Much has been made of Milton’s dialogue with Petrarch, both in his early sonnets (English and Italian) and in his later work. Barbara K. Lewalski gives a trenchant reading of Paradise Lost as a hybrid or compendium of literary forms. The focus, however, has been largely on the attributable, the direct quotations and direct refutations of Petrarchan schemes and tropes, privileging consideration of both Milton and Petrarch as political poets. This reassessment is particularly necessary for Petrarch whose work is often consigned to the romance genre to the exclusion of the myriad others in which he worked, but it also serves to distance Milton from a predecessor whose works he not only challenged but admired and absorbed in all their complexities. To read Milton as a Puritan is correct, but to reduce him to the political, to the puritanical, or to the patriarchal is to lose the plot. This essay will endeavor to read several of Milton’s sonnets in conversation with the critical writing surrounding his dialogue with Petrarch and his overall position in what Heather Dubrow terms the afterlives of Petrarchism. The goal will be to complicate the view of Milton as strictly anti-Petrarchan in his romantic bent (an argument forwarded by Lewalski in her reading of sections of Paradise Lost as a defense of companionate marriage as privileged over the selfish excesses of Petrarchan love) and to appreciate the canon of his works as fundamentally intertextual and, in the mode of most great writers of the period, ambiguous in its approach to love and much else besides. In considering the sonnets, and not only those included in the 1645 volume, a Milton is revealed who not only questions and challenges Petrarchan tropes, but who also, at various points
embraces them, complicates them, and turns them to subjects other than love and infatuation, at least in their literal expressions1.
Milton and/in Italy
By 1629 the vogue for sonnet sequences had reached an ebb, as noted by John Carey in his introduction to the first of Milton’s sequence (91). It is telling, however, that Milton chose not only to borrow from the Italian poet, Bembo in his first line2, but also employ both Petrarch’s customary metrical structure and rhyme scheme and his most lauded subject, love. To engage with the sonnet in this period was necessarily to evoke Petrarch, precisely because the age of profligate imitation and experimentation had ended and those poems remaining in circulation tended to be by poets whose own reputations eclipsed Petrarch’s in the common imagination. Ilona Bell states the case plainly, that “Renaissance love poetry could be Petrarchan or anti-Petrarchan or pseudo-Petrarchan (by twisting Petrarchan vocabulary to seductive purposes) but not a-Petrarchan” (91).
It is not surprising, then, that Milton’s early forays should, true to his classical training, engage not only with classical forms, but content as well. It is even more indicative that Milton was already experimenting with subversions and experiments within those generic conventions. Milton’s speaker addresses, not his beloved, but the nightingale whose song, the speaker hopes, will prefigure a happy outcome to his wooing. Where Petrarchism is characterized by direct, albeit one-sided remonstrance with the beloved, the lover anticipating and arguing against the straw-beloved, Milton appeals directly to the bird and indirectly to the divine providence its song symbolizes. Really, Milton is beseeching God. He addresses this figure directly in the final two lines of “O nightingale,” saying “Whether the Muse, or Love call thee his mate, / Both them I serve, and of their train am I.”
1 Milton is not unique in this regard, but, as this essay will demonstrate, Milton’s Petrarchism is arguably the worthiest of multifaceted consideration.
2 This observation is also culled from Carey in Milton and Carey p. 92
The muse and love are both classical referents, to creative demigods and Cupid respectively, however, by this time, their association with Judeo-Christian cosmogony was commonplace, such that Milton could evoke the muse in the preface to Paradise Lost without incurring any confusion as to the religious inclination of the poem. Though earlier in “O nightingale,” the speaker bemoans that the bird has “no reason” (line 11) for its refusal to sing before the cuckoo, sealing his lonely fortunes for another year, the speaker seems to countermand this quasi-heretical impugnation of God’s divine plan by reflexively reasserting that he serves the muse and love, both, again, allegories for the Protestant God.
