Short Poems Questions

John Milton’s Shorter Poetry

“Sonnet VII: How Soon Hath Time” (1632, pp. 76-77); “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629, pp. 42-50); “On Shakespeare” (1630, pp. 63-64); “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” (~1631, pp. 67-76); “Ad Patrem — to His Father” (~1637, pp. 82-86); “Lycidas” (1637, pp. 116-25); “On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament” (~1646, pp. 144-45); “Sonnet XVI: To the Lord General Cromwell” (1652, pp. 160-61); “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider …” (~1652, pp. 168); “Sonnet XVIII: On the Late Massacre in Piemont” (1655, pp. 167-68); “Sonnet XXIII: Methought I Saw …” (1658, pp. 170-71).

“Sonnet VII: How Soon Hath Time” (1632, pp. 76-77)

1. Describe the tension in “How Soon Hath Time” between what the speaker considers his lack of inner maturity, his outward appearance as a young man who has probably just turned 24, and the Providential order in which he believes. How do you interpret the relationship between this Petrarchan sonnet’s first eight lines (the octave) and the sestet (final six lines)?

2. The last two lines of “How Soon Hath Time” run, “All is, if I have grace to use it so, / As ever in my great task-Master’s eye.” Most critics find these line somewhat less than easy to gloss. How do you read these concluding lines?

3. Some commentators link “How Soon Hath Time” to the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:12-28), in which a master gives several servants money and then judges them on how they dealt with it, and to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), in which those who come late to the work to be done in the field receive the same wages as those who arrived earlier. Read these if you’re not familiar with them, and explain what how you think the sonnet relates back to one or both of them. (The Geneva Bible is available online at

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629, pp. 42-50)

4. Describe the structure of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” That is, what divisions (in terms of themes, events described, the narrator’s sensibility or attitude, etc.) can you mark off as the poem develops from its beginning to its conclusion? Which do you find the most effective or noteworthy, and why?

5. Anyone who has read some or all of Paradise Lost knows that Milton was very interested in ascribing to the natural world, pagan gods, and pre-Christian events their appropriate places with respect to Christian theology and history. How does “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” do something like that? How, that is, does it handle the representation of the natural world and the pagan pantheons of Egypt and the Greeks and Romans, in relation to the birth of Christ?

6. Georgia Christopher in her chapter “Milton’s ‘Literary’ Theology in the Nativity Ode” from Milton and the Science of the Saints (Princeton UP, 1982) suggests that “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” strategically relies more on rhetorical unfolding of an event than on an attempt to picture for us the Nativity scene itself. Offer your own thoughts on how this poem handles the representation of the Nativity scene — at what point or points exactly is it pictured, and to what effect? If Milton’s primary aim isn’t to make us see the scene, what, then, do you conjecture to be his primary aim with regard to it?

7. Like some of his other poems, Milton’s Christmas hymn was set to music by his friend the composer Henry Lawes (1595=1662). But Milton’s work has also been transformed into visual media, most notably by the romantic poet and artist William Blake. View his remarkable illustrations to “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” and reflect on what you think Blake saw in the elder poet’s work: what do Blake’s illustrations add to (or change about) your interpretation of the poem?

8. Consider the poetics of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” What’s the rhyme scheme of the first four stanzas or proem, and what famous pattern is Milton borrowing for them? What is the long last line (six metrical feet rather than the shorter lines preceding) in these and subsequent stanzas called? As for the hymn proper — the twenty-seven stanzas that follow the first four, what is its rhyme scheme? All in all (and though the question may be a bit too formulaic), what can you say about the poem’s form as a vehicle for the subject it announces and develops?

“On Shakespeare” (1630, pp. 63-64)

9. Although “On Shakespeare” is not a sonnet (it consists rather in sixteen lines of rhyming pentameter couplets, not the Shakespearean abab cdcd efef gg fourteen-line pattern or the Petrarchan abba abba cde cde, or the Spenserian abab bcbc cdcd ee), Milton certainly borrows a major theme from the playwright’s sonnets in eulogizing him, one that the Roman poet Horace had used in reference to himself in his Carmina or songs — see Carmina III.30’s Exegi monumentum aere perennius / regalique situ pyramidum altius …” (“I’ve built a monument more permanent than brass, and higher than the royal pyramids”). Compare “On Shakespeare” to the playwright’s own Sonnet 55: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments….” How does Milton put his own stamp on the traditional theme and sentiment? Consider, for example, his inclusion of Shakespeare’s readership rather than an emphasis on love.

“L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” (~1631, pp. 67-76)

10. Each considered on its own terms, both “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” seem to proceed structurally in spiral fashion, moving to successively higher levels of the appropriate type of pleasure. In “L’Allegro,” what kind of Melancholy is dismissed as an initial gesture? Then describe this first poem’s progression of imagery and ideas: what joys are set forth first, and what sorts of pleasure does the poet then move on to praise?

