1630
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Passion.

Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin, compos'd at several Times. Printed by his True Copies. The Songs were set in Musick by Mr. Henry Lawes Gentleman of the Kings Chappel, and one of his Majesties Private Musick.

John Milton


Eight rhyme-royal Spenserians, begun as a companion to the Nativity Ode and left a fragment.

Samuel Johnson: "The English poems, though they make no promises of Paradise Lost, have this evidence of genius, that they have a cast original and unborrowed. But their peculiarity is not excellence: if they differ from verses of others, they differ for the worse; for they are too often distinguished by repulsive harshness; the combinations of words are new, but they are not pleasing; the rhymes and epithets seem to be laboriously sought and violently applied" Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 1:162.

Thomas Warton: "we may conjecture that this Ode was probably composed soon after that on the Nativity. And this perhaps was a college exercise at Easter, as the last was at Christmas" quoted in Works of Milton, ed. Todd (1826) 6:29n.

Edinburgh Literary Journal: "In the [early] poems of which we are now speaking he approaches more nearly than he subsequently did to the poets of the Elizabethan age. There is sometimes a forced elevation of verse, contrasting strongly with a poverty of language, that reminds us of Marlow. The melody of the following passage in the Ode on The Passion, is Spenser all over: 'For now to sorrow must I tune my song, | And set my harp to notes of saddest woe, | Which on your dearest Lord did seize ere long, | Dangers, and snares, and wrongs, and worse than so, | Which he for us did freely undergo'" "Milton and his Christmas Ode" (2 January 1830) 10.

Herbert E. Cory: "Like a true Spenserian of his time, [Milton] made his subject (in lyric poetry), a mere makeshift for the enumeration of lovely details. Like the Fletchers, he experimented with stanza forms, making the last line of the rhyme-royal an alexandrine. But he had not arrived. In The Passion (1630) be employed the same stanza and style to celebrate the subject-matter which was the most real to him all his life. The poet is trying to soar. But, like many far humbler undergraduate poets, he masks his sincerity in the affectations of contemporaries. There is no doubt that he was profoundly stirred by the passion of Christ.... Milton could not as yet distinguish between Spenser and Spenserians. William Browne, who, in his garrulous Britannia's Pastorals could often follow Spenser very charmingly, was also capable of writing: 'My blubb'ring pen her sable tears lets fall | In characters right.' But Milton was coming to a realization of his faults. At the end of The Passion we read: 'This Subject the Author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.' Yet Milton's aspirations were already as immense and as impressive as when he began Paradise Lost" "Spenser, the Fletchers, and Milton" UCPMP 2 (1912) 345-46.

J. B. Leishman: "Nowhere else, I repeat, does one find Milton so uncertainly hovering between different poetic traditions as in this poem; nowhere else in his serious poetry does he approximate so closely to contemporary academic taste. Some of his contemporaries, no doubt, might have lamented that he did not cultivate that very pretty wit which he had shown himself to possess. He left the poem unfinished, however, returned to an older and sounder tradition, and continued to write poetry which would have seemed to many of his academic contemporaries strangely old-fashioned and very deficient in wit" Milton's Minor Poems (1969) 73.



Erewhile of musick, and ethereal mirth,
Wherewith the stage of air and earth did ring,
And joyous news of heavenly Infant's birth,
My Muse with Angels did divide to sing;
But headlong joy is ever on the wing,
In wintry solstice like the shorten'd light,
Soon swallow'd up in dark and long out-living night.

For now to sorrow must I tune my song,
And set my harp to notes of saddest woe,
Which on our dearest Lord did seize ere long,
Dangers, and snares, and wrongs, and worse than so,
Which he for us did freely undergo:
Most perfect Hero, tried in heaviest plight
Of labours huge and hard, too hard for human wight!

He, sovran priest, stooping his regal head,
That dropt with odorous oil down his fair eyes,
Poor fleshly tabernacle entered,
His starry front low-rooft beneath the skies:
O, what a mask was there, what a disguise!
Yet more; the stroke of death he must abide,
Then lies him meekly down fast by his brethrens' side.

These latest scenes confine my roving verse;
To this horizon is my Phoebus bound:
His god-like acts, and his temptations fierce,
And former sufferings, other where are found;
Loud o'er the rest Cremona's trump doth sound;
Me softer airs befit, and softer strings
Of lute, or viol still, more apt for mournful things.

Befriend me, Night, best patroness of grief;
Over the pole thy thickest mantle throw,
And work my flatter'd fancy to belief,
That Heaven and Earth are colour'd with my woe;
My sorrows are too dark for day to know:
The leaves should all be black whereon I write,
And letters, where my tears have wash'd, a wannish white.

See, see the chariot, and those rushing wheels,
That whirl'd the Prophet up at Chebar flood;
My spirit some transporting Cherub feels,
To bear me where the towers of Salem stood,
Once glorious towers, now sunk in guiltless blood;
There doth my soul in holy vision sit,
In pensive trance, and anguish, and ecstatick fit.

Mine eye hath found that sad sepulchral rock
That was the casket of Heaven's richest store,
And here through grief my feeble hands up lock,
Yet on the soften'd quarry would I score
My plaining verse as lively as before;
For sure so well instructed are my tears,
That they would fitly fall in order'd characters.

Or should I thence hurried on viewless wing
Take up a weeping on the mountains wild,
The gentle neighbourhood of grove and spring
Would soon unbosom all their echoes mild;
And I (for grief is easily beguil'd)
Might think the infection of my sorrows loud
Had got a race of mourners on some pregnant cloud.

THIS SUBJECT THE AUTHOR FINDING TO BE ABOVE THE YEARS HE HAD, WHEN HE WROTE IT, AND NOTHING SATISFIED WITH WHAT WAS BEGUN, LEFT IT UNFINISHED.

[Works, ed. Todd (1826) 6:29-36]