That this is one of scant few true love poems in Milton’s oeuvre only increases its intrigue, and its existence is one point on a map of Milton’s engagement with Petrarch. As Deirdre Serjeantson points out, Milton spent much of 1639 (admittedly ten years after the purported composition of the first sonnet) travelling in Italy where she says “he was befriended by writers and welcomed by various of the academics which met to compose and discuss poetry” particularly that of Petrarch (831). But there is no suggestion this was the first of Milton’s forays into the poet’s work, as translations were common in the period and we have little doubt, given his studies at Christ’s College, Cambridge and access to the libraries of the college, university, and local churches and religious officials, that he would have had access to Petrarch in abundance, and not only the popular courtly sonnets. Again, according to Serjeantson, Milton was familiar with Petrarch’s political sonnets as well, arguing mostly against the removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, colloquially referred to as the “Babylonian Captivity” (833). Milton, like many Protestants of his era both on the Continent and in England, read into Petrarch not only these invectives against church policy, but also broader condemnations of the papacy and the Catholic church, allowing them to reframe him as a proto-Protestant writer. Serjeantson makes a strong case that Petrarch was quite commonly read in this way, chiefly evidenced by the Catholic church of the period attempting to
censor contemporaneous editions of the Canzoniere either by altering or eliding the critical sonnets. Their attempts, however, given the numerous editions in circulation of Petrarch, were wholly unsuccessful and there is compelling evidence that Milton had access and probably cause to have read precisely the editions which English and European Protestants were circulating to bolster their cause.
This broader reading naturally primed Milton for a more nuanced embrace of Petrarchan poetics than many of his forebears, and we know that Milton not only translated certain of Petrarch’s sonnets but also wrote his own political sonnets, an impetus he likely would have had whether he had read Petrarch or not, but which the familiarity cannot have hindered. Milton’s Petrarch, in Serjeantson’s words, was a kindred spirit, a “victim of censorship and critic of religious authority” making him “Milton’s own moral and literary ancestor” and rendering Milton’s Petrarch “something of a Protestant” (831).
This leads in, of course, to Lewalski’s discovery of Petrarchism throughout Milton’s oeuvre, notably in the arguments Satan has with Eve in Paradise Lost Book 9. As Lewalski and subsequent critics read the epic, it situates the Renaissance ideal of companionate marriage against the obsessive (read selfish) aspects of Petrarchan love. It is no accident that given the logical appeal and appeals of such arguments that Milton’s Satan, conceived as the proto-Petrarch led to “mis-readings” or, rather, sympathetic readings of the character, such that Dryden felt the need to restate the character’s odiousness in his operatic adaptation, and such that Romantic poets like Blake and Byron would find kinship with him. Byron, in particular, given the colloquial appropriation of his title, Don Juan, is a case study in Milton’s successful employment of Petrarchan tropes, despite his best intentions. What Milton’s actual intention was, however, is more complex than a simple argument for amiable monogamy and procreation or a celebration of true love. Christopher Warner borrows from Stanley Fish’s reading of Paradise Lost to argue that Milton is rhetorically showing the reader how
they came to be the way they are, recreating the fall both of Satan and then of man, compromising the reader who may be “bewitched” into buying into Satan’s argument in part or in whole (156-7). The common view of Milton as puritanical is justified but omits complexity. Milton does not just foreground the place of God in companionate marriage and ideal love, he also delineates the type of love one ought to feel for God from the type(s) one ought to feel towards one’s beloved and towards one’s fellow man. Sexual desire, as most readers of Paradise Lost will attest, is not debauched, it is upheld as the highest fruition of the divine will, a supplement not meant solely for reproduction but to re-echo the glory of God’s love for mankind. It is only in the fallen world that such perversions enter into the discussion and to read Milton as merely prudish is to ignore the facts of history (he had two wives and five daughters, three of whom survived to adulthood) but also his writings which include the divorce tracts. To complicate the dialogue surrounding Milton’s Petrarchism, however, and considering the ample work done on its present in Paradise Lost by Lewalski and others, this essay will turn to the sonnets.
