Miltonic Sonnet: Definition and Examples

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      The Miltonic Sonnet was given its name by John Milton (1608-74), a 16th century thinker and poet. Most of the poetic works of Milton were composed in two periods: firstly, the period of his university life and his life at Horton (1629-1640); and secondly, his last years of life (1660- 1674). In the gap between these two periods (1640-1660), he has composed a few sonnets. Miltonic sonnet most closely resembles to the Italian sonnet form. The Miltonic sonnet is similar to the Petrarchan sonnet, but it does not divide its thought between the octave and the sestet. The Miltonic Sonnet is a Petrarchan Sonnet without a volta. Here the sense or line of thinking runs straight from the eighth to ninth line. Milton presents a striking contrast to earlier sonneteers; his often complex sentences challenge the English sonnet’s traditional structure of three quatrains capped by a couplet. Also, Milton expands the sonnet’s repertoire to deal not only with love as the earlier sonnets did, but also to include politics, religion, and personal matters. Milton kept the distinction between the octave and sestet in terms of function, but merged them into one 14-line stanza. One example used to demonstrate the Miltonic sonnet is On His Blindness, which goes like this:

When I consider how my light is spent (A)
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (B)
And that one talent which is death to hide, (B)
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent (A)
To serve therewith my Maker, and present (A)
My true account, lest he returning chide; (B)
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” (B)
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent (A)
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need (C)
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best (D)
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (E)
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (C)
And post o’er land and ocean without rest; (D)
They also serve who only stand and wait. (E)

      In this poem, the octave’s rhyming scheme is represented by spentwide-hide-bent and present-chide-denied-prevent. The sestet rhyming scheme is shown using need-best-state and speed-rest-wait. The octave considers the concept of being blind, something that afflicted Milton in his later years. The sestet then relates blindness to God’s will. Milton is asking himself what purpose he can have in life, now that he is completely blind. He was a deeply religious man and believed that the purpose of life was to serve God, which was what he had always tried to do. His way of serving God was to write poetry and essays on religious subjects or at least to write nothing that will be considered to be the truths that God would approve of Milton’s most famous work, of course, is his epic poem Paradise Lost, in which he said he wished to justify the ways of God to man. But, blindness made it nearly impossible for him to write. That was “the one talent” he possessed. In his sonnet On His Blindness he asks whether God expected him to contribute anything to the world in spite of his several handicaps. He concludes by telling himself that God is all-powerful and does not need the services of any human being. His state is kingly. Humans who are patient and humble serve God best — those “who best bear His mild yoke”. So, Milton assures himself that he is not sinning by failing to work for truth, justice, and religious understanding. The final beautiful iambic pentameter line of the sonnet summarizes the message of the whole poem: “They also serve who only stand and wait”.

      The reason why On His Blindness is such a great sonnet is because of Milton himself and the confession he makes in this sonnet. Milton is certainly ranked in the highest level, par with other literary emperors. His exceptional epic pieces, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained were written after he was completely blind. His enormous faith in God made him able to produce works of such rare talent, and in this sonnet, he admitted his faith in God, made a yearning desire to write something great and dedicate it as a service to God. His admission and faith provided him the power to produce his ‘Immortal epics’. This is why, On His Blindness is as important as a sonnet when one studies about Milton’s life. Although, the numbers of sonnets written by Milton are very few, they have reached height of the highest excellence to be specially termed as Miltonic Sonnet. Not being completely different from other types of sonnets, this type has attested a literary flavor. And it is the success of this type of sonnets. His variation on the Petrarchan sonnet inspired poems from other sonneteers such as William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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