Milton and Music

Milton and Music

Twenty years separates Milton's early poetry from his later work. Apart from the great epics, most of his published poetry is the product of a man in his 20's. In 1638, at the age of 29, he spent 15 months on the European Grand Tour. After stopovers in France and Switzerland he went directly to Italy. Upon his return to England in 1639, Milton allied himself with Parliament and Cromwell in the coming Civil War. For the next two decades he wrote, as he put it " with his left hand" ,churning out political tracts and propaganda in defence of the Puritan cause. Only a handful of sonnets are attributed to this period.

With the restoration of Charles the Second and the Monarchy in 1660, Milton became a political outcast. Although his life was briefly in danger, his safety was assured through the intervention of Andrew Marvell and others, and he was allowed to retire to his estate in the suburbs of London. For 14 years he labored on the monumental epics, Samson Agonistes, Paradise Regained and Paradise Lost.

Milton's intoxication with the art of music - the word is not too strong - pervades all of his writings, whether poetry, epics or political prose. Music is everywhere present in its imagery, content, and formal structure. The language itself is highly musical, closer in style and feeling to the Elizabethan poets than to his contemporaries. That the epics were all transmitted for dictation by word of mouth, Milton having gone blind at the age of 44, must also figure into the overwhelming effect they produce on the ear.

Milton's poetic language, unlike Shakespeare's, is something of an artifact or invented form of speech built upon ordinary English . Commentators usually refer to his 'Latinate syntax', citing the many phrases which, when transliterated back into Latin, have a naturalness lacking in the original English. However, in the analysis of his personal mode of discourse, one must also take into account his use of devices and techniques taken from music: suspension, anticipation, canonical or fugal effects, cadence, resonance and rhythm.

That music, its sounds, its practice and various aspects of musical theory play such an important role in Milton's work is more than a simple consequence of his love of the art. In the poetry written up to 1638, one gets the impression that Milton is passionately committing himself to a debate, almost a polemic, about the dual claims of Music and Poetry as the dominant art, whether in human affairs or even in the large-scale structure of the universe. Discussions about the place of music in private and public religion, in the conduct of human affairs , how it conflicts with and complements language, its psychotherapeutic and medicinal virtues, its power to curb or stimulate animal spirits, its affinity to the divine power, its power to transform nature, and the function of the music of the spheres in the regulation of universal harmony, fill the pages of his verse.

All this had changed by the time he came to write the great epics. By 1658 he had experienced 20 years of Civil War, 3 marriages and political and social ruin. The quarrel with music is over: poetry has, for him, become the primary art. Despite this, the epics teem with musical images and references. One gets the impression that, in setting the scene , Milton is always hearing some kind of music in the background. This is very noticeable in Paradise Lost, where the 3 realms of Heaven, Hell and Earth, are , each in turn, supplied with a musical ambiance appropriate to their condition: Heaven rings with never-ending choruses of praise that dazzle the listener; the Garden of Eden resonates continually with the manifold sounds of nature, wind, water, birds and other pastoral overtones. Underneath and far more terrifying than the hideous cacophony, Hell is filled with a "horrid silence" which , to the blind poet, must have been a suffering beyond imagination.

Milton's meditations on music are part and parcel with more general preoccupations of the late Renaissance. In this period, despite the outward appearance of a hackneyed slavishness to classical Greek and Roman models, Europe was moving towards a greater freedom and expressiveness in all the arts.

All the same, the central role of music in Milton's thinking is unique to himself, and can be traced to the influences of his formative years.

Milton's father, John Milton senior, appears to have been what one might today call a frustrated musician. As we known from his extant compositions, John Milton was a talented composer, friend and colleague to such notable figures in the musical world as William and Henry Lawes, Nicolas Lanier, William Davenant, John Cooper and others. Yet he was unable to make a career in music. Like far too many young musicians of our own time who work a full-time job in computer programming, and reserve their music-making for the weekends, Milton's father became a scrivener.

Nowadays the term 'scrivener' ( as in the title of Melville's perverse short story 'Bartleby the Scrivener') is most often used as a form of ridicule directed towards persons with aspirations to writing. In the 17th century , when there were no typewriters and everything had to be taken down by hand, the term 'scrivener' designated a learned profession comparable to that of doctor or engineer: letter writer, notary, manufacturer of legal documents, court recorder, scribe, real estate agent , contract lawyer and money-lender.