Milton’s Early Petrarchan Sonnets
Returning to Bell, she argued that beyond the first seven sonnets, the Italian sonnets, and his translations, Milton’s Petrarchan influence was broadly considered to be limited (93). Thanks, in part, to her work, this is no longer true of contemporary Milton studies. Nigel Smith, for one, reads a combination of Petrarchism and Horatianism in certain of Milton’s early sonnets, notably several of the panegyrics of Fairfax, Vane, and Cromwell, a conflation Smith argues is shared with other writers, notably Marvell in his aptly named Horation Ode (116-17). This is connected, too, to the pervasive reading at the time of Petrarch as a proto-Protestant, mentioned earlier. Indeed, to quote David Norbrook “The sonnet on public themes in fact went back to Petrarch, and Milton may have known that Fairfax himself had translated on of Petrarch’s celebrated denunciations of the Roman church” (183). It doesn’t do, however, to consider Petrarch’s influence merely in the political realm.
As always, holism is the proper (albeit arduous) course. Smith refers to the “remarkable” quality in Milton’s early sonnets of “the decorum exercised in imitating Petrarch. The effect is not so much a sacrifice of sincerity at the altar of form as the magnificent overtaking of mere desire by the execution of the poem, which becomes the love object itself” (155). Countering the suggestions of earlier scholars, Smith argues “Much later this becomes the exquisite expression of a compromised person (in his blindness) mourning a dead wife, a wife whom he never saw but only touched and heard. It is a pure and Puritan poem, obstetrically acute and faithfully Petrarchan” referring, of course, to Milton’s elegiac Sonnet XIX which we will return to later (156-7). One possible reason for the lack of an extant Milton poem that fully embraces the Petrarchan sonnet in its emphasis on wooing an unattainable beloved (the married Laura, in Petrarch’s case), lies in Milton’s religious convictions. Milton admitted to certain youthful experiments with the styles of “’the smooth Elegiack Poets’” prior to what the Oxford Handbook of Milton describes as “his cleansing immersion in Platonic philosophy” which “confirmed Milton ‘in this opinion, that he would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition of the best and most honourablest things’” (120). No such experiment prior to this resolve suggests itself, and so one must look for more subtle expressions of Petrarchan tropes. Though she perhaps overstates the case, Diane McColley argues that Milton “published no English poems in the usual amorous genres at all,” though she admits the proximity to such of “O nightingale.” (152). Again, to look forward to Sonnet XIX, Milton did clearly address beloved(s), albeit in less traditional manners and in other of “amorous genres,” namely elegy. Walking back from this statement, too, McColley concedes that certain of Milton’s poems address women in “non-erotic ways” including what she describes as “His first, written when he was seventeen, undertakes the delicate task of consoling his sister on the death of her infant
daughter” (152). She further admits the Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester which exalts the subject to the level of Rachel in the bible who “similarly died bearing her second child, and whom Dante seats next to Mary in a heaven well populated with women” (152). All these examples are what I would term “mature” Petrarchism, in that they embrace certain of its tropes and augment it with subsequent and contemporary genres, but the mere fact of likening a woman to a figure of biblical provenance owes something to the Petrarchan hyperbole. It may be to risk overstating the case, but to compare something with something else which is factually incommensurate may not have originated with Petrarch but was certainly popularized by him. Nevertheless, McColley is not alone in her skepticism of Milton’s Petrarchan influence. Heather Dubrow approaches the poet in the conclusion to her book on the afterlives of Petrarchism, Echoes of Desire, primarily to, as many of Milton’s critics have, assert that he represents the terminus of Petrarch’s popular influence. Dubrow argues that Milton’s Sonnet II differs from analogous example in the Rime sparse because of the distance the poet places between his speakers and the emotion of love (267). Dubrow argues that the speaker emphasizes the effect on all men rather than only himself, making escape from “her charms” impossible (267). This is true, of course, but seems to neglect the examples of Petrarchism which, though they explicitly state the impact on the speaker, similarly underscore the universal appeal of the beloved. The sun, after all, to which so many women or their body parts are compared, does not shine on one alone.
