Milton and the Feminine: Progressivism and Confinement

Claire Sbardella


John Milton’s body of sonnets contain themes that range from personal, such as his sonnet VII, (“How soon hath time”), a lament to his still unrealized potential, to political and social topics such as Sonnet X (“Daughter to that good earl”) which praises the former treasurer of the English Council. These views expressed exemplify the culture and political tensions of his time. The sonnet, in only fourteen lines, encapsulates this historical understanding of the world in a concise and dramatic manner. Milton’s treatment of women in Sonnet IX (“Lady in the prime of earliest youth”) reflects the values of the time, as well as Milton’s personal views of purity and Christian principles. Here the rigid sonnet form and Milton’s use of religious figurative language both reflect the agency of women and provide a vehicle to explore their lives and expectations.

Sonnet IX, composed between 1642 and 1645 AD, uses figurative language praises a young woman for her soul’s virtue and her body’s purity. Both of these concepts are core principles of Christianity. The girl is in “the prime of earliest youth;” although she has grown to womanhood, she is still virginal and innocent (ln 1). The Book of Matthew states “except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” thus describing the ideal state that Christians should achieve (Matthew 18:3). Milton encourages the girl to avoid the “broad way and the green,” the path to temptation, in order to retain those child-like qualities. She also needs “hope that reaps not shame.” The threat of this shame and the sin attached to it serves to remind the girl to restrict herself from all that is not pure, faithful or submissive (ln 11).

Biblical allusions demonstrate other qualities of a good Christian woman: faithfulness and subservience to those in authority. Although dispossessed, Ruth remained faithful to her aunt Naomi, and joined the lineage of Jesus as a reward (ln 5). Mary, sister to Martha, sat and listened at Jesus’ feet while her sister was “cumbered about much serving” (Luke 10:40, sonnet IX ln 5). Jesus praises Mary for choosing to listen to his word, an action he considers “the one thing needful” – far more important than cleaning like her distracted sister Martha (Luke 10:42). Because of this quiet subservience Jesus favors Mary more, for she “hath chosen that good part” (Luke 10:42). He further stresses the need for faithfulness by mentioning the parable of the lamp-holding virgins. The half who loyally fills their lamps with oil perceive the bridegroom (Jesus), while the other half, unprepared and foolish, do not.

Religious diction underscores the girl’s passive role and the strict guidelines she must follow. She has “shunned” the easy way. “Shunned,” is a word used in the religious excommunication of those who stray from god (ln 2). Their community could no longer acknowledge these exiled people again within their community. By avoiding this sinful path she may join the Bridegroom in bliss, yet she must watch her every deed carefully in order to keep herself virtuous. This includes how she interacts with naysayers. Milton encourages her to react with “pity and ruth” when others “fret their spleen” at her virtuousness (lns 7-8). Like others of his day, Milton considered the spleen to be the center of passion or emotion. Thus if the girl’s detractors react to her strongly, perhaps even violently, she must continue to remain passive.

by Anna Russell Thonrton

The sonnet structure mirrors the girl’s limitations. Milton only breaks Petrarchan form twice. He uses trochee rather than iambic pentameter to emphasize Christ “pass[ing] to bliss.” The volta also occurs not at the end of the octave, but in line eleven, halfway through the sestet. This placement gives urgency to Milton’s warning to “be sure / … thou has gained thy entrance, Virgin wise and pure” (lns 11-14). The sonnet is not split visually between octet and sestet as is often done, rather it serves as a continuous paragraph, smoothly elucidating Milton’s message. “Light” and “night” complement each other within the sestet, however with inverted precedence: the “deeds of light” are merely the instruments needed to join Christ in the “mid hour of night” – the solemn hour of a new day emerging in the dark is left to god. The girl on her path to virtue, however, cannot have even the small breaks that Milton allows himself in sonnet form. The structure of the octave accentuates her “youth,” but also emphasizes “Truth,” “Ruth,” and “ruth,” words that stress her need to remain controlled. Since Milton says that she chose this path in her extreme youth “wisely,” he considers himself even more responsible to her. The peak of the poem’s emotional arch coincides with the volta and Milton’s cautionary advice, which adds additional emphasis to his words.

Religion both confines the girl to this very rigid structure, yet also provides her only agency. Milton, although ascetic, was no religious zealot. Therefore his advice shows the great permeation of religion in Puritan culture. This religiosity both further alienates the girl from any other possible options (at least Catholic women had convents) and strengthens the bounds what is deemed correct behavior for women. She has only one trajectory acceptable in a Puritan community, and that is housewife and mother. Puritanism however is not the only constricting religion. Milton possessed somewhat Anglican views; his metaphor “fill thy odorous lamp” with good works demonstrates that one must not only have faith in order to enter heaven, but also must act righteously (ln 10). This view coupled with puritan beliefs places further bounds on the agency of this girl. Every action must be premeditated to achieve the outcome of good deeds. Seeking virtue and immortality stunts the girl’s self-actualization, however adopting this strange mix of Anglican and Puritan beliefs is the only path she may follow to form a different and uncommon identity.

Milton also stresses inner joy and the promise of eternal bliss, thus demonstrating confidence in the girl’s choice. “Deeds of light” “Hope” and “bliss” all are words with promise happiness. She may have detractors who “fret their spleen,” but as long as she remains true to her faith, she will reach Jesus. This dedication enables her to obtain the greatest joy at her death, eternal union with Christ, the Bridegroom. This promise echoes St. Paul, who says “I have fought a good fight…I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).  By emphasizing the joy Milton demonstrates his trust in her agency. This reach towards future happiness defines her inner world and is the only way to develop her identity outside of housewife and mother. This may be her only way towards self-actualization.

by Anna Rusell Thornton

By emphasizing and encouraging the girl’s virtue, however, Milton breaks a longstanding tradition of sonnets. Sonnets depicting women tended to be love poems. Called blazons, they focused on the woman’s features, describing her from the head down. Spencer for example, describes his love with a “bosome lyke a Strawberry bed / …her nipples lyke yong blossomed Jessemynes” (lns 9, 12) The blazon was so common that Shakespeare offered his own parody: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; /…if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head” (lns 1, 4). With this parody Shakespeare implies what Spencer outright states: a woman’s beauty is her best attribute, and if Shakespeare loves his mistress it is despite these physical imperfections, claiming that “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any” (lns 13-14). Milton in his sonnet veers opposite from this tradition. Rather than catalogue the girl’s physical attributes, he chooses to focus solely on her potential for virtue. In doing so he admits agency that the other poets fail to remark upon. Despite her “prime of earliest youth,” she is a woman with the ability to make sound decisions.

By today’s standards the girl who Milton speaks to in his 9th sonnet has very few choices. However, she has the agency to develop an inner life and follow her own convictions towards heaven and grace. Milton does stress her purity and innocence, discouraging her development into a whole person with knowledge and imperfection. Even so, through his emphasis of her path towards sainthood he refuses to follow the tradition of Spencer and Shakespeare of praising her as a purely sexual and decorative object. Thus he gives the girl the gift of agency and respect, encouraging her to follow her own aspirations rather than to succumb to the displeasure of her friends.

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