Thereby Milton's father became wealthy. What he had been unable to procure for himself, he could guarantee to his son: a life in the arts. Before reaching the age of 20, Milton had already dedicated himself to poetry, confident of an inheritance that could, and did, carry him through one of the stormiest periods of European history, the religious wars of the 17th century.

Because of his father's connections, Milton was always close to the events and personalities of England's musical world. His education involved some musical training, and he is reported to have sung with a pleasing voice, and played the bass viol and the organ. From all this one draws the conclusion that the household in which Milton grew up and remained to the age of 30 was, like that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an integral part of the musical life of his time and place.

In 1608, when Milton was born, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were still alive and active, while the work of John Donne was just being published. Milton therefore inherited all the vitality of the Elizabethan age, a time when music and poetry were more closely associated than ever before, or since. Milton thus possessed , ready to hand, a recent literary tradition particularly rich in musical associations. Elizabethan writers had built up a sizable backlog of conventions, cliches, metaphors, fables, stock notions and elaborate theories about music and the other arts, derived from the fashionable neo-Platonism of the late Renaissance. These in turn had built upon older traditions of the Middle Ages and classical antiquity.

Two thousand years of speculation , both poetic and pedantic, on the music of the spheres had made it a commonplace in the minds of educated and uneducated alike. Another commonly held belief, the superiority of Classical music and drama, had been accepted almost as a truism since the 16th century. Conventions such as the association of the Dorian mode with military ardor, or the Lydian mode with lasciviousness, had their origins in things written by Plato in his unguarded moments. The poetry written from Thomas Wyatt to John Davies - ( whose long eulogy to music, "Orchestra", must be required reading for anyone interested in the uses of musical imagery in the poetry of the time ) - had introduced a wealth of standardized conceits.To signify the state of a soul rapt in prayer one might invoke the metaphor of a well- tuned string instrument suitable for God to play upon. A broken heart might be compared to a lute with cracked sounding-board or broken strings.The figure of a nightingale's endless singing could serve as a metaphor for a hopeless love that can only end in death. There was the legend of Amphyon building the walls of Thebes by the playing of his lyre; or of Orpheus, emblematic representation of the union of music and poetry whose music charmed Pluto himself; the association of Pan with the rude, authentic music and poetry of unlettered peasants. And there were the numerous pastoral metaphors of nymphs and shepherds derived from Virgil's Eclogues; and so forth.

Such formulaic conceits, which had figured in the living tradition of the great Elizabethan poets, had worn out their welcome by the mid-17th century. Milton alone employs them successfully, in ways that avoid banality. He may, for example, reverse the sense of a traditional metaphor; or give it a new twist; or attach it to a highly original train of thought. The fantastic mix of quaint notions, superstitions, legends and bits and pieces of philosophy that he pulls together from Christian and pagan sources, allow Milton, like George Herbert, to re-interpret the most disparate classical or pagan references in terms of Christian theology.

For continuing this tradition, Milton has been called the 'last Elizabethan'. Andrew Marvell will employ these stereotyped images only in an ironic or overtly satiric manner. By the end of the century they are nothing more than stale cliches .

We now turn to the direct influence of the theory and practice of Italian Baroque music on Milton's poetry. One can name a date on which the foundation stone of tonality , that is to say the language of common practice in classical music for four centuries, was laid: October 24, 1607, a year before Milton's birth. It was then that the first European opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo, was staged in Mantua. Three important developments preceded this event:

  1. Certain humanist doctrines of the Renaissance became the vehicle employed by imaginative composers for doing what they would most likely have done anyway, although for the less talented proponents of the avant-garde they led more often to the sorts of creative dead-ends that litter the history of the arts. A study of the treatises on musical theory written by classical authors such as Quintillian, Cassiodorus and Boethius, as well as comments scattered in the works of Plato and others, had led humanist scholars to the conclusion that the music of classical Greece had the capacity to engender prodigious miracles in its audiences. Would it not be possible, some speculated, to reproduce such miracles by re-discovering and applying the performance practices of the ancient world?