Milton’s Political Poetry, Prose, and Petrarch
But the personal is political, and for Milton love and politics were inextricable. Milton’s love poems may be scarce, but his writings on love and attendant social conduct were numerous, not least in the divorce tracts. Richard Strier, for one, argues principally for Milton’s use of Petrarch in the prose works and divorce tracts in particular, and though this essay will not deal with those texts extensively, it is important to reiterate that Milton was a voracious and incisive reader for whom
genres frequently blended. This is not, as Petrarch’s own political engagement attests, to suggest that such qualities were unique to Milton, but to suggest they were far more common in the Renaissance than is generally admitted.
Bell reads into the divorce tracts that Milton “implicitly rejects the self-absorption, solitude, contradictions, and misery of Petrarchism” (95). There is founding for this argument, and Bell quotes Marvell’s ‘Definition of Love’ to argue that Petrarchan love is “begotten by despair upon impossibility,” but Bell also conflates generations of literary reception into a couple of quotes, one taken from a poem not even authored by Milton (95). As she quotes, “Milton argues that marriage was ‘instituted to the solace and delight of man’ (YP II, p. 235) to prevent ‘the loneliness which leads him still powerfully to seek a fit help’ (YP II, p. 253),” but the mere admission that marriage is the desirable end of wooing is hardly anti-Petrarchan (Bell 95).
Moreover, to reassert the commonality between Milton and Petrarch, both possessed what Edoardo Zuccato terms a “scholastic style” of “mental habit,” such that both men “found it natural to express [their] most intense feelings in that language” (15). While Zuccato further argues that Milton used his “habit” to forward moral and political passions, the same was true of Petrarch, as evidenced by the Babylonian Captivity sonnets in Canzoniere. The “Strong passions […] best expressed in exaggerations” are as much a component of Petrarchism as the blazon and impossibility of the lover and beloved being joined, and ought to accounted for in reading into Milton’s Petrarchan influence (15).
Zuccato argues, with reference to his reading of Hazlitt’s critiques of eighteenth-century writers that “Had Shakespeare written only his sonnets, he would be wrongly classified as a cold, artificial writer,” further reading into Hazlitt’s comparison of Petrarch to Burke, implicitly condemning both of being “mere rhetoricians” (15). It is interesting to read into this suggestion of Shakespeare’s work, as it likely refers to what Hazlitt and, by extension, Zuccato the tropes of
Petrarchism, including the itemizing blazon and the formalism of the sonnet. What it leaves aside, however, is the possibility that passion can apply equally to one’s scientific, scholastic, and intellectual endeavors as to matters of the heart. Obsession, a common theme by the time of Romanticism, which is Zuccato’s primary focus, is not unique to romantic love, and Gothic masterpieces like Frankenstein and The Monk testify to the psychosexual aspects of obsession in all its forms. If this is true, then reading Milton’s political poems as psycho-sexual and therefore Petrarchan in their own right might be a fair contention, though I leave that line of argumentation for later scholars.
Paradise Lost and Petrarch
To turn briefly to Paradise Lost, it seems important to gesture to the importance of the aforementioned Petrarchan mode in the epic. Heather Dubrow refers to Lewalski, but also Anna K Nardo’s assertions that Milton submerges some Petrarchan forms and themes (or tropes) in Paradise Lost (reading between the lines, these are Satan’s appeals to Eve, as noted in Serjeantson) as well as in his shorter works and sonnets, though Dubrow dismisses Nardo’s permissive (less generously–broad) definition of the Petrarchan sonnet and is far more skeptical, as stated above, of Petrarch’s influence in the sonnets (267). Dubrow pays due attention to the post-Petrarchan libertinism, or focus on the erotic consummation of love, a fundamental rejection or alternative to Petrarchism in Dubrow’s view (269). Dubrow refers to the delineations, what she terms Milton’s “diacritical” mission, namely to separate conjugal, familial, and other types of love from love for God (269). In Dubrow’s terms, Milton is “determinedly diacritical: he defines prelapsarian love through contrast with the postlapsarian alternatives” (269). In this conception, however, Milton is, in some ways, returning to the platonic ideal of Petrarch, if only through his rejection of Petrarchism’s immediate counterdiscourse of the seduction poem. Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Milton returns to Petrarchism and that it is from his engagement with this earlier form that his later poetry digresses,
distinguishing itself from other of the counterdiscourses, most of which resulted from the turn to the erotic act or consummation of the formerly impossible love.
