Tips for Poets Inspired by Another Dead White Male

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1678_illustration1_miltonIn order to become an epic poet, Milton believed he must also refuse “lustral waters.” In other words, aspiring artists must remain chaste.

As an undergraduate, “Lycidas” left me cold. Paradise Lost was a total turn-off. In the margin near Book IV’s characterization of Adam and Eve, I took a single note: so misogyny begins. Not exactly the revelation of the year, but what do you expect from a nineteen-year-old Dance major enrolled in a 17th C. Brit Lit survey course? I read the assigned passages and studied those I thought would be on the final exam. Soon after, I dismissed John Milton as another dead-white-male-canonical-poet among endless-dead-white-male-canonical-poets, and then readied myself for the next semester.

Much has changed. There’s a lot more pleasure in learning. Several times each year, I immerse myself in a poet’s life and works. In the past, I’ve selected those whose poetry I admire. This winter, I decided to choose a poet whose writing I resist. Standing in my office, I scoured the shelves for the least appealing prospect:

milton1For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him…

I’ve always pictured Milton as a self-righteous conservative, some self-appointed Moses figure parting the Biblical seas with his metrical staff. Biographical accounts contrast such assumptions; turns out, Milton was more rebellious and politically left than I realized. He was a risk-taker. He was arrested and imprisoned. Thanks, in part, to Andrew Marvell, he barely escaped a death sentence. He was, by all accounts, one of the best educated English citizens of his time, (re)inventing not only the story of Genesis, but his own grammar, as well as the history of British culture and religion. While in Italy, Milton spent time with Galileo. Areopagitica (a must-read on the subjects of licensing and censorship) influenced our Founding Fathers. Milton liked to wear his hair long – so long, in fact, his tresses helped inspire a nickname: friends and foes at Cambridge called him “The Lady.”

The more I study Milton, in fact, the more appealing he becomes. Although filled with classical allusions, his poems don’t seem nearly as icy as I initially found them.  His quirks are amusing; his many contradictions, more so. If you don’t have the extra hours to submerge yourself in Milton’s oeuvre, following are a few tips I’ve gleaned from recent study.

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Memorize, Memorize, Memorize: Milton started to lose his eyesight in 1646. He never saw his son, John Jr., nor did he know the faces of his second and third wives. By 1652, he was completely blind and, according to his nephew, composed Paradise Lost in his head during overnight sessions that lasted well into early morning. By day, he dictated the text to whomever could write down the words.milton2

Writing an epic in your head and then reciting it from memory? Consider the difficulties of tracking scansion and enjambment! Milton’s power to plot and then recall was remarkable. It was also the result of intense self-discipline. As a student (like many of his peers) Milton kept a “Commonplace” book. He filled its pages with poetry, quotations, practical information, political and rhetorical strategies. In essence, the book was a personal anthology of ancient and classical literature. By recording such material by hand Milton not only observed and absorbed a variety of linguistic strategies, he also practiced the art of memorization. Such training, one imagines, only aided the elderly man’s epic task of blind literary invention…

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milton3The Allies of Ambition & Arrogance: Although Milton didn’t foresee the physical obstacles he’d overcome while composing Paradise Lost, he did predict his own greatness. While in his early 20s, the poet announced that his epic (still unwritten for another twenty-five years) would become an unforgettable work of English literature. It’s in “Ad Patrem (To His Father)” Milton clearly articulates his belief in having been “born a poet” whose destiny it is to “walk, crowned with gold, through the temples of the skies and with the harp’s soft accompaniment…sing[ing] sweet songs to which the stars shall echo and the vault of heaven from pole to pole.” According to Frank Kermode, we’ll “never find it possible to match Milton’s self-esteem, or share his estimate of the vast work he felt he had been called to do.” Whether ambition or arrogance (a little of both?), Milton obviously saw the writer’s life not only as a vocation, but a calling – presumably from God. Once this self-prophecy was articulated, Milton dedicated himself to those daily practices he believed would bring his vision to fruition.

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Calling All Virgins – Go Vegan! According to “Elegia Sexta” (Milton’s fascinating letter to John Diodati), a person with high poetic aspirations must “let herbs furnish his innocent diet.” He must also “drink sober draughts from the pure spring.” No baby-back ribs with sweet sauce. No tipping back booze. What twenty-one-year-old Milton advocated was unyielding temperance, his theory being that the artistic product is shaped by physical purity. And speaking of purity, watching his diet wasn’t enough: in order to become an epic poet, Milton believed he must also refuse “lustral waters.” In other words, aspiring artists – those whose names are destined to survive throughout the ages – must remain chaste.