  2. The collection of madrigals Le Nuove Musiche published by Giulio Caccini in 1602 has been credited as the first major musical opus to employ dissonance in the modern fashion, that is to say in a manner analogous to Rembrandt's chiaroscuro in painting . Dissonance, no longer merely an ornament, a kind of spice introduced into a basically consonant sound, becomes totally functional, the means whereby one creates the illusion of independently moving lines. Through the harnessing of dissonance, European music became, in effect, 3-dimensional . The intricate polyphony of the age of Palestrina was supplanted by a more flexible texture in full 3-dimensional perspective. The dynamical interaction of groups of instruments in ways not possible before produced the early concertos of Viadana, while the liberation of the vocal line culminated in the genre known as the monody.

  3. Around the turn of the 17th century a group of poets and composers at the court of Count Bardi in Florence, set up an academy for the reform of music, which they called the Camerata. Their goal was the simplification of musical texture so as to render it more effective in conveying dramatic emotion . The works they produced were called monodies , from a Greek word meaning 'solo singer'. Although many of their early experiments should perhaps have been called 'monotonies', they led, in due time, to major innovations, culminating in the important music dramas of Jacopo Peri, Emilio del Cavalieri and Giulio Caccini.

    This new way of writing dramatic music caught fire once it was realized that the liberation of the voice could also result in the liberation of musical style and form generally. Monody led eventually to the new, diatonic way of organizing sound that we call tonality. Exploitation of a rich palette of chromatic colors relieved the composer of the necessity to supply a dense polyphonic underpinning, allowing the solo voice freedom to declaim expressive lines through ornamentation, while the bass, or basso continuo could imitate both mood and rhetoric through modulation and other new formal techniques.

These exciting developments in music had their impact in Milton's work even before he went to Italy. One of his best know poems, the pastoral elegy 'Lycidas', is called a monody. Its introduction states :

" In this Monody the Author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637. "

Being a monody, 'Lycidas' takes the form of an impassioned utterance by a solo voice , illuminated by brilliant ornaments, digressions, and variations of style. Its manner of declamation is that of an extended recitative. Also, the rhyming scheme of Lycidas is also too irregular to fit the format of the Petrarchan canzone , and is better explained in terms of the free form experiments of Italian opera.

Musical imagery permeates the text of Lycidas: Milton tells us that

"Lycidas ... well knew himself to sing and build the lofty rhyme... "

The tears one weeps for Lycidas must be "melodious tears ". The "Sisters of the sacred well" must "loudly sweep the string..." , and so forth.

The technical advances, forms and philosophy of Italian Baroque opera are even more apparent in the masque Comus.

England's equivalent to the Italian opera, the masque had evolved more in the poetic rather than musical directions. Ben Jonson wrote some of his best work for masques; Shakespeare's Tempest is a masque. Milton , while staying within the English tradition, borrowed much of the plot and formal structure of Comus from an Italian opera called La Catena d'Adone "The Necklace of Adonis" , by Domenico Mazzocchi with libretto by Ottavio Tronsenelli. In Musical Backgrounds for English Literature, 1580-1650, Gretchen Ludke Finney states: " The striking similarities between it and Comus in plot , setting, allegory and details of structural plan, point it out as a source upon which Milton certainly drew in the writing of Comus."

Since Comus and Lycidas were written prior to Milton's year in Italy in 1638, one can speculate that he may have absorbed the ideas of the nuove musiche through a perusal of the scores in his father's library. To satisfy the English vogue for the Italian Baroque, scores were imported by the hundreds all through the 17th century. Baroque music remains the most effective background music ever written.

A poem of Milton's early period often embodies a theory of music unique to itself. One gets the impression that he is using the poem to work through a personal dilemma crystallizing around the role of music, in his own life, in human affairs, or in the universal order. To illustrate this thesis I turn now to a selection of his poems written between 1629 and 1638: The Ode on the morning of Christ's Nativity; At a Solemn Music; The First Sonnet; and Comus.

Ode on the morning of Christ's Nativity

It is alleged that the Nativity Ode was composed at dawn on Christmas morning, 1629. It consists of a 4-stanza preamble followed by a hymn of 27 verses. Verses 9 to 14 inclusive contain a glowing, one might even say rapturous, glorification of music as a manifestation of divine power, and only incidentally as an art. It is harmony that maintains the cosmic order and prevents all things from degenerating to Chaos. All major historical transformations have come about through the agency of heavenly music. On the first Christmas eve, we are told, the sublime music heard by the shepherds at watch in the fields was so mighty that Nature herself acknowledged its role eclipsed and withdrew. Verse 10:

" Nature that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia's seat, the Airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done.
And that he reign had here its last fulfilling
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all Heav'n and Earth in happier union."