Dubrow notes Milton’s tendency throughout his epic to assert that the fallacy to which Eve, Adam, and Satan all succumb is the failure to adequately distinguish between shades of rightness, namely between, in Adam’s case, love for Eve versus love for God, in Eve’s case, between admiration and idol worship, and in Satan’s between just subservience and humiliation (Dubrow 270). Bell, likewise finds this in her reading, contending that “the plot of Book IV is the eternal plot of mature love, the movement of desire towards consummation–although Miltonic desire is paradisal precisely because consummation increases and sweetens desire” (Bell 95). It is notable that not only is Milton being diacritical, here, he is prioritizing reciprocity. As Ball says, “In the divorce tracts Milton writes that marriage was first created for ‘apt and cheerfull conversation of man with woman . . . not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards’ (YP II, p. 235)” (101). Conversation, the back and forth, is, of course, anti-Petrarchan in that it presupposes some sort of give and take, and though there are some scholars who argue Eve and Adam’s conversations are mere speeches spoken past one another, the first man and woman are certainly placed on more level footing than the Petrarchan lover and beloved. Remonstrance in Petrarchan poetry is always one-sided, spoken to an absent or impervious other who no more deigns to answer than to return the lover’s affections.
In Paradise Lost, then, we may read the most thorough rejection of Petrarchism, with the consideration made earlier for reception of Satan’s eminently Petrarchan appeals to Eve. Anthony Low contends that Milton in Paradise Lost puts “both courtly and Petrarchan love entirely in the shade of the loving relationship between Adam and Eve” (200). He allows that some of Milton’s youthful poems owe more to Petrarch, but that Paradise Lost takes the form of an extended exercise in rhetorical juxtaposition; as he puts it, Milton “liked to slay his own dragons” (200). What Low
leaves out, however, is the poem to which we will turn momentarily and its thematic siblings, most of which were completed contemporaneous with or after Paradise Lost, and thus can hardly be called “youthful.”
The selfish aspects of Petrarchan love are also, in Milton, figured as Narcissism. Zuccato considers Ugo Foscolo’s reading of Petrarch’s Laura, an unforgiving condemnation of her narcissistic enjoymet of adoration while giving nothing in return, and Zuccato sees in this self-adoration–compounded by external adoration, a relationship to Eve’s account of her creation in which she seems about to launch into a blazon of herself, appreciatively itemizing the features of her own face as though it were another’s before she is interrupted by God (21). Zuccato does contradict Foscolo’s reading for its failure to account for Laura’s marital status and the need to preserve her honor in the face of the poetic onslaught of another man’s affections, but Zuccato also offers a thoroughly romantic reading of Eve’s account of her creation. While there is certainly a reference to Narcissus, one must recall God’s intercession and her subsequent partnership with Adam. One must also make the distinction that Petrarchism operates only in the postlapsarian world, where humans are not innately made for one another and love is not divinely assured, at least not explicitly.
Moreover, Petrarch was not, himself, un-tormented by the delineation between amorous and divine love. Bell says that in Canzoniere, “Petrarch is tormented by the conflict between human and divine love; he begins and ends, ‘weeping for [his] pasttime, which [he] spent loving a mortal thing without lifting [himself] in flight.’” (96). In Paradise Lost, however, the love between Adam and Eve is “mutually delighting” and “finds its natural expression in their mutual love of God,” a model of companionate marriage which, while not unavailable to Petrarch, is characteristic of Protestantism, and English Protestantism in particular (Bell 96).
