John Milton is known as one of the greatest English language poets of all time. Many are introduced to him through his masterwork — the epic tome of blank verse — Paradise Lost.
That tends to be where people start and end with him. They often get turned off and never make it through any of his work at all. This is a shame.
Poetry is notoriously hard to break into. People tend to either have great college-level courses that get them into many of the household names like Dickinson, Poe, Whitman, or even Shakespeare. Others break in on their own as they encounter contemporaries like Angelou, Hughes, Ginsberg, or even Shel Silverstein.
I want to make the case that Milton’s sonnets are a great place to start if you’ve never found yourself drawn to nor understanding poetry. They have great structure and flow, surprising use of language, and they take on all the great questions worth pondering.
What Are They?
Milton’s sonnets can be found in 1673 Poems. There are others, but this is a good starting point. What’s great about choosing such old material for breaking into poetry is that they are all public domain at this point.
This means you won’t have to risk buying an expensive book of poetry that you might never open. A quick search online will get you to them for free legally.
Milton numbered his poems. Some of them have titles, but some of the more famous titles are contested. I wouldn’t take too much stock in them for your initial readings for this reason.
The numbers to look for are 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 23. The most famous is 19, but I’ll use 23 for most of the rest of this article.
Milton’s sonnets are not the same as Shakespeare. Forget about those if you’ve learned about them. Milton used the Petrarchan sonnet form, originally formed in the Rennaissance in Italian. He masterfully adapts it into English in ways we’ll get to in a moment.
The form has two components: the rhyme scheme and the meter. They are fourteen lines and the rhyme scheme divides it into two main groups. The first octave (8 lines) rhyme as ABBAABBA in the form of two 4 line stanzas. The next sestet (6 lines) rhyme as CDCDCD in the form of two 3 line stanzas, though there are some variations (CDEEDC being popular in Milton).
This clear division into two sections visually, as well as rhyming, often lends itself to having the ending 6 lines answer or reply to material brought up in the first 8 lines.
The meter is iambic hexameter. This just means that each line has 10 syllables and alternate weak-strong-weak-strong, and so on.
One of my favorite parts of Milton’s sonnets is that he manages to have the iambic feel without it sounding contrived. Reading it aloud often completely disintegrates the meter, yet it’s still there if you think about it. The weak-strong feel and rhyming are subtle and often get lost by crossing sentences over line breaks (enjambment).
Now, I haven’t given you any reasons to read these yet. I just wanted to get a clear picture of what they are first.
One thing I love about Milton’s sonnets is that you can read them and get a sense of his life. The early ones are a bit distant and have the flair often found in young artists. He demonstrates his command of the languages he knows and they have many literary and historical references.
They refer to some of his own life events and offer explanations and arguments about his choices. As he ages, the poems turn inward and have more of an emotional core (as opposed to rational). One is even a eulogy.
Then we get to number 19, where he’s losing his sight. There’s panic in it. It gets to those fears we all have, and he does it in a masterfully concise way. Have I lived a good life? As my body ages, what will my life be like? Did I waste my talents? Will anyone remember me?
Then, with 23, we get a heartbreaking moment I hope to never experience but can fully understand. It’s about thinking he saw his deceased wife, only to wake up and realize he didn’t.
This journey and maturing as a person and artist gives you a look into how poetry can express things and record a person’s life, even if metaphorical. The young idealist all the way to the fragile older man. The idealistic politically active youth to the contemplative poet.
Because there aren’t an enormous number of Milton sonnets, it’s easy to read through them all and see this evolution of thematic material.
Reading a Milton Sonnet
Let’s get into the actual act of reading a Milton sonnet. Obviously, everyone should engage with poetry in whatever way they like. Some people love the analysis and deep dives. Some people let it wash over them to leave an impression. You’ll need to decide for yourself how poetry enriches your life.
If you’re trying to get into poetry, and you’re not sure how, this section will give you an overview of some of the ways to engage with Milton. These sonnets offer a lot to all methods of reading, which is why I think they’re great.
Let’s look at number 23.
Methought I saw my late espoused Saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Joves great son to her glad Husband gave,
Rescu’d from death by force though pale and faint.
Mine as whom washt from spot of child-bed taint,
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was vail’d, yet to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O as to embrace me she enclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
As I referenced earlier, this poem can be read without understanding any of the references as a heartbreaking encounter. He thinks he sees his deceased wife, wishes to hug her, but she’s gone when he wakes.
If you enjoy the language aspect of poetry, there is much to admire here. I love the final phrase “and day brought back my night.” Internally, he is alight with the memory of his wife, but when day comes, the external world turns to light and his internal world goes back to darkness.
So much is captured with so few words there.
He also breaks from the singsong flow of a traditional sonnet right in the middle with having a full phrase across the line: And such, as yet once more I trust to have Full sight of her…
Words like “purification” also come as a surprise, since they almost fit the iambic meter, but not really. That’s always a welcome experience for me with Milton, as other writers who are more strict tend to lose me in the meter.
If you enjoy digging deep into the allusions and metaphors, this poem also offers that. Already with “Alcestis,” we have a reference to Euripedes. She sacrifices her life to save her husband and is then brought back to life by Hercules (Jove’s great son).
So he’s saying his own wife has been miraculously brought back as in Euripedes’s play.
As you see, Milton goes deep, and you can lose yourself on many planes of analysis or emotional resonance with his sonnets.
Give them a try if you’re trying to break into poetry!