I know what you’re thinking. A twice-widowed husband who fathers five children? Obviously, he gave up the goods at some point! Enter Milton’s evolving personal philosophy. Apparently, “appropriate” sexual activity within marriage was itself a form of “chastity,” something Milton practiced throughout his adult life. Needless to say, the poet’s ideas about marriage, as well as women, divorce and polygamy are complicated. His central point, however, isn’t: emerging poets shouldn’t be afraid of self-discipline. Should you cut pleasure completely? The choice is yours – Milton isn’t exactly known for his erotic sonnets, after all. Taking the work seriously is key, however, as is a steadfast commitment to the art.

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satanspearWrite Your Own Music: Milton separated himself from the pack from the very beginning. In “L’Allegro,” the poet characterizes “sweetest” Shakespeare as “…fancy’s child, / warbl[ing] his native wood-notes wild” (lines 133-134). Suggests Milton, imagination inspires Shakespeare’s rowdy lyrics. Milton’s creative acts, in contrast, result from exacting labor and unwavering intellectual pursuit. Whereas Shakespeare is a poet of pathos, Milton (via his commitments to reason and restraint) shapes himself as a poet of logos.

After mastering sonnets, translating Psalms, and spending years writing political treatises, defenses and pamphlets, Milton eschewed tradition while writing Paradise Lost. In lieu of fashionable heroic couplets, he wrote his epic in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Was blank verse a model of freedom for a people struggling with the presence of tyranny? Did the form suggest Milton’s vision of Paradise Lost as epic drama, as well as a poem? In 1668, the poet concedes that his metrical choice attempted to liberate the “Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Rhyming.” If this seems hyperbolic, consider the fact that John Dryden “translates” Paradise Lost into an opera complete with rhyming couplets, in order to make the epic more accessible to the general public. Simply stated, Milton’s commitment to blank verse – the closest verse imitation of ordinary speech – placed him outside the literary trends of his day. By embracing a form usually reserved for theater, he may have compromised his initial readership. However, he also laid the foundation for future poems as diverse as Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Frost’s “Directive.”

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Don’t Rush to Publish: This may be the most difficult example Milton provides aspiring poets. Although a youthful Milton recognized his potential, he made a point of delaying the publication of his first collection until he was thirty-six or seven. It’s presumed he wrote the book’s opening poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” shortly after his twenty-first birthday. Why the wait? Milton hoped to make his entrance into print remarkable. A man with such ambition wouldn’t be satisfied unless his published poems lived up to his very high expectations. He had, after all, already declared himself a genius!

While it’s not always easy to withhold the work, Milton’s postponement afforded time for further study. He spent six years at his father’s house poring over literature, religion, science, history and politics, among other subjects. He read and read and read. He perfected eight or so languages, a variety that without question influenced the rhythm and syntax of his future writings. When his work finally emerged, it proved he had the goods.

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Shara Lessley

Shara Lessley

Granted, there are plenty of ways in which Milton missed the mark. For your safety, I’d avoid blood-letting, penning pamphlets on regicide, public verbal spars with well-known rhetoricians from the Netherlands. When confronted by warring soldiers or other threats of bodily harm, the best defense probably isn’t to tack a sonnet to your front door, promising poetic immortality to those willing to spare your life.

But all things considered, who can argue with this?

SONNET XXIII

Methought I saw my late espousèd saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from Death by force though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washed 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 veiled; yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But O, as to embrace me she inclined
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

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Milton gives us hell breaking loose (line 918, Book IV of Paradise Lost). His dramatic mask, Comus, introduces “a sable cloud / turn[ing] forth her silver lining.” Vacillation between these poles – silver-lined heaven and hell split apart at the seams – seems to me a summary of the writer’s life. Granted, some people find John Milton a “bore and a prig.” Others find him superior to Shakespeare. I doubt I’ll find myself craving Milton’s work the way I do his contemporary John Donne’s, for example. But now that it’s four hundred years past the anniversary of Milton’s birth, perhaps it’s time to reconsider former assumptions. Who knows, the old man may surprise us yet.


Shara Lessley is a former Stegner Fellow. Her awards include the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship, the Tickner Fellowship, and a “Discovery”/The Nation prize. Shara’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Cincinnati Review and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others. Her collection, Two-Headed Nightingale, is available from New Issues in 2012. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan. More from this author →