In Petrarchism, too, the focus is either on the self or on the beloved, but, as Bell aptly points out, “plural pronouns come spontaneously to Adam’s lips, suggesting that he thinks about their
common feelings and experiences. Although Eve was created after Adam, and as tradition would have it, for Adam, at this point he simply says, God ‘raised us from the dust and places us here / In all this happiness’” (96). There can be no chastisement of Adam to rival Petrarch’s for Laura, for both he and Eve, before her temptation, mutually reinforce one another while, in Petrarchism, the one-sided adoration naturally breeds a narcissistic self-idolatry in the beloved (Bell 98). Milton also found fault with Petrarchism for its upholding of beauty as, if not the highest, then the most indicative virtue, and Milton, for whom, post 1652 beauty was impossible to perceive by sight, such objectification was indicative of the mindset of fallen man.
Milton’s Afterlife with Petrarch
And so, if one excepts physical beauty from the equation of godly or ideal love, what is there left of Petrarchism in Milton? Here, again, we must consider the idea of a mature Petrarchism, and turn also to a close reading of Milton’s late Sonnet XIX. Composed in approximately 1658, Milton’s sonnet is an elegy most likely dedicated to his recently deceased second wife, Katherine. The blind Milton writes
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force though pale and faint.
Mine as whom washed from spot of childbed taint,
Purification in the old Law did save
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shines
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O as to embrace me she inclined
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.
The references to sight are common to this period of Milton’s work, most notably in Sonnet XVI (likely composed in 1652), and here underscore Milton’s rejection of physical beauty as a criterion for ideal love. Not only does he think he has “seen” his late wife, he refers to, in heaven, regaining “Full sight of her.” If we accept the autobiographical reading (which I do), then we must read sight as having a broader meaning than physical apperception. Moreover, the apparition of the departed comes veiled and to Milton’s “fancied sight,” which we can here read as “fancied,” meaning imagined. The “Love,” “sweetness,” and “goodness can hardly be read as appreciable by the eyes, for even if the figure is perceptible to the blind poet’s eyes, she comes veiled, and so her virtues, in true Petrarchan form, are manifest in the intangible. While not a blazon, Milton still lists the virtues, and while unconnected to a physical referent, the sum is to render the departed a “late espoused saint,” the hyperbole of which at least situates the poem within the afterlives of Petrarchism.
Ramie Targoff similarly reads into this sonnet, arguing that it “presents, in effect, the ghostly specter of the Petrarchan arrangement in the in morte sequence: in place of the heavenly and radiant Laura speaking to Petrarch and affirming their future reunion, Milton’s wife is pale and silent, offering neither consolation nor reassurance” (202). However, what is more emblematic of a Petrarchan love sonnet than the total absence of the woman’s voice? Targoff also reads the speakers metaphorical “seeing” of the beloved as a reference to Milton’s blindness, perhaps combined with a religious argument that one cannot truly “see” beyond the veil of life, that which is godly or heavenly being imperceptible or unperceivable to living man (203-4). Here again, the gesture to the inexpressible, here actually exalting the departed to association with God, suggests Petrarchism in
that it references the trope of bemoaning the inability of language to adequately describe the beloved.
Interestingly, too, Targoff notes similarities to or borrowings from a poem by sixteenth century Italian Berardino Rota, but highlights the fact that the beloved of the latter actually engages in conversation with the bereaved, acting as interlocutor between the worlds of the living and the dead (204-5). Milton’s poem, rather than suggesting the reunion of Aeneas with his deceased wife which similarly ends in failed physical embrace, but which allows them to talk with one another, is more in keeping with the Orphic myths, in which the ill-fated Orpheus turns back in doubt and dooms his wife to Hades precisely because they are unable to so much as see one another, much less converse or touch. Targoff reads the reunion of Milton’s speaker with his late wife as a denial of physical, even erotic, intimacy (206). In her words, “Milton builds […] toward an erotic encounter that does not look to the heavens but remains firmly on the ground3” (206).