There is more : in a clear anticipation of Stephen Hawking's wormholes and other current theories of time-reversal, Milton presents the daring hypothesis that the power of this music was such that Time itself reversed its course, taking the world back to the Garden of Eden, and even to the 7 days of Creation! The notion that music can reverse time is inimitable: time , like the sculptor's clay, or words for the poet, is the very medium from which music is fashioned. Verse 14:

" For if such holy Song
Enwrap out fancy long,
Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And speckl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions in the peering day."

At a Solemn Music

This poem is in the form of a single long sentence holding numerous dependent clauses. Sections are distinguished by semi-colons which play the role of weak periods. One can see in these devices of grammar and punctuation an indirect tribute to musical form. A well-written musical movement is basically a single uninterrupted sentence with many pauses and partial resolutions, the "period" coming only at the end in the form of a total cadence from dominant to tonic.

In this poem Milton specifically addresses the status of music as an art. In praising the consummation of the marriage of music and verse, Milton alludes to another idea of the neo-Platonists , that a return to the Golden Age can be effected through re-uniting the divergent arts of Music and Poetry. As one so often finds in Milton, the two Golden Ages, that of classical Greece, and that of the Garden of Eden, are conflated. One is reminded of the Grand Unification Theory of modern physics, which claims that one can recover the instant of the Big Bang through the discovery of a particle that unifies gravitation, electro-magnetism, the weak force, and the strong nuclear force.

On a deeper level, Milton is really talking about the power of prayer. To quote John Hollander in "The Untuning of the Sky", page 266: ".... there remains the widespread metaphorical equation of music with private meditation and personal prayer with which so much of the poetry of the middle decades of the seventeenth century in England is concerned... "

Milton is suggesting that all the differences between music and poetry can be resolved through the fusion of internal and external meditation that occurs in the solemn environment of a church service. The opening lines of 'At A Solemn Music' bear this out:

"Blest pair of sirens, pledges of Heav'n joys
Sphear-born harmonious Sisters , Voice, and Vers,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath'd sense able to pierce
And to our high-raised phantasie present.
That undisturbed Song of pure concent . "

In the second part of the poem Milton invokes the doctrine that discord entered the music of the spheres on account of the Fall. Once again this metaphor is linked with another, the decline of civilization through the divergence of music and poetry after the golden age. The claim is set forth that it is within the power of modern poets to restore both spiritual and aesthetic realms by their nuptials:

"As once we did, till disproportion'd sin
Jarr'd against nature's chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair music that all creatures made
To their great Lord..."

The First Sonnet

In the experiments of the Florentine Camerata music was put completely at the service of the text, leading to a new form of performance art in the monody, the madrigal and , ultimately, opera.

One sometimes has the impression when reading Milton's poetry that he is attempting to arrive at the same goal through an opposing procedure. In his first Sonnet, addressed to a nightingale, the language is so excessively musical that one imagines the poet somehow forcing language to sing directly, so that the words provide their own accompaniment:

"O Nightingale, who on yon bloomy spray
Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still
Thou with fresh hope the lovers heart doth fill
While the jolly hours lead on propitious May
Thy liquid notes that close the eye of Day
First heard before the Shallow cuckoo's bill
Portend success in love; O if Jove's will
Have linkt that amorous power to thy soft lay,
Now timely sing, ere the rude bird of Hate
Foretell my hapless doom in some Grove nigh
As thou from year to year hast sung too late
For my relief; yet hadst no reason why:
Whether the Muse, or Love, call thee his mate,
Both them I serve, and of their train am I."


The text of Comus contains an entire treatise on the effects of music on the physiology of mind and body, either as medicine or poison. The demi-god Comus, son of Circe, (seducer of Odysseus) , is the incarnation of every pernicious and sinful propensity ever attributed to music. Beginning with the Confessions of St. Augustine in the 5th century, battalions of ecclesiastical authorities had railed against music's power to seduce, defile and corrupt the innocent, to arouse lustful tendencies and distract the soul from prayer. In the 14th century John Wycliffe, a man otherwise much admired by Milton , wrote:

" Music stirs men to pride and lechery and other sins."

