of noble elevation and mythic scope; he was a polemicist of great vigor and eloquence; and, despite limitations, he could be considered a patriotic Englishman. When Wordsworth expressed the sad condition of his country, he expressed it in a Miltonic sonnet beginning, “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. / England hath need of thee… .” The movie about English athletic patriotism, Chariots of Fire, takes its title from some lines by William Blake in a work called Milton (around 1802).


Originally published as a pamphlet-letter entitled “Of Education: To Master Samuel Hartlib” (1645), this text came to be known as “Tractate on Education,” by which title it is known in The Harvard Classics, vol. 3 (New York: Collier, 1909—14).

For the studies, first they should begin with the chief and necessary rules of some good grammar, either that now used, or any better: and while this is doing, their speech is to be fashioned to a distinct and clear pronunciation, as near as may be to the Italian, especially in the vowels. For we Englishmen being far northerly, do not open our mouths in the cold air, wide enough to grace a southern tongue; but are observed by all other nations to speak exceeding close and inward: So that to smatter Latin with an English mouth, is as ill a hearing as Law-French. Next to make them expert in the usefulest points of grammar, and withal to season them, and win them early to the love of virtue and true labor, ere any flattering seducement, or vain principle seize them wandering, some easy and delightful book of education would be read to them; whereof the Greeks have store, as Cebes, Plutarch, and other Socratic discourses. But in Latin we have none of classic authority extant, except the two or three first books of Quintilian, and some select pieces elsewhere. But here the main skill and groundwork will be, to temper them such lectures and explanations upon every opportunity as may lead and draw them in willing obedience, inflamed with the study of learning, and the admiration of virtue; stirred up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages. That they may despise and scorn all their childish, and ill-taught qualities, to delight in manly, and liberal exercises: which he who hath the art, and proper eloquence to catch them with, what with mild and effectual persuasions, and what with the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example, might in a short space gain them to an incredible diligence and courage: infusing into their young breasts such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men… .

And now lastly will be the time to read with them those organic [practical, instrumental—ed.] arts which enable men to discourse and write perspicuously, elegantly, and according to the fitted style of lofty, mean or lowly. Logic therefore so much as is useful, is to be referred to this due place with all her well couched heads and topics, until to be time to open her contracted palm into a graceful and ornate rhetoric taught out of the rule of Plato, Aristotle, Phalereus, Cicero, Hermogenes, Longinus. To which poetry would be made subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being less subtle and fine, but more simple, sensuous and passionate. I mean not here the prosody of a verse, which they could not have hit on before among the rudiments of grammar; but that sublime art which in Aristotle’s Poetics, in Horace, and the Italian commentaries of Castelvetro, Tasso, Mazzoni, and others, teaches what the laws are of a true epic poem, what of a dramatic, what of a lyric, what decorum is, which is the grand masterpiece to observe. This would make them soon perceive what despicable creatures our common rimers and playwriters be, and show them, what religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of poetry both in divine and human things. From hence and not till now will be the right season of forming them to be able writers and composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with an universal insight into things. Or whether they be to speak in Parliament or council, honor and attention would be waiting on their lips. There would then also appear in pulpits other visages, other gestures, and stuff otherwise wrought than what we now sit under, ofttimes to as great a trial of our patience as any other that they preach to us. These are the studies wherein our noble and our gentle youth ought to bestow their time in a disciplinary way from twelve to one and twenty; unless they rely more upon their ancestors dead, than upon themselves living.