Targoff also makes the obvious allusion to the myth of Orpheus, particularly the version told in Virgil’s Georgics, in which Eurydice is given parting words, though Targoff also notes the emphasis in Ovid’s version (both versions would have been known to Milton) on the frustrated failure to grasp and be grasped in turn, again centering the physical interaction as the dominant frustration of the poem, rather than the failure of sight, a frustration so known to Milton as to be de-rigeur (206). The question remains, whether this physical union allies more with Petrarchism or seduction poetry. Targoff seems to intimate the latter, however she provides little textual evidence for this erotic reading. More likely, Milton is gesturing towards a physical intimacy the is prelapsarian or heavenly in that it will, in fulfillment, be ordained by God. The fact that the poem does not
3 I couldn’t resist adding “or in it.”
actually suggest a certainty on the speaker’s part that they will be rejoined in Heaven, suggests something of the unattainability of the Petrarchan beloved.
Milton’s Petrarchan Beloved?
Kerrigan and Braden refer to the conciliatory aspect of Petrarchan poetry, its capacity to fill the void of absent love (the counter-possibility being posed in poems like Donne’s “The Triple Fool”), however in Milton’s case, as we have noted throughout, the lover is often either absent or distant (30). One could read into Milton a Petrarchan fixation upon the divine himself, but to do such would be to debase Milton’s deeply held religious convictions and unjustly conflate them with religious anxieties which are, arguably, universal. No, it is perhaps more apt to consider Milton’s fixation on the sensory, particularly the sense denied him from approximately 1652 on, sight. The veil which occludes the beloved in Sonnet XIX is as much a means of symbolizing the unknowability of the afterlife for man as it is pregnant metaphor for Milton’s blindness. There is no evidence he would have seen Katherine in life, much less in death. One can read, too, in Sonnet XVI, an elegy to Milton’s lost sight with hallmarks of contemporaneous memento mori poems, again without the sexual promise or implication. In his fixation upon sight and the visual in poetry, Milton demonstrates a nigh Petrarchan obsession with beauty in its physical form, but one which at least aspires to the prelapsarian. That he does not valorize the female body of even the beloved is not so much evidence of a rejection of Petrarchism, though such is doubtless a component of his poetic mien, as it is a practical consideration of his actual sensory experience. For Milton, to lie would be to betray himself, and so his sights had either to be “real” in the sense of being formed purely of his imagination, or else they had to be constrained by the senses afforded to him in life.
Milton’s Petrarchism, as the title of this piece suggests, was varied and complex. No justice can be done in this space to the breadth of Milton’s influence culled from Petrarch much less the sum of his reading, but it suffices to make the case for a more nuanced evaluation of Milton’s use of
Petrarchan tropes. Much has been made of isolating Milton from or situating him amongst his peers, predecessors, and antecedents, but the work of holistically evaluating Milton’s oeuvre for all its eminently Petrarchan variety remains to be done.
Works Cited
Bell, Ilona. “Milton’s Dialogue with Petrarch.” Milton Studies, vol. 28, 1992, pp. 91–120. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
Dubrow, Heather. Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses. Cornell University Press, 1995.
Kerrigan, William, and Gordon Braden. “Milton’s Coy Eve: Paradise Lost and Renaissance Love Poetry.” ELH, vol. 53, no. 1, 1986, pp. 27–51.
Lewalski, Barbara K. “The Genres of Paradise Lost.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. 2nd ed. edited by Dennis Richard, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 147-66.
Low, Anthony. The Reinvention of Love: Poetry, Politics, and Culture from Sidney to Milton. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
McColley, Diane K. Danielson. “Milton and the Sexes.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. 2nd ed. edited by Dennis Richard, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 147-66.
Milton, John, and Carey, John. Complete Shorter Poems. Rev. 2nd ed., Pearson Longman, 2007.
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Norbrook, David. Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric, and Politics, 1627-1660. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Serjeantson, Deirdre. “Milton and the Tradition of Protestant Petrarchism.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 65, no. 272, 2014, pp. 831–852.
Smith, Nigel. Is Milton Better than Shakespeare? Harvard University Press, 2008.
Strier, Richard. The Unrepentant Renaissance: from Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Targoff, Ramie. Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England. The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Warner, J. Christopher. The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton. University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Zuccato, Edoardo. Petrarch in Romantic England. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.