11. Consider the structural spiral mentioned in the previous question, but this time regarding “Il Penseroso” rather than “L’Allegro”: what kind of “Joys” are dismissed initially in “Il Penseroso”? Then describe this second poem’s progression of imagery and ideas: what delights of melancholy are set forth first, and what sorts of somber pleasure does the poet then move on to praise? At what point does the speaker transition to an overtly Christian frame of reference in “Il Penseroso,” as opposed to the relatively greater preponderance of Classical allusions and imagery in the companion poem?

12. During the Renaissance, it was a common exercise to debate the relative superiority of the active life (vita activa) and the contemplative life (vita contemplativa). The relationship of “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” to that tradition is obvious. Most readers probably find that when they read the two poems side by side, they don’t hear Milton’s speaker greatly favoring one state of mind or spirit over the other, or one mode of life over the other (i.e. mirth or earnest reflection, action versus contemplation). What, then, is the point of this poetical exercise? What valuable insights emerge from placing two different modes of pleasure side by side in this way?

13. William Blake illustrated selected portions of “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” View the illustrations from these two poems at The William Blake Archive and reflect on what they add to your understanding of the works. Why do you think Blake chose these particular sections of the poems for visual treatment?

“Ad Patrem — to His Father” (~1637, pp. 82-86)

14. In “Ad Patrem,” a Latin verse letter to his father John, the younger Milton praises poetry as a vocation. What are the main points in his defense of that calling, and what image of himself does he set forth as he goes about this defense?

15. In “Ad Patrem,” how does Milton demonstrate the value of Classical learning and art in particular as he pursues his defense of poetry as a vocation?

“Lycidas” (1637, pp. 116-25)

16. Readers generally find that the pastoral elegy “Lycidas” proceeds in three stages. What are they, and where does each begin? What internal development or narrative can you find within each stage before it gives way to the next?

17. “Lycidas” is a pastoral elegy or poem of mourning written in 1637 for Milton’s Cambridge University colleague Edward King, who had drowned that year. But at what points does this poem address the 29-year-old Milton’s own calling as a poet? How does his choice of Classical pastoral poetry suit that personal dimension of the poem? In responding, you may want to consider how poets such as Virgil and Edmund Spenser employed the traditional pastoral form that dates back to the third-century BCE Greek poet Theocritus.

18. How does Milton realign the pre-Christian pastoral form and references of “Lycidas” to suit his Christian framework? In responding, consider in particular the poem’s second and third stages, which respectively address Church corruption and the poet’s hopes for Edward King’s happy immortality.

“On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament” (~1646, pp. 144-45)

19. During the Long Parliament of 1640-49 (which continued through much of the English Civil War of 1642-51), the Presbyterian faction tried to get itself declared England’s National Church. In “On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament,” what are Milton’s complaints about the maneuverings he describes? What tendency of organized religion does he oppose?

“Sonnet XVI: To the Lord General Cromwell” (1652, pp. 160-61)

20. In “Sonnet XVI: To the Lord General Cromwell,” what advice does the speaker offer the victorious Oliver Cromwell concerning freedom of conscience and the relationship between Church and State? Why, according to the editor’s notes, was this advice necessary?

“Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How My Light is Spent” (~1652, pp. 168)

21. Milton had been Secretary of Foreign Tongues since March of 1649, and went blind in February, 1652, so he was an important member of Cromwell’s government, responsible for (among other things) communicating with England’s European neighbors. What tension does “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How My Light is Spent” suggest between Milton’s political self and his poetic self (i.e. his literary aspirations)?

22. What stance does the speaker in “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How My Light is Spent” adopt towards the workings of Providence? What does he appear to mean by the claim, “They also serve who only stand and wait”? Moreover, how does this sonnet compare to “Sonnet VII: How Soon Hath Time,” which Milton apparently wrote when he had just turned 24?

“Sonnet XVIII: On the Late Massacre in Piemont” (1655, pp. 167-68)

23. “Sonnet XVIII: On the Late Massacre in Piemont” is often pointed to as a fine example of the strong Miltonic manner in sonnets. What poetic features can you identify that support this status? How does this sonnet in particular differ from the Shakespearean manner in the sonnet cycles, aside from the rhyme scheme, which is Petrarchan rather than English?

“Sonnet XXIII: Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint” (1658, pp. 170-71)

24. “Sonnet XXIII: Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint” is perhaps one of Milton’s finest Petrarchan sonnets. What accounts for the intensity of this poem; that is, what is it about the situation described that makes it especially appropriate to the Petrarchan form? Consider the last two lines in particular: how do they bring together the causes of the speaker’s anguish?

25. In “Sonnet XXIII: Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint,” what significance do the poem’s classical references add to our understanding of the speaker’s situation? Consider the allusions to “Alcestis” and “Jove’s great son” Hercules (son of the mortal Alcmene and the god Zeus) from Greek mythology and the play Alcestis by Euripides: what is the implication of Alcestis’ story with regard to the speaker’s departed wife (with reference to Milton himself, the reference is probably to Katherine Woodcock, who died in February of 1658)?

Edition: Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Hackett: 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0872206786.

Copyright © 2013 Alfred J. Drake. All rights reserved.