Week Five: The Miltonic Sonnet

John Milton (1608-1674)

The Miltonic Sonnet is named after the 17th century English poet, political writer, and civil servant, John Milton. With the publishing of his epic poem Paradise Lost, widely regarded as one of the greatest works written in the English language, Milton solidified his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time. Milton’s work would live on to influence Romantic poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth.

Photo caption: A wood engraving from the 19th century depicts a blind John Milton dictating his influential epic poem “Paradise Lost” (Fortuné Louis Méaulle / Wellcome Library) 

Milton’s Sonnet

Milton adapted the Petrachan sonnet (named for Italian poet-scholar Petrach) and made the popular form his own. He took the sonnet out of the category of “love poems” and brought it into the world of politics, religion, and social issues. He also introduced enjambments (the technical term used for when a poet carries a line through to the next line), while at the same time removing the space between what was before the first and second stanzas, thus tightening up the form. By removing the volta (also known as a pivot, or turn) after the octave (first eight lines), and varying the rhyme scheme of the sestet (proceeding six lines), he further opened up the form.

A reading of one of Milton’s most famous poems should help demonstrate these contributions to the evolution of the sonnet:

“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”

When I consider how my light is spent,
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest He returning chide;
    “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “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.”

Requirements of the Form

Form

– Fourteen lines
– No spaces between ‘stanzas’
– Lines contain enjambment (see above for brief definition)

Content

– Occasional, political, and religious subjects
– Unlike other sonnets, does not have a distinct volta (also known as a pivot) after the eighth line

Meter

– Iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line, unstressed-stressed pattern).

Rhyme

– First eight lines (octave): abbaabba
– Preceding six lines (sestet): often cdecde, but variable

An Original Miltonic Sonnet

The viral imagine haunted every screen–
A photograph too horrid to ignore:
A pair of bloated bodies on the shore.
In Congress followed yet another scene
Of bickering and washing white-hands clean.
No older than The Virgin when she bore
The Savior that they claim to so adore,
The budding mother wonders what they mean.
As children hungry, dirty, sick and scared
Are torn away and locked in concrete halls
Lay weak with worry, overwhelmed with fear,
The value of their lives is weighed and tared;
As Washington debates the costs of walls,
Who dares to speak of Christ’s compassion here?

Notes on My Original Sonnet

I challenged myself to write a sonnet that was true to the Miltonic themes of politics, religion, and current events, and found in the issue of immigration a combination of all three. The line “children hungry, dirty, sick and scared” was taken from this BBC News article and served as the fulcrum of this poem.

Online Resources


Sonnet Examples – Poetry Through the Ages
Miltonic Sonnet – Poet’s Collective
Miltonic Sonnet – Poetry Magnum Opus
John Milton – Wikipedia

One thought on “Week Five: The Miltonic Sonnet

  1. Pingback: The Miltonic Sonnet – Adam of the Universe

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