A steady flow of tracts from the Reformation onward, had condemned the evils inherent in music. Somehow this did not conflict with a corresponding increase in the size and frequency of extravagant musical productions, notably the masques. In 1633, shortly before the performance of Comus at Ludlow Castle, a minister named William Prynne published a hysterical attack on music entitled " Histrio-Mastix". One short extract is indicative of its tone throughout:

"...but yet look ye upon the gesticulations of the Singers, the meretricious alternations, interchanges and infractions of the voyces, not without derision and laughter... "

Yet in that same year London was host to the most expensive production of musical theater ever staged in England. From the Pelican History of Music, vol. 2, page 275:

" During the last years of Charles the First's reign the masque reached its apogee in The Triumph of Peace by the popular playwright Shirley, with music by William Lawes and Simon Ives. It included a vast procession on horseback from Holborn to Whitechapel and cost the Inns of Court over 21,000 " -perhaps as much as two million dollars in modern currency.

In Comus, Milton is clearly poking fun at the Puritan extremists, while at the same time defending the view that there are divine and curative powers in music. These arise , not so much from the musical content, as from the soul of the performer. It is apparent that Milton considers the exuberant, "jocund dance and revelry" of Comus every bit as delightful as the sweet and holy music of the Lady. Comus himself states that the music of his mother, Circe, was as charming as that of the virgin Lady, yet, because of the character of the singer, it " in pleasing slumber lull'd the sense, And in sweet madness rob'd it of itself. "

In contrast, the songs of the Lady and of the guardian spirit, Sabrina, are always therapeutic. Hearing the voice of the Lady Comus himself, though evil in his very nature , is moved to exclaim:

" Can any mortal mixture of Earth's mould
Breath such Divine inchaunting ravishment?
Sure something holy lodges in that breast
And with those raptures moves the vocal air
To testify his hidd'n residence:
How sweetly did they float upon the wings
Of silence , through the empty-vaulted night
At every fall smoothing the Raven down
Of darkness till it smil'd.....
I'll speak to her, and she shall be my queen !..... "

Needless to say, there can be no nuptials between the holy music of the chaste Lady and the rebarbative noise of Comus's hoards:

" ... Night by night He and his monstrous rout are heard to howl Like stabl'd wolves , or tigers at their prey Doing abhorred rites to Hecate In their obscured haunts ...."

That such a union, either of voices or bodies, is proscribed even by the very laws of Nature, is stated in lines 593-99:

" But evil on itself shall back recoil
And mix no more with goodness, when at last
Gather'd like scum, and settl'd to itself
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed and self-consumed; if this fail
The pillar'd firmament is rottenness
And earth's base built on stubble."

The song which Comus has overheard is the one the Lady sings to the nymph , Echo. In it Milton relates the psychotherapeutic powers of music both to the heart-rending lament of the nightingale and to the cosmic music of the spheres. The 'Echo' to whom the Lady addresses her plea is both the mythological Echo, the nymph who wasted away into a disembodied spirit from pining for Narcissus, and also the reflected sound of her own voice. Finding herself separated from her brothers and alone in a dark and dangerous Wood, the Lady calls upon Echo's power to magnify sound, so that they will hear her cries and know where to find her:

" Sweet Echo
Sweetest Nymph!
That liv'st unseen
Within thy airy shell
By slow Meander 's margent green
And, in the violet -embroider'd vale
the love-lorn
Nightly, to thee
Her sad song mourneth well..."

Here the Lady commiserates with Echo who, like the Nightingale, has died of a broken heart:

"Canst thou not tell me of a gentle pair (.eg. her brothers),
That likest thy Narcissus are
O if thou have
Hid them in some flowery cave
Tell me but where
Sweet Queen of Parly, daughter of the Sphear.."

This reference to Echo as the daughter of the sphere, identifies her as the echoing mirror of the divine music. This suggestion is confirmed by the song's final lines: "So mayst thou be translated to the skies And give resounding grace to all Heav'ns harmonies. "

"Resounding grace" is a metaphor for counterpoint, the "echoing art" of imitation, canon and fugue. Music, in other words, echoing through the cosmos, even as far as this dark and dangerous wood in which the lady finds herself, has the power to dispel darkness, banish fear, reunite those who have become separated, to mend broken hearts, to foil the designs of demonic spirits like Comus, to unify the cosmos and last, but not least, to glorify the Creator and all His mighty works.

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